Thursday 16 November 2006
It seems incredible now, but the Worldwide Church of God was once, in the not-so-distant past, a vital religious movement with a growing membership, distinctive customs which intrigued outsiders, a massive media ministry, a small university operation and an intellectually vibrant dissident tradition snapping at its heels.
The early 1990s was in some ways "the best of times." The church had survived the death of its founder, and even prospered. Ambassador College in Big Sandy had finally been accredited and emerged as AU. A past generation of troublemakers were receding in the consciousness of the brethren: Garner Ted, Ernie Martin, Ken Westby et al. The only hint of disquiet came from the blazing guns of John Trechak's Ambassador Report, a continual irritant, but determinedly ignored.
Then all hell broke loose and the WCG exploded.
In 2006 the dust has largely settled and the ruins are exposed for all to see. The harvest fields are a wasteland. In place of an impressive, monolithic, money-rich empire are a thousand feuding, ineffectual warlords, each turned inward and focused on the squatter in the neighbouring paddock. A gaggle of pathetic imitators try to raise the flag here and there, but their best efforts to defy fate seem futile. The hand of God seems to have dashed the proud dreams and deceits of Herbert Armstrong and his myrmidons* to the ground.
For a while it made a rivetting soap opera. Who would split from whom? What would happen when leader X died? What nonsense would evangelist Y next declare "new truth" as he chased the declining tithe dollars?
The fire has died out. Only the ashes remain. The machinations of Rod Meredith, the Flurrys, Mark Armstrong, David Pack and others are a pathetic caricature of times past. The splinter sects have no credibility even among their peers, let alone the general public. The decline is terminal. Even the mothership has downsized and moved to Glendora where its Pastor General (salary undisclosed) can't even manage to effect a simple name change.
From the halcyon days when John Trechak battled the Armstrong Empire, through the comedy of errors and unparalleled incompetence that followed Armstrong's death, we have finally arrived at the End Times of Armstrongism. The Plain Truth once proclaimed that, in the Great Tribulation, the unfortunate non-members would practice cannibalism to survive. That was partly right: today, in a ironic parody, the various schisms feed on each other.
Welcome to the death watch.
*myrmidons: a favourite term used by John Trechak to describe the besuited army of yes-men that fed off the tithes. The New Penguin English Dictionary defines myrmidon as "a subordinate who carries out orders unquestioningly."