While living in California, I became interested in a movement called The Church of Spiritual Equality. Founded by Groeg E. Bretslo during the sixties, a self appointed pastor and thinker from New York, one of the Church’s central teachings was a form of spiritual marriage that promoted union between individuals regardless of their sexuality, ethnic, denominational or cultural backgrounds. While the history of marriage is a colorful one and doesn’t run in straight lines, I found this cult’s approach unusual in that conversion to a creed wasn’t a prerequisite for marriage. Just as I started to dig deeper, I got stopped in my tracks: information about The Churches activities was scant, and The Church itself no longer appeared to exist.
I was struck by how timely my discovery seemed, given the sadly contemporaneous debate about gay marriage in California and the out and out homophobic campaigns in the state media, sponsored by Christian lobbyists and other religious interest groups. The Church of Spiritual Equality’s integration of gay marriage into its belief system made me think their teachings were worth a wider airing and so I decided I would explore it some more.
My initial investigations led me to the one main source about the cult’s founder Bretslo: a woman named Natalia Grunfeld. A nurse living in San Diego, Grunfeld cared for Bretslo in the final year of his life, following the car accident in which he lost his husband and bringing about the rapid decline of his own health. She was close to him, knew his core beliefs and her accounts have made researching The Church of Spiritual Equality possible.
Born in 1922 on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, Bretslo’s childhood was one of extremes. His bohemian Jewish parents were tolerant and unbiased, leading him to crave the rigor and calm of spiritual ritual. While his schooling was strictly religious in contrast to his home life, he was made to feel like an outcast during these early years. He was tragically orphaned aged 12 after his parents died in a plane crash in 1934. Bretslo went on to Harvard, graduating in 1944 and moved to southern California with aspirations to become a writer. It was however the publication of Buckminster Fuller’s Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth in 1963 which would have the greatest effect on the development of his ideas.
Bretslo became obsessed with Fuller’s vision of the future and his plans for sustainability. He began to develop the blueprint for a new religion that had the main aim of eradicating discrimination against people based on their gender, creed, sexual preference and race. The implications for a society embroiled in a civil rights struggle – as America was in the early sixties – were potentially huge.
His ideas formed, Bretslo set about recruiting for his cult. The Church of Spiritual Equality would preach a utopian religion that would enable all humans to be happy and responsible for each other and the planet: effectively what we now call an equal opportunities society.
With a human rights and civil rights focus in its first years of existence, the Church grew in numbers. Having no actual place to worship, members conducted illegal marriages and other religious services in a variety of national parks in California. Joshua Tree’s landscape became one of the main sites for their religious festivities.
Bretslo had lofty aspirations for the Church he’d founded: he hoped to build enough of a congregation to set up a school and enter politics. He needed the former to teach their ideals of equal rights and the latter to force these ideals into law. It was his belief that the fears and phobias of society were taught to children in school through outmoded doctrines that had passed into law in less enlightened times. Believing the separation of church and state would always be a fiction as long as the subjects in the state were conditioned in their opinions through religion in school, he sought to mirror this instead of pretending it could be changed. Religion for Bretslo, after all, had determined his conditioning and caused him considerable self-loathing.
The search for a place of worship and visual identity led him directly to Fuller’s Geodesic Domes. He was fascinated by these structures and they became for him a symbol of a future fairer society. Bretlso wanted to build a Space for the Three Great Loves: the name he had in mind for his first church building. He envisioned this space as a place of validation of lifelong love for all with the power to free people from a ghettoised existence.
Bretslo’s special place of worship was never built. Just months before he was to begin his building project, he was involved in a car crash that killed his husband in suspicious circumstances. Profoundly affected by grief, he threw himself yet deeper into fundraising for his church and scholarly activity, producing a book that set out his vision for the doctrine of spiritual equality. Unfortunately, he didn’t manage to complete his funding efforts though he did complete his book: The Tenets of Spiritual Equality.
There were two main preoccupations in Bretslo’s ideology: Darwinism and his personal need for a life code through spirituality. Bretslo saw the human animal in Darwinian terms, therefore sexuality for him was natural and not the dark area most religions portray it to be. As for spirituality, there was certainly more to his life’s work than simply creating a religion as a will to power and tool for changing society. The exact nature of his actual beliefs is more difficult to define and in fact deliberately obscure. He believed that humans don’t actually know or understand what is afoot in the universe and should accept that. His idea was that man created the Gods we have; while a true god is one we simply don’t have the capacity to fathom.
Bretslo’s book has since been lost as it was self-published in small numbers, only intended for cult members. According to his nurse, his dedication to his work and his grief at losing his husband contributed to his demise. Without their charismatic leader, The Church of Spiritual Equality quickly disbanded, scattering to a number of other cults in the California region.
Almost fifty years later and heterosexuals are still the only people allowed by most religions to marry within sacred spaces. Gay men and women are allowed to participate in birth and death rituals but are excluded from celebrating the joy of a life commitment in a spiritual setting. In some countries, gay couples now have the right to have legal partners and a ceremony in an antiseptic government building, but to me, these seem second-class versions of marriage. Even the ownership of the word “marriage” has become a fought over territory. For Bretslo, prejudice was a by-product of conditioning through outmoded religious text. He believed that by reconditioning people with his utopian ideas, he could change the culture of victimisation by the majority. The idea that any adult should have to get permission from society to marry was ludicrous to him.
Heterosexuality is still the dominant norm in culture as well as society. From film to advertising, its aesthetic celebration is a daily constant. My installation is a study in interrogating this norm and contrasting it with a parallel place where the same criteria are applied to all relationships. The lack of normal or positive images of gay marriages and long-term relationships helps promulgate the myth that same sex love is ugly and something to be stigmatised.
Inspired by the story of Groeg E Bretslo, his idealism and his beliefs in a utopian society (or Sociodesic Structure for Living as he called it), I decided to create a modular church and an iconography that would make his beliefs flesh. I saw the church as travelling from place to place, providing a beautiful and spiritual space to be married in; a solution to the problem of unsightly secular spaces where gay people are currently relegated to celebrate their unions. The church would function as a tribute to the ideals of the deceased cult leader.
The church itself made from an aluminum frame. The images adorning the panels of the Geodesic Dome structure are simple screen-printed geometric patterns that echo those popular throughout modernism, but here the panels make a complex pattern of radiating form and line. One of Bretslo’s more curious fascinations was with pearls, a visual taste that helped me bring the church to life. I incorporated these into Braille and they appear as the insignia of the religion in the top-left-hand corner of each of the portraits. The central altar space is a triptych depicting three mystical marriages.
As I mainly examine religious images, the depiction of non-religious figures made this a very different experience. Bretslo had a variety of propositions regarding imagery though none have survived. The total lack of plans for this building and of any images for its visual identity were what really drew me to making this project. I had free rein to develop the central iconography based on these principles.
Bretslo didn’t have a solution for what gods looked like or understand why a god would have a gender predating the reproduction system he created, especially since he created several types of systems for this on earth. The structure and images I use reference the science fiction look of the future based on predictions from the 1960’s and the figures within it are engaged in a ritual now lost. While the space I have created is not officially consecrated in any way, it depicts tolerance, the ideal of love for life for all and its transcendent quality.