The Meraist Church:
Blessed be Iluvatar, All-Father, King of the Universe,
Creator of all things; Eli is His name.
Blessed be Yahshua, His avatar, Savior and Redeemer,
Through whom He reconciles to Himself all things.
Blessed be Merai, His prophet, the Starchild,
Through whom He revealed Himself to those who had gone astray.
Blessed be the Children of the Nine, fairest, fallen, and forgiven,
Through whom He has taught us of good and evil, that we may choose good.
Blessed are all who trust in Him,
For they shall take their seats at the Great Banquet of the world to come.
--First prayer of the Church of St. Merai
Hail, Merai, full of grace; Eli is with thee.
Blessed art thou among women,
And blessed are thy fathers, the Children of Nine.
Holy Merai, daughter of gods, pray for we sinners;
Both now, and in the hour of our death.
--Invocation of St. Merai
Doctrine | Scriptures | Organization | Church Discipline | The Parity Schism | The Discipleship Controversy | Author's Notes
Symbol: A silhouette of a yew tree, enclosed within a circle, superimposed over the center of a twin cross.
Seat of Power: Meriton (pop. 1.2 million), a coastal city near the south end of Metamor Province. Formerly known as Sorin, the name was changed in 808 C.R. on the hundred-year anniversary of the Great Fall.
Adherents: Approximately 600 million
The Church of St. Merai was founded by people from a mixture of backgrounds -- some ex-Ecclesia, some ex-Lothanasi. As such it is a sort of hybrid religion, and though it has had the better part of 1200 years to grow into something relatively cohesive, the marks of its mixed heritage are still visible even today.
Technically speaking, the Meraists are a denomination of Rebuilders, but they are unlike any Rebuilder faction that preceded them. They are also the second largest Yahshua religion in the world, after the Ecclesia, claiming some 600 million adherents worldwide. Unlike the Ecclesia, however, the Church of Merai is somewhat loosely organized, and as such it is difficult to determine exactly how many Meraists there are at any given time.
Meraists vary in their beliefs, but the following principles are considered defining attributes of the religion:
Eli as Iluvatar. Meraists unequivocally declare that Eli is Iluvatar, the Creator of all. In this, they set themselves apart from other religious movements that acknowledge Iluvatar but do not explicitly identify him with the god of the Followers. At the same time, it draws a clear connection between modern Meraist philosophy and the search for Iluvatar that was a key element of the old Lightbringer faith; as such, the Meraists claim to be the spiritual successors of the old polytheistic religion, the completion and fulfillment of a spiritual quest that began in the days of Lucien. This causes some friction with the Ecclesia, whose members generally believe that the old system of belief should have been done away with in its entirety.
Yahshua Onequion as the Avatar. Meraists believe that Yahshua is the avatar of Iluvatar -- the God's incarnation in bodily form, analogous to the physical forms taken by the members of the pantheon in the days before the Great Fall. They look at the litany of sacrifice practiced by the ancient Lothanasi -- "blood for blood, life for life, one dies so many may live" -- as a reflection and foreshadowing of Yahshua's act. Yahshua, to the Meraist mentality, was Iluvatar coming to earth to participate in the ultimate act of ritual sacrifice, allowing His own blood to be spilled so that His entire creation could live again.
At its heart, this is a rephrasing of the Follower doctrine of the Son of God into language and imagery that was more accessible to former disciples of the Lightbringer pantheon. Much of the current theological conflict between the Ecclesia and the Church of Merai centers around this difference in semantics, though there are many on both sides who fail to realize this.
Merai as the Prophet. The Church of Merai reveres the Starchild as the holy Prophet of Eli, chosen by Him to carry out His judgment on the pantheon and lead to Himself all those who had been deceived by them. They see the fact that her life mirrored Yahshua's in many respects as a sign of her blessed status, proof that Eli chose her to do His work. Most Meraists believe that Eli chose a woman to be His Prophet in order to remind mortals that His nature encompassed both the Masculine and the Feminine, and that male and female were created equally in the image of Iluvatar.
In some circles, particularly among the uneducated, the reverence for Merai approaches worship, and despite her best efforts to discourage the practice there are many Meraists who pray to her in hopes that she will carry their requests to the ear of Eli. Merai, for her part, seldom appears in public anymore, but she uses her powers as an avatar of Metamor to keep tabs on her followers and issue corrections if anything starts to go egregiously wrong. She also continues to receive messages from Eli from time to time, and will pass on these prophetic visions to their intended recipients. Other than that, she stays out of sight, lest people be tempted to worship her even more.
Reverence for the pantheon. Unlike other Followers, the Meraists continue to observe the feast days of the fallen pantheon, celebrating and giving thanks for these beings, whom they refer to as the Children of the Nine. ("The Nine" refers to the Elders, the beings who sired the titans, gods and daedra.) The fallen gods are no longer worshiped -- at least, not according to official church doctrine -- but they are honored for their role as moral teachers and guardians of mortal-kind, the purpose for which the Meraists believe they were created. Even the daedra lords are recognized and accorded respect for their role as "the voice of the opposition", which ensures that mortals always have a clear choice between light and darkness.
In reality, there is still a substantial "folk religion" aspect to the Meraist Church, in which the gods are still accorded something that, for all practical purposes, is worship. Like Merai-worship, this is particularly common among the uneducated, but it also has a markedly stronger following in rural areas than in cities. Many farming communities still offer sacrifices to the local nymphs in hopes of getting a better harvest, and visiting members of the pantheon will be showered with gifts and fawned upon by enthusiastic admirers -- often in the hope that the ex-deity will use his or her supernatural powers to bestow a blessing. There are also numerous ritual prayers that are offered to the members of the pantheon in specific circumstances, much as some members of the Ecclesia will offer prayers to a particular saint before attempting some important task. The ex-deities cannot actually hear these prayers unless they are nearby at the time -- or unless someone else carries word to them -- but they get answered just often enough for people to keep praying them, despite the church leadership's efforts to discourage the practice.
Open acceptance of non-humans and supernatural gifts. While the Ecclesia was born in a mana-dead region populated exclusively by humans, the Meraist Church was founded in a realm where magic was common and sentient mortal beings were stunningly diverse. While not actually within range of the Curse of Metamor, Sorin (which became Meriton) was part of the Northern Midlands, and thus pledged fealty to the Duke of Metamor. Over the years following the Great Fall, Sorin played host to Elves, lutins, and animal-morphs of every kind. As a port city, it even had fairly regular contact with Maeril traders. As a result, the Meraists were very open to the broad diversity of mortalkind from the very beginning, a fact that is reflected in their philosophy today.
The Church of Merai actively encourages its members to develop any supernatural powers they may have, for it sees all such things as gifts of Iluvatar to be used for His glory. It teaches responsibility and wisdom in the use of such gifts, but believes that they should be used broadly in a way that benefits society and/or the Church. Many prominent members of the church are mages of some degree or another, or have been given proxy spells by Majestrix Kyia in connection with their secular jobs. Others manifest supernatural abilities that appear to be direct gifts from Eli Himself, though these are rarer than arcane talents. Meraists tend to be very open to seeing Iluvatar work through supernatural events, whether they be prophetic visions, arcane talents bestowed on individuals, or full-blown miracles carried out by the Spirit of Eli Himself.
Psionic talent is less common than magery in the Church -- as it is less common everywhere else -- and the Meraists' positive attitude toward telepaths remains mostly a theoretical exercise. Most teeps hide their gifts from others for fear of discrimination, and will keep their talents secret even within the church because of concern that the news of their abilities might reach less accepting ears. In any case, the Psi Collective is so tightly knit that most psis -- or, at least, most of those who realize what they are -- only practice their religion with others of their own kind.
One area of their doctrine where the Meraists get more practice is in their acceptance of non-humans. Many in the Ecclesia are nervous around lutins, Plane-touched, were-creatures and theriomorphs. This is not universal -- Ecclesiasts tend to be particularly tolerant in Metamor City, where you can see just about anything if you hang around long enough -- but it's common enough to make many non-humans feel unwelcome. (One exception is in Inu Lutinaka, where the Ecclesia has successfully established a number of parishes among the lutin tribes.) The Meraists, on the other hand, emphasize that Yahshua's act of redemption was for all of creation, and that all races and species can find acceptance, forgiveness, and the love of Iluvatar. Again, many Ecclesiasts would agree in principle; the difference is in practice. Practically speaking, Meraist congregations tend to be much more diverse in makeup than Ecclesiast congregations. This often leads to its own set of problems and conflicts within Meraist churches, as cultures clash between parishioners of differing races and backgrounds. On the upside, Meraist congregations often have a wide cross-section of different talents, and when they can agree to act in unison on something, they can often be extraordinarily effective.
Equality of women. Historically, one of the greatest points of conflict between the pro-Lightbringer Sathmore Empire and the pro-Ecclesia Pyralian Confederation was the cultural issue of the role of women in society. Pyralis was a patriarchal society where women were second-class citizens, important chiefly for their value in bearing and raising children; the Ecclesia, born into the midst of this culture, reflected this same general attitude, despite Yahshua's noted respect for women in the written accounts of the Canticle. Sathmore, on the other hand, grew out of a tribal culture where women were revered as the sex that was more connected to nature and the spirit world, where women often served as clan chieftains and great warriors. As such, egalitarianism was central in Sathmoran society.
The Lightbringer faith originated in a northern culture that was closely related to the culture of Sathmore; as such, egalitarianism was a key aspect of the religion, and Lucien's original Council of Nine included three human women and an Elf-maid. The northern society Lucien had been born into was eventually destroyed by the Suielmans -- predecessors of the Pyralians -- but the spirit of equality lived on in the Lightbringer Order. Nowhere was this more true than in Metamor, where the spirit of Kyia herself was an ever-present reminder of the importance and value of the feminine. The equality of the sexes was driven home even further by the First Curse of Nasoj, which forced many at Metamor to switch gender roles but did not make them any more or less competent or valuable as human beings.
The Church of Merai, founded around an ex-Lightbringer priestess raised in the Metamor tradition, has naturally recognized and respected the value and contributions of women from the very beginning. Many of the ex-Ecclesia members who joined the growing church did so out of frustration with what they perceived as a deep-seated gender bias in that ancient church, which prohibited women from serving as priestesses and often seemed to treat them as being of lesser importance than the men. The Church of Merai gave these individuals a place to serve Eli in ways the Ecclesia would never allow.
Anti-feminine bias has never been a problem for the Meraists. If anything, they sometimes suffer from the opposite problem: Approximately 65 percent of the clergy in the Church are women, including 80 percent of overseers. There is an attitude, often unspoken, that women are more naturally spiritual than men and can thus better connect with Iluvatar and lead more effectively. Whether or not this is actually true is debatable, but the practical effect is that men simply don't get picked for the top spots as often as women. (Of course, this may be simple supply and demand: men who wish to serve Eli have an entire priesthood that is limited to only their gender, in the form of the Ecclesia.)
One interesting effect of the Meraists' egalitarianism is a particularly ready acceptance of androgynes -- those who, thanks to the Curse, can become fully-functional members of either sex. The Ecclesia has never been quite sure what to do with such people, since they seem to defy what Ecclesiasts see as the Eli-intended order of creation. The Meraists, on the other hand, see them as validation of their claim that Iluvatar created the sexes as equal partners. (Some particularly radical Meraist theologians speculate that the first human may in fact have been a hermaphromorph, and that "taking Eve out of Adam's side" was in fact a splitting of the sexes so that neither would be alone.) Today most transgender Followers are Meraists, and there are a few church leaders who actually recommend taking on the First Curse as a means for married couples to better understand each other. Of course, this can have its own complications, since a transgender must spend at least 50% of his/her time in the new "dominant" gender, and many individuals are not ready for such a heavy commitment to living a double life. More common is the recommendation for short-term, magically-facilitated transformations into the opposing genders, which can give each partner a taste of the other's perspective without committing either of them to a long-term lifestyle change. The Ecclesia, for its part, views the use of any such magic as a risky bit of tampering with Eli's natural order, and considers it extremely irresponsible for Meraist counselors to even suggest such a thing.
Like the Ecclesia, the Church of Merai recognizes the Canticle of Eli as its primary religious text. However, there are some differences in the Canticle used by the two faiths: the Church of Merai has rejected certain texts in the Ecclesia's Canticle as being apocryphal. In addition, the many other religious and theological documents that comprise the Ecclesia's scriptural tradition are generally not regarded by Meraists as being divinely inspired. Most of these documents are used to uphold particular practices and traditions of the Ecclesia that the Meraists find suspect, or at least debatable. The Ecclesia, for its part, argues that the allegedly apocryphal texts in the Canticle were considered divinely inspired by church doctors at least as early as the 300s CR, when the first surviving histories of the church were written. They also point out that these texts have been repeatedly upheld by doctrinal councils over the last thousand years -- though, of course, those doctrinal councils were attended entirely by Ecclesiasts.
The Meraists also hold sacred a collection of other writings called the Codex of Merai. This book contains both newer texts, authored by Merai and a few other Immortals, and a number of ancient documents written by members of the Lothanasi Order. These documents were carefully selected by Merai as being particularly valuable to her followers' spiritual growth and development, and they help to create a sense of continuity between the old order of the Lothanasi and the new order of the Church of Merai. The Ecclesia, naturally, considers this a dangerous mixing of old paganism with the truth of the Way, and Ecclesiasts sometimes accuse Merai of picking and choosing whatever sounded good to her as she was putting together her hybrid religion.
Ritual & Ceremony:
There are certain key milestones in every person's life, events that mark one's passage from one stage of existence to the next. Like most religions, the Meraist Church commemorates these events with special rituals and ceremonies.
Infant Dedication. Like the Ecclesia, the Meraists have a ceremony for dedicating infant children to Eli. Unlike the Ecclesiast service, however, there is no "baptism" performed at this time; that comes later, when the child is old enough to understand the tenets of faith and profess belief in them. The dedication is less about the child than about the parents, who are committing to raise the child in accordance with the teachings of the faith and are asking for Eli's help and power to do so.
Like the Ecclesiast ceremony of infant baptism, the Meraist dedication ceremony bestows on the child his or her true name, which acts as a supernatural fingerprint that is important in many kinds of magic. Meraists keep their children's true names secret; typically, they are known only to the priest, the child's parents, and any godparents the parents might have named. (Godparenting is not as common among Meraists as it is in the Ecclesia, but it is not considered all that unusual, either.) The child's true name is revealed to him at the rite of passage (see below), at which point the child is considered responsible enough to guard his true name for himself.
Baptism. Meraists practice full-immersion baptism as a sign of repentance and commitment to follow Eli's commands. This has its roots both in Merai's study of the Canticle (where full-immersion is practiced anywhere that a baptism is described in detail) and in certain ancient Lightbringer rites of dedication and purity, which used the same technique. Baptism is used as a declaration of faith; it is not considered to be a prerequisite for salvation, but it is considered an important step that believers must take if they wish to be serious about serving Eli and pursuing his will.
Rite of Passage. The Meraist Church has formal ceremonies to recognize when its members have officially entered adulthood. I have not detailed the nature of these ceremonies, but it is reasonable to expect that many of the trappings and rituals were originally derived from similar practices by the ancient Lothanasi. Among other things, a child is told his or her true name as a part of this ceremony.
Marriage. Different Meraist chapters differ in what they will recognize and bless as marriage. The existence of the androgyne variant of the Curse, and transformation magic in general, has blurred the lines of sexuality and gender roles. As a general rule, most chapters will bless any union of two committed believers that has the potential to produce children -- i.e., they are able to spend at least part of their time as a heterosexual couple, regardless of whether they spend most of their time that way.
Some chapters are even more permissive. Most notably, chapters run by members of the Psi Collective permit the marriage of an entire breeding cell, blessing the union of four, five, or more individuals as a single marital unit. (This is completely legal, albeit uncommon, in the Empire -- Kyia does not intrude in such private affairs, nor allow her subordinates to do so.) This institutionalized recognition of polyamory would be considered questionable by most Meraists (and utter heresy by most Ecclesiasts), but there are enough instances of Eli tolerating polygamy in the Canticle that these chapters could probably successfully defend themselves against charges of heresy. In any event, the psis keep these practices and teachings to themselves, and are careful to make sure that information about their private lives doesn't spread to the general public.
The Meraist Church does not condone divorce, seeing it as destructive, selfish, and generally contrary to Eli's will. However, they do acknowledge that there are some circumstances in which divorce may be sadly necessary, particularly if one spouse is engaging in abuse or adultery and refuses to repent and seek reconciliation with his/her partner. Meraist priests will do everything possible to provide married couples with godly counseling and help them to resolve their differences, but if a person does become divorced, the Meraist Church will not automatically forbid the person to remarry. (A priest may, however, refuse to perform the marriage rite for any person whom she believes is entering into marriage for the wrong reasons, whether the person was previously married or not.)
Ordination. The Meraist Church ordains both men and women to minister as priests -- though, as noted, more women are ordained than men. Priests may be single or married, though the latter is preferred by most chapters. (Those who are married are generally considered to be in a more stable and mature place in their lives than are singles, and a priest dating members of his congregation can lead to problems for the whole church in the event of a break-up.) Unlike the ancient Lightbringer order, the priesthood is not hereditary: there is no presumption that the children of priests must become priests themselves. Most Meraist chapters screen their applicants carefully before accepting them as priests, and the church maintains a number of theological schools around the world to better train and equip young clergy to lead and shepherd their congregations.
Funeral Rites. Like the Lightbringers before them, the Meraists emphasize that the body is a shell and is unimportant once the soul passes into the afterlife. Historically, the Lothanasi burned their dead on funeral pyres, giving back to the earth everything that the body had taken over the person's lifetime. The early Ecclesiasts were horrified by this practice, since they believed the body needed to be preserved for the resurrection; the Lightbringers, in turn, were horrified by the idea of sticking a rotting corpse in a box in the hopes that your soul would someday get stuck back into it. (Unlike the founders of the Ecclesia, the Lothanasi have had some experience with the walking dead...) The Ecclesiasts also felt the need for some kind of memorial to remember the person who had died, a role that was fulfilled by the use of graves and tombstones.
Today, the Meraists usually observe a compromise between these two systems. Bodies are still cremated, but a portion of the ashes is buried at a grave site with a stone marker. (Funeral pyres are still used in some rural areas, but they are prohibited within the city because of air quality concerns -- the Ministry of Health doesn't want anybody breathing in someone's ashes.) Some people hold funerals outside the city to get around this; others simply let the body be cremated in a furnace. It is traditional to scatter most of the ashes in a place where the life they represent can be returned to the earth -- a river, the sea, a forest or field -- rather than keeping them in an urn as people of our world usually do.
The Church of Merai is set up in a manner somewhat similar to that of the old Lightbringer religion. Individual church congregations are led by a head priest or priestess and any assistants he or she may have. These congregations are then organized into chapters, which are focused on discrete geographical areas -- e.g., a single moderately-sized city, a borough of a large metropolis, or a set of provincial counties. The head priests of each chapter elect an overseer from among their number, who takes part in meetings of the Council of Overseers, which is the highest governing authority in the church. Merai herself, as the Prophet, has special standing above even the Council of Overseers, but she only exercises that authority when she has a particular prophecy or word of correction to deliver; the rest of the time, she lets the Council lead. (She also speaks before the Council on certain special occasions, such as the annual Resurrection Day service, but she rarely gives specific orders in these sermons.)
The Council of Overseers generally allows individual chapters a great deal of leeway in how they practice their faith, and most chapters in turn extend that flexibility to their congregations. The governing bodies usually only intervene in cases where a local priest must be disciplined for abuse of his/her parishioners, or for engaging in overt heresy. Matters that are somewhat unclear in the Scriptures are left to the leaders of individual congregations to resolve as their consciences dictate.
In cases where a local priest is guilty of misconduct, his people may appeal to the overseer for intervention. The overseer may also decide to open a misconduct case herself, in the event of possible heresy. In either case, the overseer appoints an impartial priest from elsewhere in the chapter as an investigator. The investigator then presents the case to the assembled priests of the chapter; the overseer acts as judge, and the others serve as jury. If found guilty of misconduct, the priest may be ordered to step down, or to enter a period of counseling or discipleship at one of the Church's training schools. In extreme cases, the priest may be stripped of his rank. If a crime has been committed, the matter may then be turned over to the secular courts for criminal prosecution.
In the case where an entire chapter or an overseer has been charged with misconduct or heresy, the same general pattern is followed within the Council of Overseers, with Merai sitting as judge. If an overseer is found guilty, she will face the same penalties as a priest. If an entire chapter is found to be heretical, the priests of that chapter will be removed from authority and the congregations placed under the provisional care of an adjacent chapter. The priests of the supervising chapter will then conduct an extensive screening process to determine which leaders were at fault and which were innocent; the latter may then be exonerated and restored to the ministry. Priests who are found guilty will be removed and placed under discipline, as in the case of individual misconduct. The entire process is extremely messy and painful for all concerned, and it has only happened three times in the Church's 1200-year history. Most of the time, when the evidence of heresy is scanty or questionable, the Council of Overseers is content to let it go unpunished, trusting that Iluvatar will watch over His own house.
The rather casual attitude of the Meraist church towards enforcing orthodoxy has been a two-edged sword. On the one hand, it has allowed a large number of different chapters and congregations with varying doctrinal viewpoints to persist as part of the Church, ensuring an ongoing exchange of ideas and counteracting the tendency of large religious bodies to become stagnant. On the other hand, in the rare instances where a truly grave heresy has taken root, it has generally been left to grow so long that, when it is finally discovered, the resulting controversy can be almost disastrous.
One such incident took place in the mid-1400s. Merai had, by this time, not taken an active role in the Church in almost five hundred years -- the Lothanasi were in the midst of a difficult transition from religious movement to supernatural police force, and Merai had felt that her efforts were better focused there than on the Church. She feared that being too present and active in the Church would stifle it, keeping its members focused on her as leader rather than on Yahshua. So, for half a millennium, Merai disappeared from the public eye, entrusting care of the Church to the Council of Overseers.
The decision proved to be ill-advised. In Merai's absence, her image was -- if anything -- magnified in the eyes of her followers. A doctrine began to circulate that placed Merai on an equal level with Yahshua, as the "co-redemptrix" of creation. Accounts of Merai's suffering at the hands of the corrupted Lightbringers of Elvquelin were exaggerated out of all sense of proportion, to the point where it was even claimed that Merai had momentarily died on her cross and been raised to life again. It was said that, as Yahshua had been the avatar of Iluvatar's masculine nature, Merai was the avatar of His feminine nature. Worship began to be directed equally to Yahshua and Merai. Proponents of this view called it the Parity Doctrine.
This heresy was not universal, but it became distressingly common in a short amount of time. By 1400 no fewer than a dozen overseers and their chapters had accepted it as doctrine, and there were many individual congregations throughout the remaining chapters that were following the heresy without their overseers' knowledge. In 1436 a group of overseers came before the Council and proposed that the Parity Doctrine be officially adopted by the entire Church.
The orthodox Meraists on the Council were stunned. They'd had no idea how widespread the Parity Doctrine had become, even within many of their own chapters. Even though the measure was defeated, a pro-Parity movement began to rise up throughout the worldwide church, throwing dozens of chapters into chaos. Disciplinary actions were discussed, but no one had ever before attempted to bring an entire chapter to trial for heresy, let alone a dozen chapters. Worse yet, some overseers were afraid to move against the heresy for fear of being voted off the council by their own chapters.
Finally, a group of orthodox overseers traveled to Metamor City and pleaded to speak with Merai herself. Merai was initially reluctant to meet with any leader of the Church, for fear that the meeting would be exploited for political gain; however, the overseers sent up a packet of records and evidence they had collected, and when Merai saw the nature of the problem she quickly summoned them to her quarters. As Merai listened with increasing horror, the overseers described the heresy and their seemingly-futile efforts to combat it.
If Merai had been negligent before, she was now swift to act. She called a meeting of the Council of Overseers, speaking to each of them through a dream-spell rather than waiting for messages to be delivered. Once they were assembled, she clearly and forcefully denounced the heresy, declaring in no uncertain terms that Yahshua alone was the redeemer of creation and the avatar of Iluvatar. While she admitted that she did carry the blood of Kammoloth, who had been called a god in ages past, she denied any claim to divinity, stating that she carried no more of the nature of Iluvatar within her than any other man or woman on earth. "It is the right of all people to believe what they will, according to the dictates of their conscience," she said. "But if you choose to follow this Parity Doctrine, you shall not do so within my house. Lay this heresy aside, humble yourselves, and learn from me what I would teach you, and all shall be forgiven; you shall be welcome here. Otherwise, depart from here, for I shall have no part with you."
Merai then began an intensive house-cleaning process within the Church. For the first time, entire chapters and their overseers were brought to trial, and heretics were removed from leadership and replaced with more responsible individuals. The disciplined overseers and priests were sent back to training schools, where they received extensive counseling and theological instruction, sometimes from Merai herself. Those who proved rebellious or unteachable were dismissed from the Chuch.
The Parity schism and subsequent reformation caused a severe backlash within the Church, as disillusioned followers left the movement. Many of those who had been Parity supporters felt betrayed by Merai's denunciation of the doctrine, and reverted to a variety of pantheistic or polytheistic folk religions. Even some orthodox Followers left the Church in favor of the Ecclesia, disgusted that such a heresy had ever been allowed to take hold in the first place. Overall, the Church lost somewhere between 5 and 10 million adherents over the incident, which at that time represented as much as ten percent of the entire Church.
In the years since, Merai has taken a more visible role in the Church, tackling difficult theological questions before they become crises. For the most part, she has been successful, and no other heresy has yet reached the magnitude of the Parity Doctrine. She prays earnestly that none ever does.
The Discipleship Controversy:
Another, far less violent controversy that has cropped up repeatedly in the Church's history concerns the practice of Meraists pledging themselves into the service of the Children of the Nine. Because Church doctrine states that the ex-gods and daedra lords are to be honored as moral teachers, many Meraists have felt a desire to dedicate themselves to work closely with these beings in order to better learn from them. These so-called disciples of the ex-deities may serve them for a pre-arranged period of time, or until released from their service. The terms of service are generally laid out ahead of time in the form of a contract, which details the length and nature of service to be provided by the disciple and the compensation and benefits that will be provided by the Immortal. Usually the language of the contract leaves some wiggle room for disciplinary action or added perks, depending on the disciple's behavior.
The practice of discipleship is controversial because, for a certain period of time, the disciple is dedicating his or her primary focus and energies to serving someone other than Iluvatar. Some Meraists believe that what the ex-deities ask of their disciples -- and usually succeed in inspiring in them -- is essentially a kind of worship. The members of the pantheon still receive power when others perform acts in accordance with their spheres of influence, so discipleship allows them to retain the perks of gathering worshipers while claiming that they are actually just assisting the followers of Iluvatar in achieving enlightenment. This, critics say, allows them to maintain a façade of humility and submission to Iluvatar's will while secretly continuing to play power games with mortals as they have done for millennia.
While discipleship has its detractors, it is still considered a worthy and appropriate rite of devotion according to official Church doctrine. It is most widely accepted when the disciple's sponsor is considered a particularly virtuous member of the pantheon, such as Akkala or Velena. It might raise questions if the disciple pledged himself to a more ethically questionable Immortal, such as Dvalin (who is known for dallying with mortal women) or Agemnos (whose devotion to the cause of profit is considered unspiritual and materialistic by most Meraists). Those who choose to serve the most hedonistic deities, such as Ba'al and Suspira, are always roundly criticized, but some have argued that it is useful to understand the message of those generally considered "evil" so that one may be better prepared to guard against it. While it may sound like a persuasive argument, those who pledge themselves to Ba'al and Suspira are usually lost to their respective cults; it takes a truly strong and dedicated Meraist to make it through a discipleship to one of these beings and actually benefit from the experience.
In reading over the descriptions of the Meraist and Ecclesia denominations, some prospective writers might be tempted to conclude that the Meraists are the "good" or "enlightened" Followers, while the Ecclesiasts are "bad" or "ignorant". This is not at all my intention, and I will not approve of any attempt to carry things in that direction. Both the Meraists and the Ecclesiasts have their strong points, but neither is entirely free of negative aspects or wrong-headed thinking.
The Church of St. Merai: The Meraists are notably tolerant of other faiths -- with the exception of the Ecclesia, with which they often have some friction -- and welcoming toward non-humans and part-humans. They are open-minded about supernatural gifts, including magic and psionics. They are adept at making their essential teachings accessible to new audiences, reshaping the presentation of spiritual truths to promote acceptance and understanding of their beliefs. They are dedicated to sexual equality, though they still suffer from the persistent bias that men are ill-suited to the priesthood.
On the downside, the Church of St. Merai is sometimes too open-minded for its own good. The repeated dalliance of Meraists with the trappings of polytheism has promoted good relations with the Immortals, but it also makes Meraists more vulnerable to falling under the sway of the polytheistic cults. The tendency to revere Immortals as moral teachers often slides into outright worship, and particularly in rural areas and backwater regions the practice of the Meraist faith is almost indistinguishable from the "old religion". The veneration of Merai herself is arguably even worse, as the Parity Schism illustrates. In sum, the Meraists' attempts to be accessible to all people have often watered down their message, reducing their effectiveness and allowing heresy or questionable practices to grow unnoticed within the church.
The Ecclesia: The oldest Follower denomination has suffered far fewer problems with schism and heresy than the Church of St. Merai, defending the integrity of their faith and maintaining strong consistency of doctrine and teaching in every parish around the world. Other Followers may disagree with their interpretations of Scripture, but their passion for presenting a clear, unwavering message to the world cannot be denied. While they do venerate the saints, and some practitioners treat Yanlin (the mother of Yahshua) in nearly the same way as the Meraists treat Merai, on the whole they have stayed much closer to the monotheistic foundation of the faith than have the Meraists (or even the Catholic Church of our world -- while the Catholics absorbed many of the pagan trappings of the Celts and Germanic tribes, in MK2K the recently-polytheistic nations largely converted to the Meraist faith). While Merai largely avoids giving much direction to her adherents, promoting independent thought and action among the Meraist churches, the Ecclesia's Patriarchs have a global vision for the advancement of the Word of Eli, and their increased organization often allows them to respond to opportunities in a swift and orderly fashion while the Meraists are still squabbling among themselves about what to do.
Unfortunately, the Ecclesia's greatest strengths are inexorably linked to its greatest weaknesses. The organization that makes the Ecclesia efficient also makes it hidebound and bureaucratic, so that the entire denomination's effectiveness often depends on the vision and dedication of the current Patriarch. The church shows an almost pathological fear of change, even when it would be beneficial, and it has a tendency to treat every point of doctrine as being of equal importance (instead of holding fast to the key issues and allowing differences of opinion in less crucial matters). The Ecclesia as a whole is still leery of magic, distrustful of most non-humans, and rather biased against women, though there are exceptions to these general rules, especially in Metamor City. Perhaps most dangerous of all, the leaders of the Ecclesia still wield enormous secular political power; most of them either come from the wealthy oil-baron families of Ainador, or have such people as patrons and sponsors. Ainador itself is still the Ecclesia's domain, in fact if not in name. The fusion of religious, economic and political power has never been beneficial to religion, the economy or politics, and the urge to use their influence to manipulate the course of secular events has often been too great for the cardinals and patriarchs to resist.
Common Ground: To their credit, both denominations show an admirable dedication to helping the poor, sick, and needy, both in the Empire and abroad; both help to defend the sanctity of human life, opposing abortion, the death penalty, torture, and political and religious oppression throughout the world; both are champions of peace and international understanding. On the negative side, both have added additional books and teachings of their own on top of the historical text of the Canticle of Eli, muddying the theological waters; both have established priesthoods distinct from the lay believers, which the smaller Rebuilder factions argue is contrary to Yahshua's teaching that the entire community of Followers were to be his priests to the world; and both have spent far too much time arguing and criticizing one another when they could have been working to help the world around them. Like all organizations composed of people, they both contain the virtuous and venal, the selfless and the self-righteous. They serve in the name of God, but in the end, both are very human.