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Turbulent priest ministers to the New Age soul: Martin Wroe meets the friar delivering 'pagan heresy' to packed churches

UNDER the huge stained-glass windows of the crucified Christ, the thin silver-haired figure of a priest is waving his arms through the air, flapping his fingers, then, suddenly, rubbing an invisible something out of his eye. His enrapt 500-strong congregation imitates the mime and the priest interprets: 'Young sparrows, if you treat them gently, will reward you with their droppings.'

Father Matthew Fox, Dominican friar, director of the Institute in Culture and Creation Spirituality in Oakland, California, and darling of the fringes of the Roman Catholic church, is leading his congregation in a spot of T'ai Chi. He wants to revolutionise worship and believes church as we know it is redundant. The ecclesiastical powers-that-be would rather he were redundant.

The Pope had him silenced for a year and his own order is on the brink of expelling him. This week he is in Britain, delivering what his critics call a New Age pagan heresy to packed churches. He continues to defy orders from Dominican provincial headquarters in Chicago to behave.

He preaches that the Church must throw out existing rituals and create new ones which 'teach adults to play again in church'. Congregations should 'get into native circles so we can chant and dance and bring forth our traditions, the morphic field, the memory of our ancestors'.

The face of the crucified Christ in the window at St James's Church, Piccadilly, where he began his mission this week, remained inscrutable as Fr Fox led his followers in breathing exercises: 'Let us expand our hearts, let us imagine it is the divine heart because we are in the divine and the divine is in us.'

Declaring an environmental 'earth emergency', the friar announced it was time to 'relaunch the species', scorned the 'anal- retentive miser who is the hero of our capitalist system' and, after the Earth summit, joked that 'we need fewer Bushes and more trees'. He talked of the 'cosmic Christ', the Green Man and the goddess tradition. Christianity is in big trouble, he warned: 'Around the world I find a lot more recovering Christians than practising Christians.'

Not that he has given up on religion, he has his own version called Creation Spirituality and runs the institute to promote it in California, where faculty members include a native American called Ghosthorse and a witch called Starhawk. Drawing on ancient spiritualities, Fr Fox preaches that we need to re- sacralise and re-enchant our lives. Traditional doctrines such as original sin are anthropocentric heresies - the universe was here for 18 billion years before humans turned up and it was the Original Blessing. This turbulent priest wants to get back to nature - his spiritual director is a 16- year-old spitz dog called Tristan.

The jury is still out on whether a mild-mannered, eco-friendly cleric from the American west coast is the future of Christianity or its end. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr George Carey, once called him a green prophet. On the other hand, Cardinal Ratzinger, Prefect of the Sacred Congregation of the Faith, is said to have described him as 'dangerous and deviant'. The novelist Maggie Gee called his book Original Blessing 'a holy book for the green movement'. But Margaret Brearley, an Anglican academic, claims he is 'leading the Church towards a paganism based on occult and new moon festivals'.

His theological critics say he is a pantheist. He denies it: 'I picture creation like the womb of God. The child is in the womb but the mother is larger than the child, is more than the womb.'

But ancestors and morphic fields go down rather better in San Francisco than in Surrey. Holy Fox or heretic? Father John McDade, editor of the Jesuit magazine The Month, concludes: 'Fox is partly right but imbalanced. He's far too influenced by his own culture - self-indulgent Californianism.'

(Photograph omitted)