The Fellowship of Friends has been recognized by the state and federal governments as a tax-exempt, nonprofit religious corporation since 1971.
In other words, it's a church.
About the only thing required to obtain that status is to hold regular meetings and have a statement of religious purpose, said Judith Golden, a spokeswoman for the Internal Revenue Service.
"You don't apply to be a church. You're a church" if you say you are, she said.
The Fellowship, in its unorthodox way, says it is.
Founder and leader Robert Burton, 55, earned a bachelor's degree in elementary education from San Jose State College in 1963. He taught elementary school in Lafayette and for the Emeryville Unified School District in the San Francisco Bay Area before studying the writings of various philosophers on his own.
He also attended a Quaker church in Berkeley off and on during the mid-1960s, which may have eventually inspired the name for his Fellowship of Friends.
In 1968, Burton became captivated-along with a number of other Bay Area residents-by the works of George Gurdjieff and Peter Ouspensky.
In the first half of this century, the two men developed a complex philosophy called the Fourth Way that revolves around the core idea that people are spiritually "asleep."
Acquiring true consciousness, they argued, requires diligent "self remembering"-a concept often likened to the Buddhist philosophy of concentrating on the present moment.
Another key is to refrain from expressing negative emotions, which waste energy and distract from spiritual pursuits, they said.
In 1970, Burton convinced a small coterie of acquaintances in Contra Costa County that he was a "man No.5"-defined by Ouspensky as a self-conscious being-possessed of higher knowledge and emotions than most people.
The group quickly attracted other believers, all of whom gave monthly fees to Burton as their teacher.
The Fellowship incorporated in 1971 and, that year, purchased property in Yuba County near the tiny community of Oregon House. By 1973 members were clearing land, planting vines and starting construction of an enormous winery there.
About 600 of the Fellowship's 1,900 members now live at or near this property, known as Apollo. Many others operate "centers"-usually a rented house staffed by half a dozen or so members-in major cities throughout the United States, Europe and Latin America.
Most give 10 percent of their income, in the form of monthly fees, to the group. Members are also often asked to make additional special donations for the purchase of sculptures, paintings and other works of fine art which they believe uplift the human spirit and help in "self remembering"
The average contribution for American members is $5,000 a year, according to the group's former business manager, Charles Randall, who resigned last October. Foreign members-who have increased steadily in number and now comprise a majority of the group-tend to earn less and thus contribute less, but even so, the FeIlowship's total annual income from monthly dues and donations is about $4 million, Randall said.
None of that money is taxable and, since the Fellowship has legal status as a religious organization, it need not be reported to the IRS, Golden said.
The group includes many college-educated professionals, from doctors and lawyers to musicians and artists. They meet once a week at Apollo to discuss ideas on which the Fellowship is founded, with particular emphasis on their practical application," said Girard Haven, who stepped down as the group's president recently, but is still a key leader.
From time to time, Burton- known by members as the Teacher -has also decreed some unusua1 rules, or "exercises," for his flock.
No swimming. No joking. No smoking
Until 1993, homosexuality was banned, although Burton himself is a homosexual who frequently has sexual relationships with members.
Formal dinners at which everyone wears tuxedos or gowns are held regularly. Lavish parties have been thrown to celebrate Burton's gradual spiritual advancement to a "fully conscious being."
The Teacher also predicts California will be destroyed in an earthquake in 1998, followed by a worldwide nuclear holocaust in 2006. But Apollo and Fellowship members wil1 be spared, he says.
In an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle in 1981-one of the few interviews Burton has ever granted-he was asked if he thought he was Jesus Christ.
"Thou sayest it," Burton replied-Christ's words to Pontius Pilate upon being asked if he was the king of the Jews.
About 200 members work at Apollo, doing everything from administrative work to gardening. They are paid a stipend of $300-$400 a month, with food provided by the Fellowship.
Meanwhile, Burton is paid about $250,000 a year in salary and benefits, according to Randall, and spends much of his time travelling to research art and teach at the group's centers around the world.
At various times the Fellowship has collected Meissen china and European Renaissance paintings. It owns a collection of about 130 pieces of finely crafted Chinese hardwood furniture from the 17th and 18th centuries.
The pieces range from desks to beds, with some valued as much as $100,000.
The Fellowship also makes wine under the label of Renaissance Vineyard and Emery.
Renaissance's late-harvest Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc, both dessert wines, have won international awards and have been poured for the Prince of Wales, former President George Bush and other world leaders. The winery has a capacity of 40,000 cases of wine a year and currency produces mostly Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc.
All of that makes for an unusual religious organization, to be sure. But Golden said the IRS launches an inquiry into a church "only if we have a reason to suspect it is not fulfilling a religious purpose."
For the most part, she said, "A church is a church is always a church."