Doctrine and Diversity

A Theological Account from a Perspective within the Sea of Faith Network
A contributory paper prepared for the 2003 Sea of Faith Conference by David Hart, Lecturer in Religious and Philosophical Studies at the University of Derby - July 2003

An Introduction to the binary Orthodoxy/heresy concept

Where would you imagine, members of the Network, that these following two citations are to be located in terms of their chronology: is it in the 13th or the 16th centuries AD?

We can appreciate that these are terrifying accounts of heresy and its correction – respectively from the pen of the Inquisitor and the heretic himself- but may be surprised to learn that these citations come from no other century than the twenty-first (our own!). The first was signed on 24th January 2001 by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and the latter is from former Dean Andrew Furlong’s forthcoming account of his 2002 trial in the Church of ireland, ‘Tried for Heresy’ (O Books October 2003).

In this piece, I shall attempt to argue that both these questions are not only apparently but actually entirely anachronistic in our century and place. The context of such debate has now widened so significantly in Europe, partly due to the efforts and influence of the Sea of Faith network, that to cling to the very concept of Orthodoxy/Heresy as a binary opposition is as inappropriate to contemporary theological understandings, as is the concept of spirit-possession/exorcism as a way of explaining to us how our bodies function.

I shall propose that the concept of Orthodoxy/Heresy is collateral to and dependent upon a Realist perspective on religious understanding and that it is therefore inappropriate for our Network to continue to maintain such a concept by accepting its norms and strictures as givens in the debate over Christian doctrine and cultural diversity. It is part and parcel of our membership of an organisation that seeks to understand and propagate faith as a human creation to reject the proposal that doctrines can be declared true or false by any ecclesiastical authority of whatever ilk. Believing as we do that all doctrines have evolved through the process of controversy and debate, we see the emergence of some definitions over others as an entirely natural and human process. It is a process to do with democracy and the gaining of consensus which is entirely susceptible to rational account. We thereby reject the idea of a superior revelation of truths by a supranatural authority to a specially privileged community. This is ‘special pleading’ which all religions have traditionally maintained but which we now subject to the same process of examination and refutation to which we subject every other human construction of meaning. There are no hierarchies of privileged revelation or specially revealed truths any more: we have examined the evolution and construction of our Christian doctrines along with all the other faiths, and have come to the consensus that ‘our own’ have no greater objectivity or truth-claims than those of the other – with whom perforce we now relate in dialogical fashion for the sake of a common human understanding of a religious identity for our postmodern times.

Whatever disagreements we might have within the Sea of Faith, they are surely held within an agreed hermeneutic which unites us all at this Conference without debate against oppressive ecclesiastical definitions and bullying tactics which assert rather than negotiate their religious convictions, and impose upon rather than invite us to accept their insights as our own.

A Paradigmatic Heretic

The Case of Michael Servetus (1511-1553)

We have to look at history for some actual examples of how the Orthodoxy/Heresy concept pans itself out in the attempt of humanity to understand fully and explicate the Christian doctrine of God and humanity. Here the recent work published this year by Gillian Evans, Lecturer in History at Cambridge University and for ten years member of the Faith and Order Group of the Church of England, as ‘A Brief History of Heresy’ (Blackwell 2003) is immensely helpful. Evans gives an historical account of the formation of the concept of heresy in biblical and patriarchal times, and brings us up to date with the different climate of opinion brought about by Vatican II and the rise of modernity.

‘Heresy has been a great shaker-up of complacency. There are those who react against authority, and may become persistent and vociferous and trouble the authorities, but in the end make a difference. For there has been a change of attitude in the way the Church approaches the question of heresy. The modern ecumenical movement is inclusive, not exclusive...(now) the unity of the Church has become an objective which does not assume that it can be possible or is right to try to return to uniformity.’

Evans leaves open to her readers the question whether or not the churches have realised that such a cultural shift in their understanding of doctrine and diversity has taken place. And so this is a question to which the Sea of Faith needs to return again to pose the question more poignantly within our church structures and families.

For the moment, later this year we shall commemorate, both in Spain and in Geneva, the 450th anniversary of the burning at the stake of the great Spanish theologian Michael Servetus with his offending book (attached to his arm for the flames, presumed to be eternal) on ‘The Errors of the Trinity’. In the sad and despicable history of the intolerance of Christianity towards its own minority expressions of the faith, the case of Servetus is particularly significant in that he suffered the indignity of being burned not once but twice! First, by Roman Catholics in an effigy after he had escaped from gaol in France, and then by Protestants when he escaped to Switzerland and was spied and reported by Calvin in Geneva to be tried and executed by the civic authorities there.

A man of many parts, Servetus was an Enlightenment thinker who alongside his speculations on the Christian godhead was a geographer and writer on medicine who was the first to discover what is now known as the theory of the pulmonary circulation of the blood. As well as printing many of his bons mots and controversial theories (he once described Palestine poignantly as a promised land indeed but not a land of great promise!) he went on to publish them abroad and sent his works to many indeed even of his own detractors – including to John Calvin, ultimately of course to his own peril!

As a writer Servetus also received great patronage, becoming employed eventually as physician to the Archbishop of Vienne, albeit under the necessary pseudonym of Michael Villenuefve. This is not the place to give the entire saga which is well accounted in, for example, Earl Morse Wilbur’s ‘History of Unitarianism’ Harvard University Press 1947. But ‘The Errors of the Trinity’ pointed out that the Nicene formulation, so loved by orthodox Christians of many denominations, was not found in the Bible or indeed anywhere before the Council met and devised it in 325 AD. In his book he compared the doctrine of the Trinity to Cerberus, the three-headed hound of hell. And he argued that the underlying obstinacy of both Jews and Moors in refusing to be converted to the Christian faith was that they were genuinely offended in their religious sensibilities by debased images of God with one head and three faces which they took to be an unpalatable doctrine of tritheism. In this respect we can observe a continuing feature that remains up to the present day – the inclusion of an inter-faith perspective that is regarded with suspicion by ecclesiastical authorities and interpreted therefore as a challenge to the uniqueness of the Christian revelation.

Loosening the Definitions

The Contribution of John Macquarrie to Anglican Theology in the 20th century

Much of contemporary Anglican thought in the last quarter of a century has been inspired and supported by the writings and teaching of the Scottish Presbyterian turned Episcopalian minister, John Macquarrie, onetime Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity at the University of Oxford. Possibly his personal spiritual biography including this denominational shift made him more than tolerant about accepting a variety of approaches to describing the divine in human words. Macquarrie is also the main translator into English of the seminal existentialist thinker Martin Heidegger who largely eschews traditional religious language. Heidegger became a seminal influence on Cupitt particularly in the ‘life’ books which he wrote at the end of the twentieth century, one of which was sympathetically reviewed by Macquarrie in the Church Times, making for a significant rapprochement between these two giants of the contemporary British theological scene.

In a book written in 1975 entitled ‘Thinking about God’ Macquarrie has a chapter "On Heresy" which is inspired by the figure of an earlier Presbyterian Glaswegian, John McLeod Campbell who wrote in 1856 an interesting account of ‘The Nature of the Atonement’. Some 25 years before writing this book he had been deposed from his ministry in the Church of Scotland on the grounds that he believed salvation was available and open to all people regardless of their beliefs: this was too much for narrow Calvinist theology to stomach. But today, Macquarrie points out with some glee, souvenirs of Campbell’s life and work are publicly displayed in Glasgow University rather like the relicts of a saint.

This leads us to the reflection that the heretic of today often becomes tomorrow’s exemplar of faith, paving the way often in their own thought for the church to follow when it has seen something of the terrain in the life and works of the writer. Certainly this trend goes right back to New Testament times, where Paul first articulates the ‘dangerous doctrine’ that salvation may be found outside the House of Israel.

We can also bring to mind the names of Origen, Augustine, Luther, Wycliffe, Bunyan, Kierkegaard and Martin Luther King all of whose work on doctrine was first rejected, or at least regarded with immense suspicion by the upholders of the orthodoxy of their day, but whose interpretation of their Christian heritage ‘won through’ by being seen to be more consonant with the tenor and understandings of their particular generation in its response to the Gospel.

Thinking over our inheritance of thinkers such as these, Macquarrie argues in this 1975 essay that ‘the concept of heresy has become an elusive one...heresy trials are definitely an anachronism in the twentieth century, and the Christian community must find a more adult way of dealing with threats to the integrity of its faith.’ This is partly, he argues, because of the very maturity of Christian reflection that our generation has reached, to be contrasted with the first five centuries of our history as a church, when in confrontation with the culture of that age, the Christian faith was assuming its classic shape.

In interviewing Professor Macquarrie for this Commission on Doctrine and Diversity concerning the background of this essay, he elaborated to me that while himself teaching in the States, at Union Theological Seminary (alma mater of other ecclesiastical poachers turned gamekeepers such as Paul Tillich, Daniel Day Williams, and Cornel West), he had been approached by the presiding bishop and asked to help defuse calls within the Episcopal Church of the day for a heresy trial for controversial bishop James Pike from California, who appeared to have ultra-liberal views on such doctrines as the Virgin Birth, the Incarnation and the Trinity. A Committee on Theological Freedom was appointed by the presiding bishop – partly, of course, to deflect charges against ‘one of their own’ in this instance: one may note how liberal American Episcopal bishops are allowed to be in comparison with the UK...thinking of bishops such as Jack Spong on the east coast and William Swing on the west. The strategy of the Committee was to allow consciously more room within the church for doctrinal diversity and make heresy charges much harder to bring than in the nineteenth century.

Macquarrie’s essay was in origin a letter he wrote as theological consultant to this Committee to all the Episcopal bishops of the United States, and embodies the recommendations that became accepted by them in their attempt to avoid a sensational trial. There are five ‘recommendations’ which since they emerge from such a context are worthy of some reflection today thirty years on by our own Network as we consider the limitations of doctrine and the question of church discipline:

  1. All theological formulations are approximate
  2. Genuine heresy is extremely rare
  3. Theological freedom carries an element of risk that must be tolerated
  4. The theological objections to the use of the concept of heresy in the modern church are supported by many practical considerations
  5. Heresy, or suspected heresy, is best combatted by a clear affirmative statement of the church’s position

Having outlined these particular ecclesial recommendations, that were then adopted by the American Episcopal church, Macquarrie gives his advice that in the eventuality of a particular case of suspected heresy ‘ the first move of the ecclesiastical authorities should not be a negative act of condemnation or dissociation, but the positive step of reaffirming their allegiance to the realities of the Christian faith.’

Although the Catholic church still sometimes adopts ‘repressive measures’ to deal with suspected heretics, such as sending them on a mission to Patagonia, he concludes along lines remarkably similar to those of Vatican II theologian Hans Kung in his 1964 essay ‘On Heresy’. Macquarrie concludes ‘recognising that the challenge has probably arisen because the doctrine in question has been unclearly or imperfectly formulated, the church should encourage constructive theological efforts to reformulate and reinterpret the doctrine in language intelligible to our time and in ways that will show the place of this doctrine within the whole body of Christian truth...In the long run, the only effective answer to heresy, near heresy and errors of other kinds is for the church to show that she has a better theology than the person suspected of error. In 99 cases out of 100 it should not be difficult to do this. But the 100th case may be that of the McLeod Campbell, the true saint and prophet possessing an insight and a sensitivity ahead of his contemporaries, and in such a case, like Gamaliel, we have to beware that we are not "found opposing God" (Acts of the Apostles chapter 5 v.39).’

Sea of Faith and Heresy Charges

The Purpose and Influence of the Sea of Faith Network in relation to the ‘heresy’ charge

In his essay in the 1997 collection ‘God and Reality: Essays on Christian Non-realism’, Stephen Mitchell (then the Chair of the Network) argues that, far from being an heretical movement within the churches, the Sea of Faith encapsulates an appropriate modern understanding of the Christian inheritance of faith, the orthodox doctrine of the Incarnation in modern dress is in actuality our belief that all religion is indeed to be understood as human creation.

Such an understanding, with which my approach is very sympathetic, both encourages a pursuit of the Anglican liberal line on heresy as articulated by Oxford theologians such as Macquarrie, Nineham (our first Conference speaker back in 1988 at our inaugural conference at Loughborough University in 1988) and at the same time resists attempts made to sideline or banish our arguments from the arena.

It is helpful to remind ourselves that Rowan Williams himself wrote the forward to ‘God and Reality’ which was in essence a collection of half a dozen non-realist theologians engaging with half a dozen of their realist critics. In this role he clearly attempts to referee the different positions, and thereby surely grants the debate its own legitimacy within the Church of England that he now heads up as Archbishop of Canterbury.

In determining a ‘position’ on the Orthodoxy/Heresy question in the various Christian denominations from which we come, we must surely take account of the position of any number of our members over the years, both clerical and lay, who have come under various pressures of such a charge against them. The names of Lloyd Geering, Ray Billington, Antony Freeman, Chris Mearns,Jude Bullock,John Challoner and Andrew Furlong spring at once to mind. Albeit a variety of experience – with some actually tried, some found guilty and soe for whom the charges were dismissed, some summarily sacked by their relevant ecclesial authorities while others only ‘tainted’ in the press with such a charge.

I have spoken with all of these and others, and their experience of marginalisation and alienation by these authorities should not be underestimated, or undervalued when we determine what is to be our appropriate response to their situation in their churches in regard to the position taken against them.

We also have the context of attempting to be proactive and taking the high ground in this debate, rather than sitting by awaiting the next victim of ecclesiastical pressure in our membership to resign or be sacked from their church, and then having to rally our machinery to provide a fitting response, not only to the rest of the Network but also to the churches themselves and the media who are now finally at least attentive to if not interested in our voice!

There are various histories that are already ours from which I believe we can learn.

Perhaps the most encouraging is the case of Lloyd Geering who in a full heresy-trial mounted in New Zealand by the Presbyterian Church and lasting several days, he was acquitted, only to be ‘caught out’ in a subsequent television interview and forced to resign his ecclesial position, then finding an appropriate academic chair from which he could corroborate and substantiate his theological position, and in retirement freely worshipping in a liberal Anglican church and finally to be virtually knighted by the New Zealand government for services to theological enquiry: a heroic story of success and popularity to encourage us all!

More salutary but with lessons to learn are some of the cases nearer home. Forgive me those quoted!

In the case of Anthony Freeman, although his dismissal by Eric Kemp was brutal and without theological justification, the subsequent meeting of the bishops with Carey to discuss the issue may well have been brought about partly by our campaign, orchestrated during our 1992 conference by Network Secretary Ronald Pearse, to have distinguished theologians such as Keith Ward, Leslie Houlden and others, known to be sympathetic to modern theology but not members of our Network, to sign a letter of protest to The Independent.

In the subsequent wider debate, one could argue that Richard Harries as Bishop of Oxford (who clearly was regarded as one of the few bishops with the theological acumen to take on the task) seems to have followed the Macquarrie line, in being prepared to enter into public debate in London with Anthony on the issues raised by his offending book ‘God in Us’ and by attempting to re-establish the orthodox doctrine in the book he brought out two years later entitled ‘The Real God’.

In the more recent case of Andrew Furlong, there are, I believe, some more worrying indicators of ecclesiastical power and its misfunctioning in reaction to our theological positions, that will have to await the publication later this year of ‘Tried for Heresy’ before we can fully debate Andrew’s cause.

The area I wish to question is the imposition of the adversarial model upon the discussion – in Andrew’s case this involved the appointment of lawyers and judges without adequate consultation, the rejection of witnesses he wished to call from outside Ireland on the basis that this was solely a metter of jurisdiction for the Church of and in Ireland, and the signing of a secrecy clause disallowing Andrew to talk publicly about certain aspects of the case and its final resolution out of court. None of this, I argue, bodes well for or is consonant with the sort of open debate and accountability that the Sea of faith network has always engaged with openly with the churches themselves and in the media since its inception in 1988.

Context of SoF Commission’s recommendations

The Context of our Commission’s recommendations on Doctrine and Diversity to the Network

We need as a Network which includes a substantial membership of the denominational churches to take what is best in contemporary Roman Catholic, Anglican and Protestant theology, and press members of all church bodies to engage appropriately in sensible debate and reasonable negotiation on matters to do with theological doctrines and their contemporary expression in our day. We should appeal to church leaders to resist the use of force (which can take the form of ecclesial discipline or applying inappropriate pressure on ministers in particular to maintain certain theological positions) in the necessary debate that must happen in an open market of religious ideas such as exists in Britain in 2003. In particular we should deplore the use of pre-written letters (of apology or resignation) that have been proffered to our members and the use of private interviews between bishops and clergy as arena for cajoling and bullying the less powerful to adopt or alter certain positions. Many of us have recent experience of such unpleasant encounters, which are often staged for the sake of assuaging evangelical or orthodox opinion which is often only surmised and is seldom evidenced in the actual cases under debate.

We should call upon church leaders to chair appropriate and wide-ranging debates on controversial doctrinal matters, ensuring as part of their brief as upholders of the truth of doctrine and the unity of their faith that the widest possible canvas of opinion be sought out and listened to by as many as possible within the church. Surely any church must hold to the general principle of the openness of preaching the Gospel and the challenge of the Gospel being offered to as diverse a community as is possible since in the biblical accounts Jesus is reported to have acted inclusively rather than exclusively in his dealings not only with individuals but also with the religious authorities of his day such as the scribes, the Pharisees and the Sadducees.

In a world in which religious belief itself comes under incresing challenge in a secular and market-driven economy and commitment to churches seems to be ever on the decline, it is better to be open and embracing of the realities of the spiritual hypermarket we inhabit and compete in the world of ideas by holding up and arguing for the best and dumming up rather than conceding to the lowly levels of tabloid debate that often seem to be controlling the national agenda spiritual as much as temporal..

If we really believe our preamble that all religion is a human creation, and this now includes our own, then all previous dogmatic formulations should come under a common hermeneutic of our suspicion. We regard all doctrines as equally human, fallible and alterable. Therefore we resist the attempt made in secret concave of the House of Bishops in 1994 to locate and ringfence a ‘minimum core’ of dogmatic belief necessary for church membership (such as is believed to have been the doctrine of the reality of God’s person and the uniqueness of Christ as an incarnational revelation of God). Given our common generic understanding of the social construction of orthodox doctrine by the majority or ruling hierarchic power of any one time, we resist efforts to enforce commitment to particular interpretations of especial doctrines as arbitrary manifestations of ecclesial power inappropriate to our times (which value open debate and governanace on a model of partnership between clergy and laity) and unnecessary to human salvation. Certainly if God’s name is invoked we become highly suspicious of what is going on since we argue that no single formulation is automatically protected by supranatural authority in the manner of a judge or a police force, but rather each expression of the Christian faith has to be received, tried and tested by the people of faith of that particular era in their diverse roles and perspectives on the content and message of the faith.

In the twenty-first century an age of increasing globalisation, new patterns of meaning and new means of communication (such as the use of parish websites and their authorisation in the case of Dean Andrew Furlong) require a certain forbearance and patience as societies wait and ‘test the waters’ to see how effective and lasting these new formulations will be.

Whilst making maximal use of available global technology, the Sea of Faith Network should also take trouble to promote and defend its metaphor of doctrine as creative expression or art, thereby enabling a wider canvas on which to paint ever more evocative and alluring pictures of the God we worship who is not to be trapped by words alone.

If not the brains (as some commentators have suggested), the Sea of Faith is surely set to be a guardian of the religious imagination of our twenty-first century world of increasingly plural doctrine and diversity. This is a role particularly assigned to Sea of Faith in the Churches but one also incumbent upon our Network as a whole granted the original vision of the Network focused upon individual ‘heretical’ thinkers of the last couple of centuries (such as David Friedrich Strauss, Friedrich Nietzsche, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Carl Gustav Jung): where would the modern age be without such thinkers, while on the other hand each of them were considerable ostracised by the religious authorities of their day and their contributions have withstood the passing of time by further reflection and debate over their insights. It is in honour and protection of their successors in our day and in the future that the Sea of Faith Network needs in my view to do its utmost to respect and protect the ‘right to differ’ and the loyal opposition principle which has always been an acceptable part of the continuing tradition of the Reformation and its traditions in Europe and elsewhere.

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