Theological diversity: health or heresy?

A report to the 2003 Sea of Faith (UK) Annual General Meeting

The Sea of Faith (UK) Steering Committee is pleased to present this report on the allowability of doctrinal diversity in the Christian tradition. The report addresses the following points:

The attached appendices cover the background to this issue, a list of disciplinary actions taken against clergy since 1900, and a bibliography.

Why Sea of Faith is addressing this issue

This study examines the extent to which diversity in doctrine has been allowed in practice, or should be allowed in theory, in the modern Christian church.

It may seem odd to address such an issue in the 21st century; cases of formal heresy in the Christian churches are increasingly rare, and apart from the flurry of media coverage that accompanies the dismissal of an errant priest, they seem to have little impact on the world. Sea of Faith believes that the issue is more important than first appears, for three main reasons:

Although Sea of Faith is a multifaith organisation, we have chosen to restrict this study to Christianity, primarily because issues of heresy and doctrinal conformity are particularly emphasized in the Christian tradition. Of the other monotheistic religions, Judaism is concerned much more with orthopraxy rather than orthodoxy; Islam tends to focus on apostasy (i.e., deserting the faith) rather than heresy. Don Cupitt and others have suggested that the emphasis on correct doctrine in Christianity arose from the particular circumstances in early church history, when Christianity was trying to hold together an increasingly diverse membership and devise an appropriate explanation for the continued delay of the apocalypse. The alignment of Christianity with political power from the fourth century onwards meant that correct belief became a matter of loyalty to one’s political leaders as well as to God, further reinforcing its importance. Because these historical factors have led to the particular prominence of doctrinal deliberations in the Christian church, we have therefore decided to focus this study on conformity and diversity within Christianity.

The environment for doctrinal diversity today

In order to understand better the recent history of doctrinal dissent, the study group undertook a review of heresy trials, dismissals, and other official church actions in response to allegedly unorthodox doctrine over the past century; because of time constraints the review covered only cases in the Anglican and Nonconformist traditions in the English-speaking world. We found some 35 different cases, of which four were actions against groups of professors at theological seminaries and the remainder were actions against individuals. Nine of the cases were in the Anglican communion (including the Episcopal Church in the USA and the Church of Ireland), 11 involved some branch of the Presbyterian Church, 3 were Methodist, 10 Southern Baptist, 1 Lutheran and 1 Reformed.

Doctrinal discipline has become largely an internal and professional issue for most Christian churches. Up to and during the English Reformation, heresy actions could be brought against both clergy and laity, and could be brought by the established national religion against a minority faction or new sect. Since the late seventeenth century, active persecution between the different denominations has largely ceased; dissenting groups have been free to split off from the mother church and establish new denominations. This has allowed a reasonable degree of theological diversity to grow at least within the Protestant or Nonconformist wing of the Christian tradition; the different denominations are relatively free to craft their own interpretation of Christianity, and although they may consider themselves to be the one true faith, they avoid open criticism of other denominations. Doctrinal discipline has become a matter internal to each denomination, and has increasingly focussed on those people who are the professional spokespersons for the denomination, i.e. the pastoral and academic clergy. Of the cases that came to our attention, those in the Presbyterian, Southern Baptist and Lutheran traditions involved mostly professors of theology at denominational seminaries. In the Anglican and Methodist tradition, disciplinary actions tend to focus on parish clergy.

The subject matter of such actions has changed considerably over the past century. From 1900 to 1970, cases generally focused on the conflict between modern Biblical criticism and the "Fundamentals" of the faith; dissidents were most often accused of failing to believe in the inerrancy of the Bible, the Virgin Birth, the Resurrection, etc. Thus, in the first three decades of the 1900s, there were a number of such cases in the Presbyterian Church which led to the eventual split into fundamentalist and liberal branches. In the 1950s and 60s, similar battles were fought in the seminaries of the Southern Baptist Church in the United States. Since the 1970s, cases of formal discipline or dismissal have been infrequent and there has been a noticeable shift in the type of issue that attracts attention. Questions about the Virgin Birth, Biblical infallibility and similar ‘fundamentalist’ concerns have all but disappeared; cases now tend to focus on questions concerning the nature of God and the divinity of Christ (Ray Billington in 1971, Anthony Freeman in 1994, Andrew Furlong in 2002) or the acceptability of gay clergy (Righter in 1996, Stroud in 2001).

Within some denominations there has been increasing recognition that actions against clergy should be taken only in the most extreme circumstances. The reasons for this may be partly doctrinal and partly tactical. From a tactical point of view, ‘heresy trials’ have almost invariably resulted in unflattering media coverage portraying the churches as obsessed with doctrinal questions that have little relevance or meaning in the modern world. Further, at least in the Church of England, procedures for mounting formal heresy charges are complex and expensive.

From a doctrinal point of view, some churches have openly or tacitly accepted that there are multiple ways of interpreting the Christian faith and that a reasonable amount of exploration and new interpretation are natural in a healthy, living tradition. Thus, for example, the Episcopalian Church in the United States responded to the repeated attempts to accuse Bishop James Pike of heresy by taking formal steps both to allow more room for doctrinal diversity within the church and to make heresy charges procedurally more difficult to bring. Similarly, the Presbyterian Church of New Zealand, in its pastoral letter following the acquittal of Lloyd Geering in 1967, noted that "The Church must constantly be rethinking its message to the world so that it can be expressed in forms and words that are intelligible to the changing generations....Personal faith in our Lord is consistent with a great variety of theological convictions."

The Church of England, in the Code of Practice drafted to accompany the report Under Authority, noted that theological exploration and research were encouraged and that discipline on doctrinal issues should be "rare and exceptional." The report, while making valuable recommendations concerning consistency and natural justice in the process of clergy discipline, made few suggestions about doctrinal discipline as such. The successor study group on doctrine and ritual has, we understand, delivered a draft report which is still confidential; the unofficial expectation is that the report will recommend a fairly conservative view on doctrine while making it easier to bring charges against dissident priests. This suggests that C of E clergy will continue to feel very constrained in their freedom to explore and express doctrinal diversity.

Alongside formal disciplinary cases lies the more intangible suppression, sidelining or discouragement of progressive and radical thinking among clergy, ordinands and laity. This area is certainly more difficult to research, but no less important. Within the Sea of Faith there are several clergy who believe that their professional careers have been hampered to a greater or lesser degree by their theological views. One member has contributed a paper to this study outlining how his efforts to become first a Methodist minister, then an Anglican priest, then a Methodist lay worker have all been stymied by conservative clergy. Other clergy have been presented with pre-written letters of apology or resignation; have been invited to private ‘interviews’ and pressured to alter their position; have been instructed not to teach or preach on certain subjects without permission; or have received indications that they were on the secret "Archbishop’s caution list" which circulates among the C of E bishops.

Actions against the laity are extremely rare and are more likely to involve blasphemy than heresy. Nevertheless, for lay members the knowledge that their own questions and potentially unorthodox positions are unlikely to attract official attention is only partially consoling. The churches’ rejection of the ministries of Anthony Freeman and Andrew Furlong sends a signal to parishioners that open theological exploration is not welcome and that the churches are likely to expel the very people most likely to be able to assist laity with their questions. This presents the more exploratory parishioner with an unfortunate choice between living with the dissonance between ‘acceptable’ faith and his/her own state of mind; or simply leaving the church altogether. Few priests can minister effectively to the multitude of "wistful agnostics" described by Arthur Peacocke, winner of the 2001 Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion: "They’re not really atheist; they’re not really anti-Church; they are generally pro-Jesus. They are moral, idealistic people who just cannot believe some of the baggage we hear in church. The images have gone dead on them or are affirming things they don’t think are believable." All too often, because such parishioners have been led to believe that their questions are ‘wrong’, they tend to leave the church rather than stay and insist that their questions be treated seriously; unfortunately, this tends to reinforce the dominance of the evangelical interpretation of the faith and the exclusion of other theological options.

Should the churches allow more diversity?

Points of view on doctrinal diversity are varied and complex; in this paper we can only give a brief summary of the different arguments that have emerged in the course of this study. The study has considered legal, theological and psychological aspects of diversity, as well as general questions about the organisational behaviour of the churches.

Theological aspects

Theological arguments favouring doctrinal diversity include recognition of actual diversity in the history of Christian doctrinal development, recognition of the inherently symbolic and metaphorical nature of religious language, and the historical tendency for diversity to provoke richer development of theology.

Biblical criticism and historical research have made clear the extent to which church doctrines emerged over time, often in the context of very human struggles for power and control in particular cultural or political circumstances. For example, Peter Philips, writing for the March issue of SoF magazine, used the resurrection as an illustration of how different and contradictory understandings of a particular doctrine co-existed during the early years of Christianity. As Maurice Wiles has stated, "the earliest churches are now seen to have been relatively diverse...On this understanding heresy and orthodoxy alike were seeking to make sense of the faith in relation to the basic ideas of their milieu. Heresies are the attempts that were judged to have failed." Over time, theologians and religious figures regarded as heretical in one generation have been regarded as saints a few centuries later, while doctrines thought to be essential in the past have been all but discarded.

Many denominations do recognise this to some extent. It is interesting to note that one of the accusers of Lloyd Geering, in his 1967 trial for heresy by the New Zealand Presbyterian Church, noted that he himself no longer believed every part of the Westminster Confession, and that it was no longer clear which parts of the Confession were still essential to Christian belief. He challenged the Presbyterian Assembly to define the bare minimum that a minister would need to believe in order to uphold his vows. The Assembly declined to do so, and in their pastoral letter following Geering’s acquittal they simply noted that "personal faith in our Lord is consistent with a great variety of theological convictions".

Standing alongside this understanding of the historical development of theology is the issue of how religious language itself should be understood. In this respect modern radical theology is closer to classical theology than to 20th-century fundamentalism; the classical theologian would feel quite at home with Paul Tillich’s "ground of all being" or John AT Robinson’s rejection of the simplistic literalism of much conservative theology. Relegation of God to a literally ‘supernatural’ realm constitutes a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of religious language and a failure to recognize the extent to which religious language uses metaphor and symbol to describe ideas that are beyond normal parameters of human existence. On this understanding of religious language, a metaphorical or non-literal understanding of religious doctrine is actually closer to "the truth" than a literal understanding, if only by virtue of its recognition that religious truth is ultimately ineffable and that all human formulations of religious truth are provisional and inadequate. As one reviewer of Honest to God wrote, "a humble agnosticism is the mark of the greatest Christian thinkers."

The churches themselves are certainly aware that religious language is a symbolic indicator of truth rather than an absolute portrayal of truth. For example, the 1939 Report of the Church of England Commission on Religious Doctrine, chaired by William Temple, noted that "The general acceptance of formulations drawn up in another age and another context of thought gives rise to special problems, especially when some of the phrases used are indisputably symbolic, and no clear distinction is drawn, or (perhaps) can be drawn between these and others. The purpose of creedal statements is to affirm the truths on which the Gospel of the Church and the religious life of Christians are based. It is not their purpose to affirm either historical facts or metaphysical truths merely as such. It is as expressions of the Gospel and of the presuppositions of the Christian life that the statements of the Creeds, whether in the sphere of history or in that of philosophy, have permanent truth and value. In this sense every clause in the Creeds is of necessity ‘symbolic’."

Similarly, the Preface to the Alternative Service Book 1980 included this statement: "...words, even agreed words, are only the beginning of worship. Those who use them do well to recognise their transience and imperfection; to treat them as a ladder, not a goal..."

This quality in religious language means that it is very difficult to determine when a particular interpretation of a text is unacceptable. John Macquarrie, in the essay on heresy in Thinking about God, warned that "As soon as one departs from the notion that the Christian faith can be precisely and fully expressed in verbal formulations, the notion of heresy becomes very blurred, and attempts to demonstrate that any particular opinions were heretical would be extremely difficult."

Nor is this a bad thing – far from it. Historically the periods of the most vibrant development of religious thought have been those periods when religious orthodoxy was challenged, either from within a religious tradition (e.g. by Peter Waldo, St Francis of Assisi or Martin Luther) or by contact with a different and competing religion. In some cases, the church in question has ended by embracing the position held by the one-time heretic; in other cases, the heretic has started a new religion or a new denomination; in some cases, the rejection of the heretical doctrine has been complete and final. In each instance, the thinking of the church was strengthened by the effort required to accept or reject the challenge to its former thinking. As Macquarrie notes, "Even the mistakes can be helpful as exercises in experimental thinking, for it may only be after a position has been explored that one become aware that it leads to a dead end or is subversive of some vital Christian truth."

Both Macquarrie and Hans Kung agree that the best response to theological challenge is not to reject it, but to engage with it and to use the opportunity to develop, reform or restate its own position. "Recognizing 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...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."

Legal aspects

If it is difficult to make a theological decision about unacceptable levels of diversity, it appears equally difficult to make a legal decision. The legal analysis in this study has focussed on the Churches of England and Ireland, as they are obviously dominant in the United Kingdom. Although both churches require clergy to give assent to the 39 Articles, the legal meaning of "assent" is undefined. As Norman Doe, head of the Cardiff Centre for Law and Religion, explains, "it remains unclear whether assent means a complete and ex animo adherence to every doctrinal statement, acceptability of their main tenor, preference for them (as opposed to any other doctrinal statement), or else their acceptance as portraying the identity of the Church of England."

In the absence of a clear legal definition of assent, the churches have allowed different approaches to the 39 Articles to become common practice. The history of the changes in the form of subscription to the Articles indicates a gradual acceptance of a looser adherence to them. The original intent of the Articles was that "[all] shall submit to the plain and full meaning thereof ...and...shall take [each Article] in the literal and grammatical sense." For about three centuries the form required subscription freely and ex animo. In the nineteenth century this changed simply to "assent". In the 1970s the Articles were embedded in a package of "historic formularies" that bear witness to the faith. The current Declaration of Assent is preceded by a Preface which says that the Church is "to proclaim the faith afresh in each generation" (our italics).

In addition, some churches have clearly allowed certain articles to fall into disuse particularly where they involve criticism of other religions; for example the General Synod of the Church of Ireland has declared that "negative statements [contained in the formularies] towards other Christians should not be seen as representing the spirit of this Church today." Similar practice has evolved in the use of the Presbyterian Westminster Confession.

Finally, it can also be argued that by allowing modern theology to be taught in the seminaries and to be published by priests in good standing, the churches have implied that metaphorical or non-literal assent to the Articles is acceptable custom and practice. Taking all these factors together, it appears that in asking a priest to assent to a document such as the 39 Articles, we are asking him or her to give an undefined level of agreement to a text whose exact meaning is itself open to wide interpretation, both because of the various things it may have meant over time and because of the inherently symbolic nature of the text itself. Given this environment, it would appear extremely difficult to determine what forms of assent are legally acceptable or unacceptable, and difficult to prosecute someone successfully unless they explicitly stated that they were withdrawing their assent.

Organisational aspects

Surrounding the theological and legal aspects of doctrinal diversity are broader questions that treatment of diversity raises about the behaviour of the church as an organisation, and what that behaviour conveys about the churches’ expectations of the priest and the parishioner. Separating out these intertwining issues is necessarily somewhat artificial, and in this brief overview we must assume that the reader has some understanding of their interconnectedness.

Authority and power — In the review of trials and dismissals over the past century, a particularly disturbing aspect was the frequency with which clergy were apparently disciplined for violating the authority of the church rather than for clear theological error. In several cases (J Gresham Machen, Dale Moody, Algernon Sidney Crapsey, James Pike) the proceedings appeared to deliberately avoid discussing the theological issues involved in favour of simply condemning someone for saying something other than the received orthodoxy. If the churches could be certain that they were the sole possessors of truth, this might be somewhat justifiable when all other methods of handling the dissident clergy had failed. But, as noted above in relation to the theological aspects of diversity, it is very risky for the churches to assume that they possess unchanging, absolute truth. Certainly in the modern era, where theological expertise must confront truths in other specialities and where parishioners are accustomed to think for themselves in non-religious areas of their lives, it is no longer possible for the churches to behave as if they hold the only keys to religious truth.

Fairness and natural justice — Concerns have also been raised that doctrinal diversity and exploration are treated differently in different cases not because of the doctrinal issue as such, but because of the status of the priest in question and his/her relationship to the relevant bishop or other local authority. The dismissal of Anthony Freeman without due process, for example, was only possible because he was a licensed priest rather than a priest with freehold; the 1996 report Under Authority appears to acknowledge that this was unfair. It appears that at least the procedural inconsistencies and shortcomings in the Church of England would be addressed by the proposals in Under Authority; it is important that these reforms be applied to doctrinal cases as well as to other disciplinary issues.

The establishment of the Church of England — Particular mention should be made of the special situation of the Church of England as an established church. The Church of England is historically a national church, which ought to offer a spiritual home for all people of good will in the nation without requiring people to subscribe to a particular narrow form of Christianity. Parishioners have specific legal rights within their parish churches, e.g. of the baptism of their children, of marriage (if a former spouse is not still living) and of burial, and this by virtue of their residence and not of the correctness of their theological opinions. The Church of England sometimes expects and is expected to offer counsel to the nation. All these situations are endangered by the Church of England’s drift into the mentality of a evangelical sect, which is both evidenced and encouraged by over-zealous heresy hunting. It should take pains that its constituent theological outlooks of catholicism, liberalism, radicalism and evangelicalism (and their overlappings) should continue to enjoy the protection of its comprehensiveness; and that the historical three-fold cord of scripture, tradition and reason in its apologetics remains balanced.

Honesty — Numerous questions have been raised about whether the church leaders themselves believe what they seem to imply their priests and parishioners should believe, and whether the church is attempting to gloss over the extent of doubt and dissent within the clergy. Confidential surveys of the clergy make clear that decreasing numbers hold that the virgin birth, the resurrection and other New Testament miracles are meant to be understood as historical fact. Jack Good’s recent book, The Dishonest Church, discusses in detail the damage done to the church because clergy are afraid to tell their parishioners about their own radical understanding of traditional beliefs.

Consistency — The question of honesty is partly an outgrowth of the chasm between the theology that is taught in seminary and the theology that is considered appropriate for lay people, apparently reflecting a tacit sense that the laity need to be "protected" from the theological explorations of the past century. Books that have caused a popular scandal (John Hick’s The Myth of God Incarnate, John AT Robinson’s Honest to God) have done so not because they said much that was revolutionary, but because they disclosed well-established academic theology to the lay public. (Hick later said of his own book, "if [it] had come out under a dull title, such as Studies in the concept of the incarnation in the patristic period’, as an expensive hardcover volume addressed to the scholarly world, " it would have had little or no impact.) This does a grave disservice to the laity, who are neither as docile nor as fragile as church leaders seem to suppose. Indeed, the reception given to books by Robinson, Bishop John Shelby Spong, and other progressive theologians indicate that at least some portion of the laity is starving for an accessible but serious updating of Christian theology, and are unable to find it in their parish. A study undertaken by one SoF member in pursuit of her Master’s degree found that 25% of the church members surveyed found it difficult to discuss theological problems with their priest and 42% though it would be useful if churches provided the opportunity for frank and open discussion of theological issues. These church members are often well aware of issues raised by modern theology or by research in science, history or psychology, but have been led to believe that raising them in a parish context will be considered inappropriate or troublesome.

Integrity — Both of these issues bear heavily on the role of the individual priest, who is caught between what he or she learned at university or in seminary and what is considered appropriate to disclose in public. Priests are expected to continue to grow and develop in their theological thinking throughout their priesthood, but not to grow outside the limits of acceptable doctrine. They are expected to be ready to join in the spiritual explorations of their parishioners while not offending or disturbing those who are comfortable with the traditional doctrines. If they have doubts or questions about traditional theology, they are not to disclose them. Elizabeth Templeton, writing in the Church Times (30 April 1993) described the dilemma faced by her theological students as they prepared for ministry:

"...they knew that the Gospels were not documentary history; they knew that debates about the creed were sometimes won or lost by bishops missing ferry-boats; they knew that, if you said it was the hand of God that delayed ferry-boats, you had problems about where the hand of God was in the Zeebrugge disaster. But they felt a terrible, looming, unvoiced pressure that the move from classroom to pulpit involved them in hiding all that, certainly from the people, and if possible from themselves; so that those who were most used to intellectual and emotional integrity felt most pain."

When Templeton surveyed probationer ministers as to whether they expected to be able to exercise their ministry with theological integrity, 95% said no.

Most priests are more than willing to exercise considerable tact in this regard; but they should also be free to express their own questions and explorations, and to accompany their parishioners in the search for new ways to understand Christian doctrine without fear that this will put their vocation and position at risk. There are indications that priests are afraid to express questions or new ideas not only to their parishioners, but even to other priests or to their bishop; this can lead to a harmful sense of repression, isolation and dishonesty even within collegial circles. For example Anthony Freeman’s dismissal in 1994 came about because of his responsibilities for in-service training of new ordinands; apparently even within the clergy, open exploration of theology is considered dangerous and unacceptable.

Moral courage — Finally, there is the sense that the progressive leadership within the churches, particularly within the Anglican Communion, has lost the courage of its convictions, and is prepared to sacrifice both truth and justice to the overriding aim of church unity and peace. Certainly in the short term, given the increasing power and determination of the evangelical leadership, it must often seem that compromise and silence are the only options; but in the longer term, to choose church unity over truth and justice is to make an idol of the church itself. Within the Church of England, the Bishops have a canonically defined responsibility to encourage theological exploration to interpret the faith anew for each generation. By cutting off exploration and discussion with radical priests, the Church is pre-judging new ideas rather than allowing them to be confronted, debated and tested. By reacting in fear and rejection, rather than openness and courage, the Church is demonstrating its own lack of confidence in the resilience and durability of the Christian message.

Psychological aspects

As a way of probing more deeply into the role and position of the priest vis-à-vis the church, the study group commissioned a paper from psychologist Michael Jacobs of Leicester University. Jacobs noted that membership in any group implies some give and take, with the expectations that members who wish to enjoy the benefits of the group should conform to the standards for group behaviour, including standards for how the group presents itself to the public. At the same time, individuals within the group must be able to retain a sense of personal integrity. This applies whether the individual is a minister trying to relate to fellow or senior clergy; a minister trying to relate to the laity; the bishop trying to relate to the clergy; or the parishioner trying to relate to the clergy or to his fellow parishioners. In each case there are tensions around what the group expects of the individual, the individual’s own understanding of his role and responsibilities, and the individual’s need to retain a sense of integrity and identity. Jacobs notes elsewhere that unexplored expectations can lead to unconscious collusions, where both the clergy and the laity are afraid to share their questions with each other lest they offend each other; "it would be better for both parties if such collusive partnerships could be exposed sufficiently, so that each can share their false illusions about the other."

Drawing on Freud’s Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, Jacobs suggests that the image of the church as an organisation united by the love of Christ requires the suppression of aggression and hostility between members of the group; but this aggression quickly resurfaces when members of the group "get out of line." This may partly explain why, when clergy express dissenting views, the church tends to react as if the views of the dissenter are not only intellectually wrong, but morally wicked. The result is that "even when the church justifies the validity of doubt, it seems to be afraid of allowing it to be voiced."

Jacobs’ arguments about the extent of repressed doubt in the churches and the tremendous psychological relief that comes which doubts are expressed openly is well supported by other evidence. When Bishop John AT Robinson’s book Honest to God was published in 1963, numerous letters published in the follow-up The Honest to God Debate spoke movingly of the gratitude readers felt for Robinson’s honesty, and the way in which it enabled others to acknowledge and accept their own questions and ideas. The Sea of Faith continues to receive such letters today, and one of our primary functions as a network is to enable both clergy and laity to express and explore ideas that they feel unable to pursue in their own parish.

Jacobs suggests that rather than reacting defensively, a better way forward for the church would be to spend less time protecting itself and those whom it believes will be offended by new or radical doctrine, and more time encouraging individuals to look at the implications of their ideas for the organisations to which they belong. One can imagine, for example, how refreshing it would be if a challenge to the idea of the resurrection was met with the response ‘Let’s look at why this matters to us’ rather than with a defensive restatement of the traditional doctrine. This echoes the more theologically based views of MacQuarrie and Kung, who encourage discussion and exploration rather than suppression.

Jacob’s ideas may also be useful in reflecting on the extent to which dissenting priests sometimes seem to seek scandal; Lloyd Geering, for example, was accused of wanting to ‘bring reproach to the church.’ Given the impossibility of knowing anyone’s intentions – even our own, at times – we must admit that what seems like "acting with integrity" to a priest who feels that the church is suppressing all discussion of new theological ideas may feel like "seeking scandal" to those in authority who are trying to hold together a fragile consensus. Given Jacob’s analysis, we might infer that if the church were more responsive to the individual’s need to grow and explore, the individual might feel less need to strike out in rebellion against the group.

Viewed in a historical context, this poses interesting questions about the role of heretics in the growth of the church. Numerous writers on heresy point to the fact that many "great heretics" of the past, e.g. Jesus, St Francis, Martin Luther, are in retrospect seen to have been great reformers and sources of inspiration and enrichment. If we try to imagine, for example, what Western religion would have been like had the Jews accepted Jesus, or had the Catholic Church embraced the ideas of Luther, it is very probable that religious life in the West would have been less rich and diverse. This suggests that, while wishing that the Church would embrace its dissenters more warmly, we must also ask whether doing so might weaken the reforming and enriching effect that dissenters can have in the life of the tradition. Their role may to some extent depend on them being cast out, as least for a period, until the churches are able to catch up to their ideas.

"Better a live heresy than a dead orthodoxy"?

At this point we might imagine the churches saying, "What you say may be true; but to admit it would destroy the church; either the churches would lose all credibility, or they would split into a large, growing, conservative block and a smaller, dying, liberal block. Even if the kind of theology advocated by radical priests might be acceptable, it is not broadly appealing."

We reject these responses and suggest instead that a more open approach to doctrine and truth would allow a broader section of the population to reconcile their search for religious meaning with intellectual integrity, modern scientific knowledge and a greater sense of personal autonomy. The appeal of Buddhism in the West suggests that a religion that does not impose a supernatural cosmology can be effective and appealing if it offers a path for personal growth and a serious response to the problems of the human condition. Christianity does offer these things, in the vocabulary of love, redemption, grace and resurrection that has developed around the stories of the life of Jesus; too many people are unable to respond to this rich vocabulary because they are put off by the apparent requirement to believe in supernatural beings and literal miracles. The churches should make clear that although many Christians do believe these things, they do not constitute the essential message of Christianity or a prerequisite for Christian priesthood. This would not mean, as is often alleged, "believing in nothing" or abandoning what is unique about Christianity; it does mean placing more emphasis on the teachings of Jesus than on the interpretations of Jesus’ identity by his followers.

There is no doubt that this would constitute a paradigm shift in the way Christianity is viewed by large numbers of people who have been educated to believe that a religion is first and foremost a cosmological doctrine. It would doubtless require considerable courage on the part of the church leadership. It would require (or allow!) priests to let go of their traditional position as authoritative possessors of truth, and become instead skilled leaders in a communal exploration of truth with their parishioners. At the same time, it would result in a church that is more honest, less defensive, and more able to respond with openness and compassion to the real moral issues that confront us. Letting go of the supernatural props of Christianity would be a true act of faith, a casting off of metaphysical crutches to allow the Christian vision to walk, finally, on its own.

The Sea of Faith position?

The Sea of Faith itself contains a variety of theological opinions, and is characterised more by its open approach to theological exploration than by a single theological position. It was not our intention, in undertaking this study, to arrive at a particular opinion or position about what does or does not constitute acceptable Christian theology, but to look at the arguments for and against allowing as much openness and exploration as possible within the Christian tradition. As a result of this study, the 2003 Sea of Faith AGM took the following decision:

Many people have contributed to this study by sharing ideas, concerns, reference materials, personal experiences, time and expertise. The study group would like to express its sincere thanks to all concerned.

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