Letter from 123 SoF members to the Working Group on Clergy Discipline (Doctrine)

The Bishop of Birmingham, Chair,
Clergy Discipline (Doctrine) Group
c/o Mr Robert Wellen
Legal Office
Church House
Great Smith Street
London SW1P 3NZ

22 April 2000

Dear Bishop

Clergy Discipline (Doctrine)

The signatories to this letter are clergy and lay church members who are also members of the Sea of Faith Network. At a meeting in Loughborough on 26 February we had a full discussion of the proposed Clergy Discipline Measure and how offences of a doctrinal nature should be dealt with under any further arrangements. Those present agreed our concerns should be put to your Group and the letter signed by those who wished, following the circulation of this text.

We are not all Anglicans. We realise that all churches feel a need at times to be concerned about matters of doctrine and discipline. In this most publicised Anglican instance, we all feel it to be a matter of public concern. Particularly, we are aware that if any question of corporate union with the Church of England were mooted, people from other churches involved might look very carefully at definitions made now by the Church of England in doctrinal/disciplinary matters and wonder critically how far these might be taken into any union schemes.

We should like to make the following points.

  1. Theological and biblical study is continually confronting us with new challenges and interpretations. This is true of what might be considered 'core beliefs' as much as it is true of more peripheral ideas and doctrines.
  2. Doctrines are human constructs, limited by cultural and political perspectives. Our beliefs, which are formed in one culture or worldview, need continuous re-interpretation for changing circumstances. ("How do we speak of God in the present tense?", said the hymn writer Sydney Carter.)
  3. Religious language is always metaphorical and symbolic. It should not be confused with the experience it attempts to describe.
  4. The core issue for us is how we express the reality of God, in language, symbol and actions. The Christian tradition has varied ways of doing this - realist, critical realist, non-realist and many others.
  5. To believe in God is, for some, not necessarily to think of God as an object 'in' reality (hence the concept of non-realism advanced by some Sea of Faith members) but as expressing what is of ultimate value, that which gives meaning to reality. There are long-standing arguments among Christians about how to express the reality of God, and faith in God is constantly being rethought, re-imagined, and enriched. We believe the SoF movement is contributing to that enrichment.
  6. God is that in which we live and move and have our being. God is the environment of our believing. To believe in God is to be immersed in the whole life of the community of faith.
  7. It is sometimes argued that as the numbers of people attending church falls, the only churches where numbers are holding their own, or increasing, are those taking a traditional line in matters of doctrine and belief. Our experience, however, is that many people have left churches not because the basics have been abandoned but because they have not found space to explore or express their Christian faith in non-traditional ways. The demonising of Don Cupitt, the vilification of David Jenkins and the sacking of Anthony Freeman have led to frustration, exasperation and fear and the experience that matters of faith and doubt are not discussible.
  8. We observe that there is an increasing literalism in the Church of England, for example in recent debates about the meaning of resurrection or matters of human sexuality. We fear that the proposed new legislation, if it included offences of a doctrinal nature, could be used to stifle open exploration and debate. It can be fairly argued that fundamentalist or conservative approaches to Scripture and doctrine form only part of Anglican tradition with its threefold source of authority - the Bible, tradition and reason. We would argue that a living tradition must sometimes be developed and applied in non-traditional ways and that robust theological exploration should be safeguarded and encouraged in the church as well as in academic contexts.
  9. As a 'national' church the Church of England has a duty to be concerned not only with its own members but to offer its traditions and spiritual resources in an inclusive way to all people. Its clergy have a particular charge to all souls. We believe that it is sometimes the radical and questioning clergy who have been most successful in working with those for whom faith is a continuing struggle or who see no sense in religion at all. Yet such clergy are the most vulnerable to disciplinary procedures.
  10. There are two circumstances in which charges of a doctrinal offence might be appropriate. These are:
  1. where a person's declared intention is to attack the Church or the Gospel in order to destroy it. (This should be distinguished from a challenge in order to reform or strengthen the Church.)
  2. where a person insists on teaching, as the official policy or doctrine, something which is clearly contrary to the official policy or doctrine. (This should be distinguished from challenging some aspect of current policy or doctrine with the intention of reforming or strengthening it.)

We are grateful for the wider consultation your Group has made possible and look forward to your proposals in due course. Any correspondence regarding this letter should be addressed to:

Revd Ronald Pearse
15 Burton Street
Loughborough, LE 11 2DT

Yours sincerely,

Ronald Pearse, Church of England