Trials and tribulations

Ronald Pearse gives a recent perspective on charges of blasphemy and heresy in English-speaking Non-Roman Catholic areas.


To gain a perspective for heresy trials of the last two centuries or so, one must first take a brief peep at the earlier past.

The word heresy derives from the Greek hairesis, meaning ‘choice’. In the early days of the Christian movement, even before the writing of the Pauline epistles, there was probably a great deal of variety in what was remembered and taught of the man Jesus of Nazareth and of his ideas. Biblical scholarship shows us the variety of readerships for which, later, the four NT gospels were written and the variety of backgrounds from which their compilers chose their material.

But quite early, Paul was attempting to impose a little doctrinal discipline (see Galatians 1.8). Later, when the struggle to produce an agreed statement of Christian ideas was well under way, a powerful tool for its imposition was the idea of Cyprian in 251 of the collegiality of bishops as the point of unity for the Church.

In the fourth century the emperor Constantine had seen the Church as a ready-made tool for maintaining the unity of the Roman Empire. In effect, he "nationalised" it and forced the bishops to produce an agreed creed. From then on and for many centuries, the state had a direct interest in maintaining orthodoxy against heresy, the security of the state being seen as bound up with the maintenance of an accepted theological unity. Individual choice could be a dangerous luxury. Schism, heresy and blasphemy could be treasonable matters.

A trial for blasphemy

In 1729 Thomas Woolston, a former fellow of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, was prosecuted by the government for publishing a series of Discourses on the Miracles of Our Saviour (which have been said to anticipate the mythical theory of Strauss a century later). At his trial before the Chief Justice of King’s Bench, his counsel pleaded that Woolston had written as a sincere Christian. The attorney general replied that if the author of a treasury libel should write at the conclusion, "God save the king," it would not excuse him. Woolston was convicted for ‘blasphemous discourses on the miracles’, sentenced to a year’s imprisonment and fined £100. He was unable to pay the fine and died in prison.

In purely doctrinal matters he is said not to have been heterodox. The case was evidently an important one in the history of blasphemy in that it is said to have established that English courts would undertake only to defend Christianity against general attacks rather than deal with disputes arising from ‘particular controverted points’.

A heresy trial ‘in reverse’

In 1847 the Reverend George Cornelius Gorham was presented by the Crown to the benefice of Brampford Speke in the Diocese of Exeter. The Bishop of Exeter, Henry Phillpotts, questioned Mr Gorham’s soundness in doctrine regarding Baptismal Regeneration. He examined Gorham in person over a total of eight days as to his orthodoxy, with the result that he declined to institute him to that benefice. Gorham appealed, unsuccessfully, to the Court of Arches at Canterbury and had to pay costs. He then appealed to the Privy Council, whose Judicial Committee upheld his complaint and ordered him to be instituted to the benefice.

A different verdict

In 1871 the Reverend Charles Voysey, Vicar of Healaugh in the Diocese of York, appealed to the Judicial Committee against his conviction in the Chancery Court of York for publishing in the Diocese of London a book of sermons or essays entitled The Sling and the Stone, in which he was alleged to have maintained and promulgated doctrines contrary and repugnant to or inconsistent with the Articles of Religion and Formularies of the Church of England. In particular he had been convicted for contradicting the doctrines of the Fall, the Divine Wrath, the sacrificial Atonement, the divinity of Christ, the Incarnation and the Trinity, and for maintaining the irreconcilability of parts of St John’s Gospel with the other Gospels. The Committee heard Mr Voysey in person, dealt thoroughly with his arguments, gave him opportunity to retract, and then a further week to do so, but (saving any retraction) recommended to the Queen that his appeal be dismissed with costs and that he be deprived of his benefice. He did not retract.

On 16 August 1869 The Times reported that Dr Stanley, Dean of Westminster, in subscribing to a fund to enable Voysey to defend himself against the charges of heresy, strongly deprecated Voysey’s mode of treating Biblical and sacred subjects, but also was not unaware that it was an exaggeration caused by equally reprehensible exaggerations of another kind. He stated that he recognised in Voysey’s sermons a rare honesty of purpose, as well as a humble and devout faith. The Dean continued that the questions Voysey had stirred agitated the minds of both clergy and laity in an unusual degree at that time. Persons of high rank in the Church had entertained them and at times given them utterance without drawing on themselves prosecution or even considerable blame.

Dismissal without trial

In 1993 the Reverend Anthony Freeman, priest-in-charge of Staplefield in the Diocese of Chichester and Bishop’s Adviser for Continuing Ministerial Education in that diocese, published a book God in Us: A Case for Christian Humanism in which he wrote of his ‘conversion’ from belief in a supernatural God to a non-supernatural version of Christianity. The bishop did not approve of the book, relieved him of his diocesan post, gave him a year to consider his position and then, on his declining to withdraw the book, withdrew his licence to the parish. The matter became a lively topic in the media. Freeman remains a priest, but accepts the discipline of not officiating in a parish unless the bishop of that diocese approves his doing so. He was the only English parochial clergyman to be removed from his post for ‘heresy’ in the twentieth century. Might he have wished for a trial in which he could have argued his case publicly?

Outside state establishment

We have seen how the state, fearful of treason or division, has used established churches to promote unity and conformity. In churches without state establishment, trials for heresy have had other motives. There a smaller body may feel the need to be strong through unity and purity in doctrine, and take strong disciplinary action to maintain these. For whatever reason, heresy trials have not been unknown in non-established churches.

The Methodist Church

In the last forty years two ministers have been tried for heresy in England and dismissed from the Methodist ministry (not simply from their posts). The Rev. Walter Gill of Hartlepool, England was expelled from the Methodist ministry for heresy in 1964. In 1962, Gill was charged with denying the virgin birth, the resurrection and the divinity of Christ. The Methodist Committee of Doctrinal Appeal dropped the first charge and accepted Gill's response to the second charge. They rejected his view of the divinity of Christ and formally reprimanded him. When Gill persisted, they expelled him from the ministry in 1964. He later wrote a book, Truth to Tell, published by Lindsay Press.

The Revd Ray Billington was dismissed from the Methodist ministry in 1971, for charges of false doctrine related to his book The Christian Outsider. A separate article in this magazine gives details about Billington’s trial and its aftermath.

Episcopal Church of the USA

In the 1960s James Pike, Bishop of California, was the centre of many questionings of traditionally understood doctrines, echoing the controversy raised in England by John Robinson’s Honest to God. With several books to his name, including If This Be Heresy (1967) the question of a trial for heresy was not to be avoided. Its happening was much complicated by the legal procedures of ECUSA and by its ecclesiastics’ politicking, and resulted in a formal censuring of his views as "offensive" and "irresponsible". Tragically, Pike died from exposure after his car broke down in the desert south of Israel.

An English Presbyterian minister in the USA

Professor John Hick, a theologian of many books, has been caught up twice in judicial proceedings in the matter of heresy.

1. In 1961 or 1962, when he was teaching at the Princeton Theological Seminary, he sought, as a Presbyterian [now URC] minister, to join the local Presbytery of New Brunswick. Because he questioned the literal truth of the virgin birth story, some of the local fundamentalist ministers appealed against his reception into the Presbytery. Their appeal was sustained by the next highest body, the Synod. A year later, a counter-appeal against this was sustained by the Judicial Committee of the General Assembly and Hick became a member of the Presbytery.

2. In the mid-1980s, when teaching at the Claremont Graduate School in California, Hick sought to join the local Presbytery of San Gabriel. His application was strongly opposed by local fundamentalist ministers (although he had taken soundings and been assured that it would be accepted without trouble). After long discussions, the relevant committee eventually told him that his application would be extremely divisive and invited him to withdraw it. He did so.

The Presbyterian Church of New Zealand

In 1967 the Revd Lloyd Geering, principal of that church’s theological college, was tried by its General Assembly on charges brought by a lay member and by a fellow minister – of public utterance of doctrinal errors and of gravely disturbing the peace and unity of the Church. This followed a period of increasing furore in NZ when Geering had introduced and supported John Robinson’s ideas and had made the resurrection of Jesus a public talking point. By invitation he had written an article on the interpretation of Easter for the church’s national magazine, which he later developed into a book Resurrection: A Symbol of Hope (1971). The NZ media were amazed by a twentieth century heresy trial and it took place over two days under TV lights. He was cleared of the charges.

The controversy did not go away, however, and, following (unusually) not a book but reports of a TV interview in Brisbane, the General Assembly of 1970 voted to dissociate itself from Geering’s views. It did this in his presence, but without inviting him to speak and without specifying which of his views were referred to. (He would have held views on many subjects in common with other Assembly members.)

The following year Geering moved to a university post as professor of religious studies, but remained (and remains) a Presbyterian minister. In the twenty years since retiring he has written and spoken frequently throughout NZ on theological and national issues, extending his lecturing in recent years to the UK and North America.

A postscript

On 27 September 2002 the NZ General Assembly debated and carried a motion to "convey its greetings and congratulations to the Rev Professor Lloyd Geering in recognition of his being [given the new NZ equivalent of a knighthood]. In doing so the General Assembly recognises the long-standing contribution of Professor Geering to the field of religious studies in this country and to the task of taking theological discourse beyond the university, seminary and church into the public arena."