Tried for Heresy: A 21st-Century Journey of Faith (Book Review)

'Tried for Heresy: A 21st-Century Journey of Faith' by Andrew Furlong; published by O Books, 2003. Reviewed by Frank Walker, Minister Emeritus of the Cambridge Unitarian Church and Convenor of the Cambridge group of the Sea of Faith.

The seemingly inexorable decline of the churches is a tragic episode in the history of the West. Something of the greatest value is being lost. In their worship the churches offer a distinctive beauty; they offer the possibility of meeting and friendship of heart and mind at a deep level; at their best they manifest a devoted care which goes far beyond their own bounds, issuing in great works of charity and a steadfast concern for justice.

I will not deny that there is an intellectual element (amongst a minority) in the contemporary disenchantment with the churches. One of the changes of the last two hundred years or so is that many people can no longer accept mythical stories as factual history. Christianity's myth of the God who comes down from heaven to incarnate himself in one man whose sacrificial death mysteriously purchases God's forgiveness of humanity's sins, and who returns to heaven—all that, understood literally, has come to seem implausible, even incredible.

There are other ways of understanding Christianity, of course, but those who openly challenge the traditional myth risk being repudiated by the ecclesiastical bureaucracy.

This has happened to Andrew Furlong. If you occupy an academic position (and so do not receive a stipend from church funds), the Anglican authorities will usually leave you alone. No proceedings have been taken against Don Cupitt (far more radical than Andrew Furlong) or Dennis Nineham, for example. Roman Catholics are more robust. The authorities removed from Hans Kung and from Thomas L. Thompson the right to be considered as Catholic theologians or to work in Catholic institutions. All that happened was that Kung and Thompson moved to chairs in "secular" universities. Martyrdom in modem Europe can be a very civilized affair.

I first met the then Dean Furlong in November 2002 when we both took part in a week-end conference on Non-Realism and Spirituality at St Deiniol's Library in Hawarden. The Dean gave one of the papers, Pain, and Integrity: Reform from Within (reproduced in his book). His talk astounded me, because it openly expressed an extremely Unitarian point of view. When I asked for a copy, Mr Furlong said one could be obtained by accessing his church's web-site, where his ideas were clearly set out.

It may be, I thought, that no one reads the web-sites of Irish deans, so perhaps the even tenor of Mr Furlong's days will not be disturbed. However, as I suspected, the ecclesiastical authorities reacted with great force. Mr Furlong's web-site was closed down, he was suspended from his duties and given three months in which to consider his position. Unless he recanted, he would be forced to resign, or even, after a threatened heresy trial, dismissed. At the time, an eminent radical Anglican theologian assured me that a heresy trial was unlikely. Since biblical scholars admit that the developed doctrines of the Trinity and of the Incarnation are not scriptural, it would be too embarrassing for the Church to have this plainly revealed in any trial. In fact Mr Furlong refused to resign, and plans for a trial were speedily set in motion.

Andrew Furlong is a scholarly man in his mid fifties. His Anglican background and academic credentials are impeccable. Although a member of the Sea of Faith Network, he does not hold a "non-realist" view of God and believes in life after death. He says he has a sense of God's hiddenness and mysteriousness, aware that strictly speaking he knows nothing about God, either in the sense of what God is like, or in the sense of what God does, or of how God acts. At best he confesses that he has a range of speculative ideas of how he imagines God to be, but much is a mystery. 'I think of God as ceaselessly active and involved. However, we cannot observe his/her work. What we know about our world is an incomplete picture of all that is going on; and consequently we do not fully understand the meaning of all that is happening.'

Biblical study has forced Mr Furlong to change his mind about Jesus. His conclusion is that 'Jesus was neither a mediator nor a saviour, neither super-human nor divine. The time has come to leave Jesus to his place in history; and to move on.' Mr Furlong has practised the religion of Jesus during his long ministry, but has found it increasingly difficult to accept the traditional religion about Jesus—Jesus as a supernatural person, as incarnate God and as a member of the Holy Trinity. He suffered years of inner turmoil and conflict before honestly and openly explaining his own position, which he summarized, somewhat misleadingly; (since Andrew is so obviously a disciple of Jesus), as 'believing in God, but not in Jesus'. He sees Jesus as an end-time prophet (a controversial view: members of the Jesus Seminar would demur; Albert Schweitzer would support him). He wants to leave Jesus in his own time, while he himself engages in the work of the present time and all its problems unforeseen in first century Palestine, unencumbered by implausible ideas about a supernatural person. (In my view the historical Jesus would understand and agree.)

As a Unitarian I share many of Mr Furlong's negations. I do not believe that Jesus was born of a virgin, or that he physically rose from the dead. He did not intend to found a new religion or a Church, or appoint bishops and priests. He never envisaged such people as the Pope or the Archbishop of Canterbury, or the members of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, or the Cambridge University Faculty of Divinity. I do not believe he is God the Son, the incarnation of the eternal Second Person of the Holy Trinity, nor that his death ensures that God will forgive humanity's sins. He did not institute, so I believe, the sacraments of baptism and of the Eucharist. He did not claim to be the Messiah (Christ) of the Jews. (The best reply to the traditional dogma that I know is Stevie Smith's poem, Was he married? Unanswerable!)

Then you cannot be a Christian, says the Council of Churches of Britain and Ireland. You are a heretic, and we spurn you like a dog out of our way. So be it! I am content. Jesus never knew the word "Christian", and never asked anyone to be "a Christian".

I understand Jesus to be the bright preacher of life, a sage, a teacher of wisdom who shows us how to live with verve in troubled times. Those who give generously and do not count the cost, who go the second mile, who forgive unto seventy times seven, who rescue the stricken, who search for the lost, who give power to the poor, feed the hungry, restore sight to the blind, who heal and comfort the sick and visit the prisoners, those who make peace, those who contemplate the lilies of the field, those who return penitently like the Prodigal to make a new beginning, and those who welcome joyously like the Prodigal's father, those who do not do to others what they themselves would find hateful, all those who take up their cross and follow—all these are members of "the Body of Christ"—a poetic metaphor, not a bureaucratic organisation—all these are learning from Jesus, though they may not speak his name.

He is, poetically, the Suffering Servant; in his Passion representative of all men and women, and also the very type of enduring humanity in his victory through and over suffering and death. The pattern of his life is the pattern of what is most deeply human. He is a supremely majestic personality, a spiritual enabler who encourages others to find their own spiritual paths and to judge what is right and true. He does not bind people by the ties of dependence. When he heals people in the Jewish villages, he leaves them there in their own setting, making not the slightest attempt to keep them dependent upon him. He has his own spiritual mission in his own time, but does not deny that others in other times may have their own missions too. He encourages and provokes people into their own first-hand encounter with God (supreme value). He is a great enabler, not a dictator—though the New Testament is written by people who wish to make him a dictator, and so it is necessary to read between the lines. Even the Johannine Christ says, "Do not cling to me," and "It is expedient for you that I go away from you."

His life and teaching become invitations to join in an experiment in living rather than to believe in supernatural events and persons. They become a life-project, a challenge to act, rather than propositions to be believed. To learn from him, to be a disciple, is to serve the causes that he served in the changed conditions of today. This may be done without reference to the Council of Churches for Britain and Ireland—there are organisations such as Oxfam, Amnesty International, Medecins Sans Frontieres, and many others, serving these causes. Such work may be done without explicit reference to Jesus—the mere repetition of his name was of no interest to him. I have no doubt that Andrew Furlong is one of those who are serving in their own way the causes that Jesus served. The project that Jesus began has moved out into the world and can no longer be confined within ecclesiastical limits.

Dean Furlong was deeply hurt by the cold and unsympathetic way in which he was treated by his Church. His bishop, whom he had counted as a friend and fellow liberal, appears to have stabbed him in the back. There was no in-depth discussion of his views, no consultation with other scholarly Anglicans who might have persuaded him, with integrity, to modify his views, and who might have demonstrated that he could still be counted within the Anglican tradition. The heresy trial was arranged with unbecoming haste. At the last moment he resigned because he was persuaded that the trial would do great damage to the Church, and in particular would gravely weaken the liberal cause and strengthen the fundamentalist wing.

At one time it seemed that, although he had given it a lifetime of devoted service, the church was prepared to throw him into the gutter, homeless and destitute, with little more than the clothes he stood up in (he possessed no private means, no property, no income other than his clerical stipend). Happily that has not happened, and Mr Furlong is now pursuing a research degree in Peace Studies at Dublin University. We hope he will find work in one of the United Nations agencies, for which his qualifications and experience eminently fit him.

Was it right to exclude Andrew Furlong? A Church is a club, and a club has its rules. If you don't like them, get out and join another club. Perhaps. Professor Maurice Wiles says Mr Furlong would be more at home in a Unitarian or Quaker setting. Andrew disagrees. He wishes above all to be a reformer within Anglicanism, and he does not care for the limitations of minority groups. (On this argument he ought to try to be a reformer within the Irish Roman Catholic Church, rather than within the minority of the Church of Ireland. However, one must bear in mind that from Isaac Newton onwards untold numbers of Anglicans have been theologically Unitarian—on condition that they kept quiet about it.) Amongst Unitarians belonging is through spiritual sympathy—wonderfully open, but dangerously risky. Amongst Anglicans it is at one level by adherence to no fewer than thirty-nine precise theological articles (ample opportunity for smelling out "unbelievers here); at another level one is within the Church of England simply by virtue of being English (generous, but risky). Personally, I would like the Anglicans to be as broad and tolerant as possible. I am happy that such as Andrew Furlong are active within them, keeping them inclusive and open to change, and hope this may continue. Ultimately, though, this may become impossible. Every sign indicates that the C. of E. will become a more narrowly evangelical and fundamentalist sect. In that case radicals will have to express their religion in some other way.

This is a book of the greatest interest by a very thoughtful, sensitive, modest and extremely brave and honest man whose spiritual sympathies are wide and generous; it deserves to be read and pondered.