Integrity on Trial

This article was written for the May 2002 issue of SoF magazine, shortly before the scheduled heresy trial of Andrew Furlong. Mr Furlong resigned his post the day before the trial.

As I write this article today, on Monday 25th March 2002, I have beside me on my desk a copy of the Petition in the Court of the General Synod (of the Church of Ireland). This document lays out the charges made by my bishop, Most Rev Richard Clarke, against my published ideas on Christian believing. In essence, he says that my beliefs are:

"contrary to the doctrines of the Church of Ireland as contained and expressed, inter alia, within the Historic Creeds and the Book of Common Prayer, in particular by... denying the divinity of Christ and the efficacy of the sacraments".

I should explain that the Bishop brought this matter to the Court of the General Synod, because I had declined to accept the invitation, which he made to me, to resign from my position as Rector of the Trim and Athboy Group of Parishes and as Dean of Clonmacnoise, here in the Dioceses of Meath and Kildare.

I also have another letter, beside me on my desk, informing me that the Court will take place on Monday 8th April 2002, in Dublin. I still hope some means may be found to sort out this situation without recourse to a court hearing.

In an interview for her book, C of E The State It's In, Monica Furlong (we are not related) talked with Archbishop George Carey whom she quotes as having said:

"I'd like to argue, you know, that the broad church that we are now is probably a foretaste of what is to come. If we want to think about the coming great church, then it is going to be one in which we have to accept huge differences within the family, and we are not going to have final answers this side of eternity. Living with differences I think is actually the genius of Anglicanism." (p.162)

This quotation from George Carey's interview with Monica Furlong speaks of a basic trust in Anglicanism, in its soft edges, in its ability to live not just with diversity, but also with the conflicts that surround it. Time will tell how hard its members will fight to preserve this genius and whether or not they will be successful if they so fight. It would be surprising indeed if the future did not hold many unexpected challenges and revolutions. My articles (found on my website) have been written in the hope that Anglicanism, as found within the Church of Ireland, will show itself able to contain considerable diversity. These articles are thought provoking and call for some new thinking. I like this powerful quotation from Joan Chittister:

"The revolutions that count come silently, come first in the heart, come with the force of steel, because they come with no force at all. Revolutions of this magnitude do not overturn a system and then shape it. They reshape thought, and then the system overturns without the firing of a single cannon. Revolutions such as this dismantle walls people thought would never fall because no wall, whatever its size, can contain a people whose minds have long ago scaled and vaulted and surmounted it."

It seems to me that we still have to fight a battle to make clear the difference between historical stories and mythological stories (acknowledging that some mythological stories have connections with historical stories) and the different sorts of truth we are dealing with between these two types of stories.

For example: it may be historically true that Jesus was gifted with oral brilliance, but perhaps was not literate. However, it is part of the mythological story that he was the Son sent by his Father to be born as a human being, to give his life on the Cross, and to be raised from death returning to his Father in heaven. This story does have historical connections, but its truth is essentially mythological. For believers in God, it points to a belief that God finds us forgivable, loveable and reconcilable.

For some people, the stories of Jesus, both historical and mythological, may be compared to a Shakespearean play. They seem to speak to every age, as they are re-interpreted anew. The churches are those communities, which preserve these stories, interpret them and pass them on to the next generation.

I think of myself as one of those people who find the past more of a burden than an inspiration. Yes, the stories of Jesus still have much to say; but at the same time, I want to move on and explore for new mythological stories to hint at the mystery of who we might be meant to be and at the mystery of God.

I also am concerned at the political and social implications of not literalising the mythological Incarnational story with its claims to uniqueness and finality. To my mind, working for 'world peace' can be promoted by being able to say to those within the communities of Islam and Judaism (as well as to other faith communities) that, as Christians, we see no religion as having some innate superiority over others.

I thank members of SOF who have supported me, in one way or another, over the last four months as I have lived through uncertain days. I am conscious, too, of what such a time has been meaning both for members of this parish, for our bishop, and for others who feel affected by my stance.

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