Bringing back heresy

Why shouldn't vicars and bishops who don't believe in God get chucked out of the Church?

Patrick West

Patrick West

Topics Politics
  • Make your mind up

Although we tend to think of clerical heresy trials as something belonging to the era of the Counter-Reformation – carried out by grim-faced Spanish inquisitors with pointy beards and red cloaks – the last heresy trial in England was actually quite recent.

In 1847, Reverend A Gorham was accused by the Bishop of Exeter of being unsound on the doctrine of ‘baptismal regeneration’. Gorham had dared to voice the opinion that at baptism a person is cleansed of original sin and born again into Christ.

Since then, it’s been quiet on the heresy front, with clergy and bishops in the Church of England allowed free rein to voice any number of doubts on the tenets of the Anglican faith.

Not for much longer. According to the Daily Telegraph, a House of Bishops committee has drawn up plans to reintroduce special tribunals, which will target Church of England clergy who deny the existence of God. Critics fear a ‘witch hunt’ (1).

We can imagine the kind of clerics this will be aimed at. The Right Reverend David Jenkins caused a stir in the 1980s when, as Bishop of Durham, he expressed scepticism about the literal truth of the Resurrection, calling it ‘a conjuring trick with bones’.

Today, there are several prominent Anglicans with serious agnostic leanings, such as John Shelby Spong, retired Episcopal Bishop of Newark; Richard Holloway, former Episcopalian Bishop of Edinburgh; and the postmodernist theologian, Don Cupitt, former Dean of Emmanuel College, Cambridge.

Should the Church be making a spectacle of itself in the twenty-first century by taking these people to task? I’m inclined to think it should. If a vicar or a bishop doesn’t believe in God, what’s the point of having him?

If a senior member of the National Secular Society started rambling on incoherently about divine revelations, you wouldn’t expect his colleagues to look on him in a favourable light. If the chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality started complaining about ‘them lot coming over here and taking all our jobs’, he or she would rightly be out on his or her ear.

Agnostic clerics want it both ways. While proclaiming to be doubtful about the existence of the afterlife, the Trinity, the Virgin birth or indeed the existence of a transcendental Divinity, they are content to don their dog collars and still pontificate as clergy. They are happy to question dogma but are not happy to relinquish the power and sense of moral authority that comes with being a cleric. They know that if they threw away all their garments, nobody would take any notice of what they said.

If these clerics had any integrity, they’d leave the Church and become therapists or social workers. Or they could found their own sects, such as the Church of the Seventh-Day Agnostics And Shoulder Shruggers, the Free Church of We Aren’t Quite Sure Yet, or the Southern Congregation of There Must Be Something Out There.

Agnosticism is not an endearing quality in anyone, especially vicars.

  • I wanna be like you-hoo-hoo

The newly appointed Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, is said to be sound on Christian dogma, though it is evident he is not going to avoid controversy.

This week, he caused a minor stir for accusing the Disney Corporation of turning children into mindless consumers. ‘The “tie-in”, the association of comics, sweets, toys and so on with a new film; the Disney empire has developed this to an unprecedented pitch’, he said.

As I have said before, it’s all very well to bemoan children falling victim to advertising, without looking at the problem of parents all-too-easily becoming slaves to their children’s desires. It is not particularly original or brave to attack corporations either; a bolder move would have been to attack feeble-minded adults.

What Disney does deserve a slap on the wrist for is the hideous growth of anthropomorphism witnessed in Western society in the postwar era. Sure, Aesop’s Fables and AA Milne’s tales of Christopher Robin got there first, but from Mickey Mouse, Bambi and Goofy to Roger Rabbit and the Lion King, Disney has most of all been responsible for encouraging generations of people to sentimentalise animals. Consequently, many now see animals as miniscule versions of ourselves, seeming to believe that they share our emotions, desires, and consciousness.

‘How would you like to have electrodes stuck to your head?’

‘How would you like to be chased by foxes to your death?’

‘How would you like it if somebody stole your milk?’

These are the arguments one hears continually from the Disneyfied anthropomorphic brigade. Disney doesn’t exploit children, it just makes sure some never grow up.

  • A wake-up call

‘Yes, I was disappointed by these figures’, commented Dr Giles Rimsky-Korsakov, chewing on his pipe, when asked about latest British Crime Survey findings, which reveal that one in 20 women has been raped. ‘We had been hoping that the statistics were going to be even higher. In Holland, for instance, one in five women has been proved to be raped, while in Sweden, statistics show that a third of all females have been ravished at some time in their life. Britain is burying its head in the sand.’

Dr Rimsky-Korsakov’s book, Monogamy and its Malcontents, predicts that if current trends continue, by 2012, half of British people will have been raped, and by 2030 the entire population of the UK will have proved to be sexually assaulted. ‘Still, it’s progress of a sort’, he reflected.

Patrick West is the author of Conspicuous Compassion: Why Sometimes it Really is Cruel to be Kind, Civitas, 2004. Buy this book from Amazon (UK).

(1) Daily Telegraph, 20 July 2002

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


Want to join the conversation?

Only spiked supporters and patrons, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.

Join today