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Tuesday, July 13, 1999 Published at 20:57 GMT 21:57 UK


The vicars who don't believe in God

Up to 50 Anglican priests are in the Sea of Faith network in the UK

For many people, the word "heretic" conjures images of witch-hunts and burnings at the stake, Joan of Arc and the Spanish Inquisition.

But strange as it may seem, the term could be making something of a comeback, if a proposal at the Church of England synod makes it into law.

Ronald Pearse explains his belief in God
Tribunals would be held - behind closed doors - to ask allegedly heretical priests if they believed in the central tenets of the Church.

It is some years since David Jenkins, then Bishop of Durham, hit the headlines for saying he did not believe in the physical resurrection of Christ, or the virgin birth.

But the bishop was not alone in thinking things which Church authorities find unpalatable.

There is in particular one group, called Sea of Faith, which has attracted names such as "Godless vicars" and "atheist priests". It claims it has up to 50 vicars and some Roman Catholic priests in its membership, as well as rank and file church members.

[ image: Anthony Freeman, who lost his job in 1994]
Anthony Freeman, who lost his job in 1994
It is easy to see why the organisation has been controversial. Although it has about 700 members in the UK, it draws on several denominations and also other religions. But what binds the members together is that they share the view that religion is a "human creation".

Some of its members go further and believe that God is also a human creation - a metaphor for human values such as love and forgiveness.

In other words, some of them believe there is no such thing as God in the traditional sense of an independent being.

The group is all the more controversial because some of its members decide to stay within the Church, even as vicars, and to continue to call themselves Christians.

Understanding of themselves

Ronald Pearse, 72, a retired Church of England priest, is one of those who does not think of God as being an independent being.

He said religion was people's attempt to "try to reach an understanding of themselves, the universe and maybe God, if God is a relevant word to them individually".

[ image: Mr Freeman's book, God in Us, which led to the row]
Mr Freeman's book, God in Us, which led to the row
The Sea of Faith has its roots in a 1980s BBC television series in which the Dean of Emmanuel College, the Reverend Don Cupitt, discussed the decline in religion.

The series took its name from a Matthew Arnold poem, Dover Beach, in which he spoke of declining religion as being like the sea of faith going out with a "melancholy, long, withdrawing roar".

Mr Pearse said although in his younger days he believed in the conventional God, i.e. a supernatural, all-knowing, all-powerful creator, his views had changed as he got older.

He said: "For me, God is the sum of our ideals which we've inherited in the long and valuable Christian tradition, God is the symbol and focus of our spirituality, and of our acts of worship and consequently God is a means of expressing reverence for other people and for the whole of our environment."

This did not include God being an independent being, he said. But he still thinks of himself as a Christian, and occasionally celebrates Holy Communion.

He stayed in the Church, he said, because that was where he chose to interpret the meaning of spirituality.


David Boulton, a member of the group's steering committee, writes on their Website that some members were determined to stay within their churches because they refused "to abandon it to the fundamentalists".

Some of them only hung on in their church by their fingernails, he adds.

Although the proposed tribunals for heresy would, according to the proposals, be held in private, any such trial would doubtless inspire huge interest.

[ image: David Jenkins, former Bishop of Durham, said he did not believe in physical resurrection]
David Jenkins, former Bishop of Durham, said he did not believe in physical resurrection
The last trial for heresy in the UK happened in 1847, although there were accusations that David Jenkins was heretical. The Reverend Anthony Freeman lost his job as priest of Staplefield in 1994 when the Bishop of Chichester withdrew his licence.

Mr Freeman, a member of Sea of Faith, was the first Anglican clergyman to lose his job in this way this century.

But Professor Lloyd Geering was tried for heresy by the Presbyterian Church in New Zealand in the 1960s for his uncompromising views. He had maintained, among other things, there was no immortality of the human soul.

It attracted huge media interest, as heresy tribunals in the UK undoubtedly would.

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