Vicars could be heading for hot water - though not literally - if a new plan to reintroduce trials for heresy succeeds. In theory there are all sorts of things your local vicar might well believe that could spell trouble.
A question of belief
The prospect of heresy trials for Church of England vicars who don't believe key doctrines has been raised this week, following a vote in the church's House of Laity. The idea is said to have the support of bishops, and there is speculation that next year's General Synod could discuss the move.
The statement of what the Church of England holds to be orthodox is contained within the 39 Articles, a document which dates from 1563. So what, in theory, could give a parson problems? Church historian Steve Tomkins here highlights 10 hypotheticals.
1. The Virgin Birth - There's a one in four chance that your nearest Rev is a heretic on this score. According to a Christmas 2002 poll, 27% of vicars deny that Jesus was born to a virgin. One Hampshire vicar interviewed at the time said, "This is one of those topics I do not go public on. I need to keep the job I have got."
2. The Resurrection - As many as one in three CofE clergy reject the bodily resurrection of Jesus, according to a Daily Telegraph report in 2002. In reality, the question ministers were asked, by Christian Research, was "Do you accept it without question?" to which 66% answered "Yes". This rather takes the heat off - no-one in the Church will object to someone having questions.
3. Predestination - Less obviously, your person of the cloth might get into hot water for denying that God decided who will be saved and who damned "before the foundations of the world were laid". This is historically the most unpopular of the 39 Articles. For 300 years, the majority of Anglicans have always denied predestination. "It represents the most holy God as worse than the devil" said one 18th Century clergyman - and have had to bend the words of the Article to make them say something else. The Article warns believers not to think about the subject too much.
Resurrection: Bodily or not?
4. Rebirth Through Baptism - This is one to trip up evangelicals who accept miracles like the Virgin Birth without question. The 39 Articles say that children are cleansed of original sin and born again when they are baptised. Evangelical Anglicans tend to see baptism as symbolic rather than magical. This is the heresy that lost the Reverend George Gorham his job at Brampford Speke in 1847, in what is often said to be the last heresy trial in England. (In fact Charles Voysey was convicted of a whole string of heresies in York in 1871.)
5. Purgatory - On another wing of the church, if your local parson is Anglo-Catholic, he could fall foul of several anti-Catholic clauses in the 39 Articles. The Anglo-Catholic movement reintroduced many traditional Catholic teachings into the Church of England - such as purgatory, where sinful Christians are punished before they can enter heaven. So when Article 22 denounces "the Romish doctrine concerning Purgatory" as "a fond thing vainly invented", Anglo-Catholics tend to explain that they believe in purgatory, just not the "Romish" doctrine of purgatory that the Elizabethan writers of the Articles had in mind.
6. Transubstantiation - Another sticky one for Anglo-Catholics, who believe that the bread and wine in the Mass literally change into the body and blood of Christ. Article 28 insists: "Transubstantiation (or the change in the substance of bread and wine)... is repugnant to the plain words of Scripture." In 1841, John Henry Newman, a founder of the Anglo-Catholic movement, explained how you could reinterpret this to allow transubstantiation. One critic said he would no longer trust Newman with his silver.
7. Capital Punishment and war - If you generally see your local vicar with a copy of the Guardian rather than the Daily Mail, the chances are you could get her sacked for denying the 37th of the 39 Articles which sanctions capital punishment: "The laws of the realm may punish Christian men with death." The same Article might also be her downfall if she preaches pacifism, as it tells us that it is quite acceptable "to wear weapons and serve in the wars".
8. Original Sin - The 39 Articles support the traditional teaching that we are all born guilty at birth, inheriting the sin of Adam. There isn't any one branch of the Church that specifically opposes this, it's just generally a rather unpopular idea these days - for obvious reasons.
9. Democracy - Another one to make left-of-centre cassocks tremble, if they are republicans, or even believe that Parliament should have more power than the Queen. "The King's majesty hath the chief power in this realm of England," insists the 39 Articles, adding that the government of Britain belongs above all to him and he should restrain "the stubborn and evildoers" with the sword.
10. God - Not to overlook the obvious, the 39 Articles affirm that God exists. More likely than not, your local vicar does too, but don't take it for granted. The only Anglican minister to be dismissed for heresy in the 20th Century was Anthony Freeman. He lost his post in Chichester - without a trial - as recently as 1994, because he wrote a book arguing that God was not a supernatural being but merely "the sum of all our values and ideals".
Anthony Freeman, lost his parish posting but remained a priest
Add your comments on this story, using the form below.
Your point 6 is rather misleading. There are plenty of us who don't subscribe to transubstantiation, but still ABSOLUTELY believe and trust that the bread & wine of the mass are the Body & Blood of Jesus. Mainstream Anglicanism tends to be very Lutheran about this, and basically embraces consubstantiation. Oh, and dear John (Whapshott) - have you ever REALLY met a DDO (the correct term - Diocesan Director of Ordinands) who would tell an applicant that there was no problem with his lack of belief in God? I don't think so! It may be a nice story, but don't pretend its fact!!
Fr Timothy L'Estrange, Near Brighton, England
The 39 Articles are indeed a statement of belief for the clergy of the Church of England but in no way have they ever been THE statement of belief. The Articles are imposed by the Church on the clergy but have never been imposed on the laity. Even the clergy do not sign them but merely give a general 'assent' to them, and declare that the doctrine of the Church of England contained in them is agreeable to Scripture. No one is required to adhere to every word of the Articles.
They are not Articles of faith so much as Articles of peace - they were intended to set limits beyond which the clergy were not to go.
Although having some authority and value it has always been rememberered by the Church of England that the Articles have their roots in a particular historic poilitical climate and are only a part of a greater collection of standards for Anglican belief.
Stephen Edwards, Manchester
Surely such issues as capital punishment, monarchy/republicanism etc have nothing to do with heresy? They are not articles of the faith, even if they are articles of the Church of England. Pacifism and so on are matters of conscience not of orthodoxy or heresy.
William Goldman, Richmond, London
Before any 'heresy trials' the 39 Articles themselves would have to be updated so that there would be a clear standard for Anglican belief. Are the supporters of such trials really ready for this process?
John Mills, Kuopio, Finland
I'm a evangelical Christian so am slightly bemused from the above figures. Purgatory and transubstiation are completly man-made concepts, never mentioned in scripture. Call me conservative if you like (eg the bible shows that men should only be taught scripture by other men...female vicars?) but I hold the bible as the definitive authority on my beliefs and values.
David Appleton, Staines, UK
The 39 Articles do not teach so-called "double predestination" where God has predestined some people to Hell. In fact, Article 17 begins "Predestination to Life is the everlasting purpose of God". But in any case, all this is irrelevant as the 39 Articles are not the basis of orthodoxy in the Church of England in any meaningful way - they are not ever mentioned in most theological colleges, and few clergy have even read them. If you want a standard of orthodoxy, try the Nicene Creed, which clergy have to recite at least every week.
Fr Russell Dewhurst, Didcot, Oxfordshire
The idea of heresy trials would be good if it meant that it weeded out clergy who did not believe in the principle tenets of the Christian faith. It is important to guard Christianity against attacks on belief and doctrine.
You've based this article on the assumption that assent to the 39 Articles is required of Anglican clergy. In fact, we have never been required to subscribe to them, and, since 1975, have been required only to acknowledge that they are part of the 'historic formularies' of the Church of England. Surely, 'the statement of what the Church of England holds to be orthodox' is actually contained not in the Articles, but in the catholic creeds, drawing on the scripture and tradition of the Church.
Fr Christopher Smith, Beckenham, UK
Although the idea of "heresy" trials sounds like a return to the Middle Ages, I think vicars must believe the core of Christianity. If they deny the resurrection, the very centre of the faith, then how they an be fit to lead a congregation? Less important doctrines such as purgatory or transubstantion should not be considered grounds for dismissal, but belief in God surely is a must!
Andrew Frith, Sheffield, UK
A man who wants to be a C of E vicar goes to see his local Director of Ordinands. Man: I have a slight problem - I don't believe in the Virgin Birth. DoO: That's OK - a lot of people don't. You can still be a vicar. Man: And I'm not sure about the literal resurrection. DoO: Well, you're not the only one. But you can still be a vicar. Man: And Jesus - did he really live? DoO: Who can say? But you can still be a vicar. Man: And God - is he real, or just wishful thinking? DoO: Good question. But you can still be a vicar. Man: Oh - and my wife is a divorcee. DoO: That's quite different! The church won't allow you to be a vicar!
John Whapshott, Guildford, England
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