177: HOW CHURCHES SUPPRESS DISSENT TODAY

“Welcome to Zingcreed, the totally unique Christian/Atheist blog where all points of view are considered. It is my personal polemic in which I think aloud about religion and life. Should you care to eavesdrop, I hope you get something out of it!” Peter Turner, M.A., M.Sc.

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The church is just a human institution like any other, and it should be assessed and judged using the same criteria as one would apply say to public transport, the health service or the army. All institutions have a certain built in conservatism, and people at the top of the hierarchy don’t like to be contradicted by people in the lower echelons. On the spectrum of free and easy to highly conformist, churches are almost always at the conformist end. This is why they often find it difficult to handle criticism from within their own ranks. Instead of seeing new views as a breath of fresh air (like Zingcreed!?) they are inclined to see them as a threat, and as a sign of disloyalty.

If a lecturer in a church financed seminary or college comes out with heretical views he will be reminded that he is biting the hand that feeds him, and he will be asked how can he expect to get promotion if he can’t partake of the college ‘ethos’?

Over the years I’ve come across a number of such cases in my reading. I’m not judging the church – how can one expect them to behave any differently? I feel sad that so many independent thinkers have been treated so badly, their insights could have reinvigorated a dying church. Instead the church engineers a lose-lose situation where they miss an opportunity to evolve; and a talented independent- minded member is suppressed.

Here are the cases I have uncovered.

(1)   In the 1970’s Corpus Christi College was a Roman Catholic teachers’ training college in London. The Vice Principal was a noted catholic scholar, Peter de Rosa, who in 1974 published the book “Jesus who became Christ”. This unfortunately didn’t conform to the Vatican’s official ‘party line’ and de Rosa was dismissed from his post. Shortly after the whole college was shut by the church for being too radical! (i)

(2)   More recently there was a concerted effort to remove Richard Holloway, the Primus or top bishop in the Scottish Episcopal Church and bishop of Edinburgh. While he was away (on a sabbatical, I think he told me) there was an attempt made to put someone else in as bishop of his diocese. This move failed. But as he had been considering retiring anyway, you might say the pressure on him was pushing at an open door. He told me “Bishops don’t get sacked they just get sidelined!” He told me the cause of his grief was the (in my view, brilliant) book entitled “Godless Morality” subtitled “Keeping religion out of ethics”. (ii)

Don Cupitt,  in his review of the book, wrote “Reacting against those who use God to back up their own prejudices, Richard Holloway argues that we should see morality as human. Like the civil law,it is historically evolved, it rests on consent, and it is continuously being re-negotiated. A brave and necessary book and remarkable as coming from a bishop.”

3) Don Cupitt himself is no stranger to controversy. He is (or was) Dean of Emmanuel College, Cambridge and Emeritus Professor of Philosophy. His philosophical position is close to that of Zingcreed, being “Christian non-realist”. In Western theology faculties he is regarded  as impossibly heretical, because of his books and TV programs such as the “Sea of Faith”.

His book “Taking leave of Faith” “shut down his career” (his words) and made him, in the eyes of the press, an atheist, and “perhaps the most radical theologian in the world”. He survived partly because the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, and the then Master of Emmanuel defended his right to put forward his views.  I believe he also had trouble with his publisher, but I am unable to confirm this at present. (iii)

4) Professional cataclysm is nothing new for theologians who dare to think honestly. In 1835, at the age of 27, the greatest theologian of his day, David Strauss was sacked from his seminary at Tubingen in Germany for his book “The life of Jesus critically examined”, a work still much quoted to this day ( and translated into english by none other than George Eliot!).

Strauss was a deeply committed Christian. Great academic honours would have befallen him but instead he was kicked out for his troubles. What hurt him most was that he was represented as undermining the faith when all he was saying was that he thought Christian supernaturalism was unworthy of the modern age. (iv)

5) Twenty years ago, an anglo-catholic vicar in Hampshire, had a ‘conversion experience’ from a Christianity which had become oppressive to one which brought ‘a glorious sense of freedom and joy’. It happened when he had the courage to say, “I do not believe in God.” Anthony Freeman wrote an 80 page book expounding his case for Christian Humanism. (v) I found it totally convincing, and re-read it several times. It seemed to be putting into words thoughts I had had difficulty in expressing, and I have quoted him at length in the Post Radical Christian attempts to define God . Freeman explains who his target audience is: “If you think of yourself as a Christian, try to live a Christian life, find solace in worship and prayer, yet cannot believe the supernatural teachings of the church, this small book is offered to you by one of like mind, who does not aim to prove anything or defend anything, but rather to muse aloud for his own benefit and that of any who may care to eavesdrop.”

I love that last bit – it’s exactly like what I’m doing in Zingcreed!
Unlike Freeman, however, I am not employed by the C. of E. No-one can sack me, but Freeman’s bishop sure sacked him! His parishioners rallied round him in a remarkable display of loyalty, and there was plenty of media coverage. All to no avail. Freeman joined the ranks of the unemployed, and now writes his sermons for an internet parish. His “radical faith” website frequently quotes Richard Holloway. (vi)

6) When I was a young man, the sole Catholic theologian I could tolerate was Hans Küng. The rest just seemed so irredemably mediaeval. Although billed as one of the church’s top thinkers and teachers, and even though he was on first name terms with popes and presidents (well, Kennedy anyway) that didn’t keep him out of hot water.(vii) Swiss born Küng was criticised by the Catholic Herald as possessing “juvenile audacity” and of speaking in “incendiary superficial and polemical terms”. Sounds like Zingcreed!

Hans Küng and Pope Francis who has been asked to reinstate him (Oct. 2013)

So what did he say?
Well, Küng called on rank and file Catholics to rise up and seize control of the church from their clerical masters, he denied papal infallibility and  he said if Jesus came back today he would allow contraceptives and would not shut out divorced people and so on; he added that for centuries the church had been passing laws which directly contradicted Bible teachings. (ix) Yes, really, this is not wishful thinking on my part!

Not surprisingly, the church punished their enfant terrible. First they took away his licence to teach Catholic theology hoping to to lessen his influence in the seminary. This seemed to make him more determined and more outspoken. Almost as if he wanted to be defrocked i.e. kicked out of the priesthood – ‘seeking a real martyr’s crown’ as his enemies say. Instead he is still a Catholic priest in good standing, a fact which puzzles many.

7) Writing from Latin America, liberation theologian Leonardo Boff‘s 1981 book “Church charisma and power” set the cat among the Catholic pigeons! Described as “the strongest challenge to Rome since the reformation” it said:

  • the church’s hierarchy was copied from that of the Roman empire
  • its style of power was feudal
  • it has a tradition of intolerance and dogmatism (think Inquisition)
  • it represses all criticism from below
  • it refuses to allow freedom of thought
  • it has pretensions to infallibility
  • the popes’ excessive power resembles that of the general secretary of the soviet communist party!

For his pains Boff was sentenced to one year’s “obsequious silence”! After this he found that the restrictions on him, and the church censorship, made his working life intolerable, so he left the Franciscan order in 1992 and became a lay theologian.(x)

8) Gerd Lüdemann is another recent German-speaking victim of church intransigence, Protestant this time, indeed a Professor at Gottingen U. Boulton analyses the church/state nexus here in detail (xii). Suffice it to say all prospective teachers have to sign the following agreement : “I commit myself to presenting the theological disciplines honestly, clearly and thoroughly in agreement with the principles of the Evangelical Lutheran church.” In 1998, Lüdemann penned a ‘Letter to Jesus’ which began “Dear Lord Jesus” as this was how he had been taught to address Jesus as a child. He goes on to tell Jesus what he had learned about him in his research.
“You didn’t say or do most of the things which the Bible tells us about…You weren’t without sin and you aren’t God’s son. You didn’t at all want to die for the sins of the world, and you didn’t institute the eucharist which for years I celebrated every Sunday in memory of you.”
“On the cross you learned what it means to become a godforsaken victim. Had not your followers proclaimed belief in your resurrection, all your words and deeds would have blown away like leaves in the wind.”

Ludemann soon had a response to his letter, but not from Jesus! The  Dean of the theology faculty called him to explain his “renunciation of Christianity” and the Saxony churches called for his immediate dismissal. Eventually a fudge was worked out and he was moved sideways to a less sensitive history teaching post. All for telling it like it is.

8) When the reactionary anti-communist Polish pope  Karol Wojtyla visited Central America in 1983, he had fun with the priests who bore witness to their faith by serving as ministers in the “marxist” Sandinista government of Nicaragua. He ordered the Cardenal brothers and Miguel D’Escoto to resign from the government at once. When they refused, the religious orders they belonged to, on the pope’s instigation, promptly suspended or expelled all three of them!

cardenal

(9) In 1967, the Presbyterian Church in New Zealand charged Lloyd Geering (quoted at length in my Post “Jesus was a sage, not a priest, prophet or king” ) with heresy because of a book he had written. It got him a lot of publicity! (i)

(10) The suffragen Bishop of Woolwich, John A.T. Robinson is the first radical theologian that I (or most of the English laity in the 1960s) read. See newspaper front page at top of this Post.

STILL TO COME- ROBINSON,

Related Zingcreed Posts:
Radical theology
What liberal Christians believe
Dear Pope #7: “Stop punishing dissident priests!”
Don Cupitt for dummies

Sources:
(i) Geering, Lloyd “Christianity without God” Bridget Williams books, NZ (2002)
(ii) Personal conversation at Sea of Faith conference, October 2013
(iii) http://www.doncupitt.com
(iv) Kee, Alistair “Marx and the failure of liberation theology” SCM Press (1990)
(v) Freeman, Anthony “God in us. A case for Christian humanism” SCM Press (1993)
(vi) homepages.which.net/~radical.faith/guide/freeman/.htm
(vii) en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hans_Kung
(viii) Catholicherald.co.uk/commentandblogs/2011/05/12/Hanss_Kung
(ix) Küng, Hans “Can the church still be saved?”
(x) Löwy, M “The war of Gods. Liberation theology in Latin America” Verso (1999?)
(xi) Boulton, David “Who on earth was Jesus? The modern quest for the Jesus of History” O Books (2008)

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