Clergy could face heresy charges in new
By Jonathan Petre, Religion Correspondent
Sunday July 21, 2002
Church of England clergy who deny the existence of God could soon find themselves facing heresy charges in new courts headed by bishops and advised by panels of theologians. Plans for the special tribunals, which critics fear will lead to "witch-hunts" against liberal clergy, have been drawn up by a committee of the House of Bishops. The tribunals, to be held in private, will hear cases involving breaches of "doctrine, ritual and ceremonial". Clergy who deny the doctrine of the Trinity or the Incarnation or who proclaim atheistic beliefs from the pulpit could face charges, as could those who fail to wear the required vestments during services.
.Under the committee's blueprint, the tribunals, approved in principle by the General Synod three years ago as part of plans to streamline disciplinary procedures, will be presided over by a bench of three bishops, two clergy and two lay people.
They will be chaired by an independent lawyer and advised by a panel of theologians, already nicknamed "witch hunter generals" by critics, who will be selected to reflect a range of opinions.
The House of Bishops is expected to debate the proposals later this year, but the committee, which is chaired by the Bishop of Chester, the Rt Rev Peter Forster, remains split over what constitutes an offence.
One traditionalist, Margaret Brown, a Synod member from Chichester, is threatening revolt unless the committee adheres to the historical creeds and the Thirty Nine Articles, the doctrinal formulae adopted by the Church in the 16th century.
Another, Peter Bruinvels, a Church Commissioner, said: "At the moment it is impossible to reach a consensus, with traditionalists and liberals evenly split as to what really constitutes an offence and how serious it is.
"For example, some of us believe that the wearing of vestments during communion services is non-negotiable, but others totally disagree."
If approved, the tribunals will replace the lengthy system of consistory courts which are so unwieldy that they have never been used to try doctrinal issues.
The bishops have made clear that discipline over doctrine would be "rare and exceptional", but that there needed to be "boundaries of permissibility".
The last heresy trial in England was of the Rev A Gorham in 1847, who was accused by the Bishop of Exeter of being unsound on the doctrine of "baptismal regeneration". Gorman did not agree that that at baptism a person is cleansed of original sin and born again into Christ.
Since then, clergy and bishops have been able to deviate from traditional doctrine with little fear of punishment.
The former Bishop of Durham, the Rt Rev David Jenkins, caused a scandal in the 1980s when he cast doubt on the literal truth of the Resurrection, describing it as "a conjuring trick with bones".
Bishops have become concerned that the Church of England is seen as a place where clergy can believe almost anything they want.
Several dozen clergy with atheistic or agnostic tendencies are members of "Sea of Faith", a group inspired by Don Cupitt, the former Dean of Emmanual College, Cambridge.
The Anglican Church in Ireland was nearly embroiled in a heresy trial earlier this year after the Dean of Clonmacnoise, the Very Rev Andrew Furlong, repeatedly said he did not believe that Jesus Christ was the son of God.
He resigned days before the case was due to begin.
In the 16th century, scores of Christians were burnt at the stake for heresy. One of the most prominent was Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury from 1533 who was condemned under Mary Tudor and burnt at Oxford in 1556.
Legislation to set up separate tribunals to deal with clergy misconduct, such as adultery, has already been agreed and is awaiting Parliamentary approval.