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Christian heresy in the 20th century

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Formal charges of heresy, although less common than in the medieval period, have not died out. Within the Christian churches there continued to be formal charges of heresy as well as less formal censures such as dismissal. The key issues in the Anglican and non-conformist churches have been modern Biblical criticism; the nature of God; and the acceptability of gay clergy. The Catholic Church, through the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, appears to be particularly concerned with academic theology.

Overview -- Anglican and non-conformist churches

In modern times formal heresy has become largely an internal, professional issue for most Christian churches. Up to and during the English Reformation, heresy actions could be brought against both clergy and laity, and could be brought by the established national religion against a minority faction or new sect. Since the late seventeenth century, active persecution between the different denominations has largely ceased; dissenting groups have been largely free to split off from the mother church and establish new denominations. The different denominations are relatively free to craft their own interpretation of Christianity, and although they may consider themselves to be the one true faith, they mostly avoid open criticism of other denominations. Doctrinal discipline has become a matter internal to each denomination, and has increasingly focussed on those people who are the professional spokespersons for the denomination, i.e. the pastoral and academic clergy. Within the Anglican and Methodist traditions, cases of heresy, formal discipline or dismissal over theological doctrine have tended to focus on parish clergy; in the Presbyterian, Southern Baptist and Lutheran traditions, cases have involved mostly professors of theology at denominational seminaries.

The subject matter of such actions has changed considerably over the past century. From 1900 to 1970, cases generally focused on the conflict between modern Biblical criticism and the "Fundamentals" of the faith; dissidents were most often accused of failing to believe in the inerrancy of the Bible, the Virgin Birth, the Resurrection, etc. Thus, in the first three decades of the 1900s, there were a number of such cases in the Presbyterian Church which led to the eventual split into fundamentalist and liberal branches. In the 1950s and 60s, similar battles were fought in the seminaries of the Southern Baptist Church in the United States. Since the 1970s, cases of formal discipline or dismissal have been infrequent and there has been a noticeable shift in the type of issue that attracts attention. Cases now tend to focus on questions concerning the nature of God and the divinity of Christ (Ray Billington in 1971, Anthony Freeman in 1994, Andrew Furlong in 2002) or the acceptability of gay clergy (Righter in 1996, Stroud in 2001).

Within some denominations there has been increasing recognition that actions against clergy should be taken only in the most extreme circumstances. The reasons for this may be partly doctrinal and partly tactical. From a tactical point of view, ‘heresy trials’ have almost invariably resulted in unflattering media coverage portraying the churches as obsessed with doctrinal questions that have little relevance or meaning in the modern world. Furthermore, at least in the Church of England, procedures for mounting formal heresy charges are complex and expensive. The review of clergy discipline in 2000-2003, which led to the report Under Authority, made valuable recommendations concerning consistency and natural justice in the application of clergy discipline; it noted that discipline on doctrinal issues should be "rare and exceptional" but did not go into detail about what might provoke such discipline.

From a doctrinal point of view, some churches have openly or tacitly accepted that there are multiple ways of interpreting the Christian faith and that a reasonable amount of exploration and new interpretation are natural in a healthy, living tradition. Thus, for example, the Episcopal Church in the United States responded to the repeated attempts to accuse Bishop James Pike of heresy by taking formal steps both to allow more room for doctrinal diversity within the church and to make heresy charges procedurally more difficult to bring. Similarly, the Presbyterian Church of New Zealand, in its pastoral letter following the acquittal of Lloyd Geering in 1967, noted that "The Church must constantly be rethinking its message to the world so that it can be expressed in forms and words that are intelligible to the changing generations….Personal faith in our Lord is consistent with a great variety of theological convictions."

Nevertheless, boundaries do remain. Whereas the dismissals of Anglican priests such as Anthony Freeman and Andrew Furlong are rare, many other priests who express doubt about traditional doctrine or who align themselves with radical organisations such as the Sea of Faith are sidelined and find their careers at a dead end. It remains frustrating to many, both in the clergy and in the laity, that ideas which are openly taught in basic theological courses are not allowed to be expressed in the pulpit without fear of censure or dismissal.

Cases of disciplinary action since 1893 in Protestant and Anglican churches

Briggs’ case is typical of the struggles between modern Biblical criticism (favoured by Union Theological Seminary) and traditional views on Biblical inerrancy (the Princeton position). In November 1890, Briggs was appointed to the Edward Robinson Chair of Biblical Theology at UTS. His inaugural address on 20 Jan 1891 led the Presbytery of New York to charge that three areas of the talk ran counter to the Confession of Faith: in equating the Bible, the Church and Reason; in its rejection of inerrancy; and in proposing a belief in progressive sanctification after death as a biblical and church doctrine.

In October, Briggs was tried on heresy related to the second and third of these points, and was acquitted. The prosecution appealed and the case was remanded to the New York Presbytery, which also acquitted Briggs. The prosecution then appealed to the General Assembly, where Briggs was convicted by a vote of 383 to 116 and suspended. The Assembly also disavowed all responsibility for the faculty of UTS and declined to receive further reports from the seminary until satisfactory relations were re-established.

Briggs was received into the priesthood of the Episcopal Church in 1899 and continued to teach at Union, focusing particularly on Christian Unity. He died in 1913.

McGiffert’s inaugural address at Union Theological Seminary was described as "most excellent Quaker teaching, but…a direct onslaught on the very basis of Reformed and, indeed, of the whole Protestant theology." His 1897 book A History of Christianity in the Apostolic Age aroused much hostility. He worked on the basic assumption that historical change makes all religious teaching relative and there is no continuing ‘essence’ of Christian history. The Assembly strongly disapproved of the book, issued a warning to McGiffert and counselled him to reform his views or peaceably withdraw from the Presbytery. McGiffert refused to do either and the next Assembly referred the matter to the New York Presbytery, which disapproved of specific views but voted against another heresy trial. However, one member then filed formal heresy charges which were again brought to the General Assembly in 1900; McGiffert decided to withdraw "to save the Presbyterian Church which he loved dearly, from a great heresy trial." He joined the Congregational Church and was president of Union Theological Seminary from 1917 to 1926.

  • Hinckley Gilbert Thomas Mitchell, Methodist Episcopal, USA – 1901

Mitchell was investigated in 1895 and 1899 for tendencies towards naturalism and Unitarianism, in the context of the general struggle between traditional teaching and ‘higher criticism’. His 1901 book The World before Abraham opened a further investigation leading to refusal by the Board of Bishops to appoint him to another 5-year term at Boston University. Mitchell requested a trial but this was refused and the Conference passed a vote censuring his teachings. He continued to write and was later appointed to Tufts.

In 1905, as part of a series of lectures on the relationship between the Church and the State, Crapsey made statements which were understood to challenge the doctrines of the virgin birth, the bodily resurrection and the divinity of Jesus. A committee appointed to review his case declined to recommend a trial, but condemned his teaching. Considerable controversy was raised, and the Bishop initiated a presentment in 1906 on two counts of heresy and appointed a court to hear the case. Witnesses called to support the orthodoxy of Crapsey’s views were not allowed to testify, and Crapsey was convicted. On appeal the conviction was upheld. Crapsey resigned and never took another church position.

  • George B Foster, Southern Baptist, USA -- 1909

Foster, an ordained Baptist minister, taught systematic theology and philosophy of religion at the University of Chicago. The Baptists Ministers’ Conference condemned his 1906 book The Finality of the Christian Religion. On the publication of his 1909 book, The function of religion in man’s struggle for existence, the Minister’s Conference voted on 26 June to expel him. However, he never surrendered his papers of ordination and he continued to teach at the University of Chicago.

  • James Henry George Chapple, Presbyterian minister, New Zealand -- 1910

In 1907 there was an attempt to remove James Henry George Chapple (1865 -- 1947) from his Timaru (NZ) church. The vote was 200 for him and 8 against. In 1910 proceedings were brought against Chapple in the Timaru Presbytery for having, amongst other things, preached in the Unitarian church at Auckland as a candidate. Chapple resigned and started a Unitarian church in Timaru. He stayed until July 1915, then spent two years in California, and returned to Christchurch in 1917 to start Unitarian meetings there.

John Dietrich was minister of St. Mark’s Memorial Church in Pittsburgh. His ministry appears to have been controversial in several ways. The Allegheny Classis investigated his teaching and determined that Dietrich did not believe in the infallibility of the Bible, nor in the virgin birth and deity of Jesus, nor in the traditional understanding of the atonement. A trial was set for July 10, 1911; Dietrich refused to defend himself and was "defrocked", in spite of the continuous support of his board of trustees and many of the members at St. Mark's. After his last Sunday as minister, St. Mark's was closed and the next service was not held until a year later. Dietrich became a Unitarian minister and gradually moved from a position of liberal theistic Unitarianism to religious non-theistic humanism.

  • Bishop William Montgomery Brown, Episcopalian, USA – 1924-25

Brown was tried for heresy in 1924-25, largely because of his outspoken support for Communism.

  • Dr Ernest Davey, Presbyterian, Ireland -- 1927

Dr Davey was Principal and Professor at Presbyterian College, Belfast (now called Union College). He was tried for heresy in 1927, primarily on issues related to modern Biblical criticism. Although he was acquitted, the trial had a deeply discouraging effect on him, virtually ending his activity as an author.

Machen was expelled from the PCUSA for his opposition to modernism. Seeing the direction the denomination was heading and its departure from the traditional doctrines, such as the Westminster Confession, he authored a book, Christianity and Liberalism, in 1923. He stated that liberalism/ modernism was not a perversion of Christianity but a completely different religion, because it was not based on the narration of a historical event. In 1932 he published an attack on the report Rethinking Missions, which had advocated tolerance and acceptance of other religions; he set up an independent mission board in opposition to the General Assembly. The New Brunswick Presbytery then pressed charges against Machen for violation of ordination vows, rebellious defiance, and disobeying the lawful authority of the Church. They refused to hear substantive justifications of Machen’s position and focused only on the question of obedience. He was found guilty and suspended. Machen went on to form the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and co-founded Westminster Theological Seminary. Considered to be the last of the great Princeton Theologians, made up of men such as Archibald Alexander, Charles Hodge, A. A. Hodge, and B.B. Warfield, Machen's textbook on New Testament Greek is still used in PCUSA schools.

  • Mercer University, Baptist, USA -- 1939

In 1939, 13 University students filed charges against 4 professors, focusing on issues of modern biblical criticism and evolution. A 10-hour trial was held wherein the faculty were accused of denying the existence of demons, the blood atonement of Christ, conversion from sin, the second coming of Christ, the resurrection of the body, hell, the Genesis account of creation, and the molding of Eve from the rib of Adam; and of saying that the Bible contained contradictions. The trustee investigative committee however refused to condemn them and simply issued a caution; the majority of students also supported the professors.

  • Frank Stagg, Southern Baptist, USA – 1956

Staff was a professor at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. He was investigated in 1956 and charged with undue emphasis on the human elements in the New Testament, alleging that the Trinity was unbiblical, viewing the atonement as ‘transactional’, holding that God’s wrath was the consequence of sin rather than a response to sin, and holding a ‘too psychological’ explanation of demons. Stagg was called before the Trustees to respond, and then acquitted. He stayed at NOBTS until 1964, then went to Southern Baptist Seminary and remained there until his retirement in 1982.

  • The Louisville 13, Southern Baptist, USA -- 1958

In 1958 13 faculty members were forced to resign from Southern Seminary for unorthodoxy.

  • Theodore R Clark, Southern Baptist, USA – 1960

Clark taught at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary; he was dismissed in 1960 primarily as a result of the publication of his book Saved by His Life. The trustees did not make clear the nature of their complaint but said that "His recently published book is one of several instances in which the board had been confronted with questions as to limitations in the area of communication with students and hearers as well as content of lecture materials." The process appears to have been obscure; it is not clear that the Board ever met with Clark or that the faculty were aware that an investigation was underway. The Dean, J Hardee Kennedy, had written an approving review of Clark’s book and does not appear to have participated in the dismissal. Clark took an appointment at Pan American College in Edinburg, Texas.

  • Ralph Elliott, Southern Baptist, USA -- 1962

Elliott was dismissed from Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary over conflict about contemporary biblical criticism. He was tried twice: in 1960 after publishing The Message of Genesis: A theological interpretation, he was examined by the board of trustees who supported him, 14 to 7. At the next Southern Baptist Convention, elections at the convention changed the balance of trustees at Midwestern. The new board met for a second trial; they agreed with Elliott on 9 out of 10 points, but they failed to agree on republication of the book – the trustees didn’t want to take responsibility for banning it, and Elliott refused to ‘volunteer’ not to seek its republication. The board then dismissed him by a vote of 22 to 7. Elliott moved to the American Baptist church and continued his career.

  • Revd Walter Gill, Methodist minister, England – 1962-64

Rev. Walter Gill was expelled from the Methodist ministry for heresy in 1964. In 1962, Gill was charged with denying the virgin birth, the resurrection and the divinity of Christ. The Methodist Committee of Doctrinal Appeal dropped the first charge and accepted Gill's response to the second charge. They rejected his view of the divinity of Christ and formally reprimanded him. When Gill persisted, they expelled him from the ministry in 1964. He later wrote a book, Truth to Tell, published by Lindsey Press. In 1970, he applied for re-instatement as a local preacher, but his application was rejected by the Ministerial Session of the General Purposes Committee.

  • John Hick, Presbyterian, USA – 1962, 1980s

Hick has twice been the subject of heresy proceedings.

    • In 1961 or 1962, when he was teaching at Princeton Theological Seminary, he sought, as a Presbyterian minister, to join the local Presbytery of New Brunswick. He was asked whether he took exception to anything in the Westminster Confession of 1647 and answered that several points were open to question; for example, he was agnostic on the historical truth of the Virgin Birth and did not regard it as an essential item of Christian faith. Because of this, some of the local ministers appealed against his reception into the Presbytery. Their appeal was sustained by the Synod. A year later, a counter-appeal was sustained by the Judicial Committee of the General Assembly, and Hick became a member of the Presbytery.
    • In the mid-1980s, when teaching at the Claremont Graduate School in California, Hick sought to join the local Presbytery of San Gabriel. His application was strongly opposed by certain local ministers. After long discussion, the relevant committee told him that his application would be extremely divisive and invited him to withdraw it, which he did.
  • James Pike, Episopalian, USA – 1961, 1965, 1966

Pike was dean of the Cathedral of St John the Divine in New York, then became Bishop of California. Pike was close to and much influenced by John Robinson and Tillich. He rejected dogmatic interpretations of the Virgin Birth and the Incarnation, questioned the basis of theological concepts such as Original Sin and the Trinity, and challenged the infallibility of scripture. His critics charged him with heresy in 1961, 1965 and 1966. The first time, Pike defended his views as orthodox, and counterattacked that racial segregation was a worse heresy than anything he had written. The second time he was accused of both unorthodox views and of plans to ordain women; he defended himself and was cleared by the House of Bishops, but the Bishops ruled that women could not be ordained.

In 1966 charges were again raised; in an attempt to avoid a trial, a committee was appointed which produced a report declaring Pike’s teaching irresponsible, "cheap vulgarizations of great expressions of faith." The report was accepted, 103 to 36; Pike then demanded a formal trial, claiming that the Bishops had refused to address the theological issues. Again attempting to avoid a trial, the House of Bishops created a Committee on Theological Freedom which included Pike along with prominent theologians such as John AT Robinson; Pike agreed to withdraw demands for a trial if the Committee’s report was accepted, which it was. The church then made formal moves to allow more room for doctrinal diversity and to make heresy charges much harder to bring.

  • Robert Briggs, William Strickland and Harold Oliver, Southern Baptist, USA -- 1964

Briggs, Strickland and Oliver taught at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. In 1960 an investigation was begun into their teaching, alleging "the application of radical Existentialism and so-called Bultmanianism." Over the next three years an extended struggle regarding the academic freedom of the faculty versus adherence to the Abstract of Principles which all faculty members had signed on appointment; no formal charge of heretical teaching was ever made. In 1964 Briggs resigned; shortly thereafter he took a post at Vanderbilt University, and then moved on to the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta. Oliver resigned and went to Boston University; Strickland resigned in 1966 to go to Appalachian State University.

Altizer was declined candidacy for ordination in the Episcopal Church--while serving as a lay minister at a multi-racial Episcopal Church in Chicago--for reportedly failing the church's psychological examination, and he claimed to have a religious conversion following a theosis of Satan overtaking his body while a student at the University of Chicago. Later, Altizer, along with Paul M. van Buren, Gabriel Vahanian, and William Hamilton, became the center of the "God is Dead" media sensation while teaching Religious Studies and Bible at Methodist-related Emory University. Since Altizer's academic appointment was not at Emory's Candler School of Theology, not Methodist, and not ordained, the Methodist bishops could not put him on a heresy trial, stip him of ordination, or even fire him, as Altizer was protected by the Emory administration as an instance of protecting academic freedom. The Southeastern Jurisdiction of Methodist Bishops responded by passing a resolution against death-of-god theologies. Altizer's writings were openly declared heretical across the United States from pulpits of nearly every denomination, including high-profile evangelicals John Warwick Montgomery and Billy Graham. Altizer later became a professor of English at SUNY Stony Brook.

Geering was tried for doctrinal error and disturbing the peace of the church by the Presbyterian Church of New Zealand in 1967. The trial was televised in New Zealand, but the Assembly judged that no doctrinal error had been proved, dismissed the charges and declared the case closed. The Church later published a 112-page transcript of the trial. Geering has since become a well-published theologian, a founding member of Sea of Faith NZ and a Member of the Order of New Zealand.

  • Ray Billington, Methodist minister, England -- 1971

Billington was charged with teaching false doctrine following the publication of his book The Christian Outsider, specifically because he stated that God did not exist, that Jesus was not the Son of God, and that there was no life after death. The complaint was researched and the Committee of Doctrinal Appeal submitted a report to the 1971 Methodist Conference, which dismissed Mr Billington in June of that year.

Tietjen was president of Concordia Seminary. He favored a more moderate, ecumenical approach to religion, but became entangled in struggles by the Missouri Synod President, J. A. O. Preus II, to control the teaching at Concordia. In 1973 the Synod Convention declared the faculty heretical (e.g. for denying the historicity of Adam and Eve); in 1974 the Board suspended Tietjen as president, whereupon the students and faculty declared a moratorium, then created the Seminex (seminary in exile). The Board terminated them. In 1977 Tietjen was formally expelled from the Missouri Synod clergy roster, though, in fact, he had already joined the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches.

  • Walter Kenyon, Presbyterian ordinand, USA -- 1974

Kenyon was barred from ordination by the United Presbyterian Church in 1974 because of his stance against the ordination of women. Kenyon believed that an inerrant view of the Bible required subordination of women. At his final interview with the Committee on Candidates and Credentials, he was asked if he would ordain women; Kenyon made clear that he would not block women and would work with women elders and ministers, but would not participate in their ordination service. The Committee did not recommend him for ordination. The Presbytery, however, authorized his ordination by a vote of 144 to 133. A case was then filed stating that the Presbytery had violated Presbyterian constitutional law. The Synod’s Permanent Judicial Commission upheld the complaint, stating that Kenyon was ‘in irreconcilable conflict with Presbyterian polity, government and discipline." The Presbytery appealed to the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission, which agreed with the Synod PJC, stating that a candidate for ordination must endorse Presbyterian polity, i.e. as a matter of government. The case is unusual in that it focused on Kenyon’s actions (he was free to think as he liked, but not free to refuse to ordain women) and in its focus on the actions of the Presbytery rather than of Kenyon himself.

  • Dale Moody, Southern Baptist, USA – 1984

Moody taught at Southern Baptist Seminary. He aroused controversy as to whether he supported the Baptist principle of ‘perseverance of the saints’ (drawn from Hebrews 6:4-6). He was accused in 1961 of teaching that it was possible for a person ‘once saved to be lost’ but was acquitted. In 1979, Moody proposed revision of the Abstract of Principles on this point; the University then said it did not wish to inhibit faculty freedom but would not extend his teaching contract past normal retirement age unless his teaching on this point was more traditional. Moody argued that his reading of the principle was in line with the original Biblical texts and the argument continued for roughly 3 years. In 1983, Moody gave a talk on the topic "Can a saved person ever be lost?"; whereupon the Arkansas Baptist State Convention asked the university to terminate him. The University employed him until 1984 but refused to give him a further contract.

  • Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, USA, 1985-94.

The SBTS was initially investigated for allowing teaching contrary to Biblical inerrancy. In 1987 the Trustees announced a hiring policy that would include only orthodox inerrantists; whereupon the President resigned.

On the 2nd March 1992, the Rev. Dr Peter Cameron, Principal of St Andrew’s College at the University of Sidney, preached a sermon at a Dorcas Society Rally in the Ashfield Presbyterian Church entitled "The Place of Women in the Church". As well as supporting the principle that women should be ordained to the ministry, it argued that the Bible had to be understood within the context of the times in which they were written. Cameron was tried and convicted for heresy. He appealed, but resigned before the appeal could be heard.

  • Paul Simmons, Southern Baptist, USA – 1992

Simmons was Professor of Christian ethics at Southern Baptist Seminary. He was attacked not for theological beliefs but for ethical positions, particularly in the areas of abortion, elective death and homosexuality. In 1987 the Trustees reviewed Simmons’ positions and asked that he ‘moderate his public involvement’ in the debate on abortion. In 1989 he was accused of saying that Jesus was sexually active but this was proved false. Pressure to remove Simmons for his position on abortion continued and in 1992 the President attempted to offer him a financial package to leave, which Simmons refused. Following a further controversy about a film used by Simmons in a lecture, the Trustees proposed sanctions which Simmons was unwilling to accept, and he resigned.

  • Molly Marshall, Southern Baptist, USA – 1994

Marshall resigned from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1994. A heresy trial was in the offing at the time of her resignation; the Seminary statement at the time of her resignation says that her views were ‘significantly outside the parameters of the Abstract of Principles’ although it did not offer any specifics. Marshall then went to Central Baptist Theological Seminary (American Baptist, not Southern). (Central Baptist Theological Seminary, now in Shawnee, Kansas, had its own theological controversy--involving M. Edward Clark, Warren Lane Molton, and Alvin C. Porteous--in 1971 when it was still in Kansas City, Kansas.)

  • Anthony Freeman, Anglican priest, England -- 1994

Freeman, a member of Sea of Faith, was sacked by the Bishop of Chichester in 1994, following the publication of his book God in Us: the case for Christian Humanism. Freeman was a licensed priest and was also responsible for in-service training of new ordinands; also his congregation supported him, his views were considered unacceptable for someone in a teaching position. He was able to be dismissed without due process because he was a licensed priest rather than a priest with freehold; the 1996 report Under Authority appeared to acknowledge that this was procedurally unfair. Freeman remains an ordained priest but has no current license.

In the fall of 1990, Barry Stopfel was ordained a deacon in the Diocese of Newark. Stopfel is gay and, at the time of his ordination, was living "in a sexual partnership" with another man. The assistant bishop of Newark, the Rt. Revd Walter Righter, then faced a church court over his decision to ordain the gay man. On May 15, 1996, an Episcopal Church court dismissed charges against Righter. The Court held that neither the doctrine nor the discipline of the Church currently prohibit the ordination of a non-celibate homosexual person living in a committed relationship.

  • C. Joseph Sprague, Methodist, USA – 1998 - 2003

Bishop Joseph Sprague, who directs the United Methodists' Northern Illinois Conference, has been the target of ongoing complaints since 1998, and was accused of heresy in June 2000 and again in early 2003. The charges were dismissed by Bishop Bruce R. Ough, President of the North Central Jurisdiction College of Bishops. The supervisory committee which reviewed the charges against Sprague proposed a public dialogue, facilitated by a third party, in order to explore the implications of Sprague's statements.

  • Don Stroud, Presbyterian, USA -- 2001

Rev Don Stroud, a minister in the Presbyterian Church in Baltimore, Maryland, was accused of heresy in September 2001 because he is openly gay. Through an investigating committee and a panel from the presbytery court, the Presbytery of Baltimore enabled Stroud to avoid trial on formal charges. Stroud now works for That All May Freely Serve, a special-interest Presbyterian group that campaigns for gay causes.

The Rev David Moyer, President of Forward in Faith of North America, was deposed by his bishop for refusing episcopal visits and for generally violating canonical discipline. Although canonical discipline is cited as the immediate cause for this affair, the underlying cause was doctrinal; Moyer objected to the ordination of women and to his bishop's liberal position on this and other issues. In 2004 Moyer was consecrated as a bishop in the Anglican Church of America.

  • Andrew Furlong, Dean of Clonmacnoise, Ireland -- 2002

In 2001 Furlong published on his church website a number of articles challenging traditional doctrine, including statements that Jesus was not the Son of God. His bishop directed him to take three months to reflect on his beliefs; having not changed his beliefs in that period, Furlong was invited to resign, which he declined to do. He was then due to appear before an ecclesiastical court on charges of heresy, but resigned on the day before his trial. Furlong published an account of this episode in Tried for Heresy: A 21st Century Journey of Faith (John Hunt, 2003).

  • Thorkild Grosboel

Grosboel, pastor of Taarbaek near Copenhagen, has been under fire for the past two years for saying that "There is no heavenly God. There is no eternal life. There is no resurrection." He was suspended from the ministry and threatened with a formal trial. He renewed his vows in May 2005 but remains under suspension.

  • Hal Taussig and Susan Cole

Taussig and Cole, both United Methodist pastors, co-authored two books on the Biblical figure of Wisdom/Sophia and her promise for gender-inclusive faith. The books, Sophia: The Future of Feminist Spirituality and Wisdom's Feast: Sophia in Study and Celebration, drew fire first from regional opponents of feminism in the church, and then became the focus of a national movement against the books and the authors. The most recent edition of Wisdom's Feast has an extended 12-page description and analysis of the heresy proceedings which ensued.

Heresy in the Catholic church

Doctrinal discipline in the Catholic Church is represented most visibly by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), although local bishops may also take action. According to Article 48 of the Apostolic Constitution on the Roman Curia, Pastor Bonus, "the duty proper to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is to promote and safeguard the doctrine on the faith and morals throughout the Catholic world."

Whereas the 1983 Code of Canon Law deals with most questions of discipline in the Catholic Church, the CDF has its own rules and procedures which are known as Proper Law; appeals against rulings of the CDF may be taken to the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura in Rome. The Vatican appears to be more strict with regard to academic theology than the Anglican/non-conformist tradition, and a number of the high-profile cases in the 20th century related to the removal of teaching authority from Catholic writers and professors, including Hans Küng, Charles Curran, and Edward Schillebeckx. The following are only the most high-profile cases that have arisen during the last fifteen years.

In 1971 Balasuriya founded the Center for Society and Religion; four years later he founded the Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians. In 1990, Balasuriya published the book Mary and Human Liberation. In 1994, the Sri Lankan bishops warned that the book included heretical content because it misrepresented the doctrine of original sin and cast serious doubts on the divinity of Christ. Balasuriya submitted a 55-page theological defense to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which rejected it.

Dupuis taught at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome until the fall of 1998, when he came under Vatican investigation for his book Toward a Christian Theology of Religious Pluralism (Orbis, 1997). The book had received considerable praise, including the second place award in theology from the U.S. Catholic Press Association. In June 1999, following the doctrinal examination of the book and analysis of Dupuis’ responses to questions regarding the book, the Congregation found that the book contained “notable ambiguities and difficulties on important doctrinal points, which could lead a reader to erroneous or harmful opinions”. These points concerned the interpretation of the sole and universal salvific mediation of Christ, the unicity and completeness of Christ’s revelation, the universal salvific action of the Holy Spirit, the orientation of all people to the Church, and the value and significance of the salvific function of other religions. The Congregation drafted a Notification, approved by Pope John Paul II and accepted by Fr Dupuis, to clarify and correct doctrinal points in the book. In signing the Notification, the author committed himself to assent to the stated theses and to include the Notification in any reprints, translations or further editions of his book.

In June 1998, the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith condemned the writings of the popular Indian Jesuit Father Anthony de Mello, finding them “incompatible with the Catholic faith” and a cause of “grave harm”. De Mello, who died in 1987, was a meditation teacher and writer of stories who drew heavily on stories and concepts of the eastern religions. The Congregation issued a notification that de Mello's writings exhibited a “progressive distancing from the essential contents of the Christian faith”; they were said to contain objectionable concepts about the unknowability and cosmic impersonality of God and about Jesus "as a master alongside others," a preference for "enlightenment," criticism of the church, and an excessive focus on this life rather than life after death. Bishops were ordered to ensure that the offending texts were withdrawn from sale and not reprinted.

In August 2000, Fr Haight, professor of theology at the Weston School of Theology in Massachusetts, was relieved of his teaching duties and asked to respond to questions about his book Jesus Symbol of God (Orbis, 1999).

In March 2001, the Australian church historian Fr Paul Collins, who had been under Vatican investigation since 1998, resigned from the Catholic priesthood. The Vatican’s investigation centered on his 1997 book Papal Power, which was said to imply that “a true and binding revelation” does not exist; to deny that the church of Christ is identified with the Catholic Church, and to deny the doctrine of papal infallibility.

Morwood withdrew from the priesthood in 1998 following attempts by the Catholic Church to silence him. The Roman Catholic Archibishop of Melbourne, George Pell, forbade Morwood from speaking on the incarnation, the redemption and the Trinity in response to Morwood's book Tomorrow's Catholic. Understanding God and Jesus in a New Millennium. Morwood subsequently found himself unable to speak publicly in other Australian dioceses, and resigned from the priesthood in 1998.

See also


Primary sources

  • Christie-Murray, David. A History of Heresy. Oxford University Press, 1989.
  • Evans, Gillian. A Brief History of Heresy. Blackwell Press, 2003.
  • Greenshields, Malcolm, and Thomas A Robinson, eds. Orthodoxy and Heresy in Religious Movements: Discipline and Dissent. Edwin Mellen Press, 1992.
  • Sea of Faith. Study on Doctrinal Diversity within the Christian Church, 2003.
  • Shriver, George. A Dictionary of Heresy Trials in American Christianity. Greenwood Press, Connecticut, 1997.
  • Under Authority: Report on Clergy Discipline. Church House Publishing, 1996.

Books and reports relevant to individual cases

  • Billington, Ray. The Christian Outsider. London: Epworth Press, 1971.
  • Brown, William Montgomery. My Heresy. New York: John Day Co, 1926.
  • Cameron, Peter. Heretic. Doubleday, 1994.
  • Crapsey, Algernon Sidney. Last of the Heretics. New York: A.A. Knopf, 1924.
  • Furlong, Andrew. Tried for Heresy: a 21st-Century Journey of Faith. John Hunt, 2003.
  • Gee, Maurice. Plumb. Oxford University Press, 1978.
  • Gill, Walter. Truth to Tell. Lindsey Press, 1966.
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