Christian heresy in the modern era
Although less common than in the medieval period, formal charges of heresy within Christian churches still occur. Key issues in the Protestant churches have included 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.
Protestant and Anglican churches: overview
In modern times, formal heresy has become largely an internal, professional issue for most Christian churches. Before and during the English Reformation, actions for heresy could be brought against both clergy and laity, and could be brought by the national established church against a minority faction or new sect. Since the late seventeenth century, active persecution of one denomination by another has largely ceased, and dissenting groups have been free to split off from the mother church and establish new denominations. Different denominations are free to craft their own interpretation of Christianity, and although each may consider itself to be the “one true faith”, they usually avoid open criticism of one another. Doctrinal discipline has become a matter internal to each denomination, and has increasingly focused on the pastoral and academic clergy, as the professional spokespersons for the denomination. Within the Anglican and Methodist traditions, cases of heresy, formal discipline or dismissal on grounds of theological doctrine have tended to focus on parish clergy. In the Presbyterian, Southern Baptist and Lutheran traditions, most cases have involved professors of theology at denominational seminaries.
The subject matter of such actions has changed considerably over the past century. Cases between 1900 and 1970 generally focused on the conflict between modern biblical criticism and the “fundamentals” of the faith; dissidents were most often accused of rejecting the inerrancy of the Bible, the virgin birth, the resurrection, and other doctrines. Thus, in the first three decades of the 1900s, there were a number of such cases in the Presbyterian Church which led to its eventual split into fundamentalist and liberal branches. In the 1950s and 1960s, 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).
Some denominations have increasingly taken the view that actions against clergy should be taken only in the most extreme circumstances. The reasons 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 2000-2003 review of clergy discipline, which led to the report Under Authority, made recommendations concerning consistency and natural justice in the disciplining of clergy ; it said that sanctions on doctrinal issues should be “rare and exceptional” but did not go into detail about what might provoke such sanctions.
From a doctrinal point of view, some churches have come to the view that there are many ways to interpret 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 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, stated 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 dismissal of Anglican priests such as Anthony Freeman and Andrew Furlong is 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. Some Christians, both clergy and laity, feel frustrated 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.
Protestant and Anglican churches: disciplinary action since 1893
Charles Augustus Briggs (Presbyterian, USA, 1893)
The case of Charles Augustus Briggs is typical of the struggles between the modern biblical criticism favoured by the Union Theological Seminary (UTS) 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 biblical and church doctrine of progressive sanctification after death.
In October Briggs was tried for 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 him. 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 US Episcopal Church in 1899 and continued to teach at UTS, focusing particularly on Christian unity. He died in 1913.
Arthur Cushman McGiffert (Presbyterian, USA, 1900)
Arthur Cushman 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 General Assembly strongly disapproved of the book, issued a warning to McGiffert and counselled him to reform his views or withdraw peaceably 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 religious naturalism and Unitarianism, in the context of the general struggle between traditional teaching and “higher criticism”[clarification needed]. His 1901 book The World before Abraham provoked a further investigation, as a result of which the Board of Bishops refused to appoint him for 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 University.
Algernon Sidney Crapsey (Episcopalian, USA, 1906)
In 1905, as part of a series of lectures on the relationship between the church and the state, Algernon Sidney 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 ensued, and in 1906 the Bishop[clarification needed (name or see?)] initiated a presentment 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.
Foster, an ordained Baptist minister, taught systematic theology and philosophy of religion at the University of Chicago.
In 1898, Foster delivered a series of lectures at Stetson University and was condemned by many as someone “who could not open his mouth ‘without breathing out heresy.'” Later, in 1904, Mrs. John B. Stetson, the wife of the University’s principal benefactor, sought to have Foster appointed as President, but her suggestion was rejected on account of Foster’s liberal views on Biblical interpretation. At the time, Stetson University was affiliated with the University of Chicago and associated with the Florida Baptist Convention.
The Baptist Ministers’ Conference condemned his 1906 book The Finality of the Christian Religion. On 26 June 1909, after the publication of his book The Function of Religion in Man’s Struggle for Existence, the Ministers’ Conference voted to expel him. However, as a Baptist, he never surrendered his papers of ordination. “Members of the Baptist ministry in the Chicago area considered Foster to be a radical… It was a mock trial because Baptists do not allow for a church court above the local congregation. If there was to be a heresy trial, it had to be by the congregation that ordained the minister… The mock trial called for the University of Chicago to fire Foster, but the University made it clear that Foster would not be fired.”  Foster continued to teach at the University of Chicago through his death on December 22, 1918.
James Henry George Chapple (Presbyterian, New Zealand, 1910)
In 1907 there was an attempt to remove James Henry George Chapple (1865—1947) from his church in Timaru, New Zealand. 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 before returning to Christchurch in 1917 to start Unitarian meetings there.
John H. Dietrich (Reformed Church, USA, 1911)
John H. 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 the virgin birth, nor the deity of Jesus, nor in the traditionally Calvinist understanding of the atonement (see penal substitution). At the trial on 10 July 1911, Dietrich refused to defend himself and was unfrocked, in spite of the continuous support of his board of trustees and many of the congregation 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.
William Montgomery Brown (Episcopalian, USA, 1924–25)
Bishop William Montgomery Brown was tried for heresy in 1924-25, largely because of his outspoken support for Communism.
James Ernest Davey (Presbyterian, Ireland, 1927)
James E. Davey was Principal and Professor at the Presbyterian theological college in Belfast (now Union Theological College). He was tried by the Irish Presbyterian Church on five charges of 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. His accusers, dissatisfied with the Presbytery’s acquittal and its ratification by the church’s General Assembly, seceded to form the Irish Evangelical Church.
J Gresham Machen (Presbyterian, USA, 1932)
J Gresham Machen was expelled from the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) (PCUSA) for his opposition to modernism. Seeing the direction in which the PCUSA was heading, and its departure from traditional doctrines such as the Westminster Confession, he wrote his book Christianity and Liberalism in 1923. He stated that liberalism and modernism did not constitute 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 PCUSA 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. He went on to form the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and co-founded the Westminster Theological Seminary. Machen is considered to be the last of the great Princeton Theologians, alongside men such as Archibald Alexander, Charles Hodge, A. A. Hodge, and B.B. Warfield. His textbook New Testament Greek for Beginners is still used in PCUSA schools.
Mercer University (Baptist, USA, 1939)
In 1939 thirteen students of Mercer University filed charges against four professors, focusing on issues of modern biblical criticism and evolution. A 10-hour trial was held, in which the professors 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; they were also accused 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)
Stagg was a professor at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary (NOBTS). 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 upholding 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 The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and remained there until his retirement in 1982.
The Louisville 13 (Southern Baptist, USA, 1958)
In 1958, thirteen faculty members were forced to resign from the The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, 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 whether the Board ever met with Clark or whether the faculty were aware that an investigation was under way. 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 voted 14–7 in his favour. Elections at the next Southern Baptist 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, while 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.
Walter Gill (Methodist, England, 1962–64)
In 1962 Methodist minister Walter 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. 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 reinstatement as a local preacher, but his application was rejected by the Ministerial Session of the General Purposes Committee.
John Hick (Presbyterian, USA, 1962 and 1980s)
John 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, and 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 University 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 (Episcopalian, USA, 1961, 1965, 1966)
James Pike was dean of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York, and later Bishop of California. He was close to, and much influenced by, John A.T. Robinson and Paul Tillich. He rejected dogmatically historical 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 with the argument that racial segregation was a worse heresy than anything he had written. The second time, he was accused both of 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.
Charges were raised yet again in 1966. 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 by 103 votes 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 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, there was an extended struggle between the academic freedom of the faculty and the demand to adhere to the Abstract of Principles, which all faculty members had signed on appointment. No formal charge of heretical teaching was ever brought. In 1964 Briggs resigned; shortly thereafter he took a post at Vanderbilt University, and then moved on to the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, Georgia. Oliver resigned and went to Boston University; Strickland resigned in 1966 to go to Appalachian State University.
Thomas J. J. Altizer (Episcopal, USA, 1966)
Thomas J. J. Altizer, a theologian serving as a lay minister at a multi-racial Episcopal Church in Chicago, was declined candidacy for ordination in the Episcopal Church, reportedly for failing the church’s psychological examination, having claimed to have had a religious conversion following a theosis in which Satan took over his body while he was a student at the University of Chicago. Later, Altizer joined Paul M. van Buren, Gabriel Vahanian, and William Hamilton at the center of the “God is Dead” media sensation, while teaching Religious Studies and Bible at Methodist-affiliated Emory University. Since Altizer’s academic appointment was not at Emory’s Candler School of Theology, since he was neither Methodist nor ordained, and since his academic freedom was protected by the Emory administration, the Methodist bishops could not put him on a heresy trial, strip him of ordination, nor even fire him. 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.
Lloyd Geering (Presbyterian, New Zealand, 1967)
Lloyd Geering was tried in 1967 by the Presbyterian Church of New Zealand for doctrinal error and disturbing the peace of the church. The trial was televised in New Zealand, but the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of New Zealand 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 in New Zealand and a Member of the Order of New Zealand.
Ray Billington (Methodist, 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.
John Tietjen (Lutheran, USA, 1973–77)
John Tietjen was president of Concordia Seminary. He favored a more moderate, ecumenical approach to religion, but became entangled in the efforts of J. A. O. Preus II, president of the Missouri Synod of the Lutheran Church, to control the teaching at Concordia. In 1973 the Synod Convention declared the faculty heretical (for denying the historicity of Adam and Eve, for instance); in 1974 the Board suspended Tietjen as president, whereupon the students and faculty declared a moratorium on classes, then created the Seminex (seminary in exile). The Board terminated the teaching contracts of those faculty members who went to Seminex. In 1977 Tietjen was formally expelled from the Missouri Synod clergy roster, though he had, in fact, already joined the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches.
Walter Kenyon (Presbyterian, 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. 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 on those of Kenyon himself.
Dale Moody (Southern Baptist, USA, 1984)
Moody taught at the The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He aroused controversy as to whether he supported the Baptist principle of “perseverance of the saints” (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 Seminary then said it did not wish to inhibit faculty freedom, but it 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; 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 seminary to terminate his contract. The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary employed him until 1984 but refused to renew his contract.
Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary (USA, 1985–94)
The Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary 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.
Peter Cameron (Presbyterian, Australia, 1992)
On 2 March 1992, at a Dorcas Society rally in the Ashfield Presbyterian Church, Peter Cameron, Principal of St Andrew’s College at the University of Sydney, preached a sermon 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 in the context of the times in which it was 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 The Southern Baptist Theological 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 it was proved that he had not said so. Pressure to remove Simmons for his position on abortion continued, and in 1992 the President[clarification needed (President of …?)] offered him a financial inducement 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 The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1994, when a heresy trial was in the offing. A statement from the seminary at the time of her resignation said that her views were “significantly outside the parameters of the Abstract of Principles”, but was not more specific. Marshall went on to become President of Central Baptist Theological Seminary of Kansas City. (Central Baptist Theological Seminary had its own theological controversy, involving M. Edward Clark, Warren Lane Molton, and Alvin C. Porteous, in 1971.)
Anthony Freeman (Anglican, 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 responsible for in-service training of new ordinands. Although his congregation supported him, his views were considered unacceptable for someone in a teaching position. He could 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 unfair. Freeman remains[when?] an ordained priest but has no current license.
Walter Cameron Righter (Episcopalian, USA, 1996)
Walter Cameron Righter, assistant bishop of Newark, faced a church court over his decision in 1990 to ordain a gay man. On 15 May 1996 an Episcopal Church court dismissed charges against Righter, holding that neither the doctrine nor the discipline of the Church currently prohibited the ordination of a non-celibate homosexual person living in a committed relationship.
C. Joseph Sprague (Methodist, USA, 1998–2003)
Joseph Sprague, then bishop of the Northern Illinois Area of the United Methodist Church, had been the target of repeated 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 that 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)
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.
David Moyer (Episcopalian, USA, 2002)
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 in America.
Andrew Furlong (Anglican, Ireland, 2002)
In 2001 Andrew Furlong, Dean of Clonmacnoise, Ireland, 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 called 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.
Thorkild Grosbøll (Church of Denmark, 2003–2006)
Thorkild Grosbøll, pastor of Taarbæk near Copenhagen, attracted attention in 2003 by saying that “There is no heavenly God. There is no eternal life. There is no resurrection.” He was suspended from duty in 2004 and his case was referred to an ecclesiastical court, although the case was put on hold. On 20 May 2006 Grosbøll renewed his vows and was allowed to serve again as parish priest, but was instructed not to talk to the press. He retired in February 2008.
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 proper duty of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is to promote and safeguard the doctrine on faith and morals in the whole 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 about academic theology than the Anglican and non-conformist traditions, and a number of 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 Schillebeeckx. The following are only the most high-profile cases that have arisen during the last fifteen years.
Tissa Balasuriya (Sri Lanka)
In 1971 Fr Tissa Balasuriya founded the Center for Society and Religion in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Four years later he founded the Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians. In 1994, the Sri Lankan bishops warned that Balasuriya’s book Mary and Human Liberation included heretical content that misrepresented the doctrine of original sin and cast serious doubts on the divinity of Christ. Balasuriya submitted a 55-page theological defense to the CDF, which rejected it. He was excommunicated in January 1997, but this was rescinded in January 1998
Jacques Dupuis (Italy)
Fr Jacques Dupuis S.J. 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 doctrinal examination of the book and analysis of Dupuis’ responses to questions about it, the CDF found that the book contained “notable ambiguities and difficulties on important doctrinal points, which could lead a reader to erroneous or harmful opinions”. The points referred to 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 CDF drafted a Notification, approved by Pope John Paul II and accepted by Dupuis, to clarify and correct doctrinal points in the book. By signing the Notification, Dupuis committed himself to assent to the stated theses and to include the Notification in any reprints, translations or further editions of the book.
Anthony de Mello (India)
In June 1998 the CDF condemned the writings of Indian Jesuit Fr Anthony de Mello S.J., finding them “incompatible with the Catholic faith” and a cause of “grave harm”. De Mello, who died in 1987, was a teacher of meditation and writer of stories, who drew heavily on stories and concepts of eastern religions. The CDF 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.
Roger Haight (USA)
In August 2000, Fr Roger Haight S.J., 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. In January 2009 the CDF barred Haight from writing on theology and forbade him to teach anywhere, even in non-Catholic institutions.
Paul Collins (Australia)
In March 2001 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.
Michael Morwood (Australia)
Michael Morwood withdrew from the priesthood in 1998 as a result of attempts by the Catholic Church to silence him. The Roman Catholic Archbishop 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.
Jon Sobrino (El Salvador)
In 2007 the CDF issued a Notification against former Jesuit priest Jon Sobrino S.I. for doctrines seen as “erroneous or dangerous and [that] may cause harm to the faithful”. These concerned: the methodological (as opposed to doctrinal) presuppositions on which Sobrino bases his work; denial of the divinity of Jesus Christ; denial of the incarnation; the relationship between Jesus Christ and the Kingdom of God; the (humanistic) self-consciousness of Jesus; and denial of the salvific value of Jesus’ death.
- Dorrien, Gary: The Making of American Liberal Theology: Idealism, Realism, & Modernity (2003), p.174
- Peden, W. Creighton: From Authority Religion to Spirit Religion: An Intellectual Biography of George Burman Foster, 1857-1918 (2013), p. 2
- G. Lycan, Stetson University: The First 100 Years (1983), p. 83
- G. Lycan, Stetson University: The First 100 Years (1983), p. 107
- G. Lycan, Stetson University: The First 100 Years (1983), pp. 59-77
- G. Lycan, Stetson University: The First 100 Years (1983), p. 83 and passim
- Peden, W. Creighton: From Authority Religion to Spirit Religion: An Intellectual Biography of George Burman Foster, 1857-1918 (2013), Preface.
- Jane O’Grady (28 September 2012). “Ray Billington obituary | Education | guardian.co.uk”. London: Guardian. Retrieved 2012-09-29.
- “Gay preacher speaks of an ‘unfamiliar Jesus’”. The Layman Online 41 (5). 14 October 2008. Retrieved 27 September 2011.
- “Congregations: Art. 48”. Pastor Bonus. Libreria Editrice Vaticana. Retrieved 27 September 2011.
- Congregazione per la Dottrina della Fede. “Nota explicativa alla notificazione sulle opere di P. Jon Sobrino, S.I.” (in Italian). http://www.vatican.va. Retrieved 27 September 2011.
- 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.
- 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.
- Hatch. C.E. The Charles A Briggs Heresy Trial. 1969.
- Mitchell, Hinckley. For the Benefit of my Creditors. Boston: The Beacon Press, 1922.
- Pike, James. If This Be Heresy. New York: Harper & Row, 1967.
- Presbyterian Bookroom. A trial for heresy: Charges against Principal Geering 1967. Transcript published for the Presbyterian Church of New Zealand by the Presbyterian Bookroom, Christchurch, New Zealand, 1967.
- Stringfellow, William, and Anthony Towne. The Bishop Pike Affair. New York: Harper and Row, 1967.
- Winston, Carleton. The Circle of Earth: The Story of John H Dietrich. New York: G.P. Putnam & Sons, 1942.
- Morwood, Michael. Pell and the Banning of Tomorrow’s Catholic.
- Sea of Faith. Study on Doctrinal Diversity within the Christian Church, 2003.