The Rev Anthony Freeman, 48, will take his last service as priest-in- charge of St Mark's, Staplefield, west Sussex, on Sunday after being sacked by the Bishop of Chichester, Dr Eric Kemp, for whom he once worked as domestic chaplain. A year ago he published his book God With Us in which he argued: 'There is nothing out there - or if there is, we can have no knowledge of it.'
The book prompted Dr Kemp, 79, a leading Anglo-Catholic, to remove Mr Freeman from his post as director of post-ordination training, and give him a year to consider his future as a priest. After meeting Mr Freeman last March, Dr Kemp decided his views had not changed, and told him he would cease to be priest-in-charge at the end of this month. He has not offered him another post, and has refused him permission to officiate in the diocese.
Dr Kemp said yesterday that he had taken the decision after consultation with his two suffragan bishops, the bishop's council of 25 clerical and lay people, and senior theologians. They had all agreed Mr Freeman should be dismissed.
The dismissal has prompted a protest from 65 Church of England priests who have put their names to a letter published in today's Independent. It says Dr Kemp's action reverses 'a long Church of England tradition that tolerates and values a wide range of views'.
While a few of the signatories agree with Mr Freeman's views - notably the radical Cambridge theologian Don Cupitt - most do not agree with him, but feel that Dr Kemp's action has endangered freedom of expression within the Anglican ministry.
Paul Oestreicher, a canon at Coventry Cathedral and a noted pacifist campaigner, said he did not agree with Mr Freeman, but added: 'It's fundamental to the nature of the Christian faith that there should be freedom of conscience, not least among those who are ordained.'
The debate was most famously articulated by Don Cupitt in his book Taking Leave from God in 1980. He rejected transcendance, or the existence of God outside the created world, and inspired the establishment of the 'Sea of Faith' network, which aimed to promote religious faith as a human creation.
Mr Freeman also denies the divinity of Christ. In his book, he compared the use of the 1662 Prayer Book to members of the Sealed Knot re-enacting Civil War battles. 'To believe in a supernatural, all-powerful interventionist God when the rest of the world has abandoned that belief is not the same thing as having believed in such a God when it was the generally accepted thing.'
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