Signs of doubt as row over vicar's job grows: Steve Boggan visits the parish of an unbeliever and finds strong opposition to his sacking

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The Independent Online
CASUAL visitors to the picturesque church of St Mark in Staplefield might have been forgiven yesterday for detecting

a certain lack of faith in the

Almighty.

'Continuing thefts have made it necessary to keep the church locked,' said an ominous sign on the door. The porch was open but there, too, was an indication that powers other than God were being relied upon for comfort; an insurance certificate underwritten by the Ecclesiastical Insurance Group was on display, just in case He should unleash a thunderbolt in the direction of the priest-in- charge, Anthony Freeman.

Perhaps none of this is surprising, given that St Mark's is the church from which Mr Freeman was sacked this week for not believing in God. The ecclesiastical row surrounding his removal by the Bishop of Chichester, Dr Eric Kemp, grew yesterday with the publication in the Independent of a letter of support for him signed by 65 priests.

Liberal thinkers within the Anglican church argue that Mr Freeman was being denied the right to free speech when he was admonished for writing in his book, God With Us, that: 'There is nothing out there - or if there is, we can have no knowledge of it.'

Mr Freeman was away from his West Sussex village yesterday but the parish magazine gave an insight into his views. In a questionnaire interview, he was asked if he believed in God, and replied: 'Yes - and to work out what that means is my life's work.'

He elaborated briefly on ITN, saying: 'I believe that when we use the word God we are using it to focus all that's best and highest in our own human hopes and aspirations and ideas.'

But Dr Kemp was having none of it. 'The whole thing is ridiculous,' he said. 'There must be some limits to what the Church of England will tolerate if it is going to stand for anything at all.'

It was not so simple, however, for the people of Staplefield, a beautiful village dominated by a clipped common a stone's throw from the commuter town of Haywards Heath. Most villagers described Mr Freeman and his wife, Jacqueline Combes, as kind, hard- working and popular. And they wanted them to stay.

'So what if he doesn't believe in God?' said Lindsey Pickles, 19. 'He is more in touch with what people think than the bishops are. They're all hypocrites and they were wrong to sack him. He's just being brave enough to ask the questions we all ask.'

Her views were representative of drinkers in the Jolly Tanners. Irene Naiff, 49, said: 'He tries to preach how he feels, and he doesn't believe in the resurrection or the virgin birth. He is a good priest and we want him to stay, but I can understand why the bishop won't employ someone who doesn't believe in God.'

Mrs Naiff said most people supported Mr Freeman but older worshippers had rejected his ideas, and church attendances had fallen as a result. That is a factor likely to have played a part in his dismissal but Mr Freeman appears to have known for some time that his refusal to accept the Church's traditional view of God was simply incompatible with his position.

Asked in the church magazine interview who he would most like to meet, he replied: 'The bishop willing to employ me.'

And last night, Mike Tuckwell, the church warden, said Mr Freeman hoped to return to another parish: 'He's taken it philosophically. He is very committed to the Church of England and Christianity. He very sincerely hopes that in the near future he will be able to serve as a parish priest again.'

Leading article, page 17

(Photograph omitted)

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