'Unbeliever' priest defiant to the end: The Anglican churchman sacked for saying God did not exist says farewell . . . with a touch of humour. Mary Braid reports

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THE REV Anthony Freeman, the first parish priest this century to be sacked for his theological views, gave his final sermon yesterday, defiant until the end.

Mr Freeman, nick-named the atheist priest, likened his expulsion by the Church of England to the persecution and imprisonment of the prophet Jeremiah.

The Hebrews paid a heavy price for ostracising the Old Testament prophet and ignoring his anti-establishment views. Whether Mr Freeman will have such an earth-shattering effect on Anglicans is unclear but he has at least assured himself, and Staplefield, a blink-and-miss village in rural West Sussex, a footnote in ecclesiastical history.

More than 100 people crammed into the 19th-century St Mark's Church to hear the small, bespectacled figure say his only regret was that he had alienated some parishioners. The small posse of journalists wondered whether Mr Freeman would even mention the God word. In fact the 'unbeliever' spoke volubly and fondly of the Almighty.

His soft voice almost drowned by the usual cacophony of baby bawling, Mr Freeman protested: 'The papers say I am an atheist. That is nonsense . . . I believe in God.' But when Mr Freeman walks with the Almighty, his companion is certainly not some wizened old man with a snowy white beard. In his controversial book God With Us, published last year, Mr Freeman wrote: 'There is nothing out there or, if there is, we can have no knowledge of it.' God had no external existence but was a creation of the human heart and mind, a sum-total of all that was good in the world.

Mr Freeman was supported by 65 Anglican priests, who wrote to the Independent protesting that 31 July would be a 'day of sorrow', marking an infringement on the tradition of tolerance within the Church of England. But Dr Eric Kemp, the Bishop of Chichester, judged Mr Freeman's views too way out. There had to be limits if the Church of England was to stand for anything.

Philosophical meditations on the nature of God do not translate well in newspaper reports. But if the media has difficulty in seeing Mr Freeman as anything other than an atheist, not so his loyal congregation.

Dabbing her eyes after the service, Jane Seymour, 40, an air stewardess, said that Mr Freeman and his wife Jacqueline were very popular, even with his critics. She had come to show support for 'the most Christian of men'.

She went on: 'He was wonderful last year when my boyfriend died. He put together a funeral service that any man of God would have been proud of. I can see the church's point of view but they are acting out of fear. I don't agree with all Mr Freeman's views either but discussion is healthy and I admire his honesty. Jesus himself had to question so-called authority and orthodox views.'

George Argent, 55, a lifelong Anglican, said that a church which could not accommodate Mr Freeman was unlikely to have room for him. 'Before I met Anthony I was struggling with the same difficulties. The religion we have today stems from the Middle Ages and is still essentially medieval. If such crude attitudes were still around in medicine we would still be using leeches.'

But Noreen Harden, 79, said: 'Mr Freeman is a non-believer and so has to go. There is a danger within the Church that we are losing the true Christian worship and I hope his dismissal will be the turning point. I admire the Bishop for taking a stand. Dozens of people have stayed away from the church - now perhaps we can think of coming back.'

Facing unemployment and homelessness, Mr Freeman still insisted that his book and the subsequent controversy had been 'strong but necessary medicine', which had restored his spiritual health. The priest, who last month told his parish magazine that the person he would most like to meet was the bishop willing to employ him, said he had chosen Hymn 365, God Moves in a Mysterious Way, to show he still had a sense of humour.

We are unlikely to have seen the last of Mr Freeman. Yesterday he pointed out that Jeremiah spoke by proxy after he was gagged by the authorities. When this failed he spoke directly to the people. If Mr Freeman cannot find another church, watch out for the chat shows.

(Photograph omitted)