Leading Article: A priest who pushed dissent too far

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The Independent Online
IT IS hard not to admire the nerve of a Church of England clergyman who seeks to preach 'a new, bracing beliefless Christianity', and who is not afraid to say 'there is nothing 'out there' - or, if there is, we can have no knowledge of it'. Such is the position of the Rev Anthony Freeman, whose book God With Us caused him to be dismissed by the Bishop of Chichester a year ago from his post as director of post-ordination training.

Because of his beliefs, or lack of them, he is now being relieved of his job as priest-in-charge of St Mark's, Staplefield, by the Bishop, Dr Eric Kemp. This further punishment brought a letter of protest, printed in yesterday's Independent, from 65 Church of England clerics and theologians. A few shared his views. All believed the action of the 79-year-old bishop threatened freedom of expression within the Anglican ministry.

Yet it is not thanks to the Church's tradition of tolerance that Mr Freeman has become the first parish priest this century to be dismissed for publishing unorthodox theological views. Others who share his view that God is essentially an ideal image of the highest values constructed by the human mind have been variously protected. Academics such as Don Cupitt, author of Taking Leave from God, enjoy a certain licence. Most parish priests are vicars, who enjoy 'parson's freehold' and are, consequently, virtually impossible to dislodge except for moral or criminal offences. As a priest-in-charge, Mr Freeman was on a contract. More of his fellow clerics will be similarly vulnerable as the Church places their employment on a more professional basis.

Mr Freeman's defenders see him as a victim of growing pressure for conformity. Yet there must be a limit to the level of dissent that any organisation, especially one based on a set of beliefs, can permit in its ranks. A Tory prime minister could not tolerate a minister who insisted that the party's underlying principles had nothing to do with reality. A beliefless Christianity is not so much a bracing concept as a contradiction in terms.

For every potential worshipper attracted by Mr Freeman's approach, there will be dozens who see it as confirmation that the Church of England stands for everything and nothing. Mr Freeman may have a future as a philosopher. He is misplaced as a parish priest.