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Special Corner - Richard Rowley Cults and the Group Mind (9) January 16, 2010

Breaking free of orthodoxy can cost you your life.

I am quoting John Spong from the introduction of a recent book of his, "A New Christianity for a New World" because it shows how an original thinker can be sidelined and deliberately ignored by the orthodox church. The establishment does not want change, nor their followers to think for themselves, thus keeping them within a type of trance state.

Bishop Spong says that though separated by a generation, he and John A.T. Robinson, former Bishop of Woolwich, [ a borough in S.E. London where I once resided ] had followed remarkably similar life paths.

"It was his little book entitled 'Honest to God,' published in 1963 by the Westminster Press in Philadelphia, that shaped my theological journey decisively. This book was launched with a front-page story in the Sunday Observer in Great Britain under the banner headline, 'Our Image of God Must Go!' Robinson's life would never be the same. This book was a bold blast at the way Christianity had been traditionally understood. It was issued by one who was at that time only an assistant bishop occupying a quite secondary position in the ecclesiastical hierarchy. In this book, Robinson laid out in clear and straightforward language for the average person the debate going on inside the academy. He introduced his readers to the work of Rudolf Bultmann, who was calling for the scriptures to be demythologized,[a topic later taken up by Tom Harpur]; Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was calling for a Christianity apart from religion; and Paul Tillich, who was insisting that God could no longer be defined personally as a being, but must be approached non-personally as the Ground of All Being. The response to this book was tremendous. It was discussed in pubs, with taxicab drivers, at tea, and over dinner, and even in homes where church going had long ceased to be a habit.

"But almost immediately the threatened leadership of the traditional church struck back to defend its familiar and dated theological affirmations. Led by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, the hierarchy decided, in the time-honored manner of defensive people, that since they could neither embrace nor deny Robinson's message, they must attack the messenger, and attack him they did.

"In an outpouring of negativity unprecedented in religious circles until the Muslims put a death price on the head of Salman Rushdie, Robinson was pilloried in the press, in letters to the editor, on radio talk shows, and from the pulpits of that land. Church careers were made by ambitious clergy attacking this young bishop in the name of something called 'the faith once for all delivered to the saint' (Jude 1:3), as if such a body of fixed doctrine had ever existed.

"Robinson would now suffer the fate of many a brilliant spiritual leader before him. He was quickly marginalized by his church, avoided by those who once had been his colleagues, and forced to fight to maintain his reputation and integrity. His career in the church was derailed. Normally a person of his age, education, and family background would remain an assistant or area bishop for only a few years before being made the senior bishop of a major diocese. Robinson, however, was clearly destined to be an assistant bishop forever. Finally he resigned from that position in order to return to Cambridge to teach Even at that great university the long arm of the church was still able to bring its shunning power to bear upon his life. Robinson was never elected by the Cambridge decision makers to the position of university lecturer, despite the fact that he had enjoyed that designation in the 1950s before he was appointed to the bishop's office. So he lived out his career at Cambridge as the Dean of Chapel at Trinity College, a relatively minor position, usually filled by a recent theological graduate. He died in 1983 largely unappreciated by his church.

He was not the first clergyman to be ostracized by the church for originally thinking. John Spong quotes the case of David Friedrich Strauss, the great nineteenth-century German New Testament scholar. "At age twenty-seven he published a book entitled "The Life of Jesus Critically Reviewed," dealing with issues of biblical criticism and interpretation that are today commonplace and routine in the Christian academy. But in 1835 Strauss was breaking new ground, raising questions that clearly eroded the pillars upon which ecclesiastical power had been erected, and so he, like Giordano Bruno, [who was burned at the stake in 1600 as a heretic for believing along with Galileo, Kepler and Copernicus that the earth was not the centre of the universe] - so he felt the wrath of a threatened church." Though the church no longer had the authority to burn heretics at the stake, it was still powerful enough, and still is today, to silence critics. "Strauss was summarily removed from his university appointment and never again allowed to teach anywhere. He died many years later, a broken man living in poverty. His insights, however, were destined not only to live, but in time to become mainstream and then later even to be thought of as tame and conservative."

Even today, original thinkers like Tom Harpur and Matthew Fox found it difficult to remain priests in their own church. Tom Harpur still worships in the Anglican church although he has resigned from the ministry. Matthew Fox, for a while silenced by the Catholic Church, left his former faith altogether, and has now become an Anglican priest. The establishment is always defensive against change, and when in the Middle Ages the Church was all-powerful it was able to suppress even the translation of the Bible into English. It did not like the general public reading the scriptures for themselves, One of the first translators was John Wycliffe (c1330 - 1384) [ who was once prebendary of Aust, near my birthplace of Westbury-on-Trym]. He was declared a heretic for his work on the Bible. William Tyndale (1494-1536) was also condemned as a heretic, and was strangled and burned at the stake. With today's fundamentalism and fatwas and execution of those of different faiths or opposing viewpoints, we are return to the climate of the Middle Ages. It is dangerous to be different, and think for ourselves. So you can see why it is so important for us to break free of the group mind when it becomes so short-sighted and clannish.

Tom Harpur has more to say about Bishop John Robinson in a recent book that again brings up the topic of the need for change in religion. In discussing prayer and God he writes: "Even while I'm aware that he knows all that's going on in my life or the lives of those around me, I am compelled to converse with the Great Spirit, or, by just being still, to listen for the Divine Voice within.
I intuitively know for certain that this would remain true whether I ever become so disillusioned with formal, institutionalized worship that I gave it up entirely or not. The option of leaving Anglicanism (Episcopalianism) - perhaps to join the Quakers - is far from being impossible. My wife, Susan, and I have tried over the years to continue in our adherence to this or that form of parish worship yet find that the dogmatic rigidities pervading it all overwhelm and hinder any spirituality that makes sense to us. We make no judgment of those who still find them relevant and full of meaning. Honesty, however, compels me to say that for us worship and especially prayer in such restrictive circumstances often seem more like a repetitive exploration of an ancient archeological dig than the expression of a living encounter with divine reality today."

A radio program I once heard on the BBC, during a year of postgraduate study back at Oriel College, Oxford, has echoed in my mind down the years since, particularly when I think about prayer. I was sitting in a room in Nottingham on a lovely spring evening in 1963, having a discussion together with two other budding theologians. All of us were ordained Anglican ministers. One, who was several years older than I, was a former fighter pilot who had become an Anglican priest much later in life. He flew a Spitfire in the Battle of Britain [under Lord Dowding's command, who himself dedicated the last three decades of his life to Spiritualism]. Suddenly we became aware that something significant was happening on the radio which was playing in the background. There was an interview in progress with John Robinson, who was the Anglican Bishop of Woolwich, in London. He had just written a small but highly controversial book, "Honest to God." It was destined to become a major bestseller everywhere.
We quickly gathered around the radio, turned up the volume, and listened avidly. It was all fairly radical theological and ethical thinking for that era - new ways of speaking about God and about a new morality. But what, for me, seemed then to be most radical of all were his comments on prayer. He said that even though he was a bishop and was expected to conform to and up hold traditional church doctrines and practices, he had for a long time not felt comfortable with the Anglican - or indeed any 'churchy' - approach to prayer. In fact, he said, he felt very uncomfortable in most of the situations and meetings with his fellow bishops, clergy and laity, where praying or the topic of prayer arose. He added, 'I was deeply aware that, whatever trip or train they were on in regard to prayer, I had fallen off long ago.' He explained what he meant: that formal prayer, in the Anglican style, and fervent 'quiet times' each morning - much championed and faithfully practiced by the evangelical wing of Anglicanism and by keenly Protestant evangelicals in general - did little or nothing for his spiritual life. The three of us felt like cheering. Bound, at least in the letter of church law, to say the formal, daily Offices or services for Morning and Evening Prayer from the Book of Common Prayer, as a bare minimum, we knew what he meant. Robinson was speaking to our own sense of aridity and, on occasions, the futility, of our own 'prayer life.'
"I little dreamed back then that I would one day become a friend of Bishop John Robinson (he soon was universally dubbed 'Honest-to-God Robinson') entertaining him in my home, and discussing his developing ideas with him both there and later in his birthplace, Canterbury, England, during the 1978 Lambeth Conference. He died not all that long ago and his mind and presence are deeply missed by a very large company. What was truly refreshing about him, - and indeed about much of the theological ferment of the mid and late 1960s - was his candor, his willingness to question traditional truths and formulas, and his concern to make contact with the real world which many Christians still often ignore but are so fond of saying 'God loves.' He was a deeply spiritual person as well as a leading New Testament scholar. I'd like to think, and certainly it is my prayer, that in this book you are about to read*, his spirit of honesty, his love for God, and his deep desire to communicate with modern men and women, continue to live on."

* Prayer: The Hidden Fire" by Tom Harpur. Northstone. 1998

Further discussion to follow of the original ideas of John Robinson, John Spong, Tom Harpur and Matthew Fox, some of our recent trance breakers. My notes above within [square brackets].

Richard R.