Confessions of a Heretic
Patti Whaley interviews Methodist heretic Ray Billington, author of Religion without God.
"We have been reading the book The Christian Outsider, by Ray Billington. We feel that Mr Billington’s ‘non-theology’ is a complete denial of Christianity, and that, since Mr Billington is still officially a Methodist minister, we should formally accuse him of false doctrine."
So opens a letter from two Cambridge
Methodists which led to one of the few formal "heresy trials" to take
RB: I had written a book, The Christian Outsider, which took forward the implications of Robinson’s Honest to God. It was published by Epworth, the Methodist press, but they included a disclaimer stating that they didn’t endorse my opinions. Then this couple wrote to the head of the Methodist Conference, to complain. They noted that I didn’t believe in a personal God; didn’t believe that Jesus was the Son of God; and didn’t believe in life after death.
Things moved very quickly: within 10 days,
the Doctrinal Committee of Appeal met to consider the charges. On 7 June, they
ruled that Billington’s opinions were "incompatible with the doctrinal
standards of the
The haste and secrecy of the hearing might indicate that Billington was convicted before the discussion began, but comments by Billington and others at the time portray the hearing as fair and dignified:
RB: Although few people had read the
book, they would have heard me on "The Epilogue" a few days earlier.
I was debating with
A motion was made to postpone any decision for a year, to give both Billington and the Church time to reconsider; but the idea failed to gain support. The final vote convicted Billington, 298 to 169.
RB: The age divide was clear. In the conference room, ministers are seated by seniority, with the older ministers in the front and the youngest in the rear. I had strong support in the back of the room, but the front rows wanted me out. Of course, they were all sworn to secrecy; but it was on the front page of Guardian the very next day.
The scandal was widely reported, and Billington shared with me his collection of newspaper clippings and letters. Many who disagreed with Billington’s theology still objected to his ousting. An editorial in the Belfast Telegraph, 3 July 1971, is typical: "We live in an age of participation and free discussion and the Church may have to become used to living with these resident aliens…If it cannot do this, then the prospect ahead would appear to be one of a narrowing coterie, hostile to scientific thought and learning and of shrinking appeal to youth."
Other dissident theologians were less
forthcoming in their support. Walter Gill, ousted from the
Not only had Billington challenged church doctrine; his book challenged the church itself, claiming that church structures gobbled up resources that should be spent helping others, and that the church was a positive hindrance to cooperation between Christians and non-Christians. Under the circumstances, many people asked why he even wanted to remain a minister in the church?RB: Church membership is diverse, like a rainbow, and I do represent one end of that rainbow. If I pulled out of the church altogether, I would be viewed simply as someone who had ‘lost his faith’, and I could no longer argue for the inclusion of other people who thought as I did. I know that many ministers share my views. These so-called radical ideas are all taught at theological college. We were never told not to discuss them in the parish, but most ministers instinctively repress them once they are ordained.
The controversy didn’t end with the trial.
That autumn, Billington was asked to lecture at Wesley Chapel, as part of the
Indaba series. Indaba was the brainchild of Colin Morris; its aims were "to
test the Christian interpretation of life against its rivals in honest
encounter." It had already featured Black Power leaders, Marxists, and
other avowed atheists; but, apparently, no one offends the believer more than
an apostate from his own faith. Twenty preachers wrote to protest, arguing that
the Methodist Church Union Act made it illegal for atheists to speak on church
premises, and that the invitation to Billington "outrages the feelings of
the Methodist people." Again the pages of the Methodist Recorder burned
white-hot: supporters wrote that censoring Billington was ‘ridiculous’,
‘tragic’, and ‘totalitarian’, while protestors insisted that his presence in a
Methodist pulpit would be ‘nonsense’, ‘an insult’. Morris himself wrote to the
Recorder, stating that "we have nothing to fear from the expression of
honest doubt or even outright atheism. But we have everything to fear from that
defensiveness which hardens imperceptibly into intolerance…The Church’s
intolerance has done more damage to the cause of the Kingdom than all the
assaults of atheism." The lecture was moved to the ‘neutral territory’ of
In the years since being defrocked, Billington has continued to teach and write. His recent book, Religion without God, examines how Eastern religions construct a value-based approach to life that doesn’t depend on the existence of a deity. He became interested in Eastern religions almost by chance:
RB: One year I traded places with a
Throughout the controversy, Billington returned again and again to the idea that doctrine was not a useful part of religion. Writing at the time of his trial, he said that he was a Christian to the extent that he had been "more influenced by the message of Jesus Christ than by any one else in the history of the world." Nevertheless he considered traditional doctrines to be a hindrance to the further development of humanity: "They instill a sense of dependence, on the part of human beings, on sources of strength outside themselves…No other being exists to achieve [a life worth living] for us, and therefore any doctrine which encourages men to imagine that there is, is ultimately deleterious to the human situation."
If that was his view, I asked, could the concept of heresy still have any purchase today?
RB: No. Its implied emphasis on doctrinal purity, and on the clergy as the holders of that purity, is no longer useful. Lay people should go to church if the church helps them to realize the possibility of transcendence in their lives. The clergy are there to facilitate and support that process; they have particular knowledge, skills and experience but they are not the holders of some absolute ‘right answer’. No one can provide the answers for us; we must find out for ourselves, and create our own certainties.