Rite and Reason

An opinion column in the Irish Times, 8th January 2002


The church can be likened to a great motorway - a route for people to follow if they so choose - but it is always in need of an extra lane, writes Andrew Furlong

For some people, it is OK to stay in the church. For others, it is OK to leave the church; they are free to take the next exit, to travel and explore another route. They are, of course, welcome to re-join the motorway, if they want to, at a later stage. However, there is also another group of believers who want to stay, but need the church to broaden its boundaries - the motorway needs another lane.

"The time has come to leave Jesus" (this remarkable and unforgettable person) "to his place in history and to move on". If you agree with this statement of personal conviction, then you and I can only begin from where we are now, as we continue our journeying into 2002.

To some of those who agree with me that "Jesus was neither a mediator nor a saviour, neither super-human nor divine," I say, "it's OK to leave the church"; to others I say, "try and stay on if you can". The world has seen religions come and go; to my mind, no religion is guaranteed permanence, only the searching human spirit, mind and heart are perennial.

One of the church's early and defining creeds is the Apostles' Creed. In preparation for a programme on BBC's Good Morning Sunday on December 30th, people of all faiths and none were invited to submit their own personal credo: who or what is the origin of your universe, how would you express the essentials of what you believe about God (if you believe in God), about the purpose of life, and spiritual reality?

I would be most interested to receive your credos, if you would send them to me (Deanery, Trim, Co Meath, e-mail: dean@meath.anglican.org). Your thinking, believing, doubting and searching would probably make me want to modify my present credo. This is it: "As individual and social beings, we are challenged to ascend to the heights of our humanity, avoid sinking to the depths of our depravity. In beliefs expect diversity, mine evolve. Religions are motorways needing widening. All life is gift; human life is of eternal worth, found loveable by God, who is hidden, active, committed to us for better, for worse.

"Religious symbols: wedding ring, journey, fire, light, darkness, horizon, sun, cloud, ocean, wave. The destiny of this risky adventure of life lies over the horizon, in eternity; the meaning of life continues to grow.

"Let life be developed and used, be open-minded, courageous, hopeful and trusting, seek to adore".

My main questions at the beginning of 2002 are these: in a liberal, pluralistic, modern democracy how can a centuries-old institution, like the church, catch up? Is it realistic for members of any church to expect that their leaders' thinking, over a working life-time of 40 years, will always be in agreement with the current orthodoxy of the day?

Is this not too much to expect? What place for Reformers? Is it an illusion to dream of a doctrinally pure church? My main concern is that we remember religions should be 70 per cent or more action; however necessary and healthy debate might be.

My ancillary concern is that the situation that we have now should not be repeated in the future.

There have been 250 years of honourable academic study, using the latest and best research tools, into the significance of Jesus, Christianity's founder. However, the leadership of our churches, myself included, has largely failed, probably out of fear and/or a misguided protective love, to inform its membership that the results of such research have produced a rich diversity of interpretations of Jesus.

Like it or not, Orthodoxy has been challenged and questioned.

Andrew Furlong, Church of Ireland Dean of Clonmacnoise, was suspended shortly before Christmas

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