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 place in England during the past century. Opportunities to meet convicted heretics are rare these days, but Ray Billington doesn’t shrink from discussing his past; he readily agreed to meet me to reminisce about the events of 1971 that resulted in his formal defrocking.

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 Methodist Church", and urged him to withdraw from the ministry. When he refused, the matter was referred to the Methodist Conference, meeting later that month in Harrogate.

RB: It was an extraordinary day. Hundreds of ministers were called into a closed meeting, having had no warning of what was to be discussed. They debated from 10.00 A.M. until 5.15, and I can tell you it is quite peculiar to hear people talk about you for seven hours. I was free to speak at any time, and I was given half an hour to state my case. I reminded them that I represented a real constituency within the Methodist Church; many people had written to say how I had helped them stay in the church.

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 Tony Bridge, a former atheist who had converted to Christianity, and I had described myself as a ‘non-theist’. I didn’t mind people objecting to that. The most offensive thing that anyone said all day was that I changed my mind every other year and it didn’t really matter what I thought because I would have changed my mind by the next year anyway. It implied that I didn’t need to be taken seriously – I found that much more offensive than serious disagreement.

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 Methodist Church seven years earlier, sounded rueful in a letter to the Bulletin of The Fellowship of the Kingdom: "I confess to a wry smile at the powerful lobby to keep an avowed atheist in the ministry compared with the paucity of similar support for one merely criticizing conservative interpretations of the divinity of Christ." Asked to confirm whether The Christian Outsider was the successor to his own work, John Robinson disagreed with Billington’s non-theism: "I remain convinced that God-language…does correspond to the reality of an environment, the most ultimate of all, to which human life is open and which goes beyond anything that the purely secular humanist can assert." How did all this affect Billington?

RB: I was disappointed, but not bitter. By 1971 I was no longer an active church minister; I was a senior lecturer in humanities at Bristol Polytechnic. I still took occasional services, but my relationship to the church was increasingly loose. Since that time, other than weddings and such, I’ve never attended another church service, and I can’t say that I’ve missed it.

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 nearby City University, but the attempted censorship so outraged Morris that he cancelled the rest of the series.

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 lecturer in California, and his job included regular lectures on Eastern religion and philosophy. When I returned to Bristol, I developed that interest and wrote Understanding Eastern Philosophy. Now I run the East-West Philosophy Circle, along with J J Clarke of Kingston University. Hinduism and Buddhism are much less exercised about doctrinal purity than Christians are. For example, the Hindus consider the Buddha to be unorthodox, but not beyond the pale; in fact, he is thought to be one of the incarnations of Vishnu. The rigid drawing of boundaries that we find in the West is actually quite contrary to the way the human mind works.

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.