Heresy hunting

One of the big differences between the theological training that I received from the university and the theological training I received from the church was that the former was interested in heresy and the latter wasn’t interested at all.

It may be that things are different now, I don’t know. But quite a lot of the church history that we did when I first did my BD was about defining the limits of orthodoxy. In other words, looking at the controversies of the early church and learning about the key players who determined what was and what was not legitimate for Christians to believe in. And it was useful stuff too – far too easily dismissed by those who think the church should simply have fuzzy boundaries and for whom any theology goes. Useful too for helping one to think through the modern church’s controversies to see whether or not things have changed much.

It also led to the entertaining theological dinner party game of ‘I can’t believe that’s not orthodoxy’. The participants have to come up with a new heresy and the others have to prove that it is in fact an old one.

One way of understanding the trials and tribulations of modern Anglicanism is to see it as a global version of this game. And not just Anglicanism of course, though we are particularly good at it.

Current possible heresies include the following:

Optional Doctrinalism – the idea that a church can have a doctrine which it authorises some people to disbelieve. (This one seems very attractive at the moment – see the latest from New Zealand).

Clerical Morality – The idea that clergy have different moral standards put upon them than the laity. (Yes, this one can be found very clearly in lots of documents, not least the recent pastoral statement and guidance from the House of Bishops in England). The interesting question here is whether clerical celibacy, practised, for example, in some parts of the Roman Catholic Church at some times and in some places is a moral injunction or a pastoral one.

Canonical Antiadiaphoralism – Putting a contested doctrinal statement into the canons of a church by majority vote and then claiming it has creedal authority for all Christians for all time and in all places or claiming that statements which were made in canon law for one purpose actually apply in different circumstances but for for all people. (See for example, this statement by a group claiming to represent the Faith and Order Board of the Scottish Episcopal Church).

How are we to determine whether these are indeed modern heresies or whether they fall legitimately within orthodoxy?


  1. It is probably helpful to be clear about the distinction between “dogma” (which is best understood as the definition of orthodoxy and of heresy, of the things it is mandatory to affirm and the things it is forbidden to affirm) and “church order” (the rules about how people are to conduct themselves). These are related but by no means the same thing.

    “Doctrine” is a third thing again, to my mind. It is the body of teaching that the church affirms but is much more extensive and changeable than dogma.

    Of particular relevance is who has the authority to pronounce on these things. Denominational authorities quite properly establish church law and discipline (this needs to be done and there’s nobody else to do it) but would go beyond their proper sphere (in my view) if they tried to establish new definitions in the field of dogma.

  2. Andrew says

    I feel the need to separate praxis and doctrine, but I suppose that is probably a minor heresy in itself, in a church that hides its doctrine in its liturgy. Although I suppose the deftness of the ‘McCarthy Liturgy’ has maybe sidestepped that pitfall as deftly as an 18th century non-juring bishop side-stepping western orthodoxy and the rest…

  3. Rosemary Hannah says

    To a degree I think it is a matter of tradition. Anglican churches have tended (and it is only a tendency) to insist of orthopraxis. Church of Scotland churches have tended (same health warning) to emphasise orthodoxy of belief, call it doctrine or dogma. St Andrews is not of course a C or S institution, but it used to be, certainly in my day, and to a degree in yours, heavily steeped in C of S ethos. St Mary’s trained C of S ministers and that was ALL the training they got, because then they knew Orthodoxy.

  4. The links on this post have led me to think of this –

    The Inner Party – The Outer Party – The Proles.

    The model demands tight control of the middle class, with ambitious Outer Party members neutralised via promotion to the Inner Party or “reintegration” by Miniluv, while proles can be allowed intellectual (and sexual) freedom because they lack intellect. Winston nonetheless believed that “the future belonged to the proles”. Wikipedia.

  5. Allan Ronald says

    There was most definitely a C of S ethos at St Andrews in my day [67-71]. Robin Buchanan-Smith was running a packed college chapel and one president of the SRC and one president of the Union were St Mary’s men who went on to ordination and, in one case, to be Moderator of the Kirk. Perhaps they got their orthodoxy from Matthew Black at St Mary’s and their skill in future clerical politics from their student posts…….

Speak Your Mind