Can the church change its beliefs? 
Can it rewrite its creeds? 
When I wrote Agenda for Faith in the early 1990s I believed that it could and should. 
I was keen to see the church change.

It’s not surprising that having been a priest in the Church of England for twenty-five years
 I wanted to see a growing future for the church. 
Many people whose beliefs had changed were giving up on the church. 
met some of them in the Sea of Faith Network. 
My faith had also changed but I wanted the church to accept that change.
I knew that it was not easy for the church to change. 
In the past, doctrinal change had led to reformation and schism. 
I was concerned to see what other strategies for change were available.

One strategy for changing the doctrine of church is to show that some things are simply incredible.
It is simply unbelievable to believe, for example, in the devil, or hell or the virgin birth.
 It isn’t difficult to persuade people that they don’t need to believe in some of these things.
 Many people in church congregations are all too willing to give up on hell and the devil.

But to make a real difference this has to be written into the formal beliefs and structures
 of the church. Unless the church officially acknowledges that it’s OK to give up
 on the devil and hell, nothing really changes.   Or worse, because the belief is still
 expressed in hymns, creeds, liturgies  and the official teaching of the church, 
the very people who are persuaded to give up on these doctrines are frustrated with the language
 they are being asked to use Sunday by Sunday. 
Parents may think that belief in the devil is incredible but when it comes to the baptism
 of their babies they are asked to    
      “Fight valiantly as a disciple of Christ against sin, the world and the devil”

The strategy of attacking individual doctrines is not without hope. 
In 2001 a survey showed that:
 a third of the clergy in the Church of England doubt or disbelieve in the resurrection.
53% of male clergy and 39% of female assert that Jesus is the only way to salvation 
68% of male and 53% of female believe  in the bodily resurrection of Christ 
 58% of male clergy and and 33%  of female clergy believe in the Virgin Birth.
 It often seems that the church tries to ignore such findings. 
It seems to hope that, as more and more people find such belief irrelevant, 
the clergy will stop preaching them, so that in the end they will simply be forgotten. 
When this fails and it is forced to reassess a doctrine, 
the church comes up with a form of words designed to mollify all, but to maintain the status quo.
Even when the church comes up with a revision, no one believes that this is the church’s belief 
 because it not reflected in the hymns that are sung nor in the liturgy that is spoken 
– nor often in the sermon that is preached.  
The common view of what the church believes remains unchanged. 

Raimon Panikkar, a Spanish Roman Catholic priest and scholar, 
put forward the view that the history of the Christian tradition can be divided into three periods.
The first was that of Christendom, when culture, faith, political life and territor
y all came together. 
People in Christendom never really engaged with anyone who disagreed with them. 
Those who did disagree were locked up or burnt. 
People centred around a single ideological world-view.
With European exploration, and with the discovery of the New World, Africa and India, 
Christendom gave way to Christianity, an integrated system ofbelief in contrast to other systems. 
At this period there was the invention of -isms - Hinduism, Judaism, Buddhism - 
words coined by the European west. 
This period of Christianity is marked by evangelism, conversion, a conquering of the world 
- “The world for Christ in one generation”.
With the wane of such imperialistic ambitions, 
and the intellectual challenge to the systems of belief, 
Christianity, argues Panikkar, has come to end.  Christianity is giving way to Christianness.
Christianness, according to Panikkar, is the encounter with Christ at the centre of one’s self
at the centre of the human community and at the centre of reality
 and would come to be “an ecclesiastical mutation” in Christian self- understanding
 beyond that of medieval Christendom and modern Christianity.

To be Christian can be understood as the confession of a personal faith 
that adopts an attitude analogous to that of Christ. . .
This new conviction is spreading throughout the world, especially among the younger generations, 
and among those who have moved away from the over- institutionalization of Christianity,
 official Christianity in particular.
The church is moving in this direction 
which may give it the opportunity to return to its roots 
without entangling itself in doctrinal squabbles. 


When I was an evangelical Christian student, I thought religion was easy and uncomplicated. 
The truths of faith had been revealed and all I had to do was receive them. 
There was no sense of embarking on a journey, a quest for the real me and the real meaning of life.
 If someone had suggested to me that I should be a spiritual pilgrim in search of the real,
 I would have laughed and accused them of reading too much Plato.

Jesus had burst the chains of sin and death and borne insults and torment for our sake.
 When we accept his gospel, the light of life breaks through into the darkness of our lives.
 Religion was not a journey but the acceptance of the gospel.
 The human quest was already at an end.
Such a faith, I thought, was easily tested with a check list of questions. 
Do you believe in God? Do you believe that Jesus died for your sins? 
Do you believe in the power of the Holy Spirit? 
More simply and with faith centred on Jesus, Is Jesus the Lord and Saviour of your life? 
But  I had questions.  

 Did a person choose God or did God choose his people?  
I was obsessed with myself, with the individual and the individual's state of grace.-
In those days, my starting point for an exploration into God was the teachings of the church
 - its doctrines handed down from generation to generation, presented in creeds,
 liturgies and preaching and witnessed to by the bible. 
I began with Jesus and his significance for my life and my needs.
 Now, some twenty years later, I begin the exploration into God with the search for the real.
 The journey to God is a journey from the unreal to the real.

The real world in which we live and work is shaped for us by the language
 and stories of our art, faith, culture, conversation and commerce.
 It is given a foundation through the knowledge and truths
 derived from our systems of information and inquiry. 
It is a world which interacts with us and flows through us 
and the realities of our world come from the very practical
 business of living in this textual, historical and personal environment. 
So I begin my exploration into God by examining the way we handle
 the language and stories that shape our world.

I choose this starting point in order to give faith a place in every aspect of life. 
Classically faith has never just been about the claims of a religion or its founder,
 nor just about personal salvation, nor even just about moral and social responsibilities.  
 Faith has been seen to affect every part of our being, even creating the reality of our world.
 The human and spiritual quest is an exploration to be pursued in any and every corner of life.

 The church has become a club with rules making it easy for people to discern its members. 
 Many do not wish to belong to the believer's club and need not assent to its rules. 
Yet they can demand that the clergy, the officials of the club, should firmly adhere to its tenets.
It is a neat way of pushing faith aside into a department of its own,
 there for those who are able to sign up to the creeds and
 who like taking part in religious rituals,  
but faith is not a matter of running down a list of credal statements. 
Dissent is much more radical than questioning particular doctrines
 or altering one or two of the club's rules.

Concentrating on particular doctrines of belief makes it virtually impossible
 to suggest that faith might be something very different
 and involve questions of interpretation and meaning and the nature of reality.
For those who practise a faith, questions about the credibility of their faith
 are not usually uppermost in their minds. 
The truth of creeds and doctrines is not usually the starting point for their faith.
They begin with an exploration of worship, prayer and the reading of the scriptures.
They follow the saints and seek to pursue justice and peace. 
As they immerse themselves in all this, they immerse themselves in their God, 
the God in whom they live and move and have their being. 
God and the world are for them created, discovered and defined in the living out of their faith.

Those who practise a faith also find that the language of faith 
challenges their most commonly held assumptions. 
Christians, for example, speak of their baptism as a dying with Christ
 and a rising to new life. 
In their worship they say "We are the Body of Christ". 
They seek Christ in their neighbour and the needy. 
This is not, for them, poetic imagery pointing to hidden, supernatural truths.
 For the believer, this language is sacramental. 
Rather than pointing to Christ, it identifies the believer with Christ
 - an identification which redefines the common sense views of our relationship to time, 
space and personal identity.

That to me is the nature of religious experience, language and practice. 
What is needed is a strategy which in remaking our understanding of God also remakes our world.
 The revision of faith has to penetrate every aspect of our lives.
 Reshaping God must go hand in hand with a reshaping of reality, 
for nothing less than this is claimed by the practice, language and experience of faith.

 I do not see faith  as being right or wrong nor doctrines as true or false.
 I accept the tradition as a whole.
 I do not feel compelled to get rid of parts of the faith which seem incredible. 
Credibility is no longer the criterion for judging faith
 and credal boundaries have lost, for me, their defining power.
 I judge faith by its fruits. 
Does it continue to move us and motivate us? 
Is it still inspiring and liberating us?
And if faith seems to be oppressive or responsible for grotesque attitudes and actions, 
then I feel that we are free to work towards changing it.
 Where faith is seen as supernaturally fixed, it takes superhuman efforts to change it.
 If we see faith as handed down to us from a supernatural world "up there",
 we put ourselves down. 
Like life in a stately home, there will be a grand, dazzling, aristocratic upstairs world 
and a poor shadowy downstairs world of servants.
 Those in service have little control or power over their lives
 and are made to feel grateful for having somewhere to live. 
Any contrast between a world "up there" and this world -
 be it heaven and earth, life after death and life now, 
the divine and the human, theory and reality - 
robs us of the responsibility for creating meaning and value.