Sydney Ahlstrom, an American church historian, refers to the 1960s and 1970s as “The Traumatic Years” for “American Religion and Culture”. He points to “a disjunction between received tradition and present belief”; “criticisms levelled at the biblical tradition as a whole”; “radical criticism of both the churches and their traditional doctrines”; and “an increased polarisation of conservatives and liberals which considerably augmented the country’s evangelical constituency”.
Within the two decades of the ‘60s and ‘70s, 1967 can be identified as something of a hinge year both locally in New Zealand and globally. The momentous changes Ahlstrom refers to were beginning to open the door to gales that were to profoundly affect New Zealand culture and religion. To understand what influenced Professor Geering’s trial for doctrinal error in 1967, popularly known as “the heresy trial”, it is important to situate it within both the particular and general historical contexts of the time.
James Belich, in Paradise Reforged: A History of the New Zealanders, colourfully refers to the “political, economic and ideological…. great tightening process” that took place from the 1880s to the 1920s. “They tried”, he writes, “to harmonise, homogenise and even pasteurise New Zealand society. They harmonised acknowledged differences, suppressed and camouflaged others, and purified and laundered both form and content.” While some tried to challenge, resist, subvert and sidetrack this “great tightening”, Belich argues that socially through populism, morally through “sexual Puritanism” and prohibition, and racially through a “Better British” ideology, New Zealand sought to be, and thought of itself, as “an exemplary paradise, ‘God’s Own Country’”.
The churches were part of the social fabric that contributed to this “great tightening”. While, as Belich admits, “The tight society had never been uncontested” the gradual loosening: socially, morally and racially began to gain momentum in the 1960s as both external and local forces began to be felt. Something of the “tight society” and its loosening can be seen in the overlap of social, moral and religious influences. Examples of that can be seen in such things as:
• New Zealand’s rigid attitude towards Sunday observance and alcohol with strict controls on commercial and sporting activities; tight legislation around the sale of liquour with six o’clock closing persisting until October 1967.
• A prescriptive ideology around motherhood and the role of women, idealising the values of domesticity and the sanctity of marriage, with hostility towards divorce. Both the growth of the number of women in the work force, and the campaign for equal pay in the 1960s, were pushing social and gender boundaries.
• A strict attitude towards censorship, symbolised in 1967, for example, by the screening of the film Ulysses to separate male and female audiences.
• A prudery about sexuality. An example of that was seen in the overreaction by authorities of the University of Otago to mixed flatting. This led to the suspension of a male student and James Baxter’s ribald response in his A Small Ode on Mixed Flatting:
King Calvin in his grave will smile
To know we know that man is vile.
The sit-in at Otago University in 1967 over the mixed flatting incident led to a quick back down. This was an indication that the baby-boomers were beginning to exercise their opposition to authority. The “protest generation” in 1967, which forced a somewhat reluctant society to loosen its social, moral, sexual and racial attitudes, was coming of age and beginning to have an impact.
• Anti-Vietnam protests became a rallying cause for the anti-war movement and its reverberations were felt in New Zealand over the next few years.
• The civil rights movement and the leadership of Martin Luther King, began to sow seeds of discomfort in New Zealand, as the century long assimilationist attitudes, and the integrationist ideology of the 1961 Hunn Report came under attack. At the Uppsala Assembly of the World Council of Churches in 1968, the Programme to Combat Racism was born. Decolonisation in Africa, Asia and the Pacific was reshaping the world map.
• Second wave feminism had its roots in the 1960s and is often identified as beginning in 1963 with Betty Friedan’s, The Femimine Mystique. In New Zealand, the formation of the Society for Research on Women in 1967, and in the same year, the United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, gave momentum to feminist concerns.
These developments are just pointers towards the huge social, cultural and ideological shifts that were taking place in the 1960s that were beginning to undermine the tight society. This was the age of hippies, flower power and slogans like: “Make peace, not war!”
This social revolution was encapsulated in July 1967 when the Beatles issued their eighth album, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” which “is often cited as one of the most influential albums of all time”. The counterculture had arrived in all its psychedelic glory. The previous year, in 1966, Timothy Leary said that “Like every great religion of the past we seek to find the divinity within and to express this revelation in a life of glorification and the worship of God. These ancient goals we define in the metaphor of the present — turn on, tune in, drop out.” The hippy, radical edge of the baby boomers, was caught up with communes and LSD, flower power and sexual freedom, transcendental meditation and Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. John Lennon in 1966, in an off the cuff remark said, “Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink.... I don’t know what will go first, rock ‘n’ roll or Christianity. We’re more popular than Jesus now. Jesus was all right, but his disciples were thick and ordinary. It’s them twisting it that ruins it for me.” The “great loosening” was taking place in all sorts of strange ways. Young people were turning on to whatever gave them gratification, tuning in to an eclectic religious mix, and dropping out of the church and institutional Christianity.
What about the churches and their beliefs within the rapidly evolving revolutionary social milieu of the 1960s? There was some spectacular loosening, seen, for example, in the breaking down of centuries of Catholic and Protestant hostility and the rapid development in ecumenical relations through the impact of the Second Vatican Council, 1962 to 1965. Fresh winds were blowing through the Catholic Church as it undid the Tridentine Reformation of the sixteenth century and opened itself to new relationships with Protestants, somewhat euphemistically called “separated brethren”. Catholics reformed their liturgy, using vernacular languages; religious orders literally lost their old habits and recovered the charism, the spiritual origins which had given them birth. But the loosening processes were also constrained by the reassertion of tradition. Pope Paul’s encyclical, Humane Vitae, in July 1968, which represented a restatement of a traditionalist approach, is an example of that. The encyclical rejected artificial birth control and put Catholics in a position of either thumbing their nose (in the privacy of their bedrooms) at the magisterium, or accepting the tight church approach to family planning. Humane Vitae symbolised the crisis of authority the church faced as baby boomers increasingly rejected institutional authority. The decline in the Catholic birth-rate was evidence the laity were making their own minds up on birth control.
In New Zealand in 1964, ecumenical optimism was in the air, with five churches: Anglican, Associated Churches of Christ, Congregational, Methodist and Presbyterian, commencing negotiations for organic church union. The churches entered into these discussions largely out of strength. Church statistics for membership peaked for Presbyterians in 1966. The baby boomers, as statistics from the late 1950s indicate, however, were not coming through into church membership. For Presbyterians the Sunday school peaked in 1959 and the Bible Class in 1962. Those who dreamt of one church uniting the largest Protestant and Anglican denominations could not have anticipated the relentless yearly decline in their membership that was already underway in 1967. How far the doctrinal disputes from 1966 to 1971 contributed to the statistical decline of the Presbyterian Church, if at all, is very difficult to measure. The decline had already set in before 1967. What Presbyterians experienced was something shared by Methodists and Anglicans in New Zealand and churches elsewhere around the globe. Doctrinal controversy was at best, or should it be at worst, only a small contributory cause in denominational decline, rather than a major factor.
The challenges to traditional theological beliefs raised in the 1960s were deeply grounded in the impact of the Enlightenment and Biblical scholarship of the last two hundred years. In the 1960s these took on a new dynamic as the forces of traditional orthodoxy and the tight society clashed with those who wanted a more liberal or radical restatement of what it meant to be Christian. While the Church experienced considerable growth after the Second World War, it was not keeping up with the population increases in society. People were becoming aware of the effects of the longstanding process of secularisation – that is the freedom of society from all constraining religious influences. The loosening of laws around alcohol and Sunday observance were indicative of that. The Church was increasingly marginalised from the role which it believed it had, to act as the guardian and arbiter in the oversight of morality in society.
The restatement of Christian beliefs in innovative ways meant that old wine skins were no longer any use in containing the new wine. Theology was concerned not only about the content of religious beliefs, but also the containers in which they were expressed. Two examples of that were seen in the appropriation of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s ideas around “Religionless Christianity”. Harvey Cox picked this up in 1965 in the celebration of The Secular City. John Robinson’s expressed Bonhoeffer’s sentiments in 1963 in his populist Honest to God in which he succinctly challenged the three decker universe of heaven, earth and hell, and gave public recognition to Tillich’s God who was to be understood as “the ground of all being”. The omnipotent, omniscient, supernatural, ineffable, transcendent God was being brought down to earth.
Some went further and took up Neitchze’s declaration that “God is dead”. Gabriel Vahanian in The Death of God: The Culture of Our Post-Christian Era (1961) argued that “western culture is no longer responsive to traditional conceptualizations about the divine, and Christianity itself has been mainly responsible for this kind of death because it has contributed to the domestication of God.” Others, such as Thomas Altizer and William Hamilton, rejected transcendence and theistic language. In the face of secularisation there was a call for the Church to re-conceive God. This climaxed in 1966 with the Time cover: “Is God Dead?” The tight, theological world of neo-orthodox systematic theologians like Karl Barth was being challenged. According to Time, “the existence of a personal God, who created the world and sustains it with his love is now subject to profound attack.” Time recognised, however, that “a majority of Christians would presumably prefer to stay with the traditional language of revelation at any cost.”
It was within the rapidly changing social, cultural, ecclesiastical, theological, moral and political context of the 1960s that Lloyd Geering rose to prominence. It is interesting to note that his route into the Presbyterian ministry was not a conventional one. He had not been inculturated into the Presbyterian Church through Sunday school and Bible Class. His was an intellectual conversion as a university student. Geering’s study of mathematics to honours level revealed a sharp and penetrating intellect that cut through obfuscation and traditional dogma. His parish ministry, however, was quite conventional – at Kurow, Opoho in Dunedin, and Newton in Wellington. He was very involved in national church affairs as convenor of the Statistics Committee, bringing sharp analysis to the state of the Church. He was convenor of the Church Union committee in the 1950s, which worked to bring Presbyterians, Methodists and Congregationalists together. The stillbirth of his first child and death of his first wife were personal aspects of his life which had profound impact on his understanding of death and the afterlife.
Lloyd Geering’s commitment to study was seen in his completion of a Bachelor of Divinity degree through Melbourne College of Divinity while he was fully engaged in parish ministry. He taught Old Testament in Brisbane before returning to Dunedin in 1960 as Professor of Old Testament Studies at the Presbyterian Theological Hall. Indications of his concerns about the need for theology to engage with the world were seen in, What is our gospel? a study booklet he edited for a National Council of Churches Faith and Order Conference in 1964. In his autobiography he notes that
Already I was beginning to feel that the churches were shutting their eyes to the many intellectual challenges that the modern world, global and scientific in its outlook, was presenting to the traditional expression of the Christian faith.
These views were presented to Presbyterians in 1965 when he wrote an article in the Presbyterian magazine, the Outlook, for Reformation Sunday. In drawing attention to John Robinson’s book, The New Reformation, he wrote:
Either we must shut our eyes to the world view of our day and cling tenaciously to one of the earlier expressions of the Christian faith or we must abandon the Christian faith as now outmoded…. But the world view of our day is too compelling to be ignored, and while it continues to be ignored, the Christian faith will continue to diminish in its influence in the world at the present alarming rate.
Unexpectedly, Professor Geering found himself at the centre of a bitter theological debate. The doctrinal disputes that raged in the Presbyterian Church between 1966 and 1970 were a replay in a small denominational southern hemisphere outpost of the debates which were bubbling away in northern hemisphere, English speaking Protestant circles. What gave particular focus and significance to these debates in New Zealand were: the smallness of the church; the tight nature of society; the monopoly of the Press Association on news; the pervasiveness of one television channel; and the status and position of the leading proponent of new theological ideas.
It was almost too difficult for the tightly organised Presbyterian Church to contain the breadth of theological diversity which the debate expressed. It has been said that “one person’s heresy is another person’s orthodoxy”. That became very apparent in the trial in 1967 when R.J. / Robert or “Bob” Wardlaw, produced in evidence of Professor Geering’s theological error an address Geering had given to Canterbury University students. As Geering noted, “This illustrates the curious fact that what I regard as explanation of my faith, Mr Wardlaw regards as evidence of my guilt.”
Newspapers, radio and television gave prominent coverage to the issues; they not only reported on the debate, but they helped to create it. Doctrinal dispute was headline news in 1966 and 1967. Professor Geering’s status as Principal of the Presbyterian Theological Hall was viewed by some alarmists as potentially corrupting the Church’s future ministers. For decades there had been suspicion among more conservative ministers and people in the Church about the influence liberal theological teachers had on their students. The possibility of setting up an alternative theological college was seriously canvassed by some conservative Presbyterians during the controversy in the 1960s.
There were two key events that were the catalysts for the trial in 1967. The first was the publication of Professor Geering’s article on the resurrection in the 1966 Easter edition of the church paper, the Outlook. This included a quotation from Ronald Gregor Smith, a Scottish theologian, that “‘we may freely say that the bones of Jesus lie somewhere in Palestine’.” This was seen as a denial of the bodily resurrection of Jesus. It led to an outcry, culminating in a public meeting of Presbyterian laymen in the Auckland Town Hall sponsored by Sir James Fletcher, a one time member of this church, and Sir William Goodfellow. A New Zealand Association of Presbyterian Laymen was established and R.J. Wardlaw, an advertising executive, was elected as national chairman. The Association aimed “to defend the historic faith of Presbyterians.” Theological debate raged throughout the country in newspapers, in churches and on Television. Professor Geering recalls in his autobiography how Robert Wardlaw and himself were interviewed by Austin Mitchell and Graham Billing on a ‘Gallery’ programme which was recorded a second time because the interviewers thought that the two combatants “had been too nice to each other”.
The second event was Professor Geering’s sermon in March 1967 at the opening service for Victoria University. His words, that “‘Man has no immortal soul’”, were taken out of context by a reporter who rang up church leaders in Wellington and asked them their opinion. The media then fanned the words into a full blown controversy, failing to recognise that Professor Geering dismissing the immortality of the soul was quite orthodox. The wider context in which he said this, where he expressed “‘the eternal hope in terms of eternal life’” was largely overlooked by his opponents.
I am not going to analyse the intricate unravelling of events from 1966 to 1970 in any great deal. What I would like to try and do is to draw out some reflections on what took place in a way which I hope will help us understand the implications of the doctrinal disputes.
First, the leadership by laymen in response to the theological challenges raised by Professor Geering was unparalleled in New Zealand. The outrage expressed by laymen such R.J. / “Bob Wardlaw”, struck a chord with others. Rollo Arnold, Senior Lecturer in Education at Victoria University, who headed up the Presbyterian Laymen’s Association in Wellington and took over the leadership of the movement after Wardlaw left the Presbyterian Church, wrote that
Like many others I felt my personal integrity flouted and called in question. Here was the church’s most prominently placed teacher rubbishing what I had taught to hundreds of Presbyterians in sermons and classes.
During the 1950s, the New Life Movement in the Presbyterian Church, which was concerned about the renewal and growth of Presbyterianism throughout New Zealand, drew very heavily on lay leadership. Many of these leaders were Returned Servicemen and many laymen became elders in the church. The New Life Movement focused on evangelism and church extension, with great emphasis on stewardship. The broadening and deepening of theological understanding was not a priority. Many lay people were therefore taken by surprise by the so-called “new theology” that Professor Geering was beginning to articulate. As Geering later noted in response to his 1964 Faith and Order study booklet, What is Our Gospel? “The churches were in no mood to be challenged or even questioned: in the light of subsequent events, it can be seen as a lost opportunity.”
One of the first steps that eventually led to the 1967 trial was taken in the session of Somervell Presbyterian Church in Remuera. Brian Harris, who taught Classics at the University of Auckland, and Bob Wardlaw were both elders of the Somervell Session. Four days after the publication of the Easter Outlook in April 1966, Brian Harris raised concerns about Professor Geering’s article on the resurrection. The session agreed to take this up through the Presbytery. The minister at Somervell at the time, Ed Farr, was not a conservative minister by any means. There is a question, however, as to how far the gap between the pulpit and the pew, or perhaps the minister’s study and the congregation, had not been bridged by preaching that kept people up-to-date with the changes which had taken place in attitudes to the Bible and theological scholarship over the last fifty or more years. Many older ministers were also out of touch with the latest learning.
Second: There is something about parish sociology which contributed to the tight attitudes towards traditional teaching. A minister depended on his (it was mainly men then) congregation for his livelihood. Many congregations included people who ranged along a theological spectrum from conservative to liberal. Sermons often used language that could be heard in different ways. The clarity of Professor Geering’s articles, addresses, sermons, and media interviews, cut through the ambiguity of traditional hymns and pulpit rhetoric. Lay conservatives, and some clergy, reacted in protection mode, mounting the ramparts in defence of what they conceived as Biblical authority and theological orthodoxy. Some vigorous theological debate did take place. Pastoral sensitivity on the part of some ministers to the distress and upset that people felt in response to the new challenging theology resulted in an attempt to smooth over the issues being raised by debate. There is also a question as to how far during the doctrinal disputes 1966 to 1970 there was a loss of theological nerve among liberals in the Presbyterian Church. Neil Wright examined the impact of the Geering controversy on this church in the 1960s. Despite having a liberal-minded minister, Norman Gilkison, Neil concluded that “Like much of the Presbyterian Church, however, theological inquiry [in St Luke’s] seemed to have been stifled, at least in public.”
Third: Following on from this, and here my approach coincides in part with what Jim Veitch argued in 1997, the attempt by liberals and broad church leaders to manage the theological controversy, what they saw as a crisis in the years 1967 to 1970, backfired and played into the hands of conservatives. There was an attempt to control or even try to close down the debate. That was seen, for example, when the Doctrine Committee came to the 1966 Assembly with a prepared preliminary statement on the resurrection. They wanted to take the heat out of the debate, but they were trying to pour water on flames that could not be extinguished. They fell back on traditional language, seen, for example, in the following statement about the resurrection of Jesus: “God raised Him from the dead in triumph over sin and death to reign with the Father as sovereign over all.” The Committee failed to take seriously the issues Professor Geering had raised in his articles; they took the safe option and kicked for theological touch. But, to carry on the analogy, the game was not over and the theological football was soon very much in play!
The attempt to manage the controversy was seen also in 1967 after the “Man Has No Immortal Soul” headline in the Dominion. On the one hand, Stan Read, the Moderator, declined to hold a Special General Assembly as Bob Wardlaw and the Laymen’s Association requested. On the other hand, Read led a delegation to Professor Geering in Holy Week, with the unfortunate symbolism that implied, asking, as Geering recalled, “to do all in my power to prevent the controversy hurting the church.” In May, with doctrinal charges in the wind, Read declared that until the General Assembly met in November, further discussion on the case within the Church was sub judice. Liberals tended to sit back and let things happen.
Fourth: The preservation of the peace and unity became the primary goal for Church leaders. The opportunity for debate, education and discussion was largely lost.
In 1967, I was in my first year as a student in the Theological Hall with Lloyd as my professor of Old Testament and Principal of the Presbyterian ministry training institution. This photo, taken in 1969 at the Theological Hall, is of the exit class to which I belonged. We are a very conformist, male-suited and respectably tied, and with one exception Pākehā group. The photo of all the staff and students in 1969 shows five women students among fifty-nine men. We fitted Belich description of 1960s New Zealand society as “homogenous, conformist, masculist, egalitarian and monocultural, subject to heavy formal and informal regulation.” That is reflected in this photo. Principal Geering presides, somewhat benignly, over this largely homogenous, male-dominated group of future church leaders. And yet the atmosphere in the Church was anything but benign towards its Principal.
My recollection of the Theological Hall in 1967 is not of lively debate on the issues that Professor Geering was raising, but of living within the eye of a cyclone that was enveloping the church and wider society. Ian Breward, professor of church history, who represented the most conservative voice on the Theological Hall staff, later wrote that while the staff did not necessarily agree with Professor Geering
they were deeply appreciative of his personal integrity and his work as a colleague…. Perhaps they failed to show the Church how to engage in controversy that was hard-hitting but fair…. It was sobering to note the way in which people were unable to see or hear aspects of Geering’s arguments, and how even ministers criticised him for making statements that were paraphrases of Biblical texts. Yet if these issues could not be clarified in the Hall as part of the course, how could ministers and congregations be blamed for their failures?
The preservation of peace and unity became something of an Achilles’ heal for both parishes, the Theological Hall and the church. As Breward noted, “The model of unity was too limited to cope with working through differences.”
In answer to the charge that he had ‘disturbed the peace and unity of the church’, Professor Geering responded during the heresy trial in 1967, that
at the very point where there are more people talking about theological issues in New Zealand than ever before, we want to hush it all up and return to our peaceful congregational cocoons. I would suggest that what my accusers have been pleased to call the peace of the church is more properly called the sleepiness of the church, and we should be thankful to God that it has been disturbed.
Fifth: The Trial represented a clash of irreconcilable world views. This was seen in the use of the traditional teachings of the church, particularly the Westminster Confession of Faith and the appeal to the authority of scripture.
The General Assembly in November 1967 heard the charges of doctrinal error presented by Robert. Wardlaw and the Revd R.J. Blaikie, minister at St Heliers, who independently brought his own charges. Robert Wardlaw was not theologically trained. It is somewhat surprising that the conservative ministers who belonged to the Westminster Fellowship did not take a lead in pressing heresy charges but left them over to a layman. Robert Blaikie, in contrast to Wardlaw, was theologically trained. He had an honours degree in philosophy from the University of Edinburgh and a Bachelor of Divinity degree from St Andrew’s University. In his book, Secular Christianity and God Who Acts, published in 1970, Blaikie said in the preface that “To ask the right questions, students are told, is more important than to know the right answers: for the answers depend on the questions.” As far as he was concerned Professor Geering was not asking the right questions and he was getting the wrong answers.
After the charges of doctrinal error were presented to the Assembly, Professor Geering was given time to prepare his response. Following his address, the three had a further right of reply to each other.
Uusing scriptural proof texts and appealing to the Westminster Confession of Faith, the subordinate standard of the church, Bob Wardlaw charged Professor Geering with denying the supernatural, denying Scripture as God’s revelation, denying the deity of Christ, denying the resurrection, and denying the life to come.
Robert Blaikie, in contrast, set out some of Professor Geering’s statements alongside Biblical texts and included sections from the Westminster Confession in an Appendix. In the light of these he asked the church to clarify its teaching about: eternal life, the resurrection, miracles and the supernatural power of God, the doctrine of God, the Bible as God’s revelation, God and prayer.
At the heart of Wardlaw’s charges was confidence in the traditional doctrines of the church as expressed in the Westminster Confession, and a belief that the Bible could be used literally and uncritically to uphold these doctrines. For Blaikie, there was a simple trust in the use of words to express clearly and unambiguously what the church believed. In his response, Professor Geering answered “that the kind of appeal Mr Wardlaw quite understandably wants to make both to past Confessions and to the Bible has been completely superseded”, while the clarification “Mr Blaikie has called upon the Assembly to offer them is something which it is beyond the power of any church to provide”. Arguing that “beliefs are secondary to faith itself”, Professor Geering concluded, “There is much of the forms and doctrines of the church that the church must be prepared to lose in order that faith may burst forth again in new life in this new world we have entered.” Old orthodoxy was confronting the new theology.
Sixth: The pastoral approach taken by the Assembly failed to deal with the issues raised in the debate. The Revd J.M. Bates, one the church’s leading theologians, and the Revd Ron Hay, minister at St Paul’s Napier, after the speeches by the accusers and defendant and their replies proposed that the charges be dismissed. The Revd J.S. Murray, Secretary of the churches Overseas Mission Committee, and the Revd Owen Barragwanath, minister of St David’s Auckland, two senior ministers, moved an amendment. It was a long motion which tried to balance respect for Professor Geering, with recognition of the way his opponents had been “deeply disturbed” by his teaching; the motion counselled Professor Geering and others to balance “critical comments” with “positive affirmations”; it recognised the “sincerity and earnestness” of those who had laid the charges; and it declared that “no doctrinal error has been established” and that the case was closed. A further simple amendment was moved by the Revd W.C. Downward of Huntly, and the Revd Ian Purdie of St Andrew’s Hamilton. This was adopted as the substantive motion and carried without dissentients: “That the Assembly judges that no doctrinal error has been established, dismisses the charges and declares the case closed.”
A Pastoral Letter was drafted under the convenorship of J.S. Murray; the substance of the defeated Murray / Barragwanath amendment was included. The Letter recognised the need for the church to rethink “its message to the world so that it can be expressed in form and words that are intelligible to the changing generations”. This required, the Letter noted, “a large degree of freedom to think, write and speak in ways that may seem inconsistent with traditional patterns of thought”, but this freedom also needed to take account of the doctrinal standards of the church. The Letter declared the General Assembly’s confidence in Professor Geering as a minister, theological teacher and its principal. But the letter also declared “its appreciation of the faith, devotion and concern for the Gospel which led Mr Wardlaw and Mr Blaikie to act as they did”. The church was trying to pacify all factions, attempting to pour oil on troubled waters. The attempt to try and resolve doctrinal differences by trial and debate failed. The pursuit of peace and unity, and a pastoral approach, smoothed over the cracks in the theological differences in the church. These, however, did not allow for open recognition of diversity of opinion.
Seventh: The tightening of the Church. The attempts to paper over the theological cracks in 1967 continued in the next three General Assemblies in 1968, ’69 and ‘70. In 1968 the Doctrine Committee in which Professor Geering was an ex officio member, included in its membership Robert Blaikie, one of Geering’s adversaries, and Rollo Arnold, who had taken a lead in the Laymen’s opposition to Professor Geering. The Committee concerned itself with the Nature of Confessional Authority, a Statement on Fundamental Doctrines and a Simple Contemporary Statement of Faith. In 1969 the Assembly accepted “what it means to subscribe to a Statement of Faith” and a “Statement on the Fundamental Doctrines of the Christian Faith”.
Professor Ian Breward in the 1969 Assembly proposed a motion which was passed, which drew on wording originally proposed by Brian Harris, but which had been rejected at the 1968 Assembly. This stated that the resurrection is “a saving act of God in history and is therefore more than a continuation of the memory and example of Jesus Christ and the awakening of faith in the disciples”. This represented a process of theological tightening, as the Church defined what it believed over against what Professor Geering had written. It circumscribed “liberty of opinion” with clearer statements on what the Church’s beliefs were and what it meant to take office in the church through subscribing to the Church’s standards.
Professor Geering’s book, God in the New World, which he had forewarned the church at his trial was about to be published, appeared in 1968. It drew both positive and negative reaction according to the theological stance of the reader. Geering identified his audience as “those who are genuinely wanting to know what to make of Christianity in this new and fast-changing world”. The General Assembly, however, was not open to promoting debate around what Professor Geering was saying; instead they wanted to try and close it down.
Robert Blaikie, who in his charges against Professor Geering in 1967, had asked him for clear affirmations in seven areas, including his beliefs on: life beyond death, the historicity of the resurrection, and the bodily nature of the resurrection attested by the empty tomb, in no small measure achieved for the Church by 1969 what he had been unable to achieve with respect to Professor Geering in 1967. While Blaikie lost the battle in 1967, he had achieved victory on a broader front. Jim Veitch concluded that “the conservative-evangelical received what they wanted: a tight definition of doctrine to stem the impact of secularisation on the thinking of Presbyterians”.
Eighth: Impact of Church Union
The theological tightening in the Presbyterian Church in the years 1968 to 1970 represented what Jim Veitch has referred to as “a loss of theological nerve” in the church. Professor Geering was pushing out boundaries further than even some liberals were willing to accept. While some lay people rejoiced in the broader theological freedom found in his ideas, many moderate and liberal ministers in the face of hostility and the potential loss of members adopted the pastoral approach I mentioned earlier and tried to pour oil on troubled waters. For some liberals, the heresy trial and doctrinal disputes were a distraction from the ecumenical cause which was the main focus of their energies. The Act of Commitment in May 1967 saw the five negotiating churches: Anglican, Associated Churches of Christ, Congregational, Methodist and Presbyterians, declaring in St Paul’s Cathedral in Wellington that they had “been led to the conviction that God’s will for them is that they should seek union”.
What was not apparent to them at the time was that the organic union of churches embraced a comprehensive view of the church which belonged to the bygone Christendom era which was quickly passing away. The cracks were already beginning to appear as Pentecostal churches from the 1960s and the charismatic movement began their surge in church membership which drew some people away from the ecumenical churches, or redirected their energies towards a spiritualised Christianity. This new spiritual sectarianism was a sign of the growing pluralistic world and the challenge to traditional cradle to the grave denominational loyalty which in part contributed to the end of Christendom. The Presbyterian doctrinal dispute became a reason for some to retreat into an experientially based form of church where the kinds of intellectual and theological questions Professor Geering was asking were a non-issue. In this context belief was shaped by feeling and experience rather than rigorous thinking.
Challenges were also coming from within the ecumenical churches that unsettled the church leaders working towards church union. While individual Anglicans spoke out in support of Professor Geering and his ideas, a special Anglican synod of the Nelson Diocese, a diocese noted for its evangelical tone, met in 1968. The synod “affirmed belief in miracles, the bodily resurrection of Jesus and personal life after death. This was taken up by the General Synod [of the whole church] in May 1968. It referred to ‘meeting in these days of theological uncertainty’ and stated ‘its belief that God has acted and acts in history, and especially’ affirmed ‘the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead as such an event, and not simply as an apprehension of faith by man’.” While this resolution did not include the Nelson emphasis on the “bodily resurrection” it represented the conjunction of anti-Church Union sentiments with anti-Geering and pro-conservative theological approaches. The rejection of the Plan for Union by Anglicans in 1974 by a very narrow vote should not be attributed solely to the impact of the doctrinal dispute. This dispute was just one, and probably a minor factor, in the 1974 decision. In the late 1960s, however, this anti-Geering sentiment alarmed some ecumenists who gave less attention to the restatement of theological orthodoxy in the Presbyterian Church than they did to the attempt to shape the theology of what they hoped would be a new ecumenical inclusive church.
Nine: Closing Down the Debate
The result of the doctrinal definitions in the General Assembly in 1968 and 1969 was a tightening of theological boundaries. An immediate impact of this tightening on the liberal voice was seen in a decision of the 1970 General Assembly. A newspaper report from Brisbane earlier in 1970 reported that Professor Geering had said:
that there is no afterlife, neither heaven nor a hell; that the Holy Mother was not a virgin; That Christ did not literally rise from the dead; Christians could speak of Jesus as the Son of God, but not in a physical sense; and that the Ascension was a myth.
A motion was carried by the Assembly dissociating itself from statements made in Brisbane by Principal Geering on the resurrection and life after death. The standards by which he was judged were the Assembly resolutions on the resurrection in 1969 and life after death in 1967. There were fifty-eight dissentients or opponents to this resolution; (forty-five ministers, five deaconesses, and only eight elders) who had their names entered into the Assembly minutes. Professor Geering, who was present at the Assembly, was not invited to explain his position. He reflected on this in his autobiography, that “One of the chief problems through the continuing theological controversy was that people were not able to distinguish between historical or factual statements on the one hand, and theological or metaphorical on the other.” Those who had attempted to manage the doctrinal disputes in the past remained largely silent. Liberals found themselves on the losing side. This was to be a position they were to experience more and more over the succeeding years.
Let me recall the words of Belich which I used earlier of New Zealand from the 1880s to the 1920s: “They tried”, he writes, “to harmonise, homogenise and even pasteurise New Zealand society. They harmonised acknowledged differences, suppressed and camouflaged others, and purified and laundered both form and content.” There is a question for me, as to how far the doctrinal debates between 1966 and 1970 resulted in a “great tightening” in the Presbyterian Church at the time a “great loosening” was going on both in New Zealand and globally? The Church not only ended up dissociating itself from Professor Geering’s views, it closed down the possibility of open theological debate and in Jim Veitch’s words, pushed “underground attempts to face secularization and pluralism”, something from which the church has never fully recovered.
Since 1970, with the exception of the work of the St Andrew’s Trust, Professor Geering has found his audience outside the institutional church, in the university, continuing education classes, groups such as the Sea of Faith Network, the Jesus Seminar, conducted tours overseas, written newspaper columns, made radio broadcasts, written books and articles, and given public lectures. On one rare occasion, in 1990, he was invited by the moderator of the day, John Murray, to address the Presbyterian General Assembly. Professor Geering on that occasion challenged the church to consider whether it wanted to be a sect or church. The sect he described as a “minority group chiefly concerned with its own spiritual welfare; it ignores the society in which it lives except to use it as a recruiting ground for occasional converts”; while the church was seen as “chiefly concerned with the destiny of the society in which it lives and its own destiny is quite secondary”. The destiny for society, in Professor Geering’s thinking and writing has moved far away from Christian orthodoxy and the heresy concerns of 1967. In his millennium book, The World to Come, in response to the ecological and environmental catastrophe, he suggests that the future of the church is in contributing to a new, emerging “global religion” and spirituality in which God is identified with the world.
The heresy trial of 1967 was an historical anachronism. The trial was totally unsatisfactory as a way of promoting theological debate; it was more concerned with closing down debate rather than opening up the exploration of what it meant to be Christian in the contemporary world. The trial could not deal with radically different attitudes towards Biblical authority, traditional orthodoxy, understandings of faith and history.
What then of heresy today? The pursuit of heresy, as the narrow attempt to impose dogmatic orthodoxy, is even more outmoded in 2015 than in 1967. In our postmodern world, meta-narratives have collapsed and cannot restore the sacred canopy of the past. The reality, as Callum Brown indicates, is that we have to recognise the multiple overlapping narratives that contribute to the rich diversity of religious beliefs held by people in society today. ‘Heresy’, as its original Greek meaning indicates, is about “choice”. The invitation Professor Geering offers people today is to become heretics in the narrative choice we make to ensure that the planet which sustains us flourishes, and that the life of humanity and all living things is enhanced.
Paul Morris, professor of Religious Studies at Victoria, in celebrating Professor Geering as a “Prophet of Modernity”, concluded that he “has broken down much of the traditional mistrust of the discussion of religion in the contemporary world…. His success can be gauged in that very few are indifferent to what he has to say, because his concerns are indicative of a wider, secular society attempting to come to terms with the legacy of the twentieth century, with globalisation, with modernity itself.” While the church, or at least that part of it that has wanted to maintain traditional orthodoxy, has often had difficulty listening to and engaging with Professor Geering’s evolving theology, he has become a much respected prophet in New Zealand society as the honour of his Membership of the Order of New Zealand Merit indicates.
In some ways we can thank Professor Geering’s opponents in 1967 and the trial for heresy for helping give him the public profile which he has used to such good effect over these last forty-eight years. But all the honour is due to Lloyd himself, for his rigorous and fearless public working out of his faith in the new and ever changing world, and his ongoing challenge to all people to value human life and the world which sustains it.