Here’s a priest who has dared to differ.
MARIO RODRIGUES on the controversy swirling in Christian theological circles about a pastor who says God is not the creator of the universe.
Reverend Thorkil Grosboll may be an unheard of name in Indian mainstream media. But the pastor from the Danish Lutheran Church has made waves in the Christian media the world over, and not because he has authored miracles or staunchly upheld traditional Christian doctrine in the post-modernist world. Quite to the contrary.
Martin Luther, who raised the banner of revolt against a corrupt papacy in the 16th century and ushered in the Protestant Reformation, would have scarcely imagined this. Luther only challenged the unbridled authority of the Pope and the malpractice of the Church. But one of his followers has gone all the way to doubting the very status of God as the “creator of the universe”. For, this is indeed, what Grosboll has done. He has been suspended by his bishop for this ultimate heresy.
According to an ENI report filed by Sara Holt Andersen from Copenhagen, a year ago Grosboll had declared that he did not believe in God as creator of the world; neither did he believe in any of the other tenets of the Apostles Creed, a traditional statement of Christian doctrine. This prompted his bishop, Lise-Lotte Rebel, to place him under “strict supervision”. In June, the bishop gave Grosboll an ultimatum: he could either resign from the priesthood or he would be suspended. The pastor refused to resign, following which he was suspended from his parish duties.
The case has been put by the Danish justice minister, Lene Espersen, before a clerical court comprised of an “ordinary” judge supported by two theologically trained lay judges within the state apparatus. It will be like a regulation trial with a prosecutor, defender and the examination of witnesses.
Grosboll’s suspension has caused a stir in liberal Danish society and has triggered a fierce debate about the role of Denmark’s Lutheran state church to which 84 per cent of its population nominally belongs. Three out every four Danish priests have supported the stand taken by their bishop, according to the results of an opinion poll commissioned by the Danish Broadcasting Corporation. On the other hand, a majority of Danes have expressed support for the priest, according to another survey. “The majority of the Danes simply do not worry that much about the theology of the priest,” said Peter Luchau of Epinion research institute, which conducted the survey. “It would be a different matter if he came to church in bright green bathing trunks.”
Ironically, the majority of Grosboll’s parishioners are also in sync with their pastor, and this could count in his favour since local congregations and the bishop are jointly responsible for the posting of a priest of their choice. Grosboll is being backed by another body, a Pastors Trade Union, which is providing legal advice about his employment rights.
On his part, Grosboll has claimed that he did “not understand the accusations”. He has further asserted in the Christian Daily newspaper that “my crime is that I have said in public what is already talked about in theological circles.” The “crisis of faithlessness” in what the religiously inclined refer to as the “Godless West” has long gone past the lay population – it’s found resonance amidst the clergy too. And the Grosboll affair raises some interesting questions. Is the priest preaching a modern version of rational Christianity or post-Christian humanism instead of traditional doctrine? That the bulk of his congregation supports him proves that his theological beliefs are par for the congregational course. Is he sticking on to the job so that he can claim retirement benefits or compensation if sacked or because he wants to hold on to his perquisites? Does he have any business remaining a priest when he nonchalantly admits that does not subscribe to the fundamentals of the faith?
A sizeable segment of believers feel Grosboll should have the decency to leave. But, if Grosboll is raising theological objections to the belief in God as “creator of the world”, is the Lutheran Church guilty of violating his right to the freedom of expression by punishing him?
Reacting to this issue on the Internet, one commentator proffered the example of Peter Selby, bishop of Worcester of the Anglican Church, who had reputedly denied biblical teachings on sexuality. A conservative Anglican had responded to this by saying: “Peter Selby is perfectly entitled to hold and express these views; the bishop of Worcester is not.” Logical enough, when applied to Grosboll?
While these questions may elicit some interesting answers, an issue of vital import in this development is the attitude of the Church (or Churches, since there are dozens of denominations and countless sects besides) towards “heresy” and dissent. It will be instructive going back to the original dissenter, Martin Luther, a Catholic priest, who nailed his Ninety-Five Theses onto the door of the Wittenberg Church in Germany in 1517, attacking papal abuses and the sale of indulgences. The Roman Catholic Church retaliated by threatening to excommunicate him. In 1520, Luther burnt a copy of the papal excommunication as well as other Church tracts, thus signaling his break from the faith. He even defended his fiery writings at the Imperial Diet of Worms a year later.
Luther, who translated the Bible into German, may not have wanted to start a new church, merely get rid of the papacy. But his own Church inevitably evolved from his rebellion. Today, the Lutheran Church has over 70 million followers spread across the five continents. The (Roman) Catholic Church has been wracked by dissent on doctrinal and other matters and schisms of varied severity since its very inception, much before the Protestant uprising. The Catholic Church often responded to these challenges in a ham-fisted manner.
Even in modern times, dissent and division runs rampant in the Church. And just like Pope Pius XII (1876-1958) persecuted some of the formidable theologians of his time (Marie-Dominique Chenu, Henri de Lubac, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, et al.), the present pontiff, John Paul II, now considerably aged, unleashed a crackdown on liberal and radical thought (liberation theology, for example) through his Grand Inquisitor, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, who heads the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the theological watchdog of the Vatican.
The likes of Edward Schillebeeckx and Hans Kung (the famous dissenting Swiss theologian) were victimised, Brazilian liberationist Leonardo Boff silenced, the Nicaraguan Jesuits – the two Cardenal brothers – who were ministers in the erstwhile Sandinista government hounded out of office and Charles Curran stripped of his status as a “Catholic theologian”. Described as the American Hans Kung, Curran’s tract against the Church’s teachings on marriage and contraception, which was signed by over 600 theologians, priests and academics and published in a prominent newspaper, was likened to a modern day equivalent of Martin Luther nailing his protesting theses on the doors of the Wittenberg Church.
To keep its clergy in a tight leash, the Vatican has in recent times introduced measures like the “Oath of Fidelity” and “Profession of Faith”. One can’t predict which way the Grosboll verdict will swing but it will be an ironic twist to the tale if the Protestant denominations, themselves wracked by factional feuds, are forced to resort to similar measures to nip such “deviationist” tendencies in its clergy.