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Dragon Interview: Rector Of St Nicolas’ Church Questions His Own Beliefs

Published on: 4 Jun, 2017
Updated on: 6 Jun, 2017

Andrew Norman rector of St Nicolas’ Church.

We expect clergymen to be honest and in this interview Andrew Norman, rector of Guildford’s St Nicolas’ Church, which has been considered to be of the Anglo Catholic tradition, is painfully so as he discusses his own faith and how his beliefs have developed over time, culminating in the big question, “Do I believe in God?”…

The interview was provoked by an article he wrote in the St Nicolas parish magazine Signpost, which is republished here to give the interview proper context:

By Andrew Norman

May is Mary’s month at St Nicolas’ Church. These days I think of Mary as an ordinary Jewish girl, growing up to be a woman vulnerable both to the strictures of traditional society which was itself also suffering Roman occupation, and in the confusion of her own personal circumstances. Certainly she experienced the pain and bloodiness both of childbirth and then 30 years later, in the execution of her son.

Do I believe in the virgin birth (the belief that Jesus was born before Mary and Joseph had sex because she was impregnated by the Holy Spirit)? I believe in it as a beautiful poetic expression of the deep truth that God was at work in Jesus all the way through. But I view that belief as related to a past cultural context.

These days we wouldn’t imagine virginity to be a better state for God to work with than the fulfilment of any of the various kinds of personal relationships we allow for now. Seeing Mary like that encourages me to see Jesus in the same way as a fellow human being also related to a past cultural context.

But I wouldn’t want to say that is all he was. He was a great spiritual teacher – and with a more radical message then we care to admit – but whenever I read the gospels I am always left wondering how exactly he did relate to God. So I carry on saying the creed with great reverence, because I certainly can’t put it any better myself. Credo? And do I believe in ‘God’?

More and more I feel the need simply to sit in silence and to let be the mystery of all that is – and then to go on trusting wholly to unconditional love.

Following is the interview conducted by Martin Giles

Your article is a very honest expression of your beliefs. What has been the reaction from your parishioners?

I don’t know what people thought about it. What worries me is that some feel they are not allowed to be honest about their questions. Paul Tillich (German American theologian 1886-1965) said, ‘Doubt is not the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith’. Surely the essential spirit of all religion is to be true to our human wondering?

So no one from your congregation has commented on the article?

Some have commented, but I am not expecting to see in their hearts exactly what they think about the issues. We may react to each other, but I try to respect the otherness of the other.

You imply that a belief in a literal virgin birth is not critical for you. Is that the case?

Respectfully wondering about the virgin birth is what’s critical for me. Why have Christians wanted to believe this? Is there sometimes more truth in what we call fiction than in supposed facts? Jesus himself taught through telling stories or parables. I do not want to reject the tradition of the virgin birth, but to suggest that it is more than a plain literal statement.

You write, “These days we wouldn’t imagine virginity to be a better state for God to work with than the fulfilment of any of the various kinds of personal relationships we allow for now.” This implies acceptance of the fact that many loving relationships are of different kinds. Is this what you mean?

Well, we don’t think that virginity is what makes a person good or ‘pure’ do we? Personally I relate to the image of Mary as a thoroughly female, menstruating, strong, passionate, woman trusting in the goodness of God in a situation of total vulnerability, rather than as a remote, ethereal maiden. I believe in a God who is unconditional love and who therefore affirms us all throughout the whole LGBT range of good, loving relationships.

Does it show that you have personally changed your views on the subject and do you agree that such a statement would have been impossible for the rector of St Nicolas’ to write until quite recently?

Throughout the time I have been privileged to serve as the minister at St Nicolas’ – 24 years now – my views have changed about many of the ways to express our faith – notoriously in coming to accept and welcome the full inclusion of women in ministry! Surely faith which shows no movement is dead? Our 21st-century world needs a radical approach to faith, through constantly referring to its deep roots.

Doesn’t it also show that even fundamental beliefs can be subject to fashion and the social climate? If so, does that devalue them?

I feel that what does devalue fundamental beliefs is when we retreat into nostalgia, ‘wasn’t it nice when everyone believe… so and so’? Surely, religion which is not allowed to engage with the contemporary social environment turns into an unreal mode of escapism?

Generally, is our moral judgement on an inexorable upward trend over time, assisted by our greater material comfort and scientific knowledge or can you foresee a time when some values currently held, for instance on LGBT equality, might again be questioned by the majority?

Clearly some aspects of life as we experience it are improving – like the acceptance of LGBT relationships and many features remain fixed such as war and terrorism and some seem to get worse. So I do not see any generalised answer to this question about our moral judgement as possible. But I do not believe humankind can be saved on its own.

What are the fundamental beliefs necessary to be a Christian? Is it still that Christ was the Son of God, and a man and God, and his literal resurrection?

I do not know. It depends what others mean by ‘a Christian’. What does it mean to others to call Jesus ‘Son of God’? I do not understand faith to do with matters of plain description, for example ‘resurrection’. It’s all evocative and makes me, to use that key term, wonder.

Your last two sentences are: “And do I believe in ‘God’? More and more I feel the need simply to sit in silence and to let be the mystery of all that is – and then go on trusting wholly to unconditional love.” It sounds like even you doubt your belief in God sometimes. What do you mean by these two sentences?

Members of St Nicolas’ know that somehow I have grown within our catholic ethos into the simplicity of now becoming a Quaker. Actually, I would claim to believe, or hope to trust in, God more and not less, as the core of my personal creed has become: ‘in all the flow of life to trust to unconditional love as ‘God’. I now find the richness of our catholic spirituality affirmed in the simplicity of Quaker silence – yes, a paradox, but a stream of daily refreshment. And what that means I guess I will find out as life goes on.

When you are meditating, how do you envisage God? Is it enough for you that he is a mysterious force for good, for love that requires no further definition?

I do not meditate. In the Quaker way, I would say, ‘I wait on the silence’ – and then I trust to any illuminating of the heart and mind which may come and hope to follow its leadings. Whatever I can envisage is not ‘God’. For me, I think, if it is that ‘God is love’, well, I simply trust in the personal choice to take unconditional love as my God – if you see what I mean?

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