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The curse of St Andrew’s College

The heresy trial of Dr Peter Cameron proves the need for critical faith

Photo of St Andrews College underneath storm clouds

When St Andrew’s College emerged, John Dunmore Lang, a Scottish-Australian minister laid a curse on the College.

Lang had a profound desire to become the College’s first Principal. When he was unsuccessful, he showed up uninvited at the inauguration and sowed pandemonium and disorder. Lang went on to proclaim the College was, “conceived in sin and brought forth in iniquity, and certain to become a notorious failure!”

To conservatives, Lang’s curse may have been fulfilled after Dr Samuel Angus, a professor at the College’s Theological Hall from 1915 to 1943, was accused of heresy, as was College Principal Dr Peter Cameron.

In 1977, a majority of the Presbyterian Church of Australia (PCA) joined the Uniting Church of Australia, leaving behind a higher number of fundamentalists within the rank and file of the PCA. The fundamentalist wing soon reversed a previous decision to allow women to be ordained, appointed as ministers and priests through the conferral of holy orders. In September 1991, the General Assembly of the PCA put the reversal to a vote. By a 2-1 majority, the ordination of women was barred once again.

At the time, Dr Cameron responded to the decision by preaching a sermon titled ‘The Place of Women in the Church’ at St Andrew’s College in October 1991. In March 1992, Cameron presented the sermon to The Dorcas Society, a women’s organisation, of Ashfield Presbyterian Church. In that sermon, Cameron criticised fundamentalist Christianity, supported the ordination of women and questioned fundamentalist interpretations of Paul’s writings which fundamentalists asserted were ‘divinely inspired’ and therefore infallible.

“But in fact Paul’s letters indicate first that the early Christian establishment was very reluctant to grant him any authority at all… His opponents dismissed him as a charlatan,” Cameron said in the sermon.

This sermon was the first step in the process of Cameron’s eventual conviction of heresy a year later in March 1993. His conviction was led by the Sydney Presbytery of the PCA. According to the Sydney Presbytery, Cameron’s statements at the Dorcas Service were declared inconsistent with the first chapter of Westminster Confession of Faith, and its idea of biblical infallibility, as well as being incompatible with their non-affirming view of the Bible’s teaching on homosexuality.

Yet, while Cameron’s views may be unremarkable today, the principles which brought on his conviction are still alive and well when critical faith clashes with the Church.

For a start, the Westminster Confession of Faith is still used by the PCA today despite the fact that it remains decidedly anti-Catholic, calling the Pope the Antichrist in Chapter 25, which in effect rejects the entire Catholic faith as illegitimate.

Like Cameron’s opponents in 1993, the Anglican Diocese of Sydney continues to promote self-centered views of Christianity.

Last November, Reverend Andrew Sempell, Rector of St. James’ Church in King Street published a critique of the Anglican Diocese of Sydney’s Property Use Policy. The original policy largely prohibited the expression of views contrary to those held by the Sydney Diocese and had several problems. First, it amounted to a limitation on freedom of speech, and, in turn, freedom of religion and its practice. The policy further risked fragmenting the Anglican Church of Australia by constructing specific claims on what Anglican doctrine is.

An extremely unyielding and dogmatic form of Christianity permeates all of these cases. It is a form of Christianity which acts and sounds like it is the only ‘real’ form of it. In relentless dogma, such a form of Christianity co-opts the whole faith, leaving it exclusive and insular. Accusing people who express disagreement as heretics or clamping down on dissent in churches is ultimately intolerant and uncritical.

During the last preliminary stage before Cameron’s heresy trial, he wrote in Heretic “Are my accusers really so arrogant and so conceited as to think that they have a monopoly of Christian truth and that they are in a position to dictate what people should think and what they should believe.”

Yet, in spite of all of this, Cameron fought against fundamentalism and against fundamentalists laying claims to owning Christianity.

In Fundamentalism and Freedom, Cameron argued that people in fundamentalist churches are given a guarantee of salvation, safety from troubling thoughts, and contentment from being in a like-minded community based on the acceptance of a Christianity formed on obedience.

However, as Cameron argues, having this security challenged is the last thing these people would want.

Yet, is that how we should think of faith? Faith as obedience based on a set of rules claimed by churches who think they have reached ‘true’ Christianity? Or should we take Dr Cameron’s example of a faith driven by freedom, even if that freedom involves unbearable pain and uncertainty?

I, for one, would much rather take the latter.