Jude Bullock – Portrait of a modernist

A God to believe in

Annabel Miller meets a Catholic priest who claims to believe in God, but does not know if He exists—Reprinted from the ‘Tablet’, 29 June 1996…

The Sunday Express newspaper had a bit of a scoop a couple of weeks ago with the story of a Catholic priest, Fr Jude Bullock, who had – according to the Express – infuriated his parishioners by stating that there was no God “out there”.
When I visited Fr Jude in his presbytery — appropriately sited in Islington, London’s heartland of radical thought – the story turned out to be a little more complicated than that. He is a member of the radical “Sea of Faith Network” and believes that what we call ” God” is a human construct, created by ourselves to sum up the greatest of human aspirations. As to whether there is a being which exists beyond space and time, he believes that we can never know. But nor would he “deny the otherness”.
Bearded and ponytailed, Fr Jude lives next door to St John the Evangelist, Duncan Terrace. In his room is a portrait of Wittgenstein, a statue of the Buddha and a faint scent of incense. He is warm, informal, and speaks his mind in a relaxed and enthusiastic way.
When I asked him whether he believed in God, he replied: “To believe there is a God is a mistaken question to which I would say ‘no’. To say I would believe ‘in God’, yes”. The difference, he explained, was that “to say there is a God makes whatever that term means into a being like anything else. Perhaps unseen, but like anything else. That is precisely what God could not be”.
Fr Jude is a follower of the later Wittgenstein, and believes that language shapes our perception of the world, rather than simply labelling things. “I don’t think that words correspond to reality, they create what we see”, he told me. “What we mean by ‘God’ has to be, by definition, what we mean. It could not be anything else. ‘God’ therefore is used as a symbol for our highest aspirations.” On the question of whether there is anything beyond that symbol, Fr Jude remains “stoically silent”. “If there is a that which is outside human meaning, by definition that is unknowable”. It is at that point, he said, that one enters what Meister Eckhart and John of the Cross called “darkness”.
Fr Jude does not believe that his views are unorthodox. He could, he told me, happily sign his name to the Creed: it is just that he might interpret things differently. He denies that his parishioners are objecting – except for one, or that he is “under investigation” by church authorities, as the Sunday Express reported. He is “in conversation” with Cardinal Hume, but he is a great admirer of the cardinal and the talks are “cordial”.
Yet Fr Jude’s beliefs about the nature of that which we call “God” have knock-on effects for his understanding of prayer and the sacraments. If we could not know that there was a “God” out there, a separate being, I asked him, what would happen to the idea that God can answer prayer? “He wasn’t massively quick about Ethiopia and Auschwitz”, he replied. “The idea that as a response to prayer God will whiz down and heal grandma’s leg while being peculiarly deaf to the cries of the murdered Jews seems to me to be almost obscene.”
For Fr Jude, the Eucharistic sacrifice is a symbol in a “sacred drama”. The soul, he argues, is an outdated concept. I began to wonder, with beliefs like these, how Fr Jude could relate pastorally to people in the pews. Sometimes, he said, the Catholic faithful were “treated like five-year-olds”. He thought there was need for more intellectual curiosity in the Church, to heal the divide between theologians and ordinary practising Catholics.
I asked why he found his home in the Catholic Church, when so many of its central doctrines, such as transubstantiation, cannot fit into his philosophy. For Catholics, he said, religion was understood as a way of life. “People don’t go round asking themselves about the metaphysical quest for God, they kind of get on with it.” He admires the universal quality of the Catholic Church, its academic traditions, its dynamic theology, and its capacity for grand gestures. “In 1986, the Pope invited the leaders of world faiths to Assisi”, Fr Jude recalled. “Catholicism can do that.”
While the Church could be “rigid, authoritarian and blatantly stupid”, it could also be “the most enriching place”. He believed the Church had the capacity to reform itself, so as to be more inclusive of different opinions. “One of the problems we have at present”, he said, “is that the world is moving so fast that people see the Church as a rock of security. It should be perpetually challenging, inviting people to live the Christian life as an outpouring of love.”

Out in the open now – with faith

Jude Bullock, of St. John the Evangelist, Islington, explains his own spiritual journey. Reprinted from the September 1996 issue of Renew, the journal of Catholics for a Changing Church…

I had the unusual privilege of being brought up to think for myself; without any religious indoctrination. I can remember clearly the first time I ever heard the word “God”. It was the first day of Infants school. The headmistress invited us all to close our eyes and talk to God. I looked around before joining in this strange method of communication, waiting for God to come in and be talked to. I am still waiting.

From my father I inherited a critical mind. He is at the forefront of particle physics, and now Vice- Provost of University College London. When the religious bug bit me in my early teens, criticism and serious thought always tempered my idealism and enthusiasm. An early dalliance with the Free Church ended abruptly over a dispute with one of the elders concerning evolution. It had never occurred to me to question such an obvious scientific fact. I remember being dismayed that anyone could seriously argue for a historical Adam and Eve.
He never talked down to anyone

My entry into the Catholic Church remains for me one of the most important days of my life. After leaving Ashley Road Free Church I cycled down the road to Beaconsfield Road Catholic Church of St. Alban and St. Stephen. I met one of those rare individuals that have the capacity to change one’s life by just being him/herself. Richard O’Rourke was the man I wanted to be, a Priest, a devout human being, living the Christian life in a wonderfully understated and quiet way. Before he went to South Africa (where he has recently opened a couple of homes for people living with AIDS), the parish housekeeper confided in me that the reason why he was her favourite was that he never talked down to anyone. He was the equal of the humblest person in the room. I had never thought of him like that before, for me he was a Christian intellectual (with a string of degrees as long as your arm) who encouraged doubt and probing in a friendly, caring manner. But after she had spoken it all rang true. The long old journey from faith as belief in supernatural propositions to faith as a way of life was taking its first tentative steps.
Comfortable occupants of presbyteries, etc.

My journey to the priesthood was far from simple. I managed to get thrown out of the college at Osterley at the age of 19. I had just discovered sex in possibly the most inappropriate place possible, My name was added to the long list of “Duvet Martyrs”. As a result of suddenly finding myself a pariah and very lonely, depression set in and I had to go into therapy. It was thanks to the Dympna centre that my ideas began to change, and that was where I encountered for the first time people of faith who had been hurt and badly treated by the Church. The profound effect of this experience has never left me: these were people who were not enemies of the Church, but men and women who had been sinned against, by the comfortable occupants of presbytery armchairs, seminaries and moral certainty.

I finally went back to college in 1984, to Allen Hall, and amongst both students and staff met a number of people who remain my inspiration. It is just tragic that they all had to be men. I studied for my degree at Heythrop and enjoyed it immensely. This was also my introduction to such ‘heretics’ as D. Z. Phillips, S. Sutherland, Don Cupitt, and the great Wittgenstein. Philosophically my main preoccupation at the time centred around the Process thinkers. Teilhard de Chardin stays as one of my all-time heroes. God was gradually losing his eternal transcendence and gaining a biography.

Of course anyone who has managed to survive for a few years at Seminary is going to get ordained if for no other reason than to spite the ridiculous seminary system. I chose not to pursue too much deconstruction of traditional theological thought; that is what life after ordination is for! Besides, a point that is often missed, especially by the Right when they would hound us out of our jobs, is that the priesthood is about ministry and service. It is about supporting the faith journeys of those we come in contact with. It is about being a listening ear, or just being there when needed. What the hell a literal belief in the virgin birth, or drivelling on about transubstantiation has to do with ministry is one of life’s little abiding mysteries.
“(Cardinal Hume) I cannot praise enough.”

I served my diaconate at Westminster Cathedral, and re-discovered a dislike of formality and the “socialite” life that can at times be the priestly lot. I also got to know the Cardinal, who has had an effect on me like that of Richard O’Rourke. He is a man I cannot praise enough. Rarely does one find an individual of such profound wisdom and insight as well as humility and humour. Even rarer perhaps to find one in a position of ecclesiastical power. The great sadness I have, is that we shall only know how fortunate we are to have had him as the foremost Catholic cleric in the country, after he has gone.

I have now been ordained a priest for over six years. My development has been quite simple really. A saying farewell to God for God’s sake. I can remember sitting in my room at Camden and finally admitting to myself what I already knew. We are alone, painfully alone, all certainty vanished, with the realisation that what we humans call facts are no more than those things that matter most to us at any one time. What is true is that which means most, and no more. The supernatural was over for me, metaphysics breathed its last and expired.
What a tremendous sense of liberation it was too!

The myths in which our faith speaks to us, could at last stand as myths and be appreciated and venerated as such. The sacraments could at last stand unsupported as sacred dramas, in which we create ourselves and speak of our creation to date. At last the atonement was complete, God had poured himself entirely into human life. To look for him beyond was to make both a philosophical and a spiritual error, at least it was and is for me.
Of course, I get into trouble

I re-read my Cupitt, and ideas that had once been put on hold made their way homewards. I read Anthony Freeman’s book “God in Us” and found myself in complete agreement. Joining the Sea of Faith network followed shortly afterwards, as did the decision not to keep my views any longer to myself. Of course, I get into trouble periodically, one expects that. Without wishing to paint too much of a dramatic picture, there is a battle royal going on, a battle for the heart and mind of faith itself. This is no time for silence. What is at stake is spirituality, the spirituality of the Christian tradition. The longer we remain in hock to defunct systems of thought, faith is doomed to be as irrelevant as Plato. Nietzsche was quite right and well ahead of his time, this is indeed the twilight of the idols. Our world view can no longer support another world, regardless of who the illustrious inhabitant of such a world might be. We need a Christianity that can speak to the world without any props or invisible means of support. There is no point in changing the wrapping paper when the content has gone off.
Catechism kills spirituality

I teach philosophy and theology for A-Level in two (soon to be three ) schools. My admiration is unbounded for my students who in many cases are way ahead of me. It has become abundantly clear to me that spirituality requires myths and meaning, it does not require metaphysics or belief that supernatural formulations are factual. In fact for many of the young spirituality starts when such formulations fall under the weight of inquiry. The hacks who would like to see a return to catechism-style catholic education never cease to amaze me. If they had their way they would (and this is speaking from the coal face) kill off any developing spirituality for the sake of orthodoxy. So much of the evil in Christian history has occurred when orthodoxy was placed before orthopraxis.
Simple vision of Jesus

I do have a vision for the future, though I make it a religious practice to live as completely in the present as I can. My vision is simple and finds its origin in Jesus of Nazareth. I would like to see an end to churches, to popes and hierarchies. I would like to see the synagogue, mosque, temple and pagoda all come to an end. The dream of this catholic priest is for the whole world to be seen as sacred and no one tradition seen as more sacred than any other. The world I would like to live in is the world in which the human family can meet as equals in places that are not considered any more sacred than the land they occupy, where we can share the variety of sacred stories and sacred rites with each other. A world in which we listen to and participate in ways of life that are different from our own, a world in which we are not afraid to be nourished by the myths and meanings of others. A world in which every human life is valued as though it was the incarnation. Such a world requires a conversion of heart, a conversion to the human. We need to fall in love again with the world, with ourselves and see ourselves as “Theotokos”, the bearer of God.
Let’s create the kingdom

I am just old enough to have lived through the sixties, that wonderful era of hope and change. Peace and love. So perhaps I am just a middle-aged hippie, but I do genuinely think that such a world is a possibility and not just a dream. The structures of institutional religion will not change unless there is a change in those such institutions are composed of and represent. It is pointless waiting for the Pope to introduce a democratic Church, it won’t happen. There is every point in building a democratic and all-embracing church in one’s own community by the way we live. I try, and invite others to do the same. I just cannot imagine Jesus excluding anyone, why then should we?

When I say we, I do not mean Popes and magisteriums. I mean you and me…let’s go for it and create the kingdom ourselves, why not?

Confessions of the Catholic priest who doesn’t believe there’s a God

Fr Jude Bullock, a member of the Sea of Faith, is being investigated by Cardinal Hume for holding radical views on the nature of God’s existence, Heaven, Hell and the Resurrection. This article by Lesley Thomas is reprinted from the Sunday Express.
A Catholic priest is being investigated by church authorities after complaints from angry churchgoers that he does not believe there is a God, Heaven or Hell.
Father Jude Bullock, from Islington, north London, has been ordered to explain his views to Cardinal Basil Hume, the Archbishop of Westminster and leader of the Catholic Church in England and Wales.
The radical cleric, who refuses to wear a dog collar, preaches at St. John the Evangelist church. He has so upset parishioners that some have boycotted his masses.
He is the first Catholic priest to be publicly identified with the Sea of Faith group, set up to promote the idea of religion as a human creation. Two years ago one of its Anglican members, Rev Anthony Freeman, was sacked by his bishop for saying he did not believe in God.
According to Fr Jude, 37, there is no God “out there”. His confusing explanations range from: “God is nothing and god is everything”, to “God is being in itself”.
He says his prayers are “more like meditation”, that he has “dumped” the idea of the soul and questions the concept of the virgin birth.
He defended his controversial views last week: “It’s just a re-interpretation of the term God in non-supernatural terms. We should not focus on punishment and reward at the end of our lives as a way of guiding our ethics.
“I don’t thing Heaven and Hell are places that the soul — whatever that is — goes to. They are descriptive of the way life can be lived.”.
In accordance with this view Fr Jude has excised “everlasting life” from his sermons, preferring to refer to life as “timeless”.
Asked what happens after death Fr Jude said: “Speculation is futile. I haven’t the foggiest”.
And questioned over Jesus’ resurrection, he said: “It’s absurd to think you can comment on literature that’s almost 2,000 years old.”
This weekend, Cardinal Hume assured concerned Catholics that he is investigating Fr Jude’s position, talking to both the priest and his detractors. It could be a lengthy investigation. In his first response to the Archbishop, Fr Jude wrote: “The issues of Heaven, Hell, evil and the Resurrection are too complex to discuss now without this letter turning into a thesis”.
He has also suggested philosophical reading material for those who disagree with him.
However, Fr Jude does not expect to be expelled. “This is a universal church. I have spoken to the Archbishop and I get on well with him. We don’t share the same views, but I think he knows where I’m coming from.”
But for some, Fr Jude’s musing are nothing short of heresy. Dennis Everest, a lay Catholic who has complained to Cardinal Hume, said: “Why is this man a priest?”

7th July 2006 in News By David Williams

RECONCILING religious law and civil law was the theme for discussion at a multi-faith meeting at a mosque in Leyton.
Around 80 people from churches, mosques and synagogues around east London gathered at the Tawhid mosque in Leyton High Road for the event.Among those in attendance was the Bishop of Barking, the Rt Rev David Hawkins.
The discussion was organised by the East London Three Faiths Forum and was chaired by Dr Suhaib Hasan, who leads the Tawhid mosque.
Joining him were Sheikh Haitham Al-Haddad, a hudge at the Islamic Shari’a Council, Rev Stuart Myers of the Boundary Road Synagogue, and Rev Jude Bullock, vicar of St Anne’s Church, Chingford.

Drugs: priest backs Stoppard as row spreads
27th June 1997

A CATHOLIC PRIEST this week called for the legalisation of soft drugs, claiming that people should be “free to do what they want”.

Fr Jude Bullock, a north London priest and A-level theology lecturer, told the Herald: “Marijuana use should be legalised for two reasons. Firstly, because it is important to separate soft drugs from hard. And the second reason is one of freedom. I dislike the moral Right telling people how to live. These people really put the ‘fun’ back into fundamentalism.”
Asked whether he thought it was a sin to seek escapism through intoxication with cannabis, Fr Bullock said: “I can’t see anything wrong with people escaping their problems, as long as it’s not all the time.”
Referring to the liberal law on the personal use of “soft” drugs that applies in Holland, Fr Bullock added: “I’m not unimpressed with Amsterdam café society.”
A spokesman from the evangelical anti-drug body Christian Institute said he was “astonished” at the priest’s claims. “The Bible teaches you that your body is a Temple of the Holy Spirit. I cannot see how this is compatible with christian doctrine”.
The priest’s comments come in the wake of calls by the television doctor and child-rearing guru Dr Miriam Stoppard for a more relaxed approach to marijuana use. Dr Stoppard, in her new book Questions Children Ask, advises parents to tell children between 8 and 11-years-old that “people smoke marijuana because it makes them happy.”
The book was published in the week that a 13-year-old Catholic boy from North Lanarkshire became the youngest person in Britain to have died as a result of taking Ecstasy.
Miriam Stoppard has in the past supported calls by Clare Short MP for the legalisation of cannabis to be discussed.
Broadcaster and author Claire Rayner agreed: “Marijuana should be legalised immediately for medical and religious uses”. And last month the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland accepted the findings of a two year study which concluded that cannabis decriminalisation should be considered.
but conservative groups are roundly hostile to any “decriminalisation” claims. lain Bainbridge, of the Christian Institute, said: “It is sinful to take drugs for the purpose of intoxication”.
Mr Bainbridge, whose organisation last year co-operated with Catholic MP Edward Leigh on amendments to the Divorce Reform Bill, said: “I am appalled that prominent people are calling for the legalisation of cannabis. The State does have an interest in protecting people from themselves.”
Jim Richards, director of the Catholic Children’s Society (Westminster) said: “I think Miriam Stoppard is entirely wrong to talk about the positive aspects of drug-taking. The message parents should be giving is that all drugs are dangerous. Drug awareness programmes should be done by schools in partnership with parents, though whether this should go down to primary school level is another matter.”


Drugs and a free society
Catholic Herald, 11th July 1997

IN THE INTERESTS of clarity and good reporting, I feel honour bound to respond to the article, in which I am quoted, concerning the decriminalisation of cannabis (27 June). If I am going to be quoted at least quote me in full.
Firstly, my argument for the separation of soft and hard drugs is an argument I first heard put forward by a Police Commissioner.
The decriminalisation of cannabis would free police time to concentrate on harder and more dangerous drugs such as ecstasy and heroin. It would make such police work both easier and more effective.
Secondly, I made it quite clear that the young should be protected.
If cannabis was to be decriminalised then it should be treated in much the same way as alcohol.
Thirdly, what I had to say about the “moral Right” and fundamentalism was not expressed in the article properly at all.
There are plenty of things that I think are wrong. To give two examples: adultery and being blind drunk.
However, I would not like to see either adultery or the sale of alcohol made illegal.
There is a difference between persuasion and legislation. The basic tenet of a free society is the right of people to do and think things that others disapprove of. It follows that those who disapprove have the right to persuade or dissuade those they disagree with. The basic problem with fundamentalists is not what they believe to be right — on some issues I would probably agree with them. But that they also believe what it is held to be right should be made compulsory for all, and what it is held to be wrong should be made illegal for all.
They are therefore the enemies of a free society.
Am I the only one who is appalled by the arrogance of such conservative groups who call for the State to “protect people from themselves”. By what right and by what authority? Give people the necessary information and let us be free to choose for out selves.
Last but not least, I did not “call” for anything’; you called me.

Fr Jude Bullock London Ni

Not a blasphemy, but a mystic’s echo
Catholic Herald, 9th September 1994

IN A LETTER 10 the Catholic Herald (6 August), James Clifton asks why Fr Jude Bullock remains in office, given his response to a question from a reporter from the Sunday Times.
Asked whether he couldn’t state categorically that God exists, Fr Bullock replied “I haven’t the foggiest.”
With this, Fr Bullock was echoing Meister Eckhart, and illuminating the nature of faith: that we cannot prove the existence of God, but can and do believe in Him.
Fr Bullock, is a compassionate and intelligent priest, who constantly challenges his parishioners to :think, and calls on them to believe.
Above all, lie is a man of profound faith in God.
I imagine that Fr Bullock is still in office because Cardinal Hume appreciates his worth, even of Mr Clifton does not. He ls precisely the kind of priest the Church needs.
Michael Shirley London





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