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Atheist in the United Church


In response to a reader’s question: Can you explain how you can be an atheist and a United Church minister?

Thank you for this question. I am often asked to explain my continued presence as a minister in the United Church so am happy to provide my answer.

The essence of my belief system was distilled in my United Church of Canada (UCC) Sunday school classes. A Sunday school curriculum simply entitled A New Curriculum was published in 1964 and removed from circulation in 1971. Those are the exact years I was in the Sunday School program at Sydenham Street United Church in Kingston, Ontario, so I am one of a very select few privileged to a progressive Christian formation. We had a well-read minister, the Rev. Jock Davidson, who welcomed the curriculum into the church as soon as it first became available. Unfortunately, it received much lament from teachers that it was difficult to prepare for classes. The challenge to traditional beliefs offended many. Its term as the national curriculum was brief and its chief editor, Donald Mathers, unfairly, took the blunt of the lament.

A New Curriculum embraced the latest in theological exploration, including the work of controversial Anglican Bishop John A. T. Robinson. His 1963 book, Honest to God, was the most exciting Christian publication to hit the shelves in decades and was read with enthusiasm by a new generation of fiery, socially conscious clergy. Indeed, when A New Curriculum was published, a long history of joint publication practices that existed between the United and Baptist denominations was severed as Baptists responded with outrage.

Thus, at a very early age, I was introduced to a god that wasn’t a father or any person at all. God was love, plain and simple, and we were taught that we were responsible for God’s presence in the world. I don’t recall hearing Jesus referred to as a saviour until I was at Mount Allison University when students in the Rev. Eldon Hay’s classroom explored the ramifications of such an understanding. Eldon, as I later came to know him, was decidedly on the side of a religion that asked questions, not one that answered them.

When I attended Queen’s Theological College, I met candidates for ministry in the UCC who believed things about Jesus and God I had never believed and which, after consideration, I rejected. Although the UCC did not officially declare itself a non-creedal church, we all certainly embraced the freedom of belief present in it. My beliefs were honed and underscored by my scholarship, supported by my theological professors and contemporary scholars whose work veered far from a theistic understanding of God, and a salvific purpose for Jesus.

Although most of the scholars I was reading during and after my theological training continued to name their non-theistic understandings of god, “God”, I came to find their doing so a form of dissembling. It was as if they would lose legitimacy if they didn’t stamp the label “GOD” onto whatever new understanding they had reached or were promoting. No matter the kind of theology I read – narrative, postmodern, feminist, progressive, process, or otherwise – the use of the word “god” by the author was rarely, if ever, what the typical person in the pew thought was meant when the word was spoken from the pulpit or sung from a hymnal. Indeed, some of my colleagues have worked hard to label me a “this” or “that” theologian by pulling their understanding of the word god over my belief system to either delegitimize my arguments or legitimize their own.

Over time, it became a question of my own integrity as a clergy person. If I did not share my discomfort with the use of the word “god”, was I not just another part of the problem? My conundrum came to a head with the murder of Bangladeshi Avijit Roy at the annual book festival there in 2015. Avijit was a brilliant scholar and author, and although I did not know him, we shared the same beliefs. Avijit was an atheist who spoke out about the ills and abuses of militant Islam. He was hacked to death by machete. His wife, Bonya, visiting from her home in the US, survived the attack. The time had come for me to step out from behind the protection of a label that did not accurately describe the beliefs I had been taught and continued to embrace and to own a label that did represent them, even and especially if it was being used to foment hatred and violence against people who challenged the religious status quo. I identified as an atheist shortly after Avijit’s murder.

This has been a long response to your query but I appreciate the opportunity to share it publicly. The hearings I was subjected to by The United Church of Canada did not provide opportunity for me to lay the responsibility for my beliefs at its own feet. Nor did they publicize that they had changed theological requirements for clergy in order to charge me. While previously, clergy were required to assent to belief in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit once and for all time at their ordination and were advised to do so in accordance with their own belief of those terms, the General Secretary of the UCC (who had no theological training), changed those rules to impose ongoing affirmation of that belief over the term of a minister’s tenure. The rule has never been applied to another minister and I suspect it never will be. In Canada, it is not legal to create new institutional rulings to address a single personnel issue but the long protraction of the hearing and its impact on my health required that I leave that legal argument to someone else.

Over the years, the UCC has been progressive in its social inclusion but as it has done so, has failed to protect its own theological history and progression. Its open door has meant that those with very conservative theologies have been welcomed into our embrace because their sexuality, or gender identity or expression have refused them ministries in their own denominations, or because their race had little representation in a predominantly white church. This has resulted in a radically more conservative denomination than the one that formed me in the 1960s.[1] I lament the forfeit of the UCC’s leadership in theological exploration and articulation as I watch the many gifts of congregational life disappear as churches close their doors even as the need for meaningful conversation, challenging engagement, and the deeply felt love of intentional community becomes acute in our deeply divided world. The UCC could be a haven for those seeking a place to hold one another in a hope-filled challenge; instead, it failed to protect to its own unique integrity and got lost in the multitude of congregations sharing the more traditional message of Christianity that meets the needs of some but is indifferent to the needs of the vast majority. 

[1] In one region, interviewers were warned off asking theological questions which may be perceived as culturally insensitive.


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