Wednesday, June 01, 2016

Atheist pastors within the church...?

I've recently discovered the "Life after God" podcast. This is what Ryan Bell of "Year without God" fame started after his year without God ended and he decided to carry on with the rest of his life without God.

I've only listened to the first three podcasts so far, so am the best part of a year behind, but the first couple of interviews on the podcast have intrigued me, and confused me.

The first interview comes in Episode 2, and features Gretta Vosper, a minister from the United Church of Canada who is an atheist, and yet still leads a congregation within the United Church of Canada. Hang on, what?

That's right. The United Church of Canada employs an atheist pastor to lead one of their congregations. 

The short version of the story is that Gretta didn't start out as an atheist pastor, she started out as a liberal Christian pastor, and along the way came to realise that she didn't believe in a personal God. She started expressing this to her congregation in 2001 and found (to her surprise, I think) that she wasn't immediately thrown out as a heretic. Over the course of the next decade the focus of her church changed and there was a general outflow of Christians and a small inflow of skeptics, doubters and outright atheists. In 2013 she went the whole hog and finally admitted to being an atheist. The congregation carries on being a place for people of all beliefs. Last year, the United Church of Canada began a process of looking into this ministry to see if they should get rid of her or not. As far as I can tell, she's still there for now.

I'm kind of with the Church here. The Church exists to worship God and preach His (with a capital H) message and it seems to me to be entirely reasonable that the Church should seek to root out and remove people within its ranks who do not follow this agenda, indeed, who go entirely against this agenda.

What surprised me about the conversations on the Life After God podcast was the attitude of Ryan Bell (the host), Gretta Vosper and David Hayward (the "Naked Pastor", interviewed on Episode 3) to this situation. All of them seemed surprised that the Church should be seeking to remove an atheist pastor from post! All of them seemed to think she should remain in post. The argument seems to be that the atheist pastor is doing a good work... but I think that this good work is entirely at odds with the agenda of the Church. Why are they surprised? Why is Gretta intent on remaining a pastor within a Christian organisation, when she doesn't accept the divinity of Christ, or anyone else for that matter? I just don't get it.

Yes, I understand how hard it can be for someone who has served as a pastor in the church for their whole life to find something secular to do after leaving the church, but I don't understand them fighting for the right to remain a pastor within the church. 

It sounds like Gretta has a largely non-believing congregation anyway, so they are presumably financially able to pay a reasonable salary for her if they left the United Church. So why don't they simply leave and form an atheist community somewhere outside the Church? The whole thing strikes me as very odd.

Interesting to listen to the discussion on the podcast though, so I'll listen to a few more shows at least.

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