Thirty years ago the brilliant British sitcom “Yes, Prime Minister” broadcast an episode titled “The Bishop’s Gambit” which focused on the politics involved in filling a vacant bishopric in the Church of England. One of the candidates is a “theological modernist” which the Cabinet Secretary explains to the Prime Minister is “code for an atheist.” Sir Appleby goes on to explain, “The Queen is inseparable from the Church of England” to which the Prime Minister replies, “And what about God?” Appleby replies, “I think he is what is called an optional extra.”
God. An optional extra.
I wish they were kidding, but the fact is that this absurdity of clergy for whom even theism is an option is a reality in many liberal churches. Consider as an example the current case in Canada of a United Church minister who is fighting to retain her position in the church even though she has been an outspoken atheist for more than a decade. According to Rev. Greta Vosper, “how you live is more important than what you believe in.” So, given that she recycles, drives a hybrid and supports the World Wildlife Fund, we should overlook the fact that she’s an atheist. (Sorry, that last sentence was unabashed sarcasm, but I couldn’t resist.)
As a general rule, I try to retain sympathy for those who color outside the theological lines. A healthy church is one that can ask hard questions and tolerate some degree of divergence on the answers. And so we don’t all need to be Calvinists (or Arminians), and we don’t all need to accept the same theory of atonement or incarnation or polity or understanding of women in ministry.
But theism? As an option?! For goodness sake, any church that tolerates avowed atheistic clergy deserves to die. Or better yet, rebrand itself as a secular non-profit service organization.