Ask Richard: An Atheist Considering Becoming An Anglican Minister November 17, 2009

Ask Richard: An Atheist Considering Becoming An Anglican Minister

Dear Richard,

I am a great admirer of the eloquent yet simple advice you give on Friendly Atheist. I have been “out” as an atheist for about one year now. I work in a Divinity Faculty, where I am surrounded by liberal, thoughtful, sophisticated religious believers, and recently I have been having thoughts about becoming an ordained minister in the Anglican Church. I feel that this job would give me personal fulfillment and allow me to do what I really want to do in my life, which is to, well, ‘minister’ to people’s needs, to be there for them in the hard times and help them celebrate the good times. I believe that religion does not have to be about beliefs, but actions, that it can be a force for good rather than hatred, and that “God” can be useful as a symbol which can provide many different meanings and frameworks for different people. I also believe that I would perhaps be more use to the furthering of reason and tolerance if I were within ‘the system’, promoting religious moderation than simply being an outsider.

My question is: should I pursue this career path, whilst remaining an atheist (or a ‘theological non-realist’ to give it a ‘theologically acceptable’ term)?

I would greatly appreciate your advice on this issue, and I look forward to hearing from you soon.

Best wishes,


Dear Conflicted,

You’ve expressed two goals that you would like to accomplish in your life. One is to “attend to the wants and needs of others, to give aid or service,” which is one of the definitions of the verb “to minister.” Most people would agree that that is a very noble and admirable desire.

Your other goal is to bring about positive change in the church, making it more responsive to a wider range of people’s needs, and to improve its influence on society; to in a way, humanize it. Many people would approve of that as well.

However, your proposed method poses some ethical and pragmatic difficulties.

It isn’t clear from your letter, but I’m going to assume that if you were to apply to the ministry, you would do so openly as an atheist, just as you are now at your workplace. I’m assuming this because I think you know you wouldn’t be able to cover up your lack of belief for very long.

There are clerics who become free of their faith while they are ministering to their flocks. Many leave the clergy, some famously, because they cannot abide the conflict of promoting and reassuring beliefs in others that they no longer hold for themselves. They see it as hypocrisy, and it is too painful for them. An unknown number of these people continue on in their ministry as secret apostates, keeping up a deception for either selfish or noble reasons. Perhaps they just want to keep their jobs, or perhaps they want to keep on helping others somehow, “ministering” in that decent and generous meaning of the verb to which you aspire.

Being secretive about your atheism would pose ethical problems, and being open about your atheism would pose pragmatic problems.

Concealing it would require lying. That by itself is an ethical breach that should not be acceptable to a person who wants to be a professional helper in any capacity. Hiding it would most likely also cause injury to others. Since people look to their ministers for ethical guidance and moral modeling as well as spiritual solace, a closet atheist minister would be running a serious risk of implanting terrible cynicism, bitterness and deep hurt in those who trust in him, once the truth eventually comes out.

Because eventually, it always does.

Being open about your atheism might stop you right at the front door of the Anglican seminary or divinity school. From what I can find in a quick online search, the initial process of “discernment” involves intense and intimate examinations by your own personal priest, a discernment committee, a commission on ministry, a Bishop, and perhaps even a mental health professional. These people will assess the suitability of your intentions, personal history, values, attitudes, ideas, goals,

and your beliefs.

If you don’t believe in their god, they may see you as missing an essential prerequisite. Your openhearted desire to help others and your open-minded desire to bring more breadth, reason and tolerance to the church from the inside may not be enough for them to trust you with either their doctrine or their flock.

Even if you somehow get past all those barriers and become a minister, the hardest questions will come from the people whom you are trying to help. They will look you in the eyes and say, “My little girl died today. Please tell me that she’s going to heaven.” Will you respond with reason, or with the comforting myth they so desperately want to hear you confirm?

Conflicted, I don’t want to extinguish your wonderful longing to be of service to others, to “be there for them in the hard times and help them celebrate the good times” as you so movingly put it, by only listing reasons why your idea may not work.

Perhaps your experience in the divinity faculty and your knowledge of the Anglican Church is extensive, and you know how you could overcome those pragmatic hurdles. I’m certainly no expert on that.

Perhaps you can find ways to reconcile a person’s desire for a reassuring bedtime story with your rational mind’s demands to tell them the truth as you see it. I don’t pretend to be that wise, but I don’t assume that no one else is.

Perhaps also, your broad vision of God and religion, and how you could influence the church from the inside toward embracing more reason, tolerance and moderation is somehow attainable. When people propose lofty aspirations, I never use the word “impossible” because thousands of people have personally amazed me.

However, I can point out that you have other options, other venues for helping people on a personal level. For instance, you sound like you’d make an excellent counselor. That is a broad and varied field, and you don’t necessarily have to specialize too narrowly into one kind of need to fulfill. It has a challenging and interesting process to qualify, just as would the ministry. My years as a counselor were immensely fulfilling. I made a positive difference, and I even saved a few lives. I still get great pleasure from the little bit of service I can offer with this column.

But if the path of the psy does not appeal to you, there are many other ways that you could find satisfaction as well as sustenance by making the world around you a little better than it was before. That is the whole point of life for people like you and me; that we somehow, even in small ways, make a positive difference in others’ lives.

Use your imagination. Your generous spirit can be of great value in so many unexpected ways. Find them all!


You may send your questions for Richard to AskRichard. All questions will eventually be answered, but not all can be published. There is a large number of requests; please be patient.

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Why Anglican? (I’ll guess it’s the liturgy) I know there’s some pretty out-there liberal corners of that church (like the gay-affirmers), but all the way to atheism? He’d probably do better with the Unitarians, with little or no issue about god-belief.

  • Eric Mattingly

    However liberal the Anglican Church has become or will become, it is still a theistic institution and for an atheist to involve himself in it would be a breach of integrity on his part. Not only that, but it would be an act of utter condescension toward those he claims he would like serve. Sort of like the “Great White Hope” of Europe “rescuing” Africa. He may want to consider the Unitarian Universalit Church, however. Theism is not a matter of doctrine for them. Or the Quakers– though they don’t have a clergy there is plenty of room for people who want to help others.

  • Yossarian

    I agree with the suggestion for considering a Unitarian ministry. It’s expected that Unitarian ministers have a broad range of beliefs and non-belief.

    I might also suggest Secular Humanism ministry. I believe there is a great need in that regard, in many areas.

    Having been an Anglican myself, and a member of one of the most liberal-minded parishes (ours was at the forefront of the movement to bless same-sex unions, the fallout from which still goes on today). I loved the liturgy, the music, and the fellowship with fellow parishioners. However, when I finally came to declare myself an Atheist, I was no longer comfortable there. It’s not that I wouldn’t have been welcome, but at that moment it all lost most of its meaning for me (well, except for the fellowship of course). I just can’t see how someone would go into ministry as an atheist into any church that requires positive affirmation of faith (Anglicans say the creed, too – which I one day stopped saying because I couldn’t bear even quiet hypocrisy).

  • You would probably have to be kind of like John Shelby Spong with a mix of spirituality and realistic talk about what the gospels really mean. Although, he didn’t start out in seminary school with his present beliefs. As Richard says, it may be challenging to advance in the Episcopal church starting out as an apostate. You should, though, be open about your beliefs. It could work if you could be assigned to a VERY open-minded congregation somewhere. If you are placed in a more typical congregation, you may find yourself needing to say all sorts of “God talk” just to give the people what they expect (and demand). Otherwise, the congregation might send you packing.

    Good luck!

  • mkb

    One option might be to be a Unitarian minister, another might be to be an Ethical Culture leader.

  • Couldn’t agree more with the Unitarian Universalist suggestion… you’ll find some resources at

    Our own minister does not profess a belief in a personal god. You can get more info about our particular UU at as well as contact info for our minister if you’d like to chat with him. I’m sure he’d be quite willing to visit with you.

  • FJD

    Wow. You’re desiring to go into Christian ministry for all the right reasons, but you’re headed to the wrong place. Psychologist would be a much better choice, with less long-term dissonance for you. You can help people without the overlay of faith required by the church. Integrity is important, and you cannot live in competing ideologies for very long without suffering. I know that as a Christian minister who is losing his faith. It is hell.

  • J B Tait

    You might want to consider being ordained by the Universal Life Church (which is free, online, legitimate, and nearly instant), taking care of your own academic credentials which might include getting certified as a counselor, and then starting your own church based on the liturgy of the Church of England/Anglicanism but serving the Secular Humanist community.

  • J B Tait

    I see an evolutionary path in religion. If the people who observe, test, think, and apply reason to their beliefs leave religion, then the credulousness index of the remaining population goes up.
    Think what would happen to a school if all the bright students left it, or even worse, if all the well-educated teachers abandoned it. Likewise, if those who have examined their beliefs leave or are forced out of religion, it will deteriorate until there are only poorly informed magical thinkers convinced they are better than everyone else because they have Faith in something they can’t justify by reason.

    Or maybe that has already happened.

  • IgnobleIgnosticIgnoramus

    They will look you in the eyes and say, “My little girl died today. Please tell me that she’s going to heaven.” Will you respond with reason, or with the comforting myth they so desperately want to hear you confirm?

    Being a non-theist doesn’t mean that one doesn’t believe in some form of afterlife.

    It also doesn’t mean one believes in the power of religion to bring people together (for good or ill) or the importance of symbol and myth in our day to day lives.

    There needs to be a term for atheists who are not strict naturalists and not stridently anti-religion. Paleoatheists perhaps?

  • Or maybe that has already happened.

    I think you just described the Southern Baptist denomination. They draw people in with their out-reach sermons. Then the more rational-minded of the congregation end up leaving once the hell-talk gets too much… leaving just the hard-core fundies. Over time, the church becomes more and more fundi. Probably many denominations are like that.

  • Neon Genesis

    Isn’t Richard Holloway an atheist bishop in the Anglican church in Edinburgh? I thought Dawkins mentioned him in his Atheists For Jesus article? But I also agree you might feel more comfortable in the UU church where there’s actually more humanists than Christians that are members and there’s no requirement to believe in God to join.

  • Pseudonym

    Neon Genesis, he was the Bishop of Edinburgh, yes. But he’s retired now.

    To Confused: I agree with everyone who has said “whatever you do, don’t lie”. I think that’s the bottom line.

    I’m no expert in career advice, but from what you’re saying, I’m okay with it if you’re okay with it. If you’re okay with it, then the only question is, as Richard pointed out, whether or not the church is okay with it.

  • MH

    Being a UU minister would be a foolproof as they don’t have a creed.

    However, Bishop John Shelby Spong is writing books claiming theism is dead. So the Anglicans are pretty far left too.

  • Erp

    Some Anglicans get quite close to atheistic, Spong and Holloway are two examples (Holloway even wrote a book called “Godless Morality”).
    However both started out far more conventional.
    The Anglican churches also have their fair share of conservatives (and a battle royal going on right now on which direction to go).

    One key question is which country? The UUA is pretty much in the US but the Episcopalians are what mainstream Anglicans are called in the US so it doesn’t sound like the Conflicted is in the US.

    Why not do something like this?

    That way, you can be there for people when they need you, but you can do it in a non-denom/relgious way.

    I’m actually considering this for myself – of course, I’ll have to figure out a way of NOT starting every ceremony with a joke that begins, “So, a priest, a rabbi and a hooker walk into a bar…..”

    Everyone has great answers. I hope you update us as to what you eventually decide.

  • conflicted

    Dear all,

    Thank you for all your helpful comments (especially Richard!). I have given the matter a lot of thought since I emailed Richard with that letter. I think Richard is right about how trying to be Anglican (the church I was raised in) would cause ethical and practical problems.

    I have since switched my course at the Divinity School to a Psychology of Religion MA, and I may well end up training as a counselor. I am interested in looking into UU membership, too, so we’ll see what the future holds!

    Thanks again,


  • man everyone always gives great advice.

    To be honest, like theists say, the road to hell is paved with good intentions (we need to come up with a better line) and this is the only place I see this going (no pun intended). It just reeks of trouble.

    It’s funny, I never heard anyone actually attempting to to this but i know a gang of people who go to church because of the social networks and support they received. outside of the church, many find it difficult to find this sort of support (which explains why so many people stay in churches that preach racism, sexism, homophobia, and anti intellectualism).

    there are several other ways to help people and the church isn’t the only place for that.

  • Claudia

    Count me in the number of people who think you should not abandon your desire to become a minister-like person, but think you should look outside the Anglicans. I admit I don’t know enough about UU doctrine (if there is such a thing) to be sure, but I’d want to be sure the Unitarian Universalists allow explicit non-believers into their ministry. That is to say that no matter how soft-focus and “original life force” and metaphoric god-talk gets, I don’t think it’s an irrelevant question at all whether at the core of your belief system is supernatural or rational in origin.

    If a fully atheist minister can feel comfortable and completely honest in a UU church, then fantastic. Otherwise I think Humanism would be the best place for an atheist seeking the job he describes. Of course the congregated Humanist community is even smaller than the UU community, so obviously he could only go that route if there was some organized Humanist community near him.

  • Kaylya

    I grew up attending the Anglican Church in Canada. My mom is very active in her church, and I’ve got nothing but respect for the various Anglican ministers I know. She’s more of the Spong / Armstrong type of Christian, and she’s on the pro gay-marriage side, and in a fairly liberal diocese (New Westminster, aka Vancouver area).

    In the one sense, it’s got very liberal elements to it, at least in Canada and the US. There’s a lot of conflict in the Church because of those liberal elements and the more conservative elements within the same country; and with the more conservative elements in places like Africa.

    On the other hand, there’s a lot of formal liturgy that goes on in the service. At least at the churches I’ve been to, the Nicene Creed is recited every single service.

    UU seems like an excellent idea, and if you’re in Canada or the UK it looks fairly established, with Australia and NZ having just a handful of congregations.

  • no longer conflicted

    Again, I’m impressed by how people aren’t being harsh or judgemental about my dilemma. Thanks! I wrote that letter at a time when I’d been a bit down in my life and an Anglican vicar who’s an old friend of mine helped me out a lot, without referring to God at all. I just want to be able to do the same for somebody else in that situation. So, thanks for the help, I’ll definitely consider UU (if it is open to atheists) or Humanism and training as a psychotherapist or counselor. Richard, you’re right about the cognitive dissonance I’d feel having to tell people comforting stories about heaven without believing any of it myself. I wouldn’t be able to reconcile that and I’d be lying to myself if I tried to. I guess my idea of changing things from the inside was a bit too grand an ambition as well! Thanks for the advice, and for running this column.

    Best Wishes all,


  • nonnamuss

    As I understand it, Rev Bruce Kinsey, who was the Anglican chaplain at Downing College, Cambridge a few years ago (and famously got in trouble for his god@ email address) is openly an atheist.

  • anon

    As as student and friend of his i should say that actually Bruce is by no means an atheist. He merely likes to be confusing; to call him open about anything philosophical is a very big misnomer.

  • Chris

    Most Episcopal clergy I know and went to seminary with are mostly agnostic or atheist. Oh we may say the creeds and preach and all that, but we don’t really believe it. You can’t go through an Episcopal seminary and come out believing in God. Let’s quit pretending here, people

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