The creation of the Calgary Secular Church gives me hope for our future. That may sound odd. Let me explain. Recently, Alberta’s first atheist church has been established here in Calgary. It is founded by Korey Peters as a place for atheist people to gather and connect. Some no doubt will see this as a grand step forward for the cause of Atheism in North America. Some will probably see that defining a body of atheists as a ‘church’ is a giant leap backwards.
What I found fascinating about this community was the religious manner in which they have defined themselves. In his opening remarks, (which can be read here), Peters talked about the activity and structures that would define the church. He spoke about the desire for a children’s ministry, the need for a choir, the importance of celebration and ceremony to mark important events (mentioning primarily birth, education, marriage, and death). He even talked about the need to undergo times of confession to better accept and live out the place of forgiveness in their lives. What is more, all activities of Calgary Secular Church are to be placed along the benchmark of 4 charters – which while distinctly not the 10 commandments, act in the same sort of fashion. So if I read this correctly, this atheist church has worship, fellowship, Sunday school, rites of celebration, and a creed. It seems almost Anglican.
Believe me, my intension is not to ridicule this body of people. In fact, the creation of this church gives me hope for the future of our own. I say this for two reasons. Firstly, isn’t this a wonderful illustration of our longing for community? A belief in the non-existence of God does not quiet down that need we all have to be a part of something grander than ourselves. Communities help us understand the role and purpose of our creation; they help give meaning to grand events of our lives; and they give order to a world that is sometimes so full of chaos. Think of it; who would have thought that a group of atheists would end up illustrating the importance of belonging to a church! While our tradition sometimes flirts with new manners of ministry – ones that often jettison traditions and practices of the past – a group of atheists are discovering the sacredness of such things. This gives me hope for the future of our church for it shows me that our future does not rest in figuring out appropriate programs or practices. As long as there are people in this world, there will be a restless longing for community; a longing that our church is wonderfully equipped to satisfy.
Secondly, the Calgary Secular Church gives me hope because in addition to a longing for community, the creation of this church shows me that people long for a language to talk about the deep issues of life. They long for language to describe the interconnected harmony of the world around them, and the frustrations they feel when it does not work together as they hope. What is more, when things go awry, when they fall from the perfect moral or spiritual perfection that they long for, there is a desperate need to have someone with authority speak words of comfort and forgiveness. Why else would a secular church include the rite of confession and absolution?
Yet while a human-based communities and secular proclamations of forgiveness are fleeting and transitory, we have been given a grander proclamation. The message of God-with-Us is a substantially relevant in today’s world for it addresses a deep inner void that so many feel. While not understood or described religiously, the atheist church gives expression to the spiritual need to be loved, accepted, and forgiven. What is both longed for and searched out are not pithy senteiments or empty promises, but a personal realization of these things. People long to be hear the message of forgiveness and subsequently live that out in their lives. And while the world struggles for the language to describe such things, they inevitably come upon the language that the church has known since its beginning. Perhaps then, we need to be more diligent in making this proclamation audible in this world?
Ultimately, the creation of the Calgary Secular Church testifies that God is active. It shows that God is working in people’s hearts in deeper ways than we can acknowledge. It is not our job to bring people to the awareness of their deep inner needs; God does that work for us. It is God who transforms people’s hearts, and goes before us to expose those deep inner longings that we all have for community, for forgiveness, for redemption. And because of this, the message of Jesus Christ will always be relevant. There will always be a place for the proclamation of God’s love and grace to flourish in this world, and thus there will always be a need for the church. Let us then press in our message and ministry, being filled with confidence and hope, for the work of Christ’s body is far from over.