Two regional church authorities in the Netherlands are reported to have decided to take no disciplinary action against a self-proclaimed atheist pastor, Klaas Hendrikse - writes Andreas Havinga.
The decision of the authorities in the southern Dutch province of Zeeland was published in a letter to their congregations, the Protestant daily newspaper Nederlands Dagblad reported on 24 March 2009.
The church authorities said disciplinary proceedings against Hendrikse, who is a pastor of the Protestant Church in the Netherlands, would be likely to lead to "a protracted discussion about the meanings of words that in the end will produce little clarity". The letter also noted that people have debated the issue of "God's existence" throughout time.
Hendrikse gained attention with his book published in November 2007, in which he said that it was not necessary to believe in God's existence in order to believe in "God". The Dutch title of the book translates as, "Believing in a God who does not exist: manifesto of an atheist pastor".
In his book, Hendrikse recounts how his conviction that God does not exist has become stronger over the years.
"The non-existence of God is for me not an obstacle but a precondition to believing in God. I am an atheist believer," Hendrikse writes in the book. "God is for me not a being but a word for what can happen between people. Someone says to you, for example, 'I will not abandon you', and then makes those words come true. It would be perfectly alright to call that relationship God."
Hendrikse has been a minister for more than 20 years in the southwestern town of Middelburg and a nearby village. His two congregations have belonged to the Protestant Church in the Netherlands since it was formed in 2004 as a union of a Lutheran church and two Reformed denominations. Hendrikse's congregations also belong to the Association of Liberal Protestants.
As each congregation belongs to a different church district, the issue of possible disciplinary proceedings was a matter for two regional church authorities.
The national leadership of the Protestant Church in the Netherlands has in the past said that church law prevents it from initiating disciplinary measures against incumbent clergy. That task falls to the church's regional authorities.
Hendrikse welcomed the decision not to opt for disciplinary proceedings against him.
The spokesperson of the national leadership of the Protestant Church, Jan-Gerd Heetderks, was quoted by the Reformatorisch Dagblad newspaper as saying that the national church leadership would wait until it had received the letter and had a an opportunity to study it before making any comment.
[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and the Conference of European Churches.]