A self-proclaimed atheist can continue to serve as a local pastor of the Protestant Church in the Netherlands, and no longer faces disciplinary action because of his controversial position on how to describe God - writes Andreas Havinga.
A special assembly of Zierikzee, a regional church body tasked with investigating the theological statements of Pastor Klaas Hendrikse, has said its work is, "completed".
The 3 February 2010 decision to allow Hendrikse to continue working as a pastor followed the advice of a regional supervisory panel that the statements by Hendrikse, "are not of sufficient weight to damage the foundations of the church".
"The ideas of Hendrikse are theologically not new, and are in keeping with the liberal tradition that is an integral part of our church," the special panel concluded.
Canon law prevents the national leadership of the Protestant Church in the Netherlands – its board of the general synod – from initiating disciplinary measures against serving clergy, the synod board stressed from the outset. According to the church's constitution, that task falls to bodies such as the church's regional authorities.
Hendrikse said he was, "very satisfied with the result", the Dutch news service Ikon Kerknieuws reported. He added that he was particularly pleased with a parallel announcement that the general synod, the national church's governing body, is to discuss the issue he raised about how to declare one's belief in God. "I have always pushed for this," said Hendrikse. "Now I have reached my goal."
Hendrikse criticised the ecclesiastical investigation as a time-wasting distraction.
In 2007, Hendrikse hit the headlines with the publication, in Dutch, of his book titled "Believing in a God that does not exist: the manifesto of an atheist pastor" (Geloven in een God die niet bestaat - manifest van een atheïstische dominee).
In the book, Hendrikse distinguishes between believing in God, which he affirms, and believing in the existence of God, which he rejects. Instead, he refers to God as, "happening".
In a 4 February statement, the board of the synod said, "It is aware that the statements by Pastor Hendrikse have caused alarm and distress in a part of the church but [the board] is at the same time grateful that the ecclesiastical investigation is now completed, and there is clarity for all concerned."
The statement continued, "The general synod has, separate from its reactions to the statements of Hendrikse, emphasised in recent years that the discussion about matters of faith needs to be held in the church, in particular between the various traditions within the Protestant Church. In this context, the general synod in November 2010 will consider [the issue of] 'talking about God'. The board looks forward to this discussion."
Protestant Church spokesperson Jan-Gerd Heetderks said the synod discussion would be "broader than, 'Does God exist or not?'" the regional newspaper Friesch Dagblad reported.
Hendrikse, who is due to retire in September 2012, has for more than 20 years been a minister to one Protestant congregation in the south-western town of Middelburg and another in the nearby village of Zierikzee. The two congregations belong to the Association of Liberal Protestants (VVP), an interest group within the Protestant Church.
Research published in 2006 by the ecumenical broadcaster Ikon and the Free University of Amsterdam found that one in six clergy of the Protestant Church were either not sure about or did not believe in the existence of God.
The survey also found that clergy aged 35 years or younger tended to be the most certain of God’s existence, while clergy aged between 55 and 65 years were the most unsure. "Overall, the survey indicated that the younger generation was more 'pious' than older generations," the research report said.
[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.]