I served as an Anglican priest for 12 years and have been out of the ministry for 5 years. My concerns about Christian treatment of non-Christians whose lives we were supposedly improving led me to secular and scientific readings which ultimately led me away from faith.
During my ministry in northern Canada I became painfully aware of the residential schools abuses that had been perpetrated upon aboriginal children. The government of Canada, along with the Catholic, Anglican and Lutheran churches set out to Christianize aboriginals and integrate them into mainstream society. As a result it was mandatory for these children to attend special aboriginal schools. We kept an old file of photos of children from our parish who were sent off to school up to eight hundred kilometers away from their families every winter.
Once at school, children were forbidden to speak their native language, they were scrubbed, their hair was shorn with clippers, many were beaten with wooden paddles for punishment and some were sexually abused by the same men and women who taught them to pray. About one quarter of my parishioners had attended these schools during their youth and I was quite amazed that any of them retained a Christian faith. In the mid 1990’s the last of these schools stopped its operation just as my ministry was beginning. I often wondered how those who ran the schools could see themselves as the “hands and feet” of Jesus Christ.
I spent a good part of my ministry talking to parishioners about issues like the residential schools program. I witnessed firsthand the dysfunction that it brought to aboriginal society: rampant alcoholism, broken families where the children lost the language of their home community and a cultural divide between parents and children that worsened as the children grew older and as they spent more winters away from home. Children were told that the religion of their parents was wrong and they were taught to pray to the Christian God.
In 2006, I approached a senior pastor and friend and told him I was struggling with my faith. He suggested I talk to our Bishop. The Bishop was concerned enough for me that he thought I should take a break from ministry. During the break I had plenty of time to think. I explored philosophy, science, epistemology and finally, I read a book called The Selfish Gene, by Richard Dawkins. I will never forget how it awakened my mind and how it stirred a deep curiosity within me. I desperately needed to know more about who I am, where I really came from, and how it is that, as humans, we have evolved to be the way we are. I started to see that my model of the world was not working.
I still remember one pivotal morning. I lay in bed, the warm summer sun streaming into my window. It dawned on me for the first time after 32 years of committed Christian life that the world makes much more sense without a God in it. All the violence, all the chaos, pain and suffering. Where is our loving God? Why didn’t he intervene and help those children? Does God even care? I had tried so hard to present God as loving, kind and caring in every sermon I preached but I could not believe it anymore.
Deep inside, I secretly knew I was no longer fit for ministry. How would I tell my children I didn’t believe anymore? How would I tell my wife? I tried to believe but nothing worked. I could not reconcile my newly found atheism with the biblical texts that demanded surety, faith and trust in a loving God.
Finally, my sabbatical ended and I resigned in 2006. I had spent many long hours talking it over with my wife, and I finally told my children. They weren’t happy but they understood why I rescinded my holy orders. The next step was to tell my father, who is also a clergyman. I’ll never forget his reaction as he tried repeatedly to convince me I was destined for hell. Some of my former parishioners phoned and tried to convince me I was wrong. “You’re going to hell, Jeff”, some of them said. My head pounded.
No one would listen. It’s as if they were immune to my reasoning. I’m not a bad person, I just don’t believe anymore. I felt very alone. What would I do with my future?
Luckily I had worked as a tradesmen for many years before going into ministry. I knew my family would be just fine. I wasn’t so sure about myself.
After five years of struggling on my own, I found The Clergy Project after it was recommended to me by a humanist friend who had read the Sam Harris article, ‘Life Without God: An interview with Tom Prowse’. The Clergy Project has given me new hope because I now know there is a place for people like me. I wish it had existed five years ago because I really needed the precious new friendships that are made here every day by people seeking support. Folks at the clergy project really understand what it is like to leave a ministry, to lose the support of your family or to look for a new job because they have experienced it for themselves. I read their stories, look at the answers to their questions in the forums as others try to make a difference by giving advice or listening. I have even offered a hand in support where it was needed.
Even though The Clergy Project has only just begun, it has already become a very important part of my life. Some of my wounds are quite old now, but they still hurt. It means everything to me to know there are others who understand how I feel.
I am not alone.