Gretta Vosper is a reverend for the United Church of Canada… even though she doesn’t believe in God. Maybe you think that’s controversial — or hypocritical — but the UCC has long ordained women and LGBT individuals. So it’s not completely out of line to have an atheist minister.
But her position is now in jeopardy.
Earlier this year, following the Charlie Hebdo attacks, the church posted a prayer on its website that included these lines:
By the light of faith,
lead us to seek comfort, compassion, and peace,
in the face of escalating violence around the world.
Vosper criticized that word choice in an open letter:
… This belief [in God] has led to innumerable tragedies throughout the timeline of human history and will continue to do so until it fades from our ravaged memory. If we maintain that our moral framework is dependent upon that supernatural being, we allow others to make the same claim and must defend their right to do so even if their choices and acts are radically different from our own; we do not hold the right to parcel out divine authority only to those with whom we agree.
That didn’t go over so well with other UCC leaders, who questioned whether an atheist — even one who was a reverend — could really represent people of their faith.
Now, they’re slowly moving to get rid of her.
A committee of the democratic United Church of Canada has unanimously voted for a “review of the effectiveness of Rev. Gretta Vosper,” the Toronto clergyperson and author who proudly promotes herself as an atheist and publicly denounces all forms of religion.
The move happened quietly this month, when two United Church adherents from the Toronto conference, Ann Harbridge and Linda Parsons, made a motion to interview Vosper “with a focus on continuing affirmation of the questions asked of all candidates at the time of ordination” into the United Church of Canada.
In other words, they want to see if she still agrees with the principles she signed onto when she was ordained as a minister. If not, it would be grounds to dismiss her.
You expect to see that sort of “with us or against us” shit with Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormons… but not from one of the most liberal congregations in the world.
It’s actually the first time a UCC minister has been reviewed like this on the basis of his or her beliefs. And it doesn’t even make sense based on the church’s own rules. Their official manual only lists two reasons when it’s acceptable to “review” ministry personnel: If there are doubts about the person’s effectiveness or if there’s any question about whether or not the minister “recognizes the authority of the presbytery.”
Vosper is effective, says her congregation. And she seems to understand and respect the church hierarchy.
So what gives?
Not only is she effective, but her church is standing by her side. They don’t see any problem with her label and their beliefs — and that’s really all that matters. The church’s board chair even sent this letter to higher-ups:
The congregation at West Hill United Church is comprised of people with a wide diversity of theological beliefs. Some hold very traditional understandings of God, others self-identify as atheist or humanist, but most of us choose not to label ourselves at all. This diversity is likely very consistent with the theological beliefs held within almost every United Church congregation. At WHUC, we do not require anyone to subscribe to a particular set of beliefs in order to “belong”, an intentional decision made eleven years ago. Any formal review of gretta’s suitability for ministry based on her theological beliefs, whether or not any action comes out of the review, will be construed by many in the congregation as casting doubt on whether they are welcome within the United Church of Canada and risk creating a division in this community.
Shortly after The Observer published an article about gretta in 2005, a formal request was made to Presbytery to conduct a review of gretta’s suitability for ministry based on her self-identification as a non-theist. Presbytery voted against conducting this review. In the intervening ten years, gretta’s theological position has not changed substantively, other than she now chooses to self-identify as an atheist rather than a non-theist, a decision she made as a stand in solidarity with atheists around the world who were/are being persecuted and killed for their beliefs. The most significant change has been the increase in media attention given to gretta’s theological position.
You may think having an atheist minister at a church makes no sense. But her congregation has no problem with it and they seem to love her. She’s not breaking any rules of the church. Really, as that letter just said, the only thing that’s really changed over the past few years has been the media attention paid to Vosper. She shouldn’t have to leave the congregation because people are drawn to and interested in her message.
It’s worth mentioning that this review was instigated by a subcommittee within the church. It may be tossed out entirely. But until that happens, her position in the church is still in danger.