United Church of Canada Committee Says Atheist Minister Should Be Stripped of Her Title September 9, 2016

United Church of Canada Committee Says Atheist Minister Should Be Stripped of Her Title

I’ve written before about Gretta Vosper, a reverend for the United Church of Canada who doesn’t believe in God.

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If that confuses you, you’re not alone. Why would an atheist be a reverend? The simple answer is that Vosper feels at home in the UCC community. She supports their liberal views — they have long ordained women and LGBT individuals. She appreciates their proud support of marriage equality. She agrees with their belief that the Bible shouldn’t be taken literally but can be used to help guide your life’s decisions. She admires their work to achieve social justice: “Feed the hungry, satisfy the thirsty, shelter the homeless, clothe the naked, care for the sick, visit those in prison.”

But it’s true that she doesn’t accept their requirement that she believe in Holy Trinity. The whole controversy has always been about whether the church can revoke her ministerial credentials and remove her from the pulpit.

It should be noted that her congregation fully supports her leadership. They love her. They have no problem listening to an atheist who supports the community and preaches the positive philosophies of the church. She’s not a radical in their eyes.

The leadership within the UCC church has been discussing what to do about her for more than a year now. And yesterday, the Toronto Conference Review Committee issued a 39-page recommendation regarding Vosper’s fate: They don’t think she belongs in the church anymore. 19 of the 23 committee members agreed with the findings.

We have concluded that if Gretta Vosper were before us today, seeking to be ordained, the Toronto Conference Interview Committee would not recommend her. In our opinion, she is not suitable to continue in ordained ministry because she does not believe in God, Jesus Christ or the Holy Spirit. Ms. Vosper does not recognize the primacy of scripture, she will not conduct the sacraments, and she is no longer in essential agreement with the statement of doctrine of The United Church of Canada.

Although The United Church of Canada is a big tent, welcoming a diversity of theological beliefs, Ms. Vosper is so far from centre of what holds us together as a united church that we have concluded that she is not suitable to continue as an ordained minister in our Church.

The committee didn’t suggest any remedial action, but they did call for a formal hearing. So this will drag on even longer. There’s another hearing next week at which point a final decision could be reached.

Think about what’s happening, though: The UCC is seriously considering stripping a beloved church leader from her congregation because of a doctrinal issue. Sure, it’s arguably the doctrinal issue, but if Vosper agrees with 99% of what the church teaches, is it wise for the church to kick her out? (They have a right to do it, of course. I’m questioning their wisdom.) If they keep her in the fold, it could, ironically, help grow the church.

I guarantee you that if Vosper is forced out of her position, a lot of other nominally Christian church members will leave, too. She’s the one in the center of the crosshairs, but religious doubt in a liberal church is hardly news, and there are likely many members who want nothing to do with a church that treats a loyal leader this way.

The four dissenting members of the Toronto committee explained their rejection of the recommendation this way:

the growth of our doctrine is not complete. As we live out our commitment to walk in right relations with our Indigenous communities of faith, we must include First Nations’ spirituality into our theology, doctrine, and worship.

Many of Ms. Vosper’s theological positions, while not in the mainstream, are not unique amongst the ministers and lay persons of the United Church. This is demonstrated in part by the wide support she has received in letters to the editor of the Observer. She has opened up productive discussions about faith issues in our Church and beyond. The United Church has a history of welcoming theological diversity and, to find Ms. Vosper unsuitable could stifle exploration and stunt that diversity.

In a statement to this site, Vosper thanked those dissenters as she criticized the overall recommendation:

I’m saddened by the findings of the committee while heartened by the views of those who dissented from the majority opinion. They represent a large number of people in the UCC, both clergy and lay people who will now be further silenced for fear of disciplinary action. And those studying to become leaders, who are being exposed to contemporary scholarship, have been told that if they express the beliefs that scholarship leads them toward, they will not be allowed to follow their vocational choice.

The decision is one that comes from a denomination I do not know. The United Church I have given my life to is one that sat down in the circle with those whose views they did not share in order to learn from them and, through dialogue, come to deeper understanding, often to arrive at a new and vibrant relationship. This disciplinary process undermined that heritage and the outcome dismisses it. I lament that loss. It is a very sad day in the denomination’s history.

I understand why the UCC would be conflicted about how to handle Vosper, but if a liberal church is kicking out someone for being too heretical — even about what some may see as a pretty core issue — how long can it possibly survive?

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