The United Church of Canada versus Gretta Vosper?

Gretta Vosper (57) who has been minister at West Hill United Church in Scarborough for close to twenty years has been a constant thorn in the side of Christian traditionalists in the United Church of Canada with her intentional moves to challenge belief in a supernatural interventionist God. Instead of following traditional sets of belief cf an unquestioning acceptance of the Creeds or treating the Bible as God inspired and true for all time, she is best known for books and articles which emphasize love, kindness and human connection. In her liberal approach to Christianity she is hardly unique and indeed many of her statements are typical of those like Lloyd Geering, John Robinson (Honest to God), John Spong or any of the growing band of theologians who self-classify as Progressive Christians (eg those supportive of the Canberra Affirmation).

Those who study the history of modern scholars critical of the traditional Christian Church will not be surprised to learn that Gretta Vosper has deeply antagonized those who are protective of traditional beliefs. Although the United Church of Canada formed in 1925 with the union of Methodists, Congregationalists and Methodists has long prided itself on what it calls its inclusiveness and tolerance of a range of denominational beliefs, three years ago Vosper crossed a bridge too far when she started to describe herself as an atheist.

From the most recent statements from the Church the investigative committee set up to consider her continued position as a critic we understand the present recommendation to be she will now be “defrocked” by the United Church of Canada.

“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,” the church’s Toronto Conference Review Committee concluded in a 39-page report released Wednesday.
“After prayer and much discussion,” the 23-person committee voted 19 to 4 in favour of a motion that found Vosper “unsuitable to continue serving.”

Vosper reacted by putting out a email statement press release which included “My sadness is for the many clergy and members and individuals currently studying for leadership in the UCC who are now also being told they need to keep quiet about their true beliefs or risk censure,”

It may not count for much but for what it is worth, my own opinion is that in this she may well be right in that those studying other Churches frequently report that clergy often entertain more liberal beliefs than those they are prepared to share with their congregation. (cf for example John Knight’s study on the Sociology of the Seventh Day Adventist Church in Australia).

That traditional Churches have significant numbers of Clergy no longer accepting traditional credal beliefs is surely common knowledge for those who dare to look. For example in 2002 a poll in the UK of 2000 clergy reported that one third did not believe in the resurrection and only about a half believed that faith in Christ was the only route to salvation. Of the clergy who classified themselves as liberal (about one eighth of the total) the disbelief in traditional Christian positions was more marked, with three quarters of that sector unable to accept the Virgin birth and two thirds having doubts in a physical resurrection. Again I have not followed the literature closely but do remember that in 2014 a YouGov poll (Independent 28th October 2014) reported 16% of another large sample of priests described themselves as Agnostic and that, although only 2%claimed not to believe in God further questions showed that many of the Priests described the God in which they believed to be a human construct.

Although I have not formally studied the equivalent situation in New Zealand, I have had a number of conversations with Methodist clergy at various Methodist Church conferences from which I understood that there is a mismatch between what some ministers preach and their own personal uncertainties.

Vosper also noted “The majority report said nothing about ethos and spoke exclusively to theological belief. A very sad day for the UCC.” Again we might wonder why it is more important what ministers publicly say they believe rather than what they actually encourage by way of personal and congregational action which some commentators might think is more important.

(Bill’s Question to self: Why is it that the creeds talk about how Jesus is to be seen – eg Son of God…born of a Virgin …. on the third day he rose again……etc all of which many think the clergy are required to accept without question …. while at the same time Jesus’ teachings and the actions his teaching require eg the Sermon on the Mount and much of the Book of James are not considered of significance for the expected support of clergy????)

Vosper and her supporters will have a chance to respond to the report’s conclusions at a hearing scheduled for Sept. 15, before a separate, eight-member sub-executive committee of the church.

David Allen, executive secretary of Toronto Conference of the United Church of Canada, told one of the major papers, the Star. “We’re going to hear from Gretta and her congregation and it’s possible that they could say something that could cause us to go in a totally different or a slightly different direction.”

The committee next week can accept the report’s recommendations, reject them or modify them, said Allen. A decision could be made the same day as the hearing. It is understood that as a consequence she would in effect be fired by putting her on the discontinued service list.

The minority view of the four on the investigative committee who dissented to the interview committee’s motion finding Vosper unsuitable, wrote that many of her theological positions, “while not in the mainstream, are not unique amongst the ministers and lay persons of the United Church.” Although it is not spelled out in the report’s recommendation, to be consistent I would have thought that the Committee should make it clear that clergy sharing Vosper’s theology should also leave the UCC. Perhaps if the committee’s view is accepted by the wider Church, at the very least, in the interest of honesty, the UCC should admit that their inclusiveness and tolerance do not extend to liberal theology on the part of Church leadership.

The irony is that in the past, top elected church leaders, known as moderators, have enthusiastically come to Vosper’s defence, whether they agree with her or not. No one in top leadership apparently objected in 2008 when she published her first book, With or Without God: Why the Way We Live Is More Important Than What We Believe, or even a few years later when she published her, Amen: What Prayer Can Mean in a World Beyond Belief.

Although her own West Hill congregation has stood behind her through the furore, others have gone on record calling her an abomination and a provocateur — and critics have demanded to know why an atheist is allowed to preach from a Christian pulpit.

Again it is only a personal reaction, but I would have thought that since there are many different views of what God is supposed to be like (see my Post “You think you have the one true God”) – even if the majority insist that only view they have is of an interventionist God, shouldn’t all Christians who have a different view of God eg those who think God represents love, or God as the Mysterious force behind the Universe, describe themselves as atheists in terms of that majority view? If so, can I be so bold as to suggest: assuming the current prevailing attitudes in the UCC include those who have similar doubts to those in the UK, there should be a lot more empty pulpits in the United Church of Canada.

Given this is a very current issue, the readers’ reactions would be of interest.

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