Gretta Vosper and the atheist church

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Gretta Vosper is a minister in the United Church of Canada, at least for now. A committee in Toronto has recommended that she not be allowed to continue as a minister, given her statements that she does not believe in God or call herself a Christian.

The United Church, of which I am a part, is a church that recognizes that people’s understanding of theology changes. When someone says they don’t believe in God, the reaction is not necessarily shock as much as the question “what God is it you don’t believe in?” There is space a lot of space between believing in an omnipotent force that intervenes in this world and believing in something else, perhaps God as a force of life underlying all being. While there are ministers within the church that believe Jesus rose from the dead in a very physical, traditional sense, there are others who believe that the resurrection was something different. The United Church is a very wide tent.

The situation of Gretta Vosper interests me on several parts. For one, I was once, a long time ago, a candidate for ministry within the church. There are many reasons I choose to withdraw, some relating to my desire to have children and support my husband’s career, but there was also a question lingering in the back of my mind of whether I would be able to cope emotionally with feeling responsible for keeping my beliefs in line with the church’s beliefs. My theological beliefs are always slowly changing, growing. Did I want to feel like there was a yardstick beside them? Even though my beliefs were within the normal range of the church, I took very seriously the idea that as a minister I would have been representing the church, and responsible not just for representing my own beliefs but those of the church in general. I was a candidate for ministry, long ago, but I never completed my studies or reached the final stages to be ordained.

I read comments online about people feeling like Ms. Vosper’s being asked to leave is a sign the church is leaving them behind and becoming more close-minded. I look at the wide breadth of belief within the church and think there’s still lots of space for diverse beliefs. I’ve read the report that was released, and I don’t think this is a witch hunt. In some ways, I think Ms. Vosper should have stood down and walked away from ministry at some earlier point.

According to the report prayer at her congregation is called “community sharing.” I don’t know for sure what to make of it, because on one hand I see the struggles with the traditional approach to prayer that presumes an intercessory God. I think about what John Shelby Spong said about prayer and how it makes no sense to think of asking God to do something we think he might not do if we didn’t ask him. I think we do as a church need to struggle with what prayer means.

At Ms. Vosper’s congregation the baptisms are not ones that would be recognized by the World Council of Churches, because of their non-traditional language and because:

When asked what are persons at West Hill baptized into, Ms. Vosper said that she does not speak of the Christian Church.  Rather, she incorporates the characteristics or qualities the parents want to instill in their child and speaks about the challenge this will provide for the congregation.

I wonder what would happen if a parent had gone to Ms. Vosper wishing his or her child could be baptized in the traditional form, in a baptism that would be recognized by other churches? Would Ms. Vosper have been willing to accommodate that, and to what extent is that part of the job description?

I was raised on stories of people who choose, as a matter of conscious, to step down from a position. If you no longer believe what is required to do one’s job, you step away. You take a principled stance.

I think to me, Ms. Vosper raises all sorts of amazing questions. The church does need to continue to evolve and find new ways of understanding things, but we need to find ways of doing so without throwing the baby out with the bathwater, so to speak. When I hear that Ms. Vosper’s gathering services do not include songs from any of the United Church hymnbooks, because the songs are too theistic, I get suspicious. The United Church hymn books are pretty progressive.

According to the report:

“Ms. Vosper does not accept that the Bible is the primary source from which she draws wisdom for herself or others, nor does she accept that our ethical and moral choices are grounded in scripture. “

I can understand the Bible not being a primary source. However, at the same time, I think that the Bible is the primary source for the study of Christianity, and to me being a minister in a Christian church should still be about the study of Christianity. Disagree with the Bible. Wrestle with it. Strive to see it in historical context, but don’t abandon it completely.

“Instead, Ms. Vosper uses diverse resources from art, poetry, prose and literature, selecting them for their message of love, justice and compassion that will inform, inspire, edify, or convict the congregation, rather than by their source.”

It sounds like Ms. Vosper would be more comfortable within the United Unitarian Congregations, than within the United Church. I get that there are a lot of edifying, meaningful passages out there and most United Churches I’ve been in do share stories, poems, artwork and literature form other sources too, but they are in addition to the Bible, rather than as a replacement to it.

Why does the source of inspiration matter? Some might say it matters because the Bible is based on divine inspiration. To me it matters because the Bible is based in history. It helps draw us out of the new-age trends or pop-psychology. It gives us deeper meat to study. I think we do need to wrestle with history, with how people understood God in different times and places, and with how people dealt with the political, economic and social crisis of their days.

In the report it mentions that “she perceives that for many, the word ‘God’ is a barrier to participation in the life and work of the Church.” Is the solution to throw out the word God, or is it to enter into new discussions about what God means? Is it still a church if it turns its back on scriptures, hymns, worship, baptism, and prayer?

It sounds like Ms. Vosper has found or created a community of like-minded people within her congregation. I’m sure there have been new people who joined the church because of her way of doing things and others who left. Some would say that in a city like Toronto and a church like the United Church there are spaces for congregations that are theistic as well as for atheistic ones like her, but it raises questions about what holds them together? Does her congregation feel a connection to the United Church beyond use of its building and the financial support they might or might not receive from the larger church? If the word ‘God’ is a barrier to participation, then will they participate in the larger church life – presbytery, conference, even our church magazine, The Observer?

I know her current congregation supports her. Those who didn’t, have probably long since left. It reminds me of other groups I’ve been in, where things changed and people dropped out, and suddenly the question becomes, do we try to follow the original mandate and bring those people back or do they no longer count because they left, and those who stayed are relatively happy with it? Does it matter which group is larger or smaller? When it comes to who gets the most say in a group, does it matter who was part of group first (or who invested most) or just who is willing to stick it out the longest?

Growth and change in congregations and individuals is inevitable. At the same time, we look at bad situations – cults, domestic violence, etc – and think “how did a person ever get into that position?” Often the answer is bit by bit. Bit by bit something grows or changes into something that is not what was intended. I’ve been part of groups where bit by bit they change so that after a few years they aren’t following the same mandate or purpose as they started out originally. Sometimes that’s ok, sometimes it isn’t. I think it is ok for subgroups to be told, “hey, what you’re doing is cool but that isn’t part of the mandate and to keep within our stated purpose we have to move back this way….”. The United Church is still about asking what it means to be Christian.

I don’t think the various branches of the United Church intervening in this situation is a sign of a witch-hunt. I think the United Church can continue as a very large tent, welcoming a diversity of ideas. I think that Ms. Vosper’s ideas – many of which I have at times questioned, thought about, embraced – will continue to circulate within the church and potentially shape the future of the church. But I think when a practicing minister realizes that she is no longer able to re-affirm her ordination vows it is probably time to step down.

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