The Challenge of the Atheist Minister

Earlier in November, the United Church of Canada announced that it had reached a “confidential settlement” with Gretta Vosper, the United Church minister who is a publicly self-declared Atheist, allowing her to remain as minister in her Toronto congregation.

This has generated a great deal of conversation and soul-searching among United Church members here at Knox, and across the country. On November 25th, I preached a sermon that attempted to address the two questions I had heard most often: How could she do this? And how could the church allow this?

This is what I said:

How could she do this?

Truthfully, I can’t read Gretta’s mind. None of us can. I could only speculate, which is always risky. It appears that she believes what she teaches, so I am not inclined to challenge her honesty.

In interviews, we have heard that Gretta started off believing in God. When she was ordained, she was able to give “Essential Agreement” to the statements of faith of the United Church, which include many statements about God which do not leave a lot of room for Atheism.

Gretta first became notorious a number of years ago when her congregation rejected “God Talk” on the basis that our language about God has become loaded over time with unhelpful images from past centuries: exclusive masculine terms, God being portrayed as violent, judgmental, and so forth. Under Gretta’s leadership, they chose to seek the truth about God by discarding all our baggage about God, including all traditional language.

Gretta was embraced by a group within the Progressive Christianity movement for the way she challenged traditional thought. It was at such a conference hosted by Snowstar that I heard her speak.

Throughout her process, I would suggest that Gretta moved from theism to non-theism. In modern jargon a Theist refers to someone who thinks of God as a Person (with lots of room for variety of how to interpret that), while a Non-Theist is someone who believes in God not as a person but as something else: an impersonal power or a force in the universe, or maybe something we just haven’t defined yet.

Ultimately, Gretta declared that she had become an Atheist: that she did not believe in God at all. She said that she would lead her church as a community which welcomes all, and emphasizes human spirituality without the need for God.

Having read a number of articles and interviews, it appears to me that Gretta feels prophetic: that she sees herself as challenging the status quo of the church; leading the church into a new era with a re-defined version of Christianity.

In contrast to this vision are those who criticize her by suggesting that the large amount of publicity Gretta is generating is self-serving and maybe even creating a personality cult within the United Church of Canada.

I don’t think I could do what Gretta is doing: continuing to minister in a Christian church while holding an Atheist position. I left the Presbyterian church when I realized that I was in serious disagreement with its position on ordaining openly gay people, and when it became clear to me that the Presbyterians weren’t about to change to my point of view anytime quickly. Leaving felt like the honest thing to do. On that basis, I am very uncomfortable with what Gretta Vosper is doing.

How Could the Church Allow This?

Again, I don’t know! The terms of the confidential agreement really are being kept confidential. While a respect for confidentiality is vital to the work of the church, this lack of openness and accountability about such a public and potentially defining matter is distressing. This agreement has led to public challenges to the credibility and the relevance of the United Church of Canada, which, in turn, has led to all the questions and discussion in our local congregations. That’s why it is important to try to address this, even without the information we should have.

The United Church still believes in God. Our various statements of faith, expanded in recent years, have not suddenly vanished.

It is important for us to recognize that right from the start there has been a broad range of belief about God within the United Church. This was built in from the very start, so that we could include three founding denominations with a range of theologies.

It took 25 years of negotiation to create the United Church, and an almost miraculous level of tolerance for theological differences to make it succeed. The Methodists and Presbyterians were quite different in their theologies and their church cultures. The Congregationalists, while similar theologically to the Presbyterians, had a radically different way of organizing their church. The fact that the United Church of Canada exists at all is a testament to a shared determination to accept diversity, even if that isn’t the language we used in 1925.

We have never required our clergy to swear to every part of any statement of faith. Rather, we followed the lead of the Congregationalists to ask for “Essential Agreement,” thus creating an environment which encouraged a wide range for interpretation.

In this case, as many have pointed out, the existence of God is essential. But the point I am making is that we’ve always encouraged diverse theological positions in our pews and pulpits, and that diversity has ranged more and more broadly over the decades.

In the service on Nov. 25th, we read three passages revealing three very different views of God in the Bible. The oldest, from Exodus 24:9-11, comes close to a physical description, which is remarkable for a religion that always forbade any images of God. The second, from Isaiah 6:1-5, is a prophetic one: visionary and intense. The third, from John 4:21-24, is terribly Greek in its understanding: it defines God as Spirit, which raises a question about the need for a separate name for the Holy Spirit. We have a diversity of views of God within our own scriptures!

Christians have always explored different understandings of God. Starting with the creation of statements of orthodox beliefs under Roman Emperor Constantine, church authorities tried to prevent any but the narrowest explorations. Eventually this led to the creation of heresy trials.

The United Church deliberately encourages an atmosphere of exploration and questioning. We have offered to the world a welcoming space where people could gather without judgment to explore matters of faith and spirituality. The whole idea of prosecuting someone for having the wrong beliefs feels like a betrayal of what the United Church has stood for for decades.

And frankly, if Gretta Vosper weren’t a minister, the question never would have arisen.

But Gretta is ordained, which makes her responsible not only for her own faith but for faith leadership in the church. So the church started an unfamiliar process: preparing for a heresy trial. We have always had rules for the discipline of church ministers, but the ones around heresy are rarely addressed. So just recently, after years of debate, false starts and appeals to determine whether the process was legal and which court had jurisdiction, the way had been cleared and the trial was supposed to start. Then this settlement was announced, ending the process.

In doing this, the United Church has been revealed as a body that is prepared to tolerate an astonishing level of theological diversity.

How was this decision reached? What were the motivations on the part of the church authorities to agree to this? The lack of transparency here is distressing.

There is a part of me that would like to hear some clear declaration that Atheism is not a position we accept in our faith leaders. Like many people, I might find it reassuring to have someone declare that this case is an exception, and not a signal that the United Church is abandoning God.

But I also recognize that our position has been clear all along: all our statements of faith are based on having a relationship with God, even if we can’t agree on exactly how to talk about God. So I have to acknowledge that the issue here is not our belief in God. The issue is about how we deal with a leader who has taken an extreme position.

There is a danger when we use our authority to enforce a theological position. We’re not talking about burning someone at the stake, as in the past (that’s still the first image that comes to mind when many people think about heresy trials). However, there is coercion involved: we would be in a position to force someone out of ministry on the basis of belief. Many in the United Church recoil from that strongly, even where it might be the wisest action from the perspective of church discipline.

I am also aware of the risk of driving the congregation which supports Gretta’s position out of the United Church. If we did that, we would be criticized for being much less tolerant and united than we proclaim. From the perspective of public opinion, we cannot get out this without being criticized.

This issue, with its often over-simplified publicity, makes us feel like our integrity has been damaged. Certainly in some people’s eyes, it has. More importantly, though, it has challenged us to consider what it means to be a family of faith.

For all the distress, we are not in any danger from this. We can deal with publicity. We can address questions about who we are and what we believe. We can be clear that our church has not abandoned God. We can state that Gretta Vosper and her congregation do not speak for us. And at the same time, we can still affirm what we have claimed for a long time: that all people are welcome here, whether they believe in God as a person, as a spiritual force, as an open question, or as not existing at all. All are welcome.

If that’s how we define the United Church, I can live with that.

As I conclude, I would like to make a personal faith statement:

I value the Progressive Christianity movement. It offers a rigorous examination of our scriptures and history, and it demands truth about who we are and what we stand for. The insights it offers have shaped my ministry and my preaching in many ways. An intelligent and informed approach to Christianity is important to me.

I can understand the positions of non-theists & atheists, but I am not convinced by them. I believe in God, and that God is both within and beyond creation. That’s an approach that doesn’t fit within the restrictions of scientific study, which must consider only that which can be measured and observed. Philosophers and theologians, on the other hand, have no trouble with it.

I believe that God is a Person, not an impersonal force. I see personality in people, and the cats and dogs I know, and in the squirrels and ravens that shout rude things at me as I walk the dogs in the woods.

I consider it to be the height of hubris for humans to presume that an impersonal force has developed creation so that this wonderful gift of self-awareness and personality has developed without including the creative force which engendered it. To me that’s just another way for us to claim to be superior in the universe, and I cannot trust any logic that leads to that kind of conclusion. It’s too self-serving.

I believe that as we develop our human spirituality we need something or someone outside ourselves to act as a guide and yardstick, so that we don’t end up making our own selves the measure of the universe.

And I believe that our Creator loves us, and wants us to be loving too. The more I study scripture, the more I realize that this is the core of what Jesus taught. My experience of life makes it worth believing.

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