The effectiveness of an atheist minister at United Church of Canada is being reviewed by the regional committee of the organization. Reverend Gretta Vosper, leader of West Hill United Church in Toronto, is openly atheist and has maintained that stance for several years now. Apart from blogging and speaking about atheism, in 2008, she even published a book titled With or Without God: Why the Way We Live is More Important than What We Believe.
While Vosper had informed her church back in 2001 that she is an atheist and made the fact even more publicly known in 2004, the Toronto Conference of United Church of Canada decided only now that it would like to review her ministry and gauge its effectiveness.
Reverend David Allen, executive secretary of United Church of Canada informed the media that such a review is in fact a formal procedure within the organization that takes place when serious questions are raised about a certain minister’s effectiveness. He said, as part of the review, Vosper would have to answer questions related to her belief in God.
According to the website of United Church of Canada, all ministers are required to be in agreement with the organization’s basis of union, which entails belief in both Old and New Testaments as well as faith in the one, true, living God, a Spirit that is eternal, infinite and unchangeable in His being and perfection.
As questions surrounding the organization’s essential agreement surfaced in 2013, at that time, Vosper clarified her ideologies on her blog and explained why she would like to continue serving United Church of Canada. She explained that throughout her childhood and theological training, she had been given a metaphorical understanding of religious phrases such as God and told stories like that of the Resurrection, which helped her make more sense of the religion and her world. However, since then she has learnt that using theistic language metaphorically without divulging what she is really doing, is in fact a form of deceit, something that she no longer wished to participate in. In her views, United Church of Canada seemed be a haven for those who had been otherwise exiled, excluded or marginalized by the organization simply because their beliefs did not fall in place with the language of its doctrine or merely because they wanted to come together in community. Therefore, she announced she would restrict her purpose in leading her own ministry, West Hill United Church.
However, she did mention even then that her position at United Church of Canada had become very vulnerable.
“The West Hill Board and I reflect from time to time (based on whatever challenging decision we may be wrestling with) on the possibility that I or we will be rejected by the United Church. Each time, we have determined that the cost of creating inspirational community beyond the beliefs that divide is such an important element of our work that we must take the risk involved,” she wrote.
Responding to the organization’s current review, Vosper’s church said that it would continue to support her. Randy Bowes, chairperson of the church’s board, wrote a letter to United Church of Canada expressing his disappointment with its decision to conduct the review.
“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...
Any formal review of Gretta's [sic] 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,” he wrote.
He added that even though Vosper does not believe in God, her leadership skills have truly helped the church.
“Her leadership inspires us, collectively and individually, to be attentive to what matters most. Her intentional efforts to create a barrier-free space for spirituality and growth within a safe environment have attracted many congregants who had left the United Church of Canada years before, disillusioned or hurt by the dogma of traditional faith,” he wrote.
United Church of Canada, which is the largest Protestant denomination in the country, has a reputation for being rather liberal in its theology. Yet, it requires ministers to agree with certain terms and conditions that West Hill Church does not. Instead, West Hill Church has a document titled Vision Works that outlines the body’s shared values.
“Our grounding is the interconnectedness of all life”, “Our response to life is to love” and “Our sources for inspiration are diverse” are a few of those values.
Even though Vosper happens to be a rare example of a church leader serving in ministry while admitting that she does not believe in God, a poll conducted by YouGov last year found that two percent of all Anglican priests believe that God is a human construct.
The survey, which had included 1,500 priests from the Church in Wales, the Church of England and the Episcopal Church of Scotland, questioned them about their religious and social standings. Apart from those who said that they did not believe in God, an additional nine percent said that nobody could possibly know what God is like.
Photo Credits: Progressive Christianity