Does Gretta Vosper have the right qualifications to be a minister?
She’s articulate. She speaks passionately about civic engagement and shared values. She’s been attending services since childhood when she “ran out my backyard and crossed the street to go to church.”
But there’s just one thing: she’s also an atheist.
“It’s very easy to get to a point where you’re not a believer of a theistic, supernatural being,” Vosper told the CBC’s Wendy Mesley, noting that she was taught to wrestle with the concept of God in theological college.
But the paradox of “atheist minister” isn’t sitting well with the United Church of Canada. It’s reviewing Vosper’s position and could potentially remove her from the pulpit of West Hill United Church in Toronto’s east end.
It’s a showdown that stings for the minister, even though she acknowledges that she’s a thorn in the side of her church. On Twitter, she describes herself in her bio as “Irritating the church into the 21st century.”
“It really surprised me in the manner in which it has happened and the hostility that it has evoked in the church and amongst my colleagues,” Vosper said.
For Vosper, removal from the pulpit would be nothing short of a “betrayal” by her church.
Before responding to this CBC article, I thought it might be a good idea to dig a little deeper into this latest issue to twist the United Church into knots. I found an article in the United Church Observer which proved to be a puzzling read. The article is longer than the excerpt I have placed here, but if the case of the ‘atheist minister’ puzzles you, click the link and read the entire article.
denBok: I have no problem calling myself a United Church minister. But, Gretta, can I ask you a question?
Vosper: Yes, go ahead.
denBok: Okay, a respectful question. Do you refer to yourself as an atheist?
Vosper: I’ve been called an atheist for a very long time, and I have to accept the label. There are people in the congregation who are disturbed by this, but the understanding of an atheist as someone who does not believe in a theistic God is pretty easy. Yet I extend it to positing a supernatural realm in the universe. If you went with that definition across the board, a lot of people coming out of theological colleges and in pulpits in the United Church and Anglican Church and Catholic Church would also have to accept the label.
I would say that my deeply held beliefs and values have not transitioned me beyond what I believe the United Church is and the United Church I was raised in. I was a product of the New Curriculum. I never had an authoritative, judgmental God who overlooked everything I did. Jesus taught me to skate in my backyard. I had a relationship with him as a friend — that was how it came out in the curriculum.
Gretta Vosper isn’t calling herself an ‘Atheist,’ though she is prepared to “accept the label” assigned her by “people in the congregation.”
That is an interesting dodge around the question. An Atheist believes that God does not exist and, in fact could not exist, that God is a figment of human imagination, a myth. It appears that Gretta isn’t prepared to be as specific as this, nor is she willing to assert that there is a God. She seems to be saying that the image of God, with a long white beard, floating on a cloud ordering Bart Simpson to “not spit over the side of the escalator,” is too much for people to believe. She uses the term “theistic supernatural being” to describe the perception of God held by United Church clergy and their congregations; a perception that doesn’t work anymore.
Gretta isn’t asserting that she is an Atheist with conviction, nor is she asserting that she believes in God with any heartfelt enthusiasm. She is trying to fill a crack between the keys of the church piano which produces an unpleasant dissonance; mother used to say, “Geoffrey, you cannot have your cake and eat it.”
Gretta finds herself in this intellectual muddle because she has rejected fundamental Christian belief and doctrine but she isn’t willing to find another job. The United Church has a pension plan, which may not be easy to replace. I am a pensioner, so I won’t hold that against her.
She reflects the theological malaise that has plagued the United Church since its inception. It was created to evangelise the Canadian West, and in the process it has tossed off most of the liturgy that one might expect in a service, allowed the congregation to sit rather than kneel, and accepted popular music into regular services which are kept short to avoid delaying members of the congregation from their trip to Costco.
The United Church doesn’t lead. It follows. To put bums in the seats, the Church has ‘watered down’ theology just enough that Gretta feels quite comfortable rationalising her ‘belief.’ This predicament in which Gretta finds herself is as much a fault of the United Church as her own lack of theological discipline. She reminds me of Albert Einstein who described himself as a believer in God, but not the God in whom most people believe.
Albert Einstein‘s religious views have been studied extensively. He said he believed in the “pantheistic” God of Baruch Spinoza, but not in a personal god, a belief he criticized. He also called himself an agnostic, while disassociating himself from the label atheist, preferring, he said, “an attitude of humility corresponding to the weakness of our intellectual understanding of nature and of our own being”. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Religious_views_of_Albert_Einstein
Perhaps I do the same thing as Gretta when I imagine God, not as a human being floating on a cloud, but an intelligent entity, pure energy, pure light or as love, the kind that endures all things. I imagine a God who can appear to individuals as anything, any shape, any gender, anything He perceives we need to understand our perception of Him. He sent us his only son Jesus, who lived among us, who died and was crucified that we may understand God’s nature. When I pray, I think of Jesus because I cannot imagine God unilluminated by the life and suffering of Christ. If a church and its minister cannot believe the most elementary tenets of Christianity, indeed they are hopelessly lost.
27 March, 2016
I usually find an error the day after a post, and this morning was no exception. I fixed a spelling error, then I turned to the New York Times where I found an article entitled “God is a Question not an answer” that approaches the idea of God’s existence from a more thoughtful perspective than the views of Gretta Vosper. http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2016/03/26/god-is-a-question-not-an-answer/?action=click&pgtype=Homepage&version=Moth-Visible&moduleDetail=inside-nyt-region-1&module=inside-nyt-region®ion=inside-nyt-region&WT.nav=inside-nyt-region
Professional. Retired. Canadian.