A Minister’s Lack of Faith Comes Under Fire

SEVEN YEARS after the United Church of Canada minister Gretta Vosper penned With or Without God (Harper Collins, 2008), the UCC chose to examine her suitability for ministry. In 2001 Vosper had begun exploring, with her West Hill United Church in Scarborough, Ontario, how to create services that enable those who wish to come together in community to do so around aspirational values and without the presence of a supernatural, interventionist God.

In 2004 Vosper founded the Center for Progressive Christianity, at which time her local Presbytery declined a request to review her beliefs. Occasionally, media coverage of Vosper and her work at West Hill would designate her as an atheist, and she would speak at secular events such as the 74th Annual Conference of the American Humanist Association. However, her atheism didn’t become an issue until after the Charlie Hebdo attacks, when Vosper penned a response to a prayer (“may God care for these people”) posted on her denomination’s webpage. “When we use this kind of language,” Vosper opined, “we assume to know what God knows and says.”

In light of this heightened attention, the official board of the Metropolitan United Church, where the Rev. Malcolm Sinclair serves as minister, penned a letter to the Toronto Conference. According to Sinclair, this letter didn’t intend to single out Vosper’s work: “We wanted clarification regarding what one can say about God and still remain a minister in the United Church of Canada.” Even though this liberal denomination has never required their clergy to follow church doctrine to the letter, they have chosen to take up the question as to whether or not a minister can continue to pastor a church if they no longer believe in a theistic God.

This question has plagued the mainline church for over fifty years. Lloyd Geering, a theologian and ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church of New Zealand, and U.S. Episcopal bishop James Pike faced heresy trials in the 1960s. In both cases the men were acquitted, though their teachings refuting the theological concept of a theistic God have since been advanced globally—in academic circles, ventures such as the Jesus Seminar, and in books like John A. T. Robinson’s Honest to God (1963), and Thomas J. J. Altizer’s books Radical Theology and the Death of God (1966) and The Gospel of Christian Atheism (1966).

Even though a growing number of mainline clergy don’t subscribe to traditional church teachings, former clergy-member turned atheist activist Bob Ripley voices the sentiment that Vosper shouldn’t enjoy the benefits of being a Christian minister when she no longer holds to the vows of her ordination. Writing on the blog Rational Doubt (a forum for nonbelieving and doubting clergy) last summer, Ripley compared her decision to remain in the church as akin to someone who “wants to eat a bacon sandwich in the front row of a vegetarian conference.”

Others like Homebrewed Christianity podcaster Tripp Fuller and radical theologian Pete Rollins infer that because an atheist in the pulpit is a widely accepted concept, Vosper must have done “something criminal” to warrant such a trial. Their conversation on the podcast last fall illuminates the growing proclivity among the progressive Christian movement to deride atheism intentionally in favor of its own “anatheism” (returning to God after the death of God).

Let me note that Vosper continues to receive the full support of her church. But while her effectiveness for ministry isn’t under review, she is standing trial for her theological beliefs. According to the Rev. David W. Allen, executive secretary of the UCC Toronto Conference, “Reviews of a minister’s effectiveness are rare and are usually focused more on their functioning. A review based on theological issues is even more rare. At this stage, we do not know what will emerge from the process.” This review doesn’t include input from Vosper’s congregation even though her ministry is funded by West Hill and not the Toronto Conference.

Ryan Bell, founder and senior consultant of the Life After God project where Vosper serves in an advisory capacity, cites fear as the driving force behind her review. “The mainline denominations, of which the UCC is one, have been on the decline for decades,” Bell notes. “My sense is that they feel by staking out the liberal theological ground they can maintain a market share of Christians and continue doing good in the world via social justice activism and so forth. But to question or deny the existence of God is a bridge too far. They are most likely afraid that this is the last straw, that if they give this away, they give away the whole game.” In Bell’s estimation, “This shortsightedness prevents them from seeing a bright humanist future just around the next bend. So they cling to outdated beliefs and dogmas in the hopes that they can keep doing what they’re doing.”

West Hill lost some members when they adopted secular language in their hymns and liturgies in an attempt to attract nontheists to participate in their services. However, they continue to remain a vibrant community during this pending review. As stated on their blog,

We continue to draw visitors every week and engage a broad audience that is drawn to the work we are doing. While the media reports that we lost two-thirds of our congregation (seven years ago), they don’t note that eight congregations in Scarborough have closed in the last decade, and they don’t emphasize that we actually made it through those hard days and have grown our way back.

Along with West Hill, we’re seeing a rise in secular but spiritual communities such as the Humanist Community at Harvard and the global Sunday Assembly. These communities often attract those seeking the community found in church settings without the religious language required to participate in faith-based groups.

Regardless of Vosper’s trial, the launch of projects like Life After God and the success of the Clergy Project points to a growing trend of clergy and ex-clergy professing they no longer believe in a theistic God but support the values common to both religious and secular communities. “Liberal denominations must find a way to pivot out of theism while telling a bigger story about what they’re really doing,” says Bell. “Not propping up ancient dogmas but showing the way forward to a more just and peaceful world via the secular values of humanism.”

Vosper concurs: “The liberal Christian and mainline Protestant community needs to stand up and find a way to ally themselves with secular humanists. We think finding common ground based on our shared values allows us to distill the best practices from our traditions.”

  • cgosling

    Vosper is probably an atheist/agnostic who has trouble opening the closet door.

    • I am an atheist when it comes to believing in a supernatural god and quite open about that. I’m an agnostic when it comes to the nature of reality and quite open about that, too. Have I missed another door? 🙂

      • Peggy Margaret Knipe Gish

        What do you mean when you say you’re ‘an agnostic’? Thank you for opening conversation around these topics, a breath of fresh air! Thanks!

        • Gnosis is about knowing and I can’t know definitely that there is no god called God or any other gods. I see no evidence of them but I am not able to say they absolutely do not exist. If suddenly one appeared and said, “okay, got that request sent up last year and now there is no more cancer or i’ve fixed up all the gender mix-up thing so no more little boys and girls need lie awake at night praying to wake up with the right body, and those things really did change, well, then I would know. But I’d be gobsmacked, that’s for sure! To say nothing about being pretty angry for the delay in fixing those sorts of things up! It might prove there was a god, but it would not be one I would want to worship.

          • Peggy Margaret Knipe Gish

            Thank you for replying. i may not have phrased it well, as unsure how/what to ask! When you say you’re an atheist, and an agnostic, I don’t understand what the term agnostic means. I’m getting some understanding of ‘atheist’ from previous posts. What is the difference between those words, as you use them? Thanks!

          • Good question, Peggy, and I can see how I didn’t make that clear for you. It separates what we believe (which is often something we cannot know) from what we know from empirical evidence. Agnostic means not knowing something one could or could not know. So I refer to myself as an agnostic when it comes to the nature of reality – what orders the universe? Where did it come from? Was there a reason? We simply don’t know the answers to those things so I’m agnostic about them, including whether or not the answer is “God”.
            Atheist, on the other hand, is used to refer to belief in the god called God. I do not believe in that god (or any gods), so I identify as an atheist.
            It gets even more fine tuned in that I’m a weak atheist or negative atheist because I separate my belief in the god called God from my knowledge of the nature of the universe; I cannot know but I see no evidence for god(s) so I don’t believe. Strong or positive atheists argue that there absolutely is no god(s) ruling the universe, period. But without empirical evidence to support that, I can’t go there.
            Here is a quote from Jerry DeWitt that might help, too. Skepticism is my nature. “Free Thought is my methodology. Agnosticism is my conclusion. Atheism is my opinion. Humanitarianism is my motivation.”
            Thanks, again, for your question.

          • Jonathon Moyers

            Hello, Gretta. I was wondering if you could answer a question for me–a question which I ask in all seriousness and not in a snarky/gripy manner. If one has developed in belief in the direction in which you have, why stay within the structure of a Christian Church? Aren’t there other organizations which are better suited for you? Perhaps there are ways in which you can articulate what is most on your heart without having to compromise yourself or forcing the Church into compromising the basic tenets of the faith (theistic God)? Is there not a point at which the bounds have been exceeded?

          • Brett Matthews

            Jonathon, I notice Gretta has not responded so I will hazard a response for you. Spiritual community is deeply needed in the modern world, and it is why people go to church. But as she has outlined in her books and in public, liberal theology is playing a double game with words about religion and the divine that doesn’t meet modern needs and in any case, is implicitly dishonest.

            In the 1950s the Unitarians changed from being an explicitly Christian denomination to an explicitly post-Christian one. This happened because of leaders who thought like Gretta, and because it allowed them to speak. Why can’t the United Church change with the times? And even if it chooses not to, for whatever reason, should it push out people who are testing new ways to meet the spiritual hunger of those in its pews? Even if others disagree with her approach, a dozen innovators like Gretta may well, between them, find a way forward that saves the UCC from irrelevance. And why would a modern liberal consider it self-evident that debate stimulates learning and progress in every field except religion, where medieval standards should naturally (?) continue to apply?

            I defer to Gretta if she wishes to offer a better answer, which I have no doubt she can do!

    • Uncle Benny

      I think she’s been quite open and honest about her beliefs. She “came out” to her congregation years ago, and they were accepting. As I understand it, the membership loss occurred some years later after the Lord’s Prayer was eliminated from the service. For many of them, that was an essential part of their tradition, whether they really believed in God or not, and they took a hike. Since then, as Gretta says, the congregation has grown, not quite back to its former size, but grown nonetheless.

      If the UCC wants to test Gretta’s suitability, why don’t they just ask her congregation?

      For the record, I am a member of the UCC, do not believe in God, and could do without the Lord’s Prayer. But I know it means a lot to others in the congregation, so I just keep quiet and don’t recite it.

    • Which closet, exactly?

  • TryingToMakeSenseOfIt

    What is a theistic God? A God that believes in God? I don’t understand. Will someone please enlighten me?

    • Hi there! Thanks for the question. A theistic god is a god that is a supernatural being who can intervene in the natural world. It needs to be clarified because many contemporary religious scholars and the institutions that promote their work, understand god as a concept, not a being. A concept cannot intervene in the natural world. And it isn’t supernatural. It’s an idea.
      At theological college, I was taught to explore god as a concept, not to enrich my relationships with a being. The problem is that many liberals use the same word to describe the idea that fundamentalists use to describe the being. So, if you attend a liberal, mainline church and the clergy person uses the word “god”, you don’t know if she or he is talking about a supernatural being or the idea that we should try to be good. That is, not unless you ask directly.
      Again, thanks for the question.

      • Ralph1Waldo

        Unitarian Universalism has long been plagued by this language problem: “The problem is that many liberals use the same word to describe the idea that fundamentalists use to describe the being.” UU ministers are trained in the advanced, highly cerebral ideas of the 20th Century theologians who reverse engineered a concept of God that could work for the modern age. Tillich warned that an argument for God as a being would lead inevitably to atheism, because science had chased away literal interpretations. God was, he suggested, “being itself.” This kind of thing is interesting, but it leaves many people scratching their head — and rightly so! It frankly just flies over many people’s heads. Because to a very large swath of the public, “God” does mean something very specific. But the liberal academic theology grants a certain license to liberal clergy to use the word however they wan, to mean almost anything. And a word that means almost anything ultimately doesn’t mean much at all.

        Unitarians played a pivotal role in the birthing of the modern humanist movement in the 1930s, and have held onto a strong foundation of science and reason in practice even while encouraging pluralism of language and identification. I have never known a UU minister to believe in a supernatural, interventionist God. And most of us lay folk are strongly humanistic even if we don’t mind religious language and don’t specifically identify as Humanist. But while many congregations are indeed allergic to the word, it nevertheless continues to cause confusion and, in my opinion, to create unnecessary division where it is used uncritically. I think you have done a great service by leading your congregation toward greater clarity. More liberal clergy need to learn from this kind of innovation.

  • ElderRad

    Angels on a pin. It all seems a matter of faith to me. I wish this article would have asked her about her faith. If she has any at all, she’s still qualified.

    • PABWECG

      I too wish they had said more about her beliefs.

    • lynus55

      Faith in what? Herself? Absolutely. Faith in a supernatural being? Foolish and unneeded. It’s 2016.