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.”