Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Questioning a minister about faith isn't the inquisition

Unless you have been lost in time and space for a while, the name Gretta Vosper should ring a few bells with many.

If you have been asleep and lost in time and space, she is The Reverend Gretta Vosper, author, United Church of Canada minister and atheist.

I know. Some are already shaking their heads. How can someone be a Christian minister and an atheist at the same time?

“Well, it’s the United Church, after all,” some will say. But denominational stereotypes aside, Vosper is back in the spotlight, not for a new book or a controversial interview, but because the United Church of Canada has ordered a review of her ministry and theology, following concerns being raised by her referring to herself as an atheist.

How did the matter get raised?

In April, following several letters of concern, including one from Metropolitan United Church in Toronto, the executive of Toronto Conference unanimously requested the General Secretary of the church’s General Council, the most senior administrative officer of the church, to “outline a process for considering the concerns that have been raised regarding the on-going status of an ordered minister, with a focus on continuing affirmation of the questions asked of all candidates at the time of ordination, commissioning or admission in Basis of Union.”

That’s church speak for asking for advice on how to review a minister who seems to have moved away from some foundational statements and questions all prospective ministers are asked to agree to at the time of their entry into ministry.

One question is, “Do you believe in God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and do you commit yourself anew to God?” The candidate is expected to be in essential agreement with that statement and others of belief and say yes. Not a “nudge, nudge; wink, wink” yes or a “crossed my fingers so it doesn’t count” yes, but an honest yes.
When a minister who has affirmed those statements now says they are an atheist, then it is reasonable to conclude that questions will be asked and honest answers expected.

Some will say this is nothing but a witch hunt or an inquisition. They are wrong.

The review process is common to all regulated professions, including teachers, doctors and social workers. The United Church is no different. Ministers are accountable for their actions and their words and this is the church process by which they are called to account.

In subsequent meetings of the governance body, the process of review has been made clear. Again, it is all out there on the internet and fully public. Vosper has been informed that questions have been raised. The review process is moving forward.

The task of review has been assigned to the Conference Interview Committee, who have the job of interviewing all candidates for ministry, ministers seeking admission to the United Church and other individuals.

I am told that five people have already been asked to conduct the review. They will meet with Vosper and then write and submit their report by June 25. The sub-Executive will make its decision shortly after that.

I would not venture a guess on the outcome. I have been through the review process myself. It’s not easy. But the United Church leans towards restorative justice rather than retributive justice.

No one is out to get Vosper. At the end of the day, she may still be a colleague in ministry. But then again, she may not.

Rev. David Shearman is the minister of Central Westside United Church, Owen Sound and the host of Faithworks on Rogers TV - Grey County.