Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Minister's avowed atheism stirs debate

If you want to get people, and especially ministers in the United Church of Canada excited, just say two words. Gretta Vosper.

The Rev. Gretta Vosper is the minister of West Hill United Church in Toronto. In her own words she defines herself as an atheist and her mission in life, according to her Twitter profile is “Irritating the church into the 21st Century”.

That’s all well and good, but in the process, other United Church congregations and members have asked how a someone can say they don't believe in God and say they are an atheist and still claim to be a United Church minister.

Vosper, for her part, is very adept at the use of social media. She is an author. She is well spoken and literate. And she has a lot of supporters, including her congregation. But questions are being asked.

While Vosper has been public about her atheism for well over a decade and has written several books on her beliefs, questions are being raised about what she has said publicly.

In the United Church, every minister is asked questions of belief on their ordination, commissioning, designation or admission to the ministry. The questions are, “Do you believe in God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and do you commit yourself anew to God?”; “Do you believe that God is calling you to the ordained ministry of Word, sacrament and pastoral care, and do you accept this call?" and, "Are you willing to exercise your ministry in accordance with the scriptures, in continuity with the faith of the Church, and subject to the oversight and discipline of The United Church of Canada?" Every minister is also asked to reaffirm those questions when they start with a new congregation.

With Vosper’s public statements, questions of her consistency with those statements, which she would have had to reaffirm when she started ministry at West Hill United Church in the 1997, were raised.

The only tool the United Church as to answer such questions is what is called a “review”. I have been the subject of a review myself. It is a most unpleasant, isolating process. I would not wish it on anyone. But many ministers have been reviewed. Most have continued in ministry. It is simply a tool for answering questions which have been raised.

The best parallel I can think of is the professional review process which happens to teachers, nurses, social workers and doctors in Ontario. In their cases, their professional regulatory college has the power to review their conduct. In Vosper’s case, a governing body in the United Church, the conference, has that authority.

Because the situation was so unusual, the church’s senior administrator, the General Secretary, was asked to outline a review process to follow. Vosper appealed that decision outlining the process. That appeal will be heard in the fall.

Vosper is now conducting a campaign to raise money for her legal expenses (reviews don’t normally use lawyers) and to drum up support in social media.

This is going to be a long, drawn out process. And it won’t be pleasant for anyone. That I know from experience.

I have my opinions about Vosper and her theology, but in the meantime she still has my vocational courtesy. She is still a ministerial colleague, even though we are light years apart in our beliefs. The only thing I can say is that time and the United Church’s due process will give us the outcome. 

Rev. David Shearman is a retired United Church minister in Owen Sound and the host of Faithworks on Rogers TV - Grey County.