On , the Conference Interview Committee of the Toronto Conference of the United Church of Canada released its report on atheist minister Rev. Gretta Vosper. They ruled that she is not suitable to continue as a minister in the United Church.
Most atheists, and most readers of Canadian Atheist, will either shrug and say they don’t care, or cheer the decision. I would like to make the case that this decision is something we should care about, and that we should be very bothered by it.
Gretta Vosper has been
irritating the Church into the 21st century since at least 2001. She has been a minister since 1993, and the minister of the West Hill United Church since 1997. She has been an atheist since 2001, but she didn’t use the a-word to describe herself for over a decade, and I want to focus on the reason why because it illustrates the kind of atheist Vosper is.
At first, Vosper rejected the a-word, as many do, choosing instead to label herself as “non-theist”. In 2008, she started calling herself a “theological non-realist”, because she felt that “non-theist” still left the door open to believing in something supernatural and interventionist or otherwise with agency. It wasn’t until 2013 that she started calling herself “atheist”. What prompted the change?She wanted to show solidarity with the Bangladeshi atheist bloggers who were being murdered, arrested, and threatened with execution:
Ms. Vosper explained that she first identified as an atheist in 2013 in solidarity, with four Bangladeshi bloggers, secular humanists, who were arrested and threatened with execution following the brutal murder of Rajib Haider and with Fazil Say, the Turkish pianist, who was sentenced to ten months in prison for identifying as an atheist. By calling herself an atheist, Ms. Vosper said that she was joining the voices of others in condemning the actions of the Bangladeshi government.
Let that sink in for just a moment. Vosper first adopted the label “atheist”, at obvious personal and professional risk, for the purpose of showing solidarity with atheists being persecuted on the other side of the world. For the purpose of showing solidarity with people being pointedly ignored by those who should be standing up for them. That’s something that even some of atheism’s biggest heroes are unwilling to do, such as Neil DeGrasse Tyson, and even Richard Dawkins!Those men would not be risking their livelihoods if they declared themselves atheist, yet they don’t because it’s just too much work for them; Gretta Vosper was risking her livelihood, yet she embraced our identity.
How can any atheist just shrug their shoulders and say she doesn’t really matter, especially after hearing that? Gretta Vosper is far more worthy of being heralded as a hero in the atheist community than either Tyson or Dawkins.
But the atheist community is not the only community she has demonstrated leadership and compassion for. You might think that on learning that their minister is… dun-dun-dun… atheist… her congregation would balk. Nothing is farther from the truth.West Hill United Church has not only embraced Vosper and her ministerial style, they stood up for her vigorously throughout the review process. In fact, they had to be barred from speaking at her hearing (p. 5).
Take a look at what that church looks like. Just browse through their website for a few moments and look at just some of the issues that concern them, and some of the services and programs they offer. We atheists are actively engaged in a struggle against Christianity (and other religions) for Canadian society, and because we are, we too often become lost in the heat of the struggle, and succumb to base instincts like demonizing and dehumanizing our opponents. But what we are opposed to is the backward, intolerant beliefs of a subset of Christianity – admittedly a substantial subset, but a subset nonetheless. We are not enemies of the people of Christianity, and we’re not even opposed to many of the more progressive Christian attitudes and values – such as love thy neighbour, acceptance, and forgiveness. Take a look at West Hill United Church. Is that not what we would want Christianity to be like? If all Christianity were like West Hill United Church, would we even need to consider Christianity “the opposition”? Couldn’t we coexist harmoniously with a United Church whose congregations all looked like West Hill?
What Gretta Vosper has created at West Hill, with the help of the wonderful people in her congregation, is an example of what religion could be, if only it were willing to shed its intolerance and dogged insistence on being stuck in the past. It is an example how one could retain the cultures and traditions of the old faiths, and all of the best parts of what they once had to teach humanity, while still moving into the modern era of science and reason. Obviously there will still be things for us to disagree with, but unlike some people, I don’t really need to have everyone in Canada agree with all of my beliefs. I’m cool with disagreeing with believers on points of philosophy and theology, so long as they are willing to tolerate me, my existence, and my beliefs. I’m cool with coexisting with Christians, so long as they’re not dictating what should happen in my medical care, or my bedroom. West Hill provides a vision of how that might actually be possible. And I’m cool with it.
But Vosper isn’t the only player of note in last week’s decision. In addition to being disappointed that someone of Vosper’s calibre could be ruled “ineffective” as a community leader, I can’t help but be sorely disappointed in the message that the United Church of Canada just sent to all atheists and religious skeptics in Canada.
On the one hand, I can see the reasoning behind the Committee’s decision to oust Vosper. She not only denies the existence of a personal God, she denies the divinity of Jesus (and I think she implies that he might not even have existed) and doesn’t call herself a “Christian”. She explicitly rejects using scripture as a primary source of inspiration for her teachings. From a strictly, by-the-letter doctrinal reading, she shouldn’t be a United Church minister.
The United Church has, for decades, enjoyed the title of being Canada’s most progressive church. And they didn’t come by that title easily. They’ve been ordaining women since 1936. They ordained their first openly gay minister in 1992. Just look at their history; that’s something they’re quite obviously proud of, and with damn good reason.
Most importantly, when they have made these remarkably progressive choices, they often did so, not because of scripture… but rather in spite of scripture.
For example, when they started ordaining women, they did so in defiance of 1 Corinthians 14:34 (
Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience as also saith the law.) and 1 Timothy 2:12 (
But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence.) Not to mention that there was vigorous popular opposition to ordaining women at the time. Yet the Church stood up to both scripture and conservative pressure, and did the right thing, recognizing that women had just as much value as people as men did.
The Church’s history with LGBT ministers is even more enlightening. This was an extremely divisive issue for the Church back in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. Take a look at this archived CBC segment from , the day the United Church of Canada officially decided to allow gay ministers. There was a lot of push-back against the move. Around 90% of the hundreds of reports submitted opposed the move, and after it was done, almost 80,000 people left the Church – sometimes whole congregations led by their ministers. Even decades later, it was still a sore spot.
But now, the Church holds up the 1988 decision as a badge of pride, and for good reason. Despite the voices of conservativism at the time – and for decades after – despite 90% of the opinions submitted for the decision, and despite the mass exodus of tens of thousands in protest, today the United Church proudly trumpets its progressive stance of homosexuality.
All of which just puts their opposition to religious doubt into such sharp relief. The United Church is an organization that shrugged off doctrine and popular contemporary opinion to recognize the value in women and homosexual people… but shrugging off doctrine and popular contemporary opinion to recognize the value in atheists was apparently a step too far.
Even more disappointing, they had to twist their own policies to do so. There are only two grounds for defrocking a minister in the United Church: insubordination, and ineffectiveness. Guess which one they used for Vosper? If you guessed “insubordination”… wrong! “Wait,” I’m sure you’re asking. “They found her ‘ineffective’? But… all that stuff you said about how well things are going at her church?!” Aha, but you see, they came up with a trick! They argued that if she is quote-unquote “unsuitable” to be a minister… that means she can’t be “effective” as a minister. Yes, that makes no sense as it stands, but of course it only gets worse when you ask what the measure of suitability is. It’s specifically being theist (among other things). So of course, Vosper never really stood a chance.
Let me be clear that I am not saying the United Church was wrong to oust Vosper. They’re a private club, and they have every right to set the membership rules as they please. What is disappointing is the gulf between what they say about their acceptance, and their actual practice of acceptance in other situations, and what they are doing now.
The United Church had the opportunity to make Vosper a bridge between their faith and the growing irreligiousness in Canada. Instead, they are using her to draw a dividing line between us.
All this leaves us with lingering questions about what this is supposed to mean for all the atheists and religious skeptics in the congregation, not to mention the other ministers who secretly share Vosper’s beliefs. And what Vosper has revealed is that there are many.
If not believing in a personal god or the supernatural aspects of the religion make one unsuitable to minister, doesn’t that also mean the Church is implying that these beliefs are unsuitable for the congregation, too? This is a slap in the face to anyone in the United Church who has ever doubted the supernatural crap in their dogma. It doesn’t even matter if you are a wonderful person who does incredible, good work in your communities and beyond; your skepticism makes you “unsuitable” in the eyes of the Church. That’s a horrible message about what the Church finds important.
And then there’s the question of the many other ministers who secretly share Vosper’s beliefs. What is the Church’s message to them? Is it: “You are unsuitable.” Or is it: “You are suitable… so long as you keep your true beliefs secret.” Either way, there’s a serious problem. Either the Church is saying it wants tons of quality ministers – many of whom take their beliefs and their position quite seriously, as evidenced by the fact that they’re willing to question the dogmas – to up and quit… or it’s saying it wants them to “stay in the closet”. To not be “out”. Put in that language, it sounds pretty bad, but it’s even worse when you put it in simple, stark terms. If that’s what the Church really wants, then what it wants is ministers who lie about their skepticism about the supernatural aspects of the dogma. They would rather have liars as ministers than people honest enough to admit they struggle with the supernatural nonsense and its moral implications in the modern world.
Ultimately, the Church’s decision that disbelief in the supernatural parts of their dogma makes one unsuitable to be a minister means that the Church has decided that they are not interested in reaching out to atheists or skeptics on their own terms. It means they’re not interested in talking with us; they just want to talk at us. I imagine many CA readers will probably shrug and say: “good; that just means their efforts will be that much less effective”. Well, true, but the point isn’t that we will eventually “win” the “culture war” (because we will), it’s that the United Church – supposedly the most tolerant and progressive church in Canada – has chosen to effectively write us off, thus making finding a peaceful solution to avoid this “war” that much harder.
I’m sure most atheists just don’t care about the United Church and whatever silly rules it sets up for itself, but the reality is that what the United Church decides does have larger consequences. The United Church has two million adherents – about 6% of Canada. No doubt a huge chunk of that number is closet atheists; and not just the congregants, probably a significant percentage of the ministers, too. All of those people have just been spat on by the Church and its decision – they have all been declared “unsuitable”. Before pooh-poohing this as utterly irrelevant, spare a thought to those people.
And realize that what’s happening is the most progressive and tolerant Christian church in Canada is sending the message to atheists and religious skeptics that they’re just not wanted – not even in a case like Gretta Vosper, who has become a remarkable ambassador for the United Church to the nonbeliever community, and a wonderfully effective minister to her own congregation. That’s only going to make future interfaith dialogue and harmonious coexistence that much harder. The title of “most progressive and tolerant” Christian church in Canada means a little bit less today than it did a week or two ago.
It’s been almost 30 years since the United Church made the courageous, progressive, and moral step of accepting LGBT members and ministers, and even after that short a span, we already look back at the opposing 90% that existed in 1988 as backward, intolerant, ignorant, and relics of a less open-minded age. I have no doubt that 30 years from now, the next generation will think the same of the opposing 83% in this case.
In the meantime, it looks like even the “most progressive and tolerant” Christian church in Canada is either unwilling or unable to work toward a more reason-based future with us. That’s disappointing. But if that’s the message they want to send… well, then fuck ’em. It would have been nice to have them as allies, but we can bring Canada to a better, more reason-based future without them.