Ask Gretta (and Jess) 7 – Unitary: Unitarian and United Women Atheist Leaders

By Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Reverend Gretta Vosper is a unique individual in the history of Canadian freethought insofar as I know the prior contexts of freethinking in Canada’s past in general, and in the nation for secular oriented women in particular.

Vosper is a Member of The Clergy Project and a Minister in The United Church of Canada (The UCC) at West Hill United Church, and the Founder of the Canadian Centre for Progressive Christianity (2004-2016), and Best-Selling Author

I reached out about the start of an educational series in the early pages of a new chapter in one of the non-religious texts in the library comprising the country’s narratives. Vosper agreed.

Our guest today, Rev. Jessica Purple Rodela, who graduated in 2008 from the Meadville Lombard Theological School and founded the anti-racism forum entitled The Kaleidoscope Initiative featured in The Arc of the Universe: The Unitarian Universalist Association’s Anti-Racism Work. She is a Minister in the Grand River Unitarian Congregation and the President of the Unitarian Universalist Ministers of Canada. She has served on the Canadian Unitarian Council Board of Trustees.

She is licenced to perform life cycle events including wedding ceremonies, funerals and memorials, baby namings, and Bar and Bat Mitzvahs. Handlarski focuses on “Tikkun Olam” or repairing the world, and the emphasis of ethical behaviour within Jewish culture.  

Here we talk about women atheist leaders, once more in the pulpit.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Unitarian Universalists and The United Church of Canada provide an image of progressive belief structures, life stances, and leadership flexibility inclusive of women and various flavours of atheists at the lectern, which becomes a huge boon for women atheist leadership in traditional patriarchal institutions (supremacy and predominance of men in most levels of authority and sociocultural influence in the institutions).

Why do the Unitarian Universalists and The United Church of Canada provide this space in history and right into the present? How?

Rev. Jessica Purple Rodela: Thanks for the question.

I’ve found it a challenge to respond – and this struggle may be part of the full answer.  On the one hand, I want to sing the praises of our Unitarian Universalist commitment to inclusion; on the other, I am called to critique a movement that applauds itself for having a better track record than most of including women, but like all movements it has not been only forward and onward forever. 

Theologically speaking, Unitarians and Universalists (we are a merged tradition) were poised from the start toward an ever-widening circle of inclusion of people. We rejected the notion of original sin, substitutionary atonement, and ‘hellfire & damnation’ early on.   It was a natural (though gradual) evolution that Unitarians and Universalists then embraced both women’s suffrage and the abolition of slavery in 19th century North America.

But theology is only part of the aspirational story of Unitarians and Universalists. The practice of inclusion is quite a bit muddier. 

According to The Prophetic Sisterhood by Cynthia Grant Tucker, in 1836, Mary Ann Church was the only woman listed among the 400 Universalist preachers in North America. Mary Ann Church is believed to be the first woman to preach in any kind of church in Canada.  In 1863, Universalist Olympia Brown was the first woman to be fully ordained by a major Protestant denomination. Mary Augusta Safford was leading a Unitarian congregation by 1880. And in 1888 Fidelia Gillette (Universalist), was the first woman to be ordained and called to serve a Canadian congregation.  When Eleanor Gordon was ordained a year after Rev. Gillette, there were a total of 101,640 Protestant clergy in North America; only 70 were women.  Over half of those 70 were Unitarians or Universalists (16 were Unitarians; 32 were Universalists).    

But what many histories of our movement neglect to mention is that women were afforded these early opportunities mostly in areas where men did not want to serve – often in sparsely settled frontier towns. As those towns (and their congregations) were more established and lucrative, men moved in and women religious leaders lost their positions.

Our two traditions – Unitarianism & Universalism – had merged by the time I first felt a call to ministry. At the tender age of 10, I would have never seen or heard of a female minister. Only 3 % of Unitarian Universalist ministers were women in 1973.  By the time I attended seminary in 2004, over half of Unitarian Universalist student ministers were women.  But this acceptance was still new – the generation just ahead of me, my female mentors and ministers had been the trailblazers: these who were first and few, who faced criticism for ‘daring’ to leave “Sunday School” and the pews, for robes and pulpits and Board rooms. I listened to their tales with marvel that within my lifetime it has changed so dramatically and because of them I was welcomed wholeheartedly into the fold of ministerial fellowship. The Unitarian Universalist Association did not elect its first woman president until its most recent election, in 2016. 

Today, binary gender inclusion is a natural assumption for Unitarian Universalists; and now we are focused on examining how to expand into genuine non-binary inclusion as well, so that we can truly live into our first principle:  to affirm and promote the worth and dignity of every person. 

Rev. Gretta Vosper: The conclusion of my “heresy trial” by way of a settlement reached between The United Church of Canada (UCC) and myself should not be misunderstood as a welcoming of atheists into the ministry. I believe that the denomination’s silence on the decision to allow me to remain indicates, rather, that they are barely tolerating my presence. It will be some time before celebrations of full inclusivity will be appropriate.

Indeed, that my denomination created a special process in 2015 – its ninetieth anniversary – that held clergy to belief in the archaic Trinitarian formula for belief – God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – is evidence of a shift toward a more rigid, belief-based Christianity than I have previously experienced within it. The church I loved was often described by its members and clergy as “non-creedal.” To require ordered ministers to profess a literal belief in the Trinity throughout their ministry stands in stark contrast to the church into which I was happy to be ordained. I consider the UCC’s turn toward a more conservative theology – one orchestrated by senior staff, not the people of the denomination – to be a betrayal of the church’s historical position with respect to other denominations and the Canadian context within which it was born.

As a child, my “belief” system was developed through a Sunday School curriculum based on the most progressive critical scholarship of the day. That curriculum, only in use for less than a decade, encouraged children and adults to consider the Bible as a human construction. As a theological student studying for ordination in the UCC, that perspective was upheld and reinforced. Comparing theological beliefs across the history of Christianity, we wrestled with a breadth of concepts. But concepts are just that: concepts. Without a human brain to consider them, they do not exist. At no time in my training was I required to believe “traditional” Christian beliefs were central to the UCC’s faith or a literal Trinitarian God. On the contrary, we were expected to wrestle with the “traditional” and live on the edge of faith where love and justice wrestled with contemporary society.

What the United Church welcomes are those who may comfortably identify as a-theists, a cerebral tip of the hat to elitist theological positions such as panentheism, a complex theological position held by many clergy but understood by a statistically miniscule number of congregants and even fewer Canadians. In other words, if you can come up with a definition of “god” that is so smokey no one knows what it really means, your presence will be celebrated. Christianity has been evolving its definitions of god into smoke for millennia; we are very good at it.

Beyond the obvious concerns regarding opacity, however, evolving new, smokier definitions of god has exacted a great price upon Canada’s church-loving population. Esoteric definitions for god have seriously undermined the social capital congregations have long poured into the communities beyond our doors. People who don’t want to do mental callisthenics for an hour on Sunday morning have been leaving church for a long, long time. We’ve barely a remnant left of what we once were. If you consider the influence denominations such as the UCC and the Anglican Church of Canada have had on Canada’s social democracy and consider its loss, the rise of populism quickly makes sense. The collapse of small charities, the reduction in volunteer hours, the loss of philanthropic investment in community, and the impact of all this on the country’s powerful social safety net, is a direct result of our refusal to steward the social capital invested in our congregations. It is a harbinger of a nastier Canada than we like to think we are and can be (recognizing that our Indigenous sisters and brothers have seen that nastier Canada since Confederation). Had senior staff in the United Church turned their attention to examining the denomination’s long slide into irrelevance and working to address it rather than plunging headlong into the excoriation of a scapegoat, our future may not be as bleak as many see it will be.

Women, persons of diverse sexual and gender expressions, the old and infirm, those who are physically, emotionally, and intellectually different, the racially marginalized – all these, I believe, have the challenge and the privilege of bearing the future, literally and figuratively. We have lived historically outside the circles of power, watching as decisions were made for us, not by us. From our vantage point, we have seen the manipulations and orchestrations of those who have written the rules, accorded the privileges, prevented whole sectors the rights and privileges to which they are rightly entitled. Perhaps, as we find our way into those circles, we will hold to the truths we have witnessed and speak them there, creating, as we do, something different, better, more humane.

I care not if we save the church and have said so publicly in the past. Indeed, I wonder that religion itself has not already outlived its benefits. The good that church and religion can accomplish, however, is worth saving and I find my ministry within that work. With or without belief, holding to one another and doing the work of making whole the relationships we create and nurture with others, and with our fragile ecosystems, that, I believe, is worth the struggle.

Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Rev. Rodela and Rev. Vosper.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-booksfree or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott: Scott.D.Jacobsen@Gmail.com.

Canadian Atheist Associates: Godless Mom, Nice Mangoes, Sandwalk, Brainstorm Podcast, Left at the Valley, Life, the Universe & Everything Else, The Reality Check, Bad Science Watch, British Columbia Humanist Association, Dying With Dignity Canada, Canadian Secular AllianceCentre for Inquiry CanadaKelowna Atheists, Skeptics, and Humanists Association.

Other National/Local Resources: Association humaniste du QuébecAtheist FreethinkersCentral Ontario Humanist AssociationComox Valley HumanistsGrey Bruce HumanistsHalton-Peel Humanist CommunityHamilton HumanistsHumanist Association of LondonHumanist Association of OttawaHumanist Association of TorontoHumanists, Atheists and Agnostics of ManitobaOntario Humanist SocietySecular Connextions SeculaireSecular Humanists in CalgarySociety of Free Thinkers (Kitchener-Waterloo/Cambridge/Guelph)Thunder Bay HumanistsToronto OasisVictoria Secular Humanist Association.

Other International/Outside Canada Resources: Allianz vun Humanisten, Atheisten an AgnostikerAmerican Atheists,American Humanist AssociationAssociação Brasileira de Ateus e AgnósticoséééBrazilian Association of Atheists and AgnosticsAtheist Alliance InternationalAtheist Alliance of AmericaAtheist CentreAtheist Foundation of AustraliaThe Brights MovementCenter for Inquiry (including Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science), Atheist IrelandCamp Quest, Inc.Council for Secular HumanismDe Vrije GedachteEuropean Humanist FederationFederation of Indian Rationalist AssociationsFoundation Beyond BeliefFreedom From Religion FoundationHumanist Association of IrelandHumanist InternationalHumanist Association of GermanyHumanist Association of IrelandHumanist Society of ScotlandHumanists UKHumanisterna/Humanists SwedenInternet InfidelsInternational League of Non-Religious and AtheistsJames Randi Educational FoundationLeague of Militant AtheistsMilitary Association of Atheists and FreethinkersNational Secular SocietyRationalist InternationalRecovering From ReligionReligion News ServiceSecular Coalition for AmericaSecular Student AllianceThe Clergy ProjectThe Rational Response SquadThe Satanic TempleThe Sunday AssemblyUnited Coalition of ReasonUnion of Rationalist Atheists and Agnostics.

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