I called my reflection today a Collision of Value(s) because in the great debate over the place of atheist minister Gretta Vosper in the United Church of Canada we have a collision of values: the value of inclusivity, and the value of faith in God. I can also call it a collision of value because it has got us talking about faith, Jesus, God, and what it means to be a Christian – which are not topics we necessarily discuss every day. There’s a lot of value in that conversation!
To give you a bit of the background, Gretta Vosper started making headlines back in 2008 when she published a book called “With or Without God: Why the Way We Live Is More Important Than What We Believe”. She is a very intelligent, well-educated woman with a strong pastoral presence in her community. In her book, she argued that the word “God” is too weighted with ancient meanings that don’t make sense in a scientific world. She said, as many others have, that to imagine God as a male figure in the sky above the clouds who intervenes miraculously in human affairs, doesn’t make sense in our present scientific society. She dismissed attempts to reinterpret or understand God differently as doomed to failure, so she said we just need to abandon the word “God” altogether. Since then, she has accepted the label of atheist.
What does she mean by that? Well, a theist is someone who believes in a supernatural God who intervenes from outside the natural world. So for her, an a-theist is someone who doesn’t believe in that kind of God. But in recent interviews, as far as I can tell, she has declined to say what she does believe in. Her congregation, West Hill United in Toronto, is in full support of her position. This is what they say about themselves in their “VisionWorks” document:
“As individuals with diverse backgrounds and viewpoints, we come together, opening ourselves to new ideas that may challenge our previously-held perspectives. With roots in the Judaeo-Christian tradition, we embrace theists, agnostics and atheists. What we share is a reverence for life that moves us to seek truth, live fully, care deeply, pursue justice and make a difference in the world. We respect individual differences insofar as they are not harmful or disrespectful of others.
We draw insight and wisdom from historic religious traditions and evolving ethical and philosophical thought. From these sources, we distill the core values that we believe are foundational to positive relationships with ourselves, others, all life and our planet.
That sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? The word “God” is not mentioned, nor “Jesus”, and even the word “spirituality” is apparently rubbing some people the wrong way in that community, but it certainly sounds like a positive influence in many people’s lives.
The issue for those who requested that a hearing be held by Toronto Conference is that as an ordained minister in the United Church of Canada, we are asked to be in “essential agreement” with the faith statements of the United Church, and we make our vows accordingly. All of them, without exception, refer to belief in God and the importance of following Jesus. She has been quoted saying that we do not need to give Jesus’ teachings any more authority than we give any other person’s words. You can see why this became an issue!
In November 2018 it was announced that a settlement had been reached that would allow Gretta Vosper to remain in ministry at West Hill United as a United Church minister. The reasons were not given. At the same time the General Council affirmed that we as a United Church retain our commitment to our faith in God and in Jesus. This might suggest that the settlement was over some sort of legality, rather than over theology, but as this is a confidential personnel matter, we may never know.
So we have a clash of values represented by the place of Gretta and her congregation in the UCC. We have always been a church with a wide variety of theologies and understandings of who God is and what it means to be a follower of Jesus. Gretta’s position has tested the edges of that inclusivity.
We have also always been a church committed to the God whom Jesus knew and served, and embodied – the one of whom John wrote , “Those who have seen me, have seen the Father”. Is it possible to be the spiritual leader of a Christian church and not believe in this God? For many, the obvious answer is no – but not for all.
So we have a clash between inclusivity and the importance of faith in God – both things central to the mission and identity of the United Church.
We also have a disagreement about how we balance two elements of Christian living: orthodoxy (which means right praise but has also come to mean right teaching and knowledge) and orthopraxy (which means right practice or action). From the perspective of those who support Gretta’s ministry, her church is doing all the right things: they are an affirming church, a social justice church, a church that puts love into action. This, for many, is far more important than the lack of anything resembling Christian doctrine. In fact, for some, the lack of orthodoxy is something to celebrate! Others would say that one can practice inclusion, justice and love in action in many social organizations – but to be included under the umbrella of “church” requires at minimum a commitment to the Divine – whatever name we use – and to Jesus as a teacher and prophet of Divine wisdom, at the very least.
One more issue brought up in the “Great Vosper Debate” as I call it, is what it means to believe or trust in God. It is not as simple as “there is a God” or “there isn’t a God”. A recent informal survey of United Church ministers indicated that among us there are traditional theists – those who believe in a God who acts in miraculous, supernatural ways from outside the known universe; there are panentheists – those who understand God as the Ground of Being, which connects and permeates all things and yet is more than all things; a small number are deists – those who believe God set the universe in motion and then pretty much left it to itself; and another very small number see God as a metaphor for love, truth or beauty – what is good in the world. The vast majority of UCC clergy who filled in the survey believe in God – period. 0.7 percent of clergy who filled out the survey would say they are atheists – so the chances of you having an atheist minister in your pulpit are very slim, in case any of you are worried about that.
When we turn to Scripture we come to a teaching that is central to Jesus, and central to the whole Judaeo-Christian tradition:” You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind; and you shall love your neighbour as yourself.”For Jesus, as for some of his Jewish contemporaries, all faithful living comes down to these commandments. All the other rules and teachings and wisdom and proverbs and warnings are subsets of those two great laws of faith and ethics. So West Hill and Gretta Vosper are collectively firm on the second; but they would not affirm the first commandment, as far as I can understand their position.
There is a lot of room in our United Church congregations. As I said in the post I wrote on Facebook, every UCC congregation I have been a part of has included atheists and agnostics. Each has their own reasons for being present, but something has brought them to that place – a friend, a relative, some questioning, an interest in something the church does or offers, the music, or a need for community. There are probably more reasons to be present. And every person who has come through these doors is welcome. I even know of Buddhists and Muslims who worship regularly in United Churches!
We make everyone welcome, but to exercise certain positions of leadership, we ask people to be baptised and confirmed in the Christian faith. That liturgy includes questions both about belief in God AND a willingness to practice the faith. Those who choose not to affirm those questions, will find other ways to be involved in the life of the church, and we will be grateful for that participation. Our commitment to love our neighbour means you are included – every one of you – and we value your presence here.
Whether or not that same inclusivity can be extended to those who exercise spiritual leadership in the church, is something the United Church will continue to wrestle with, as Ms. Vosper and others like her continue to push the edges of what it means to be part of the church. There is another denomination in Canada, that started out with much the same background as the United Church but has become a home for many who have roots in Christian faith but who want to go outside the theological tent represented by the broad spectrum of Christianity and build an even bigger one. It’s called the Unitarian Universalist church, and if you’re curious about them, you can check out the one right here in Victoria. They’re good people. Like West Hill United, they use wisdom from many faith traditions in worship; they include people of different faiths and no faith; their worship looks a bit like Christian worship but differs in some ways. They are active in social justice and compassionate works, and are grounded in a very wide variety of spirituality. They are what a church looks like when it steps away from a commitment to Christ as a unique and special revelation of God and focuses on action instead, geared up by a multitude of spiritual practices and beliefs. I’m guessing there would be room for Gretta and West Hill in the Unitarian Universalist church; but they are determined that they do, indeed fit, within the Big Tent that is the United Church of Canada. If you read the letters to the United Church Observer, there are many that champion their cause, as well as many who just can’t figure out why they haven’t joined the UUs!
So we do indeed have a clash of values in the United Church of Canada. The clash has made us look hard at what is important to us, what we believe, in whom we put our trust, and who Jesus is for us. This is of great value for the church as a whole, as uncomfortable, upsetting or even painful it may be for some of us to have to wrestle with these things. There are so many issues involved in this debate that they cannot be addressed in one sermon, or one study, or even the multitude of articles and letters that have been written about Gretta Vosper and her place in the church. Let’s keep talking, friends – because that is the loving thing to do, and our love of God is best expressed in the love of our neighbours – whether or not we find ourselves in agreement.
May God’s love be in our hearts, in our minds, and in our speaking. Amen.