Phil Spencer

You may have seen this if you get the email updates from the United Church Observer, or if you read one of the national papers, but on Wednesday of this week a rather short press release was issued through our denomination that reads: “Toronto Conference, the Rev. Gretta Vosper, and West Hill United Church have settled all outstanding issues between them. The Rev. Vosper will remain in ordained ministry at West Hill.”

If you’re unfamiliar with the backstory to this, the minister in question, the Rev. Gretta Vosper, is an ordained minister serving the West Hill United Church congregation in Toronto. She came to some prominence over the last decade through her public assertions about her own atheism. I dare say she is positively evangelical in her zeal in announcing this having written and spoken about, and debated her position in multiple places. To be clear: members and adherents in the denomination have a wide, wide latitude when it comes to belief. You are free to believe and say all manner of things! For those of us who teach and preach, it’s a bit different. Furthermore, it’s important to note that we serving ordered ministry people are not members of a congregation—our membership lies in the Presbytery, which also means that it’s the Presbytery that’s responsible for our discipline, for keeping us on the straight and narrow. What, if anything, Ms. Vosper’s Presbytery did about this wholly unorthodox position for someone in leadership over the years—despite it being very, very much a public issue (an issue which is the textbook definition of a “scandal”: a state of affairs regarded as wrong or reprehensible and causing general public outrage or anger, something that is, I believe, a stumbling block to sharing the good news of Jesus Christ)—well, the Presbytery’s seeming lack of action over the years is not something I know a lot about. I do know that the matter was finally brought to a head recently, and a hearing was scheduled for this month. Whether the hearing panel ever met is unknown to me, but it is clear by this press release that some conversation between the parties occurred and that the matter is understood to be settled. Ms. Vosper remains as a minister in the United Church.  

In a message to her supporters she writes: "… we have been affirmed. The first denomination to allow an atheist, whose heart and mind, leadership, and theology, formed by that church's own hand, to continue unobstructed in their ministry. Might I even say 'celebrated'? It is a new day in the Christian world." I’ll say it is! Let us put aside for a minute the rather novel reinterpretation of the term “Christian,” and the debatable and rather cheeky assertion that her atheism is “formed by that church's own hand” and instead note that a press release from the General Council of the United Church that immediately followed made it very clear that the position of the United Church of Canada is a belief in God, “a God most fully revealed to us as Christians in and through Jesus Christ.” Subsequent to that, a pastoral letter from the Moderator of the United Church was immediately issued also affirming our belief in the Trinitarian God, and noting that “we continue to expect that ministers in The United Church of Canada will offer their leadership in accordance with our shared and agreed upon statements of faith.” I might add that the letter was also in some way inaccurately in some of our major newspapers to say something it definitely did not. I will remind you that those faith statements the Moderator referred to are all as theistic, Trinitarian, and I’d go so far as to say “orthodox” as the day is long. Clearly something is wrong with this picture, even a picture of a denomination that puts some emphasis on the notion of “inclusivity.” I do wonder if, for some, anyway, that the worthy idea of “inclusivity” has actually become an idol. A good sermon topic for another day, methinks. 

How do we make sense of this seeming contradiction: an atheist serving in a place of leadership in the Christian Church? It’s a head scratcher, isn’t it? It think it’s helpful to consider the sparseness, if not terseness, of the press release. In the absence of further information from Toronto Conference of the United Church – and I rather dearly wish they would offer some further information – I would hazard a guess that this is essentiallya legal statement. And I will further hazard a guess (and this is purely my speculation in the absence of information about something that is so strange as to make the mystery of the Trinity begin to look transparent!) that the Toronto Conference found themselves in a legal situation that made this the most pragmatic action. In the words of that great prophet of the Church, Kenny Rogers, “You've got to know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em, know when to walk away, and know when to run ….” For some reason Toronto Conference had a losing legal hand. There’s a story there somewhere, and this is about the only way I can make sense of this, to square the word we’ve received with what I do know about the United Church. The secular court has taken on the Church court, and in this case, I suspect labour law won out.  I think our legal advice was “settle and walk away.” While that it surely prudent legal advice, there may be a substantially higher cost paid denominationally and with the Church beyond our denomination.  

For all the fun I have at the United Church’s expense—and I admit that I do!—I’m a part of it because I see Christ here and in the denomination. While we’re a pretty broad tent theologically, we’re not broad to that point of utter absurdity, which is where we seem to find ourselves at present. A Church without God revealed in the person and work of Jesus just isn’t the Christian Church, and yet my experience is that we’re very much a part of the Christian Church. Something will have to give here eventually, because given a choice between embracing radical inclusivity and choosing God … well, as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord. 

Now this section of the service is referred to as “The Encouragement Minute,” and it’s actually meant to encourage! … to allay any sense of unease or uncertainty that this story—particularly in the absence of all sorts of important information—might have created amongst us. Be assured of our path here—it is the path of Jesus Christ, who is, to quote from Colossians, “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation … the head of the body, the church. Being that this story will likely be a media delight—it’s a kind of “man bites dog” story—I have little doubt that your friends and family will hear about it and may have a question or two about it over time. I’m trusting that more will be revealed in the fullness of time, and so it’s my sense that this story will have a few twists and turns yet. In the meantime, it’s right that we remind ourselves of who we are and whose we are. Let’s stand together and, as I know more than a few of us United Church folk are doing this morning across the country, let’s in faith and in hope repeat A New Creed.  

We are not alone, we live in God's world.
We believe in God:
            who has created and is creating,
who has come in Jesus,
            the Word made flesh,
            to reconcile and make new,
            who works in us and others by the Spirit.
We trust in God.
We are called to be the church:
            to celebrate God's presence,
            to live with respect in creation,
            to love and serve others,
            to seek justice and resist evil,
            to proclaim Jesus, crucified and risen,
            our judge and our hope.
In life, in death, in life beyond death,
            God is with us.
We are not alone.
Thanks be to God.