Thinking Out Loud

August 9, 2015

The Strange Case of Rev. Gretta Vosper

Filed under: Christianity — Tags: , , , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 7:22 am
Gretta Vosper, John Suk: Birds of a feather

Gretta Vosper, John Suk: Birds of a feather

I don’t stress the Canadian origins of this blog. I did when I started, but as the stats started coming in, I realized that both my readership and my subject matter were dominantly American, and it was easier just to blend.

So it’s always interesting to me when something taking place in your own backyard turns up as the subject matter on U.S. websites. Such was the case yesterday at Internet Monk.  Daniel Jepsen wrote:

I don’t know much about the Canadian religious scene. Perhaps some of our northern readers can weigh in on this. Apparently the largest denomination, the United Church, has been long known for its liberal leanings and inclusiveness. But one minister is testing the boundaries: The Rev. Gretta Vosper, spiritual leader of West Hill United Church in suburban Toronto, is an avowed atheist. Vosper has been upfront about this since 2001, but things came to a head earlier this year after she wrote an open letter objecting to a prayer a fellow minister had written following the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris. Vosper said the prayer should have acknowledged that belief in God could trigger extremism [because, ya know, all the great massacres of the 20th century (the Cultural Revolution, the Stalinist purges, the Khmer Rouge) were led by Billy Bibles]. Rev. Vosper will face a church hearing to determine whether she is upholding her ordination vows, which included affirming a belief in “God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” One proposal on the table is to trade her to the Unitarians for cash and two seminary prospects.

This is a subject close to my heart, as my vocation allows me to see the entire spectrum of United Church ministers, members and adherents; from the extreme liberals, to the churches which are very evangelical. I felt a certain responsibility to add to the comments at iMonk.

Gretta Vosper is currently grabbing headlines in Canada, but I don’t believe her situation is entirely unique. Rev. John Suk is another example. In a November, 2014 interview in the United Church Observer, the pastor of Toronto’s Lawrence Park Community Church said,

I think it’s ridiculous to talk about having a personal relationship with Jesus…All religions of the world are hopeful that this life is not all there is, and so am I. I don’t believe in heaven as it is described mythically in scripture. I hope for some kind of spiritual consciousness after I die that is loving. I’m not afraid of death; it feels like whatever happens next will be good. Even if it’s only a forever sleep, it will be a good rest.

A July article on Vosper in the Vancouver Sun states,

One of the things the Vosper case strongly suggests is the United Church has become so freedom-fixated and inclusive — often boasting “We Welcome Everyone” — that it has lost its boundaries…There is a deep spiritual issue at play here if it’s true many closet atheists toil among the United Church’s more than 3,000 clergy…

The article linked at Internet Monk’s Ramblings [akin to our Wednesday Link List] says that Vosper will be held to account as to her faithfulness to her ordination vows, “which included affirming a belief in ‘God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.’” However, a visit to the denomination’s ‘Beliefs: Overview’ page on its website contains references to the teachings of Jesus, but not his divinity; there is no mention of sin, no mention of salvation.

In balance, it must be said that for every local UCC church headed by a Vosper or a Suk, there are indeed some evangelical United Church congregations. Overall however, this is a denomination that has clearly lost its way, but is no doubt capable of hanging on for another fifty years because of its vast real estate holdings and income from estates.

 

May 21, 2010

Church Without Belief

Filed under: cults — Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 7:27 am

Erin has been blogging at Decompressing Faith since 2005.   This past week she went to a Unitarian Universalist church to hear her brother perform a musical number.

It’s an experience I had myself in my last year of high school, and it also involved a musical performance.   I would echo her observation:

I have never understood why people will go to all the trouble to have church, with all the semblances of a mainline service, but wipe it clean of any core belief system. I don’t mean that as a disparaging remark against UU’s. I understand the sense of community and the value of the power of that community when they come together. I also value and respect the concept of acceptance and non-conformity. I get it all; as much as any outsider can.

My point is this: the service was decidedly like a mainline service. I don’t mean in content, but in presentation. The invocation, the homily, the benediction…they were all there. They have a hymnal, very much like any traditional hymnal. They have responsive reading and a doxology. You get my drift. Yet, it’s all been purged of almost anything that identifies with any particular religion or belief system. And what I wonder is why, if you’re going to do something subversive and liberal, why do it exactly the same as something traditional and conservative? Is it a tribute to what we might have known as children? Is it for comfort? Or is it tradition simply for the sake of tradition?

Why indeed?   Erin goes overboard to say her intention is not to cause offense, she’s just got questions:

Why work so hard to make it seem like “church”, when it’s not “church”?  And why call it “church”, giving it a distinctly traditional tone and flavor, but having it actually be something else entirely, with a vastly different mission, content, and core? …Why wear a label that doesn’t fit, or follow a pattern that doesn’t do us justice?

In the end, she challenges the UU Church to come up with something original.   Not the conclusion I would make.

Are we, as a religious humanity, really that incapable of doing something truly new? Must we always keep one foot anchored in the old thing in some manner, while timidly stretching beyond the borders of it? What are we afraid of out there in the wild blue yonder? Why pretend to be something that is still within the confines of “acceptable”, even as we venture out beyond convention?

Rather, I would conclude that there is something deeper taking place in those services; a longing for something that was, and is, so very much anchored, so absolute, so very secure.   There is some comfort in dogmatism, but if you can’t abide the belief, the heart longs to fill the void by keeping the forms.

But maybe, at that point, like the children on summer break, you’re simply playing church.

Let us pray.

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