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.


August 20, 2012

United Church of Canada Elects Openly Gay Moderator

Following in the steps of some Anglican national groups,  on August 16th, the United Church of Canada (UCC) Canada’s second largest religious denomination has elected Rev. Gary Patterson to its top post.  Patterson has been in a high-profile gay relationship for thirty years. You can read more, and see a video interview at BDBO.

The UCC was formed in 1925 through a merger of Presbyterian, Congregational and Methodist churches; though each denomination also survived in some form with congregations that did not submit to the merger. My father once said, “When you try to merge three denominations, you end up with four,” and certainly that proved true here.

Although the phrase consisting of the last 75% of its name, “Church of Canada” isn’t heard too often, the vision was to create something that would form a national brand church in the same way Anglican churches are referred to in Britain as “Church of England.”

However, on the spectrum between conservative Evangelicalism and liberalism, the UCC has been progressing toward the latter. Some would argue that statement and say it’s more of a progression from orthodoxy toward universalism.  A Wikipedia article notes the church’s inter-faith stance:

“The church believes that there are many paths to God. The United Church’s path is through Jesus Christ, but the church also recognizes that Christians’ understanding of this is limited by an incomplete comprehension of God; their belief is that the Holy Spirit of God is also at work through other non-Christian faiths.”

There are however some very evangelical congregations currently under the UCC umbrella. This raises the question as to whether or not they will wish to continue in the denomination or if this leadership vote constitutes a ‘last straw.’  In 2002, the Anglican Church of Canada (ACC) diocese of New Westminster created a rite for the blessing of same sex marriages.  This resulted in a backlash both nationally and from two African countries who felt they couldn’t continue in an Anglican body that would permit that position. 

As a result, there have been numerous breakaway congregations in the ACC —  forming alternative denominations or just becoming independent — and some feel this trend could surface in the UCC over this choice of moderator. The problem in both cases is that the denomination claims title to land and buildings; groups that leave are left with nothing in terms of property or facilities. 

But others note that land and buildings are all the denomination has. Certainly attendance is flagging, and many churches meet their bottom line each year only because of bequests from parishioners who have died. (The UCC congregation where this writer did pulpit supply occasionally over the past three years was staying afloat through rentals to two ethnic churches and the income from a Montessori school and daycare.  Attendance averaged 25-30 adults with no children or teens present.)

There was a record field of 15 candidates for the UCC Moderator position and news reports did not mention the sexual orientations of other individuals the 350 delegates could have chosen.

May 18, 2011

Wednesday Link List

[B]link and you’ll miss it!

  • The actual end of the world on the 21st is officially set for 6:00 PM (one assumes Eastern Standard Time) which ought to give me time to cut the lawn.  Respected Baptist guy Albert Mohler breaks the news, though he’s not buying it personally.
  • The wife of Elevation pastor Steven Furtick, Holly Furtick did the Mother’s Day sermon — he introduces her as the best looking guest speaker they’ve had — and now you can watch part two of a three part sermon series, Mr. & Mrs. Betterhalf.
  • Philip Yancey is touring the UK on what is dubbed the “Seasons of the Soul” tour.  Check out the story at Christian Post, as well as the tour website.
  • Canada’s national newspaper, revisits the fall from Orthodoxy in the once-great United Church of Canada in this report at The National Post.
  • Here’s a breakdown on the whole Creation-Evolution debate neatly condensed, boxed and tied with a ribbon at the Parchment & Pen blog.
  • Joyce Meyer Ministries gets hit with a $20 million lawsuit from a former employee; video clips at Monday Morning Insight.
  • The birth of a song:  Shaun Groves takes us from demo recording to pre-production track, to studio track, to mixed track, with only mastering of the song All’s Grace left to happen.
  • And our new artist this week was actually linked here once before, but I keep watching the increased following  of one-man keyboard talent Zach Havens who records and performs as To Tell.  (And I’m sticking with the comparison to Owl City!)
  • One last music-related item: A link to the Gospel Coalition audio of Keith and Kristyn Getty’s presentation,Writing Corporate Worship Music.
  • While teen pregnancy rates are dropping, in some poor and minority communities, it continues to be a challenge, as outlined in this CBN News report.
  • It’s a classic local interest story from the 1930s you’d know if you lived in Sydney, Australia; the story of the man known as “Mister Eternity.”  The full story is repeated at the Meeting in the Clouds blog.
  • A short thought from Mark Batterson: Some of the world’s greatest pastors aren’t necessarily pastoring a church.
  • Truth isn’t in the middle, but in both extremes!  To mark author and theologian John Stott’s 90th birthday in April; a tribute from IVP associate publisher Andy LePeau
  • Is AOL birthing a religious section out of Huffington’s Post faith pages?  John Shore thinks so.
  • Can’t wait for next week’s links?  Trevin Wax has an almost daily list.
  • For this week’s cartoon, it seems that Matt Mewhorter, who draws the Bleat comic, with a rather different take on things Christian, thinks Pat Robertson is somewhat confused by the current controversy over Love Wins: (Here’s a bonus panel! for you to chew on!)

December 13, 2009

The Gospel of Environmentalism

“Earth is a primary, man is a derivative.”

It was one of the great lines we remembered from our visit to a local United (as in United Church of Canada) church many, many years ago; a moment somewhat overshadowed minutes later however when the children’s church worker not only “misplaced” our then two-year-old son, but claimed he had never been in the room to begin with.   After a few very panicked minutes we found him wandering around another part of the building.

Today we decided to visit to see if we would leave with a better impression all these years later.

Instead, nothing has changed.

The message of environmentalism somehow got intertwined with the advent of Christ’s coming;  it was more Unitarian than United;  our response to the Copenhagen Summit on Climate Change dominated what our response should be to Jesus.

But the one that really got me was that former Vice President Al Gore and Canadian environmental activist David Suzuki were proclaimed as prophets and placed on an equal footing with Zephaniah, whose text formed the basis of the morning’s homily.     (“I will assemble the nations” in verse 8 of chapter 3 was paralleled to the event in Copenhagen.)

Reading Heaven by Randy Alcorn has given me an enhanced perspective on how we need to care for the environment.   Evangelicals dropped that agenda years ago and are realizing that sometimes the so-called “social gospel” actually is the gospel.   We’re emphasizing texts wherein caring for the earth and its people is honoring to God; texts that had been set aside for those which favored acts of proclamation.

But the main message at Christmas — the one no church can afford to miss — is found in Paul’s words in I Tim 1:15

15-16Here’s a word you can take to heart and depend on: Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners. I’m proof—Public Sinner Number One—of someone who could never have made it apart from sheer mercy.  [The Message]

For the people who are faithful to this particular congregation, what they experienced this morning is church.   And there was one reference to the concept of incarnation.   But the major takeaway was the environment.     Earth is a primary.   Man is a derivative.

Imagine going to church at Christmas and Jesus isn’t there.

July 18, 2009

Church Asks Denomination: What Do You Actually ‘Do?’

When Mrs. W. and I got married twenty-plus years ago, we became part of a church in north Toronto which was formed when a breakaway group from the somewhat liberal United Church of Canada decided to embark on something a little more Evangelical, patterned after Coral Ridge Presbyterian in Florida.    For purposes of identification, they chose to join a very small handful of congregations in something called the “Congregational Christian Churches in Canada,” or “4Cs;” a remnant of the original denomination that had merged with three others in the forming of the United Church.    Years later, when issues such as sexual orientation threatened conservatives in the United Church, many other churches also joined the 4Cs, which was then simply a loose association of churches.

To keep the association running, the church my wife and I had history with contributed $1,500 yearly to its maintenance.

In 2006, the 4cs decided it was time to start being less of a fraternal association and more like a denomination.   Instead of churches providing a token fee, they asked churches, including the one in question, to contribute 3.25 percent of their ‘income’ to the organization.    For this church, that would have hiked the contribution from $1,500 to $7,500; and not seeing where the real ‘value for money’ was to be found, they decided to keep remitting the lesser amount.

In 2008, the denomination — still somewhat invisible to the folks in this congregation — decided to increase the ‘royalty’ payable to the denomination to 5.0 percent.   For this church, this would involve $13,500.   When they remitted $1,500; they received a registered letter (no less) demanding the difference.

“Show us what we’re getting out of this;” they asked.    What follows is sad, hilarious and pathetic all at the same time:

“The 4Cs believe that Good Shepherd [Church] is a financial (sic) sound church and should be able to afford the new fees.  When asked what should be cut in order to pay these fees, the 4Cs suggested that we cut our missions budget.   When asked what value the 4Cs provided to [the church], their response was that other 4Cs churches view the membership fee as “giving back” to God’s Kingdom.   When pressed to provide a more tangible example of how the 4Cs is contributing to the Kingdom of God, the answer was that the national pastor assists churches in trouble.   When pressed to further justify why we should cut our giving to our missionaries, who provide tangible insight into how they are contributing to God’s Kingdom, there was no reasonable explanation.”

June 21/09 congregational letter
Good Shepherd Community Church, Toronto

Yes, it’s true.   They actually suggested that this church cut their missions budget by over $13,000 to pay the denominational membership fee.   Arrrrrrrgh!

Americans reading this may not get the issue, but independent churches are somewhat of a rarity up here.   This church will take the next 6-24 months to find another body whose label it can attach to the front of the building.    Perhaps they will chose to go it alone.     The vote not to increase the budget to pay the fee was unanimous.

Groups that bring oversight and accountability to local churches can be a good thing.  They can mobilize national initiatives and missions programs that individual assemblies can’t do on their own.  They can provide arbitration to churches facing issues, and both guidelines and candidates for churches seeking new pastors and associate staff.

Or they can be a big bureaucracy that sucks revenue out of local churches.

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