Gretta Vosper, Belief in “God”, and the Nature of Ordination

Over the last few weeks, I’ve seen a number of articles about Gretta Vosper, the United Church of Canada minister who is also a self-described atheist. Ms. Vosper claims that she doesn’t “believe in the god called God”, that “using the word gets in the way of sharing what [she] want[s] to share”, and that the idea of a supernatural, interventionist deity is outdated.

The United Church of Canada, not surprisingly, is pondering whether or not she can continue as an ordained minister, even though the lay leadership of her congregation do not report any complaints about Vosper’s service to the church.  Vosper (to a certain extent, rightly) claims  Christianity is built around a set of mythologies which determine belief in a Jesus who may or may not have been a real person, and the church has subsequently become more interested in correctness of belief rather than manner of life.

My knee-jerk reaction is to side with the United Church of Canada.  Vosper holds her position of authority, and earns her salary, by virtue of her employment as an ordained minister of an institution whose mission is to promote trinitarian Christianity.  I find it difficult to endorse the cause of an employee who uses her position to work against the stated aims of the organization from which she draws a paycheck. I’ve personally told ministry students omitting the Lord’s Prayer from Christian worship was a bad idea–Vosper lost two-thirds of a congregation over her decision to do so.

Few organizations outside institutional Christianity would continue the employment of a person who worked against the terms agreed when the work relationship began.  And to a certain extent, it makes sense to view the affirmations one makes at ordination as a significant part of the conditions of employment which must be met over the course of the professional relationship.

However much the congregation admires or even loves Ms. Vosper, she is ordained by the United Church of Canada–she has undertaken to uphold a certain set of teachings and principles, to publicly promote the beliefs and values of the church.  If she fails to contribute to the good order of that church, her continued employment as an ordained minister should come under scrutiny.  Those in authority over her in the denomination’s structures have undertaken such a process of scrutiny.

Most organizations, upon discovering an employee was using his or her professional position to promote views in conflict with the organization’s stated mission, would conduct a much more cursory investigation, and probably summarily dismiss the person.  In many cases, the employee could be put on some kind of administrative leave (paid or unpaid) for the duration of the investigation, and not allowed to make public representations concerning his or her affiliation with the institution while the matter is under scrutiny.  (This was true of the Heather Cook matter in the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland.) In this, Ms. Vosper is fortunate to have not been inhibited in her ministry in any way while the denomination examines her fitness for ministry. She continues to draw a salary (and perhaps live in tied housing), and has a forum for the promotion of her views.

One thing I used to tell students preparing for public ministry was my ecclesiological focus for their training was because their spirituality was now taking a back seat to what the Church (of England, in their case) taught and believed.  Becoming a public minister (ordained, or in some cases, as {lay} Readers) meant that a candidate would be making promises to uphold the teaching of the church.  Ordination or licensing involves affirmations of the public order of the church–its teaching, forms of worship, the polity by which it governs itself. A person can only discern a vocation to ordained (or public lay) ministry within the context of a denomination.  Fitness for ministry is initially ascertained, training standards and requirements set and monitored, and assessment of completion of any requirements is performed–by that denomination.  There may be some interchangeability and reciprocity, but public ministry occurs within a specific ecclesial structure.

That is not a bad thing. It keeps ministers accountable to something beyond their own views, it connects congregants to a wider tradition than the one preferred and presented by the minister(s) employed to serve their particular local churches. Public ministry is held to publicly-accessible standards, and any Christian should be able to review what those standards are, and inquire whether or not the minister of the congregation where s/he worships meets those standards. The good news is, most public ministers in most denominations really do meet, and often exceed, those standards.  Almost all know the promises, vows, affirmations, or declarations (whatever the particular denomination calls them) made at ordination are aspirational to a superhuman degree. Many are poorly paid, and badly under-appreciated by congregants and the authority structures.  Most try to sustain a spiritual life that helps them cope with the challenges and changes faced by almost all churches in a changing society.  A great number meet together regularly, to create spaces in which they can discuss doubts and concerns, as well as joys, which they experience.  Although I am not ordained and currently do not exercise a public ministry, I have no illusion about how hard those who are and do work, and how difficult the life of a public minister often is.

I don’t know Gretta Vosper’s backstory.  Perhaps over two decades ago, when she offered her life to God and the United Church of Canada, she was a believing Trinitarian Christian.  Perhaps over time, she developed doubts about God and the Bible.  Maybe she felt unable to speak about these questions with peers in ministry, or a spiritual companion. I doubt she stood up one Sunday morning and without warning delivered a message from the pulpit indicating the Bible was a mythology, nothing mattered other than one’s behavior, and she did not believe in God. I wonder if her congregants noticed a subtle shift, and spoke to her about it before contacting denominational authorities to investigate.

But something happened, and Gretta Vosper is under scrutiny for publicly announcing (in what forum, it is not clear) she doesn’t believe in the god the word “God” indicates. I hope it started with gentle, compassionate inquiry from concerned people acting with appropriate discretion.  However it began, it has now escalated to a very public, very adversarial situation.

It did not have to be this way. One would imagine the possibility over several decades of public ministry, and the daily study and learning involved in such a vocation, a pastor’s ideas of God and the Bible might expand, sometimes quite a bit.  One might hope for the minister’s growth over the course of many years, which would occasion rejection of things she believed earlier on in her Christian adventure. Perhaps Ms. Vosper’s spiritual journey is less about a rejection of God per se, and more a rejection of a narrow definition of God, calling for an expansion of the boundaries humans (including churches) draw around something that cannot possibly be contained.

Soon after commencing study to prepare for public ministry, a lot of candidates “lose their faith” when they come in contact with scholarly work which provides evidence against everything they previously believed about the Bible–it was not written all at once, it has very little “historical fact”, it was not in any way “dictated” by God.  People who begin to prepare for public ministry, especially at a young age and who have little experience of life, may have little understanding of the vicissitudes of a life of faith over a long lifetime. Some do not understand that “believing” Christians may behave in ways inconsistent with what they profess, and people of other traditions or none can behave in ways that are more reflective of a life transformed by Christ.

And all of that is hard for humans, because we like either/or, black/white ways of categorizing stuff.

I think Ms. Vosper is probably right–behavior is more important than belief. But I also think something is missed when we make that a dichotomous choice, rather than take the time to understand and appreciate the ways in which belief forms behavior, and behavior reinforces belief. She is also not far from the mark when she claims Christianity is built around the mythologies of its scriptures–but there is a failure in thinking “mythology” is just made-up stuff that doesn’t contain deeper truth (even if it isn’t “factual”).

It’s unfortunate we haven’t heard more about the conversations that should have–and even may have–happened earlier, before all of this became so public and acrimonious. Careful, considered explorations on Ms. Vosper’s shifting beliefs might have led to very different conclusions.  She may not have had to term herself as an “atheist”; she may just havve a larger conception of God than her church had previously acknowledged.  And the church might benefit from a broader conception of God. Perhaps the false dichotomy between belief and behavior might have been avoided, and a deeper appreciation of the interplay between them articulated–which again would be of huge benefit to the church.  And understanding  the Bible need not be “factual” to be of great spiritual truth would also be helpful in situating Christian faith in a complex and changing world.

Unfortunately, it may be too late for any positive gains to come from the conflict between Gretta Vosper and the United Church of Canada.  It’s always a tragedy when either side demands to be completely right, and the party “in the wrong” is demonized or silenced.

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