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Polar opposites, common ground

There's a growing appetite for discussions about faith — including a lack of it

By David Wilson

Late last summer, I found myself flanked by two formidably intelligent women, both of them United Church ministers. Rev. Connie denBok and Rev. Gretta Vosper pastor to churches at opposite ends of Toronto, and do so from equally divergent theological viewpoints.

DenBok, minister of Alderwood United in Toronto’s west end, has been a longtime contributor to this magazine. I have always admired her wisdom and her ability to turn a phrase. We’ve become friends, and I’m loathe to label her. But let’s say for now that she leans to a conventional view of Christianity.

I had never met Vosper before that day in late summer, but I had certainly heard about her. A self-described “minister, author, atheist,” she has courted controversy for years with her view that churches don’t need God in order to be places of love and wisdom. A 2011 story on Vosper and her congregation in Toronto’s east end provoked more response than anything we’ve published in years. Many readers were incensed that we even gave her the time of day. But many others — among them a 92-year-old retired minister from Vancouver — said they were grateful for the conversations that Vosper and a handful of other like-minded ministers had started.

Our 2011 reader survey showed that an overwhelming majority of United Church members and ministers embrace conventional versions of United Church theology. But about 10 percent of respondents said they didn’t. My sense is that number isn’t getting any smaller. Overall, there appears to be a growing appetite for discussions about what faith — including a lack of it — means in the United Church today.

This can be disconcerting, especially when the participants are ministers who draw a salary from the church but disavow what the church stands for. The question is how to respond. Pray they go away? I don’t think those prayers will be answered. Force them to
go away? Horrendous optics. The only way to respond is to talk it through, respectfully.

That’s what denBok and Vosper did when they met each other for the first time last summer to debate a question that gets asked more and more these days: Can United Church ministers who no longer accept basic church theology still be considered United Church ministers?

Both women seemed a little apprehensive at first. I know I was. I think we all privately feared the discussion would get out of hand, so profound were the differences out of the starting gate. As you’ll see in the conversation that appears on page 21 this month, those differences got a good airing. But you’ll also see that it was done with intelligence, patience and goodwill. The conversation lasted well beyond the allotted time, right up to the moment we parted ways. For two ministers who are so far apart theologically, denBok and Vosper agreed on a surprising number of points.

The most important point they agreed on was one they didn’t even discuss. Simply by being there and conducting themselves as they did, they showed that difficult discussions needn’t be adversarial. There needn’t be winners or losers. Agreeing to disagree — it’s not a new idea, but sometimes it’s a novel one.

* I’m pleased to report that for the second year in a row, one of our short online documentaries was a finalist in the Canadian Online Publishing Awards. Cold Comfort tells the story of one night at the Out of the Cold project at First United in Waterloo, Ont. Congratulations to producer Kevin Spurgaitis, writer Chelsea Temple Jones and videographer Jillian Kitchener. 

Author's photo
David Wilson is the editor-publisher of The Observer.
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