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Vosper’s comment sparks survey of clergy beliefs

By Paul Knowles

When Rev. Gretta Vosper, an atheist minister in Toronto, sat down for an interview with CBC’s The National on Good Friday earlier this year, she asserted that as many as half of the United Church’s clergy do not believe in a supernatural, theistic God. In response, Rev. Richard Bott, of Dunbar Heights United in Vancouver, designed a survey to find out if she’s right.

At first glance, the results seem definitive. Of the 1,353 ministry personnel who responded to the online survey, “almost 95 percent affirmed a belief in God, with a large number (almost 80 percent) affirming a belief in a supernatural, theistic God.”

So — case closed?

Gretta Vosper, minister of West Hill United in Toronto. Photo by Scott Kearns
Gretta Vosper, minister of West Hill United in Toronto. Photo by Scott Kearns

Not at all, says Toronto researcher Jane Armstrong, Moderator Rt. Rev. Jordan Cantwell and Bott himself. But all three believe the survey has fostered important discussion.

There are issues. For instance, Bott did not use a random sample. Therefore, Armstrong says, the results cannot be generalized beyond the actual respondents. But, she adds, “It does provide some valuable insights into the views of ministry personnel,” especially because “55 percent of active personnel responded. . . . I was impressed with the response rate.” Armstrong also points to “the whole question of validity,” whether the questions asked accurately reflect the concepts Bott was trying to investigate.

Bott understands he “can’t speculate about the ministers who didn’t respond,” but sees the survey “as a challenge to further study our individual and communal beliefs, and as an invitation to ministers to talk even more about those beliefs.” While a vast majority did not agree with Vosper’s statement, the responses about belief in and experience of God varied widely, something Bott finds “exciting.”

Cantwell, who did not respond to the survey, says it “has helped to open up the conversation our church is having about what we believe and how we try to put words and ideas to the ultimately inexpressible experience of Holy Presence.”

She adds, “I hope that the buzz created by this survey will encourage folks throughout the church to continue these conversations.”

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