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Rev. Gretta Vosper is a Toronto minister who has been expressing post-theistic and atheistic beliefs to her congregation and to a global audience for over a decade.

Essential expectations

A compromise that facilitated the creation of the United Church 90 years ago is at the crux of a debate on what ministers are supposed to believe today

By Mike Milne

The United Church of Canada has spent a lot of time and energy in the past few years addressing questions about better ways to organize itself and do the church’s business. While that work is far from complete, the next big question that could dominate the church’s agenda is starting to take shape: What should its ministers believe?

Last month’s General Council meeting in Corner Brook, N.L., considered two proposals asking the church to take a closer look at the vows made by candidates for ministry (see the full report next month). Toronto Conference helped force the issue last spring when it called on a dissident minister to revisit ordination vows she had taken more than two decades earlier.

The issue swirls largely around Rev. Gretta Vosper — the Toronto minister who has been expressing post-theistic and atheistic beliefs to her congregation and to a global audience for over a decade in popular books such as With or Without God. Vosper believes the time has come for organized religion to set aside doctrine based on supernatural deities in favour of “an abiding trust in the way of love as expressed in just and compassionate living.” Love, she writes, “needs no doctrine to validate it.”

Over the years, the media-savvy Vosper has become a lightning rod for conflicting theological positions inside and outside the United Church. In 2013, she ramped up her public profile, accepting the “atheist” label in an Observer interview and then listing herself as “minister, author, atheist” on her personal website. Last January, she generated considerable media and online buzz by criticizing then-moderator Very Rev. Gary Paterson for invoking God in a prayer written in the wake of the religiously motivated Charlie Hebdo killings in Paris. 

That may have been the last straw for church officials and some of Vosper’s colleagues in ministry. Inconvenient theology is one thing; impertinent criticism of a moderator is another. Some sort of official response was all but inevitable. 

It came last spring, not as a public rebuke but rather the enforcement of two quasi-legal concepts stemming from well-established church polity: the first stipulates that ministers are suitable for employment in United Church pulpits only if they are in “essential agreement” with church doctrine; the second came in a ruling from the church’s senior administrator linking ministers’ suitability with their effectiveness on the job. 

All would-be United Church ministers are required to answer a set of questions designed to gauge their suitability. Vosper answered this set of questions — evidently to the church’s satisfaction — before she was ordained in 1993. Now, in an unprecedented turn of events, she has been ordered to answer them again. Failure to answer them in a way that’s acceptable to a board that screens prospective ministers in Toronto Conference could lead to the conclusion that Vosper is unsuitable for ministry in the United Church and therefore ineffective as a United Church minister. The upshot could be Vosper’s dismissal from the denomination’s order of ministry. She has appealed the ruling.

The concept of “essential agreement” at the crux of this issue was a theological tool that assisted the creation of The United Church of Canada in 1925, by allowing the founding Presbyterians, Congregationalists and Methodists to agree with the essence of the new church’s doctrine but to practise it in different ways. 

“Each denomination had a different way of training and evaluating their clergy,” explains Rev. Sandra Beardsall, a professor of church history and ecumenics at St. Andrew’s College in Saskatoon. Methodists would ask explicit questions about faith and also questions about candidates’ personal behaviour. Presbyterians asked mainly about doctrine and the courts of the church. Congregationalists, on the other hand, didn’t believe individuals’ acceptance of doctrine should be a test of their suitability for ministry. “This idea of essential agreement [with the doctrine of the new United Church of Canada] was a way to say that ‘I accept these doctrines essentially, and that means I have the ability to use my own reason and judgment as to how I interpret them, to some extent,’” says Beardsall.

While deliberately vague, the idea of “essential agreement” worked. But it’s a 90-year-old concept, and the world in which the church now operates is very different from the world of 1925. Rev. Paul Currie of Old Windham United in Simcoe, Ont., hopes that two proposals considered by the General Council in August will help lead to a clarification of what “essential agreement” with church doctrine means today and move the church toward a new understanding of ministry. 

Currie authored the original proposal and brought it to the annual meeting of Hamilton Conference in May; a version of the same proposal was later picked up by Toronto Conference. It asked the General Council to undertake a theological review of the questions posed to ministers being ordained or commissioned “to ensure their continued relevance and effectiveness as we move forward in support of our ministry leaders.” Last month, a General Council commission narrowly voted to take no action on the Toronto Conference proposal but ran out of time before it could vote on the nearly identical proposal from Hamilton Conference. Under the rules set for unfinished business, it has been referred to the General Council Executive.

United Church doctrine has evolved over the years into a complex statement that was confirmed by a church-wide vote and accepted by the General Council in 2012. It includes the 1925 Basis of Union and its 20 Articles of Faith, the 1940 Statement of Faith, the 1968 New Creed and the 2006 Song of Faith. All of these statements are seen as “subordinate” to scripture.

“In other words,” says Beardsall, “these documents help to interpret scripture; they don’t replace them. So the first thing all candidates have to agree with is that the substance of the faith is contained in the holy scriptures. So that somehow I will accept Christian scriptures as my basic standard, and I am in essential agreement with these subordinate standards . . . as tools for expressing what we find in scripture.”

But what does the church actually mean when it affirms the primacy of scripture? As Beardsall points out, the United Church has never hewn to a literal interpretation of the Bible but instead sees it as a guide to the faith.

In an essay in the 2012 book The United Church of Canada: A History, theology professor Michael Bourgeois of Emmanuel College in Toronto writes that the Basis of Union, the United Church’s founding document, describes scripture as “containing the only infallible rule of faith and life.” The word “contains” is revealing, he argues. “As the container rather than the contents, Scripture must always be interpreted.”

The controversy over gay and lesbian ordination in the late 1980s was partly a controversy over the authority of scripture. A report adopted by the 1992 General Council confirmed the Bible “as foundational authority” but clearly rejected attempts to name scripture as the, or even an, authority. 

Equally problematic is how the church defines God. “We do have these statements of faith when we talk about God,” says Beardsall. But you can’t narrow down that kind of question so rigidly. “No one knows God except through the mediation of experience and scripture and all the language we try to use to come at God. . . . So it’s always going to be a question. The United Church can’t create a little box and put God in it.”

As Bourgeois points out in his 2012 essay, the United Church’s emphasis on inclusiveness means some theological perspectives “coexist reasonably well.” But others are so divergent “that it is difficult to see how they might be accommodated unless ‘inclusive’ is construed to mean ‘agreeing to disagree.’”

There’s ample evidence of disagreement already. Four years ago, an Observer survey asked readers if they believed in God. About three-quarters of them said yes. But 23 percent of lay people and 24 percent of ministers replied that it depends what you mean by “God.”

For some, the United Church’s indistinct theology is one of its greatest strengths; for others, it’s a troublesome weakness. It allowed the church to build a big tent that became a spiritual home for millions of diverse Canadians. But the absence of hard-and-fast theological underpinnings can also give rise to dissidents like Vosper — and be a source of frustration for members looking for a solid foundation on which to build their spiritual lives. In fact, it was a congregation’s pursuit of clarity that led in part to Vosper’s anticipated re-interview and the theological shockwaves it could touch off. The board of Metropolitan United — whose soaring Gothic building in downtown Toronto is often called the “cathedral of Canadian Methodism” — formally asked Toronto Conference last April for “clarification of the shared values and beliefs” of the United Church, while questioning Vosper’s well-
publicized positions. 

Vera Taylor, who chairs the board and wrote the letter, says that “it was triggered by the more extreme views [Vosper] was expressing,” but she insists it was not intended as a bid to force Vosper out of ministry. “We really wanted our church . . . to be clear about what our framework is, so we can build on the new tomorrow based on a clear reference.” Among other things, says Taylor, it would be helpful for Metropolitan to be able to tell its new members what the church actually believes.

By mid-summer, Vosper had hired a lawyer to help her fight Toronto Conference’s pending challenge to her ministry. She was leading Sunday services as usual and credited her congregation — during a service marking the United Church’s 90th anniversary — for having the courage and vision to bring the church into “a conversation that will be as powerful and dramatic, I think, as the conversations that brought it into union.”

While Vosper evidently enjoys the support and affection of her congregation, few, if any, fellow ministers have come forth to declare themselves as atheist allies. But there appears to be considerable support among clergy for the idea that the United Church can tolerate a minister like her in its midst.

 “We need people to push us to the edges. We need not put them out,” says Rev. Deborah Murray, minister at Sturgeon Creek United in Winnipeg. “Jesus never asked people, ‘What do you believe?’ He did say, ‘Follow me.’ . . . So, atheist, agnostic, believer — if we are going to start drawing the line on that end, what is the line on the other end?” 

 “The church needs to make up its own mind,” suggests Paul Currie, “before it begins to challenge the credibility, the functionality, the suitability and the effectiveness of a minister who . . . from all outside appearances looks to have been doing a very fine job at West Hill for a number of years.”

That kind of approach would be in character for a big-tent church, says Beardsall. “We’re not a doctrinally focused church but an action-oriented church. We like to show our faith by what we are doing rather than fighting over language. But every tent has an end somewhere. So how do you define that edge in a church like ours?”  

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