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Gretta Vosper vs. The United Church of Canada

A Reflection
Volume 30, Issue 10,11 & 12, December 21, 2016

Deborah Redman, Sidney

Credit: Walrus Magazine

     This summer has been a difficult summer for the Progressive Spirituality/Christian movement in Canada. The Canadian Centre for Progressive Christianity (CCPC) has disbanded after being a leader of progressive thought, principles and resources in Canada, since 2004.
     And recently the initiator and often times, leader of the CCPC, the Rev. Gretta Vosper, minister in the United Church of Canada, has undergone a process of inquisition (yes, let’s call a spade a spade!) by her denomination to determine whether she is suitable to be a minister within the United Church of Canada based on whether she can essentially agree with the questions posed to her at the time of her ordination in 1993. Basically, she needed to affirm her belief in God, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit.
      She does not believe in the traditional theistic understanding of the Trinity, so she calls herself an atheist, and therefore according to the inquisition …. oops, interview, committee, she is not suitable to continue as an ordained minister in the United Church of Canada (UCC). She also “does not recognize the primacy of scripture, she will not conduct the sacraments and she is no longer in essential agreement with the doctrine of the United Church of Canada”.
     So she will head to a Formal Hearing by the national General Council court of the UCC, which will determine whether that constitutes reason to put her on the Discontinued Service List, which is UCC-speak for defrocking her.
     The United Church is in total disarray and divided on this matter. The leader of the United Church (called Moderator) is calling on her flock to basically “Keep Calm and Pray On”, while clergy and lay leaders wonder if they can continue to be members in good standing in a denomination that prefers to discipline than to dialogue.
     The United Church of Canada has often touted itself as being a safe place where people can have honest, and non-judgmental conversations about what one believes, however in my personal experience that has never been quite true.
     I recall meeting Gretta Vosper many years ago when she was in Victoria speaking about her first book, With or Without God, in which she argues that it is more important what you do than what you believe. I was in a packed audience of almost entirely lay people where she spoke. The only clergy types in attendance were either retired or working in ministries, other than congregational ministry. When I commented on that observation to Gretta, her response was telling. She said, “that’s been pretty typical all across Canada”. And even though many congregations (including mine) and church members read her book, clergy were very reluctant to refer the book, offer book studies, never mind actually read the book themselves. The few clergy in Victoria area who resonated with her progressive thought formed a support and ideas group and met essentially in secret. (There was one member who got extremely rattled when it was perceived that s/he was “outed” as a Vosper groupie.)
     Despite the fact that I was ridiculed a couple of times by colleagues, I continued to study, question, probe and develop my own belief system and faith. It's not an overstatement to say that even though my worldview was gradually evolving, it was without question Gretta’s book, With or Without God, and her courage to speak and write about what really mattered in one’s spiritual development, that triggered a transformation of sorts in my own theology, my ministry, and even in my relationships.
     Whether Christian denominations like it or not, worldviews are changing. There are more people who would see themselves as “Spiritual But Not Religious” (SBNR), than those who would describe themselves as “Christian”, however the institutional churches are becoming more insular, fearful, bureaucratic, defensive, and as we are seeing now, more doctrinal in their character.
     The United Church of Canada has missed out on a great opportunity to have a meaningful conversation with those who would describe themselves as SBNR, those in the wider community, and even those of different faiths and of no faith.
     The question is not about whether one believes in God; it’s about one’s experience of the sacredness of the moment. It’s not whether one believes that Jesus was the son of God, or not; it’s about living with the same courage and passion for justice as Jesus lived. It’s not about whether one performs the scripted sacraments or rites of the church; it’s about gathering as community to celebrate and mark all that gives meaning to the community.
     Having a progressive spirituality/religion is not about a set of beliefs to either believe or not; it’s a framework around which one discovers meaning out of our own experiences. It's all about experience, not whether one can respond to questions of correct belief.
     People will continue to ask questions and seek a spirituality that addresses their longing for what gives them meaning in this crazy world. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, the institutional churches have lost their privilege and credibility for being instrumental in leading these new conversations.
Deborah was a minister in the United Church for 24 years but is now happy to be doing free-lance ministry among the “Spiritual But Not Religious” and the religious “Nones”. She works as a Life Events celebrant.