The United Church of Canada (UCC) is the latest – but far from the only – denomination to confront how to handle an outspoken pastor who freely claims to be an atheist.
In a Toronto Star story from September 8, UCC minister Gretta Vosper of Scarborough, Ontario is reported to be at risk of defrocking by the Canadian church:
“In our opinion, she is not suitable to continue in ordained ministry because she does not believe in God, Jesus Christ or the Holy Spirit,” the church’s Toronto Conference Review Committee concluded in a 39-page report released Wednesday.
“We have concluded that if Gretta Vosper were before us today, seeking to be ordained,” said the report, the committee “would not recommend her.”
According to the Star, the 23-person committee voted 19 to 4 in favor of a motion that found Vosper “unsuitable to continue serving.”
Several European churches have already faced a similar predicament; the Protestant Church of the Netherlands decided in late 2009 to drop a clergy discipline case against Atheist minister Klaas Hendrikse. In 2011, the BBC reported that 1 in 6 clergy in the Dutch denomination identified as Atheist or Agnostic.
An organization formed in 2011 called The Clergy Project seeks to assist non-believing clergy in departing from vocational ministry, a transition that some claim is difficult. The group describes its mission as “to provide support, community, and hope to current and former religious professionals who no longer believe in the supernatural.”
The 57-year-old Vosper says that she does not believe in an interventionist, supernatural God. Her views are not new, in 2008 she authored With or Without God: Why the Way We Live Is More Important Than What We Believe. Later she published Amen: What Prayer Can Mean in a World Beyond Belief. However, it was not until three years ago that Vosper chose to identify herself as an atheist.
“My sadness is for the many clergy and members and individuals currently studying for leadership in the UCC who are now also being told they need to keep quiet about their true beliefs or risk censure,” Vosper told the Star in an email.
According to the Toronto newspaper, Vosper has been an outspoken voice in a growing movement within the UCC toward downplaying Jesus and the Bible, and adopting a metaphorical interpretation of religious symbols and a greater emphasis on humanist, environmental and social justice causes.
The UCC is a merger of Presbyterian, Methodist and Congregationalist churches that formed in 1925 as a Mainline Reformed denomination. The denomination’s most recently published statistics, from 2008, report 2 million affiliates and 525,673 regular worshipers. Other data including church closures suggests that the denomination has further declined since.
Update [9/29/2016]: The Washington Post reports that a special committee of the Toronto Conference of the United Church requested that a formal hearing be convened by the General Council of the United Church to determine Vosper’s fate as a minister. The denomination reported having 436,292 members at the end of 2014, less than half the 1,063,951 it had at its peak in 1964.
Update [10/3/2016]: The Globe and Mail has an opinion column this week about the collapse of liberal protestant Christianity in Canada. Columnist Margaret Wente notes that the average age of United Church members is now 65.
Update [2/1/2019]: The New York Times reports that last November the local United church jurisdiction settled with Vosper and agreed she could continue to minister. The terms of the settlement are confidential.