Atheist Pastor

September 12, 2016

Canadian Church Moves to Defrock Atheist Pastor

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.

6 Responses to Canadian Church Moves to Defrock Atheist Pastor

  1. TCap says:

    She may be a wonderful person, kinder and more committed to justice than me or anyone at my church. But she lacks the most essential qualification for her job. The church has no choice but to remove her. It is ultimately a question of survival as a Christian institution. I would expect her to understand that and graciously resign to allow a Christian to replace her. Fighting to remain causes me to question her ultimate objectives.

  2. Joan Watson says:

    The statement that she is part of a movement to downplay the Bible and Jesus made me think of something M. Craig Barnes said in his book “Body & Soul”: Once you accept the virgin birth you lose control. Any attempts to make Christianity more rational–which is what many are trying to do–is about retaining control of the situation.

  3. Nutstuyu says:

    Funny that this is suddenly a bridge too far for the UCC when they certainly have no problem with people openly defying Jesus’ own words on marriage.

  4. Namyriah says:

    Liberal denominations have lots of clergy who are atheist or agnostic. I worked for the United Methodist Board of Discipleship years ago, and I learned right away that possessing an MDiv from a UM seminary made the person LESS faithful, not more. Most of them had ceased to believe in God (at best, they were Deists) and regarded the Bible and Christian doctrine with the same contempt as an atheist would. But, having gotten a bachelor’s degree, then an MDiv, they really weren’t suited to any job except (obviously) pastoring a local church, a job they detest, because they find that the laity in the churches are less liberal than themselves. It’s a bizarre situation in the mainlines, that the typical laymen in the pew may not have much faith, but he likely has more than his pastor. If the mainlines defrocked every atheist pastor, I imagine at least two thirds would be gone. But they hang on, not believing in God or salvation or the human soul, so all that keeps them going is trying to convert the remaining laity to political activism.

  5. Bill E. Manon says:

    A church once interviewed a prospective pastor. When he was asked about his views of hell, he said that he didn’t believe in it. The elders replied, “Sir, if your doctrine is true then we don’t need you, and if it’s false then we don’t want you. So either way we can do without you.”

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