by Richard T. Ritenbaugh
Most people, if asked what the first qualification of a Christian minister should be, would likely answer that he should believe in God. It only stands to reason that a servant of God should believe in Him as the Supreme Being. Following closely after would be that he believes the Bible is God’s authoritative Word, containing His instructions for how we are to live. A minister needs to have a Sacred Text to inform and guide his teaching.
Not everyone among the churches of this world would agree with such commonsense answers. In early November 2018, the United Church of Canada—by their own admission, one of the most theologically liberal churches in the world—decided that one of its ministers, Gretta Vosper, could maintain her credentials and keep her job at West Hill United Church (UCC) in Toronto despite being an avowed atheist.
Vosper “came out” as an atheist in 2001, saying that she did not “believe in a supernatural, interventionist, divine being.” In its glacially slow response, the UCC took nearly 17 years to decide her standing with the church. The denomination tolerated her atheism without censure until 2015, when two things occurred:
1. The UCC changed its policy to require its clergy to affirm the church’s creed, which Vosper decried as “an archaic, doctrinal statement that describes God in a way that is incomprehensible and no longer has meaning for me or many within the United Church.”
2. Following the 2015 Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris, perpetrated by radical Islamists, Vosper wrote an open letter to the church’s spiritual leader, declaring that belief in God can motivate bad things. There is no record of her considering that not believing in God can also motivate evil.
From that point on, Vosper was under disciplinary review, though still allowed to maintain her pulpit at West Hill. In September 2016, though found “unsuitable for ministry” by a Ministry Personnel Review Panel, she continued to retain her position. The church conference requested that she be stripped of her credentials and removed from ministry, and a “heresy trial” was scheduled for late November 2018 to make a final judgment about her fitness for continuing as a minister of the UCC.
In the meantime, however, the UCC’s top brass changed. In July 2018, the Right Reverend Richard Bott was elected to lead the denomination. During a confidential meeting with the denomination, Vosper and the UCC arrived at an undisclosed settlement, the upshot of which was that she could remain a minister and keep her job at West Hill. In a public statement, Bott said that he is happy with the resolution, while ironically and contradictorily referring to the church’s core values of faith in God and inclusiveness.
Certainly, the UCC is an ultra-liberal denomination, but what has sustained Vosper in her pulpit has been the leadership and core membership of West Hill United Church. The chairman of its board, Randy Bowes, claims that Vosper represents what the church is all about, saying, “West Hill’s non-exclusive language provides a church experience that draws participants across a wide spectrum of belief and unbelief.”
Perhaps Vosper’s Twitter description—“Irritating the church into the 21st century”—best describes what she represents. When questioned about it, she replied, “[I’m] doing a pretty good job, don’t you think?” She took this path, she says, because the UCC was not moving fast enough on its evolutionary, progressive path toward putting God and His Word in its rearview mirror.
West Hill’s congregants love her and would have likely fought or left the denomination if her credentials had been revoked. They knew even before 2001 that she did not believe the Bible was “the authoritative word of God for all time,” a conviction she had held long before her ordination—and is evidently a belief that is common among United Church of Canada clergy. (She credits the UCC seminary she attended for teaching and grounding her in her liberal, atheistic views.) West Hill’s congregants were the ones she told first when she decided to declare her atheism, and while some left the church, enough stayed, applauding her courage and forthrightness.
So, what do they do at West Hill United Church services? According to the Toronto Star, “Prayer turned into community sharing time. Hymns were rewritten. Talk of God and Jesus was replaced with talk of love, compassion and beauty.” God and His Word have been all but removed—Vosper will sometimes refer to a biblical example in a sermon—replaced by progressive ideology: tolerance, inclusiveness, openness to everything LGBTQ, and community idealism. In fact, she says that, to her, the long-term goal of the church is to create healthy, engaged communities.
In a CBC News interview, Vosper declared her humanistic views:
God as [the] source of goodness and as the way that goodness comes into the world and as the promise that everything is going to be good whether in this lifetime or in the afterlife, that God doesn’t exist anymore. We have to recognize that we are the only way goodness is going to get into this world. And we define what’s good, . . . so we are the creators of good.
The mainline, so-called Christian churches appear to be heading in the same direction—toward hollow, humanistic, communitarian, social organizations, carrying on as “churches” but really preaching liberal social and political ideology to biblically ignorant people. The apostle Paul describes such people in Romans 3:18, quoting Psalm 36:1, “There is no fear of God before their eyes.” Having sown the wind of denying God, they—and we—had better prepare to reap the whirlwind.