You can tell it's Canada when a minister comes out as atheist, and mainstream media simply nod and report it. In the United States, we'd be reading and hearing ferocious barrages of rhetoric.
Which is not to say that the Canadian coverage of issues surrounding the Rev. Gretta Vosper has been fair or complete.
The basic facts, according to media accounts: Vosper pastors a Toronto congregation in the United Church of Canada. She joined her current church in 1997, then began teaching atheist beliefs around 2001. Her congregation backed her until 2008, when she stopped reciting the Lord's Prayer. Then 100 of the 150 members left.
This year, Vosper objected to a prayer written by the denomination's spiritual leader (the articles don’t name him/her) in regard to the massacre at Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris. Vosper said the prayer should have added that "belief in God could trigger enthusiasm," according to the Canadian Press wire service.
That got the attention of the Rev. David Allen, head of the denomination's Toronto Conference, who asked headquarters about determining Vosper's "fitness to be a minister." Now, the matter appears headed to a church court this fall.
Much of the coverage cites Canadian Press, which has also produced the longest account and done the most multisourcing thus far. For one, its 600-word piece quotes Vosper extensively:
"I don't believe in...the god called God," Vosper said. "Using the word gets in the way of sharing what I want to share."
Vosper, 57, who was ordained in 1993 and joined her east-end church in 1997, said the idea of an interventionist, supernatural being on which so much church doctrine is based belongs to an outdated world view.
What's important, she says, is that her views hearken to Christianity's beginnings, before the focus shifted from how one lived to doctrinal belief in God, Jesus and the Bible.
"Is the Bible really the word of God? Was Jesus a person?" she said.
"It's mythology. We build a faith tradition upon it which shifted to find belief more important than how we lived."
Most other media were content with lifting the first two sentences.
Canadian Press also checks in with Allen and Nora Sanders, general secretary of the United Church. One aim was to learn the review process for cases like Vosper's; but we don’t get a clear answer, past the need to affirm a "belief in 'God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.' "
The article also says that an "ecclesiastical court" is set to hear Vosper's appeal in the fall. So, will it be a trial, analogous to civil courts? Will there be a judge and attorneys? Will the result be decided by something like a board or a vote among conference executives? And are there any possible outcomes somewhere between defrockment and exoneration?
Canadian Press does well by quoting Randy Bowles, board chairman at Vosper's church. He supportively says the members want to "explore new ways of expressing their faith and values." So far, so good. But he also says he's had no complaints about her teachings. At that point a good question would have been, "But haven't two-thirds of the members walked out?" The Canadian Post apparently doesn't ask that. Nor does it quote any of those who left.
Despite those drawbacks, the article is much better than one by the CBC News Network. The report, an advance on the denominational conference in Corner Book, Newfoundland, summarizes The Story Till Now but doesn't add much.
For one, the article acknowledges that Vosper's case wouldn't be on the program for the 600 attending the weeklong conference, which opened yesterday. Says Gary Paterson, United Church moderator, "I don't expect that it will have any formal business time here but I expect there will be many conversations." Pretty incisive, eh?
Even better (or worse), general secretary Sanders declines to give an opinion on Vosper; then she boldly says that individual members have their own opinions and "we are a church that feels free to discuss many things."
All told, the "report" comes close to sounding like an old Seinfeld episode -- a show about nothing.
Surprisingly, the U.S.-based Religion News Service offers more detail than CBC. Unfortunately, most of the 350 words could have been rewritten from the Canadian Press article. Only toward the end does RNS add new material.
"This is the first time an ordained minister has been asked to confirm her vows," says the editor of a United Church newspaper. That could be taken two ways -- either that the situation is unprecedented, or that the denomination is singling out Vosper unfairly. Which is it?
RNS also says the denomination is "known for its liberal leanings and social justice activism," but doesn't go anywhere with that. Will that make it harder to take a stand against Vosper? Another good question for that editor.
One plus: Both RNS and the Toronto Star note the 2008 walkout at Vosper's church coincided with publication of Vosper's book With or Without God. Even the Canadian Press doesn't make that obvious connection.
The Star article, a Sunday visit to Vosper's church, is decent reading if you can bear with its blog-like remarks. It dances along the line between reporting and commentary with sentences like "It can seem a bit woolly to outsiders, a bit New Age-y." But at least it teases out some differences between Vosper's message and the gospel message, as in:
Vosper herself is a bit heterodox on the question of Christ. Asked if she believes that Jesus was the son of God, she said, "I don’t think Jesus was." That is, she doesn’t think He existed at all.
These kinds of provocations – which Vosper invariably delivers with smiling good cheer – have rankled many in the United Church of Canada, famed for its liberality.
It's possible that coverage has been low key because the pot hasn’t come to a boil yet. Another possible reason is that interest in religion is falling even faster in Canada than in the U.S. According to the Pew Forum, church attendance in Canada is lower, and the "Nones" -- those who give no religious preference -- make up a bigger piece of the population.
Even so, this story has several elements of news value. There's the paradox of an atheist fighting to keep her Christian credentials. There's a major religious body trying to keep its basic doctrines intact. And there's the heritage of a nation that says in its anthem, "God keep our land glorious and free," as the Pew report notes.
Denominational officer David Allenposes a pithy question to the Canadian Press: "What we don't want is to limit the scope of beliefs within the church, and yet what was being questioned here was: Has she gone too far?" Most of the coverage thus far has the opposite problem; it hasn't gone far enough.