Oooo, an atheist pastor: Washington Post offers wide-eyed yet manipulative look at Canadian conflict

When I last looked at the Rev. Gretta Vosper, the famously atheistic pastor in Toronto, I praised Canadian media for their measured coverage. "In the United States," I wrote, "we'd be reading and hearing ferocious barrages of rhetoric."

Well, I take it back. Now that a national committee of the United Church of Canada has recommended Vosper's ouster, the report from at least one American publication -- the Washington Post -- isn’t quite that fierce. Just shallow and manipulative. And inferior to the writeup in a Canadian newspaper.

Let's start with the good first. The National Post, that Canadian paper, starts with a straight account of the facts:

A United Church of Canada minister who is a self-professed atheist and has been the subject of an unprecedented probe into her theological beliefs is one step closer to being removed from the pulpit.
Sub-executive members of the church’s Toronto Conference announced Thursday they have asked the church’s general council, the most senior governance body, to hold a formal hearing to decide whether Rev. Gretta Vosper, who does not believe in God or the Bible, should be placed on the disciplinary "Discontinued Service List."
"Some will be disappointed and angry that this action has been taken, believing that the United Church may be turning its back on a history of openness and inclusivity," it said in a statement.
"Others have been frustrated that the United Church has allowed someone to be a minister in a Christian church while disavowing the major aspects of the Christian faith. There is no unanimity in the church about what to do."

This is what Terry Mattingly likes to call the "American model" -- fair, straight, honest. Sad that we had to look outside America to find it.

The National Post continues to say that the conference committee found Vosper "not suitable" as a UCC minister for deserting her beliefs. The 700-word article also allows space for some back-and-forth:

According to the report, Vosper said in an interview that she stopped using the word "God" in her ministry because it was a barrier to participation in the church. Even if she were given incontrovertible proof that a god does exist, the disparity, tragedy, illness and anguish in the world would prevent her from worshipping it.
In that same interview, Vosper said she never calls herself a Christian; prefers to hold Sunday "gatherings," instead of worship; and uses the term "community sharing" in place of prayer at her church.
"We have concluded that if Gretta Vosper were before us today, seeking to be ordained, the Toronto Conference interview committee would not recommend her," the report said.

Like many media, the National Post relies too much on written materials for this article. I see only one interview quote -- from Vosper's lawyer -- and none from the church committee. But the fairness of the story still puts it ahead of the Washington Post version.

This is how the Post story begins:

OTTAWA — The Rev. Gretta Vosper is a dynamic, activist minister with a loyal following at her Protestant congregation in suburban Toronto. She is also an outspoken atheist.
"We don’t talk about God," Vosper said in an interview, describing services at her West Hill United Church, adding that it’s time the church gave up on "the idolatry of a theistic god."
Vosper’s decision to reject God, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit and to turn her church into a haven for nonbelievers "looking for a community that will help them create meaningful lives without God" has become too much even for the liberal-minded United Church of Canada.

Look at the manipulative, sympathetic adjectives in the first sentence -- "dynamic" and "activist" -- neither of them quantifiable. So intent is the writer on making you approve of Vosper, he doesn't ask her to clarify the redundant phrase "theistic god." What other kind of god is there?

This on top of the naïve, shallow amazement at Vosper's public atheism, as if it hasn't already been covered.  My GR colleague Bobby Ross Jr. reviewed a story on Vosper in The Guardian last April. And my GR review of three articles on her case came out in August 2015. Doesn't the Post have access to Nexis, or at least Google?

The funny thing is that, after that lede, much of the rest of the story is fairly workmanlike. It even has live interviews with Vosper and a Canadian church historian.  But it gets a little too rote in two paragraphs on her journey from theism:

Ordained in 1993, the 58-year-oldVosper says she began questioning God’s existence 15 years ago and openly came out as an atheist in 2013.
Vosper said that the United Church has a tradition of "pushing the envelope" and pulling down barriers — in accepting the ordination of women, embracing the LGBT community and performing same-sex marriage. She said her views about religion have evolved. After initially rejecting the idea of a supernatural god and the idea of god as "the father," she moved eventually to rejecting God completely. Instead, she preaches values, including justice, compassion and love.

An obvious reporter-type question: "So you began questioning God's existence around 2001? Did you talk with any counselors or theologians or denominational leaders to resolve your doubts? How come it's built up to this point?"

Same thing when the Post quotes some of her opponents (though only via social media posts).  They ask why she's still in the UCC if she denies its doctrine, or even basic Christian beliefs. Good questions -- which the Post apparently didn’t ask Vosper, even though it interviewed her.

How have Vosper's congregants been taking all this? The Post says they’ve been "supportive," but it doesn't quote any of them; I guess it just took her word for it. Attendance might be one gauge of support: The National Post story says typical Sunday attendance is 120. If so, the church has rebounded from its low point of 50 in 2008, as the Canadian Press reported last August. Neither of these articles notes that.

The Washington Post teases out one interesting question for the whole UCC denomination. "We’ve created this mantra of inclusiveness and now it’s been tested," the church historian says. "It goes against the grain to tell somebody that you have to leave."

But neither Post -- National or Washington -- asks the kind of questions that Bobby asked in April:

"What happened to those who left the church? What do they say about the notion of an atheist pastor of a Christian church?

"Regular atheists would be another interesting source: What do they think of a self-professed atheist leading a Christian church?"

Bobby asked also whether Vosper and her West Hill United Church represent symptoms of a wider trend in Christianity, both in Canada and the U.S. That's yet another missed opportunity: The Washington Post could have put that question to the church historian.  

Photo: The Rev. Gretta Vosper, from her Facebook page. Thumb: A meme created by Vosper, also from her Facebook page.


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