O, Canada! And no, this 'God optional' story isn’t from The Onion or the Babylon Bee

Maybe you saw this headline, or variations on it: “Clergy No Longer Need to Believe in God, Liberal Protestants decide.”

That looks like a satirical “news” headline from TheOnion.com or its religion equivalent, BabylonBee.com. However, it’s a real-life precedent set by the United Church of Canada — an event with considerable interest for religionists and journalists. The progressive UCC (not to be confused with the edgy United Church of Christ in the United States) has allowed ample flexibility on much else, but the optional God is brand new.

The Rev. Gretta Vosper (see www.grettavosper.ca), far more publicized in Canada than the U.S., is the pastor of West Hill United Church in Scarborough, Ontario. She faced a church tribunal this month over her atheism. But a terse announcement Nov. 7 said Vosper and the UCC’s Toronto regional body “have settled all outstanding issues” and she “will remain in ordained ministry.” Further explanation of the deal is sealed by court order.

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Vosper, who took over West Hill in 1997, says she “came out as an atheist” in 2001, stripping language about any supernatural God from prayers and hymns, followed by her 2008 book “With or Without God.” She openly embraced an “atheist” identity in 2013.

Meanwhile, her congregation officially defined itself as “theists, agnostics and atheists” with “roots in the Judaeo-Christian tradition” who seek truth and justice.

There’s no mention of any role in this for Jesus or the Bible

The UCC was formed in 1925 through a union of Canada’s Congregationalists, Methodists and a majority of Presbyterians. On paper, it still enshrines an orthodox founding creed that includes worship of “the one and only living and true God, a Spirit, infinite, eternal and unchangeable in His being and perfections.” The United Church of Canada was a celebrated ecumenical milestone, the world’s first major Protestant union across denominational lines. In 1962, U.S. “mainline” Protestant churches launched a similar merger effort that fizzled.

As with U.S. “mainliners,” the UCC has suffered steady decline in numbers and vitality. By government data, Canadians identifying with this body went from 3,769,000 in 1971 to 2,008,000 in 2011. The number of congregations dropped a third over those years to the current 2,894. Currently, the church reports only 424,000 full “communicant” members and average attendance of 139,000.

The UCC’s former moderator (titular head) said it struggles with “two core values, both of which are central to our identity,” namely “faith in God” and status as “an open and inclusive church.” To the conservative Gospel Coalition, the Vosper decision means “the UCC no longer sees the existence of God as a primary issue.”

The most notable reaction was a caustic column in The Star of Toronto, the nation’s biggest-circulation daily. Rosie DiManno wrote that it’s illogical for the denomination to claim the Vosper decision “doesn’t alter in any way the belief of the United Church of Canada in God.” To her, Vosper is obviously “a heretic” and West Hill’s support for her is “idolatrous.”

Remember the “Christian atheism” boomlet memorialized in Time magazine’s 1966 “Is God Dead?” cover story? That involved only a handful of radical theologians, not official church policy. (The magazine turned optimistic three years later with its “Is God Coming Back to Life?” cover.)

There’s a really intriguing issue here for the media to explore: As Vosper and colleagues in the Progressive Christianity movement hope, is cafeteria Christianity the “mainline” future in Canada and south of the border? In an era apathetic about doctrine and hostile toward heresy trials, what limits remain for pastors’ belief and disbelief?

Also note the Religion Guy Memo, posted here at GetReligion on July 17, 2017: “At year 150, does Canada show where religion in the United States might be heading?”

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