United Church of Canada

Journalists may want to ask: When will United Methodist left decide that enough is enough?

Journalists may want to ask: When will United Methodist left decide that enough is enough?

Way back in the 1980s, as the sex wars in the Episcopal Church really began to heat up, I heard a conservative priest tell a joke that gently mocked many of his Anglo-Catholic colleagues on the doctrinal right.

The whole point of the joke is that it is really hard to cut the ties that bind, when people have invested decades of their lives in religious institutions and traditions. And then there are the all-too human, practical details that come into play. In the end, it may be easier to edit the Apostles Creed and modernize the prayer book than it is to split the clergy pension play or divide a denomination’s trust funds.

Which brings us back to that joke that I have shared once or twice in the past. I have left the time-element in the first line intact. Like I said, it’s an old joke.

The year is 2012 … and two Anglo-Catholic priests in the back of National Cathedral are watching the Episcopal presiding bishop and her incense-bearing lover process down the aisle behind a statue of the Buddha, while the faithful sing a hymn to Mother Earth.

"You know," one traditionalist whispers, "ONE more thing and I'm out the door."

Right now, in the multi-decade United Methodist Church civil war, things may be close to reaching that point for LGBTQ clergy and their supporters on the denomination’s doctrinal left. What will it take for these believers — who are sincerely convinced that 2,000 years of Christian doctrines on marriage and sex should be changed — to decide that enough is enough?

That’s the key question that I asked during this week’s “Crossroads” podcast. (Click here to tune that in, or head over the iTunes.) What would this old “ONE more thing” joke look like today, if you turned it around — doctrinally speaking — and looked at it from the point of view of United Methodists on the left?

Maybe you would have two United Methodist pastors from the Iliff School of Theology in Denver — long a safe haven for the left — standing at the back of a global General Conference that is being held in a United Methodist stronghold in Africa. They are watching an African bishop walk down the aisle with his wife with his hands in the air singing an evangelical praise song. The service ends with the Rev. Franklin Graham giving an altar call.

One more thing and I’m out the door?

Then what? That was the other half of the equation in this podcast. Follow me through a few “ifs” here.

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Preacher who doesn't believe in God is like 'Amazon manager who doesn't believe in online shopping'

Preacher who doesn't believe in God is like 'Amazon manager who doesn't believe in online shopping'

The Rev. Gretta Vosper, the United Church of Canada pastor who doesn’t believe in God, has been the subject of a number of past GetReligion posts.

Just a few months ago, our own Richard Ostling offered a nice primer on Vosper and the progressive Christian denomination to which she belongs.

This past weekend, the New York Times featured a profile of Vosper.

The anecdotal opening of the Times’ story:

TORONTO — The Rev. Gretta Vosper hadn’t noticed the giant industrial metal cross rising in front of her church for years, hidden as it was by a bushy tree. But then someone complained about it.

Since Ms. Vosper does not believe Jesus was the son of God, the complainer wrote in an email, she should take the cross down.

“The next day, a storm took the tree out,” she said, peering up at the cross with a benign smile.

Some Christians might call that an act of God. But Ms. Vosper does not believe in God either. Instead, the parable says more about her determination. Despite being an outspoken atheist, Ms. Vosper has steadfastly maintained her place in the United Church of Canada, which with two million followers across the country is Canada’s pre-eminent Protestant church.

“This is my church,” said Ms. Vosper, 60. “The United Church made me who I am.”

Keep going, and this is an enjoyable piece to read — both in terms of Canada bureau chief Catherine Porter’s writing ability and the journalistic fairness shown to supporters and critics of the pastor who doesn’t believe in God.

Some more crucial material from the profile:

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

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.

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.

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At year 150, does Canada show where religion in United States might be heading?

At year 150, does Canada show where religion in United States might be heading?

There’s a big Canada Day blowout coming July 1 as the northern nation celebrates its 150th anniversary

The Canadian colonies gained independence so placidly, unlike the United States, that Britain’s monarch remains the titular head of state to this day. In fact, Britain only granted Canada full power to write a constitution in 1982. The document lists "freedom of conscience and religion" first among four "fundamental" principles that echo the U.S. Bill of Rights from 191 years earlier.  

This is an ideal moment for reporters to ask experts whether secularized Canada 2017 might show where the United States is headed spiritually (and in some cases, legally). Recently, both Canada and the U.S. have seen a rise in religiously unaffiliated “nones,” 24 percent vs. 20 percent respectively.  

With Protestantism, both nations show remarkable losses for “mainline” churches that have floated leftward. Unlike the U.S. and its array of denominations, Canada was traditionally dominated by only two -- the Anglican Church of Canada, with British colonial status, and the United Church of Canada, an ambitious merger among several traditions.

Government surveys report self-identified Anglicans declined from 2,543,000 to 1,632,000 between 1971 and 2011, and for the United Church from 3,769,000 to 2,008,000.

In-house numbers are even more devastating. The Anglicans’ active membership was only 545,957 in an out-of-date 2007 report. The United Church listed 436,292 in 2014 with average attendance of 144,852. Canada’s Evangelical Protestants are a small if vigorous factor compared with the U.S. situation.

A fifth of today’s Canadians were born elsewhere, versus an estimated 13 percent in the U.S.  Canada’s immigrants, heavily Asian, foster a significant rise of non-Christian religions, and 20 percent report no affiliation versus only 10 percent of the U.S. foreign-born. Many U.S. Spanish-speakers identify with Catholicism or the robust Evangelical minority.

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

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 cartoonish. 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:

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How liberal is this denomination? Canadians debating whether a pastor must believe in God

How liberal is this denomination? Canadians debating whether a pastor must believe in God

At first, this story reads like it must be news satire from The Onion.

Or, given the religious nature of the piece, maybe the Babylon Bee would be a more appropriate fit.

But actually, this in-depth report on whether a Christian pastor must believe in God is real news out of Canada, via The Guardian. And here's what kind of surprised me: It's fascinating and generally handles the subject matter well.

Let's start at the top:

TORONTO — There is not one mention of God during the 70-minute service at Toronto’s West Hill United church. Bibles are nowhere to be seen. The large steel cross – one of the few remaining religious symbols in this church – is hidden behind a cascade of rainbow streamers.
But that is perhaps to be expected in a church led by an avowed atheist.
“I do not believe in a theistic, supernatural being called God,” says Gretta Vosper, the United Church of Canada minister who has led West Hill since 1997. “I don’t believe in what I think 99.99% of the world thinks you mean when you use that word.” Tor her, God is instead a metaphor for goodness and a life lived with compassion and justice.
Vosper’s outspoken commitment to a seemingly clashing set of beliefs has prompted turmoil in the open-minded United Church of Canada. A progressive Christian denomination that began ordaining women in Canada 80 years ago and for decades has allowed openly gay men and women to lead ministries, the church has been left questioning its boundaries.
In the coming weeks, an unprecedented review will be carried out to determine whether Vosper can stay on as a minister. At its most basic level, the review will ask a simple question that’s likely to yield a complicated answer: can the United church of Canada have an atheist minister?
For the 100-strong congregation at West Hill, the answer is an unabashed yes. Stripped of God and the Bible, services here are light on religious doctrine and instead emphasise moral teachings. The service begins with a nod to the First Nations land on which the church stands and goes on to mention human rights in Saudi Arabia, Syria and Palestine. Global concern is coupled with community-building, with members invited to share significant moments of the past week.

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