What's Wrong With Rev. Vosper's Stance?

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By now, Rev. Gretta Vosper’s notoriety as the atheist seeking to remain a United Church pastor has reached the attention even of the venerable Washington Post. The spectacle is tailor-made for our scandal-oriented media: A confessed disbeliever in all of her church’s major theological tenets—as outlined in that Church’s Basis of Union(1925) and even in its more recent and decidedly less traditional “Song of Faith” (2006)—fights to retain her clerical position.

One wonders why she bothers, unless it really is about money. To rent or build another hall, rather than inhabit a church paid for by previous generations of United Church members who probably did believe what she doesn’t, would be expensive. Or, as some critics have darkly mused, is it about keeping a pension that, vivacious as she is, she will likely soon need?

Vosper’s most intriguing defence is that she is simply being honest while many of her United Church colleagues are not, and merely teaching what she learned at seminary.

Vancouver United Church pastor Richard Bott has disputed the former claim. He conducted a survey of United Church ministers that received responses from over half of active clergy. Over 85% elected either of two answers that are clearly monotheistic, even as one shades into panentheism—the idea that God is somehow “one” with creation even as God also transcends creation.

What about her latter claim, though, that she is merely repeating what her seminary taught her?

There is no easy way to ascertain, of course, what was taught at Queen’s Theological College, the United Church seminary at which Gretta Vosper studied. One might consult the writings of the professors who taught there at the time, interview her fellow students, and hunt down any recordings of lectures from the period, but it’s unlikely anyone will do so.

A CBC radio interview with Mark Toulouse, the principal of Emmanuel College, the flagship United Church seminary, gives one pause. I like Mark: He and I share a doctoral program (Chicago) and supervisor (Martin Marty), and he is an unfailingly affable fellow. But this interview seems to demonstrate a “religious studies” ethos in what is supposed to be a seminary: strongly concerned to avoid theological and value judgments in a profession in which such judgments (true/false, right/wrong) are as essential as they are in medicine.

Is this what Ms. Vosper encountered a generation ago at Queen’s?

Given Ms. Vosper’s fuzzy use of basic theological terminology, furthermore, might one at least say that there are grounds for honest disagreement about what was and wasn’t taught her as a United Church seminarian?

I have concluded that there aren’t. While definitions of God are notoriously many and often vague in some theological circles, atheism is a pretty clear stance: There is no deity. Not “no deity of the traditional sort,” as Ms. Vosper seems to equivocate at times, but “none at all,” as Ms. Vosper clearly avers.

So as problematic as theological teaching might have been and might still be at Queen’s, I can’t see Ms. Vosper fairly incriminating her teachers as purveyors of the outright atheism she avows.

The whole thing thus comes down to exactly what the Washington Post, the CBC, and every other reasonably fair-minded medium has concluded it comes down to: Should the United Church of Canada retain as a pastor in good standing someone who flatly, repeatedly, publicly, and confrontationally denies their stated doctrine?

Stay tuned.

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John G. Stackhouse, Jr., PhD, serves as the Samuel J. Mikolaski Professor of Religious Studies at Crandall University in Moncton, New Brunswick. A graduate of Queen’s University, Wheaton Graduate School, and the University of Chicago, he was formerly Professor of Religion at the University of Manitoba and held the Sangwoo Youtong Chee Chair of Theology and Culture at Regent College, Vancouver. He has given interviews to ABC, NBC, CBC, CTV, and Global TV as well as to CBC Radio from coast to coast. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Times Literary Supplement, The Globe and Mail, the National Post, The Atlantic, Time, and Maclean’s. Author of over 700 articles, book chapters, and reviews, his tenth book is scheduled for release later this year: “Why You’re Here: Ethics for the Real World” (Oxford University Press).

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