Gretta Vosper and the United Church of Canada: What's Going on?

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Self-declared atheist Gretta Vosper held on to her pulpit in the United Church of Canada last week as denominational executives decided to forgo a full inquiry into her fitness for office. According to the United Church Observer:

“A Toronto Conference interview committee said in a September 2016 report that it had found Vosper unsuitable for ministry, because she was no longer in ‘essential agreement’ with the church’s statement of doctrine and was ‘unwilling and unable’ to reaffirm the vows she made when she was ordained in 1993. The General Council hearing to determine her status as an ordained minister was scheduled for this month and December.”

Instead, the Conference, Vosper, and her small congregation announced a joint settlement.

Besides the “man bites dog” nature of the story, which was the tone of many media accounts of it, is there anything to learn here? Or is this just the farcical ending of the long, slow, sad decline of Canada’s once-dominant Protestant Church?

No one is saying why the United Church settled with Vosper and her followers. Speculation is generally of the financial sort: a denomination that has been shrinking steadily for half a century and is shuttering churches all over the country can’t spend many dollars it doesn’t have to prove the obvious: Gretta Vosper is not functioning as a Christian pastor. The only other gain the United Church would make would be to relieve itself of the cost of Vosper’s remuneration and gain back the church building that actual Christians paid for—but by the time the legal bills would have been paid, who knows whether the Church would have come out ahead?

Better, perhaps, to just tie off the problem and wait for it to go away. Vospers isn’t young, nor are her supporters. It’s not like she’s leading a large number of United Church people away from—well, from what?

The United Church began in 1925 in a flush of nationalism as it aimed quite explicitly to be Canada’s Church. The irony of its subsequent history is that it accomplished that aim.

When Canada wanted to go to church, Canada went to the United Church (as well as to lots of others, of course), and the 1950s saw that Church boom. In the wake of the cultural changes we know collectively as “The Sixties,” however, Canada started preferring other ways of spending Sunday mornings. Individualism enabled by steady prosperity and security—we haven’t fought a major war or endured a major depression since 1945—was fed by an increasingly wide smorgasbord of lifestyle options. And the United Church’s product was decreasingly attractive.

What was that product? As historian Kevin Flatt has shown, the United Church retained traditional Christian language well into this era but its denominational leaders, seminary professors, and rank-and-file pastors were filling that language with other meanings. By the 1970s, it was obvious that many United churches were no longer trading in the traditional gospel of salvation alone through Christ alone as taught by the Bible alone. They were opening wide their arms to anyone with any interest in anything spiritual…and, later, anything ethical, so long as it was “progressive.”

Soon, then, the United Church became known—even in the secular press—as a social work agency with a cross on top. It was still news in the mid-1990s when United Church moderator Bill Phipps openly denied the resurrection of Jesus—on which, the Apostle Paul made clear, the Christian faith rests (I Corinthians 15)—even as Phipps was exasperated that the editorial board of the Ottawa Citizen pressed him on his theology when he really preferred to talk about helping the poor of his hometown, Calgary. Yes, it was news, but it wasn’t surprising any more.

Since then, in fact, the United Church seminaries have dwindled and metamorphosed. Queen’s Theological College is no more, replaced by a School of Religion. Emmanuel College at the University of Toronto offers three tracks in its master’s degree in pastoral studies: a Christian track, an Islamic track, and a Buddhist track. Gretta Vosper is not wrong when she claims she is merely the product of United Church institutions.

Some Christian conservatives, however, have enjoyed the decline of the United Church rather too much. The Vosper story (you can almost hear them cackle) just proves what they have said all along: conservative churches are growing, while liberal churches aren’t.

The problem with that view, however, is that it’s only partly right. Yes, as Wilfrid Laurier sociologist David Haskell and colleagues have shown, conservative theology is an important factor in the health of a Christian church in Canada today. But it’s hardly the only factor. Canada is seeing United churches close, but the landscape is also dotted with tiny conservative congregations who are not retaining their young people nor winning converts, either.

The answer to Vosper’s atheism and the United Church’s expansive inclusivism is not to steer hard to the right and champion a smug fundamentalism. It is to do what Canada’s growing churches, Protestant and Catholic, are doing: preach the traditional gospel and require the traditional habits of discipleship in ways that make sense and compel allegiance today.

It’s hard to choose church over skiing, or soccer, or brunch, or the accumulated chores of the week. It’s hard to get up half an hour earlier every morning to read the Bible and pray. It’s hard to meet every week with Christian friends to work on Christian projects.

And it’s much, much harder if your church isn’t offering you something—good news of salvation, spiritual teaching, a worshipful encounter with God in Christ, and a community of like-minded friends—that you can’t get elsewhere. Do I have to go to church? It’s like asking about driving to Sears instead of shopping on Amazon. What’s there that I can’t get here?

Even then, however, it’s not as if the majority of Canadians are just waiting to go back to church. The statistically healthiest forms of Christianity in Canada—conservative Catholicism and the evangelical Protestantism—are barely holding their own as a proportion of the overall population. No, Canada just generally doesn’t want to go to church anymore.

So the fact that the United Church doesn’t have many customers for what it offers, and so few that it can’t afford even to discipline an aggressive atheist in its pastoral ranks, isn’t necessarily the United Church’s fault.

Except that when the current Moderator tries to assure the rest of the United Church, and the watching world, that the decision “doesn’t alter in any way the belief of The United Church of Canada in God, a God most fully revealed to us as Christians in and through Jesus Christ,” what is one to make of that?

Thank God, some United churches still mean what the rest of Christianity means by such phrases. Alas, however, for some time in the United Church now the general answer has been, and still seems to be, “Anything you want.”

And the record shows that not many Canadians are forgoing hockey, or hiking, or extra time with the kids for that.

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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 800 articles, book chapters, and reviews, his tenth book has been released this year: “Why You’re Here: Ethics for the Real World” (Oxford University Press).