Do you still belong in this UCC?

The 95%-of-United-Church-Clergy-believe-in-God Survey

The Rev. Richard Bott

The Rev. Richard Bott

Last Spring, Richard Bott, a United Church minister, decided he wanted to get to the bottom of the question about how many United Church clergy do or don’t believe in god. He was spurred on to the work of designing the God survey by an interview I had with Wendy Mesley of the CBC in which I had said that the Principal of Emmanuel College estimated that over half of UCC clergy had a non-theistic understanding of god. Mark Toulouse later told me that he meant non-traditional, not non-theistic. Here’s the confusion for which I take full responsibility: I don’t consider those two things to be different.

My understanding of non-theist comes into play the minute you step away from belief in a “being” called God, a theistic being, a deity with supernatural powers who is omnipotent (all-powerful), omniscient (all-knowing), and omnipresent (everywhere), and can intervene in the natural world from the supernatural realm in which s/he lives. It’s the god described in the Articles of Faith of the Basis of Union that casts the finally impenitent into eternal damnation, the god the World Council of Churches requires we confess is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Step away from that definition and you’re into non-theism, I’ve long thought. Many progressive Christian authors like Bishop John Shelby Spong use the term in that same manner as did I in my 2008 book, With or Without God.

My Bad

To others, I now realize, the term theist is simply stretched to cover whatever it is you need to cover – supernatural or not, being or not, interventionist or not, triune or not; these can all remain safely under the heading “theistic” if you want them to. I know, it’s confusing. Suffice it to say, I’m not using any words that use theist as their root anymore. I’m only going to speak of non-traditional ideas of god and hope someone asks me what I mean.

However, last winter, when I spoke with Mesley, I hadn’t realized how important using the term non-traditional over non-theist was so, essentially, I broke my own rule: don’t use words that people don’t understand especially if those words are about god and especially-especially if there are going to be highly literate clergy listening, each of whom may have evolved their own interpretation of what the terms you use. If I didn’t understand the expanded way the word theist was being used, clearly, using the word non-theist to describe those who don’t believe in a traditional concept of god was going to be a problem. As it turned out, it was incendiary.

Still, claiming and reclaiming that I came up with that statistic on my own is misleading. Before we go any further, it’s important to note that both in my response to Wendy Mesley’s question about how many clergy in the UCC shared my beliefs and to Richard Bott’s question about how many atheist clergy there are in the church, I said I didn’t know (3:35). I don’t imagine there are many who believe exactly what I believe and fewer still who would call themselves atheists. My response to Richard’s question was “I have no idea how many clergy in the United Church are atheist …” Richard noted in an email to me that because I didn’t “comment on the number’s efficacy,” I was stating my own opinion even though I had just clearly said I didn’t know.

But Bott did the God survey and proved that more than half of United Church clergy don’t believe in a theistic god – according to my definition. And more than half of United Church clergy don’t believe in a traditional god – according to Mark Toulouse’s definition. We were both right but it’s a sad thing to only be right in one’s own mind so let’s take a closer look at the details.

The God survey results

surveyThe results triggered some sensational headlines, at least one of which was as accurate as the ones you read in the grocery store line-up. The United Church Observer, in its October issue, explored the survey’s significance. Researcher Jane Armstrong noted that the results could not be extrapolated to any generalizations because the sample had not been random. Bott had only sent it to his own Facebook friends and two Facebook groups to which he belonged, one of which is Cruxifusion, a group on the extreme right wing of the United Church. And people self-selected which further undermines the random nature of the survey. In a last ditch effort to dilute its bias, Bott sent the God survey out to all UCC presbyteries. Without the response time they needed to get approval to send it out, however, many didn’t forward it. Clergy who did receive it from their presbytery had little time to complete it before the survey closed. Still, Bott expressed his excitement about the findings and the Moderator, Jordan Cantwell, said she hopes it widens the dialogue.

Statistics, statistics, statistics

Looking at statistics can be an exercise in creativity. Look at any set of statistics every morning for a week and you’ll find something new almoststatistics every day. It was easy to look at the results of the God survey and come up with the headline that 95% of United Church clergy believe in God. But that’s not a very meaningful statistic. When each respondent may have a different idea of god, something the United Church has nurtured*, only the five percent who say they don’t believe in god at all are really telling you anything. I can legitimately say I believe in god because I, too, like so many other clergy have had to configure a definition I could live with that didn’t include “casting the finally impenitent into eternal damnation”** or dozens of other attributes or behaviours I could neither abide nor believe in.

I could say I’m a panentheist, an easy obfuscation for me because I still can’t tell you what that really means in terms of on-the-street-this-is-what-god-is-doing-for-me-personally-or-for-the-world:maybe-nothing-maybe-everything. God is the universe. God is beyond the universe. God interpenetrates the universe. Those who embrace panentheism are passionate about it. I’m not passionate about that definition so I’d best leave it be.

Perhaps I could say the god I believe in is supernatural because it can’t be weighed or drawn or even described using the blunt force trauma of the written or oral language tools we have at our disposal; but then, neither can “love”. Is love supernatural? It certainly seems to have healing and transformative powers. Perhaps that is a supernatural effect of a neurological function. I mean, love might transform but it might also fail. Having the neurological process unfold doesn’t mean the result will be healing. We just don’t know. So maybe there is something else to it. Some alchemy or other. But those prerequisite neurological synapses suggest natural … Best not go there, either.

When god is beyond anything we can pin down, explain, examine, or unleash, defintions of it become pretty vague. Yellow can be my favourite colour if I add a little blue and cross that fine line that takes it into green but I’d be damned if I could point to where that line actually lay. Similarly, my definition of god can be an iota different from someone else’s and completely different at the same time.

In fact, there are so many fine lines in the definition of god that whatever it once meant is totally obscured with the overlay of our legion definitions. Exploring the results of Bott’s survey may clear up where some of those lines lie. Because his intention was to prove something I said right or wrong, however, he neglected to include other very important characteristics of the god people do or don’t believe in such as where god resides or if one can have a personal relationship with god. Perhaps, in fact, he forgot to include the most important concern to people inside and outside the church: Does the god we call God do anything? Does it heal the sick? Does it answer some prayers and not others? Does it open a window when a door closes? Does it whip up the weather or cause drought? Does it punish us for not loving it or for any of the billions of transgressions we can wage against it, ourselves, our fellow humans or our planet? Does it treat some people well and others poorly for no particular reason other than the accident of their place of birth? Does it know the cure for cancer but just isn’t ready to share it yet? Does it do anything other than comfort us in our ignorance?

Bott forgot to ask that question. And so his results may be of interest to those in the church who are keen on drawing the you’re-in-you’re-out line, but it isn’t much help in clarifying what the god we do or don’t believe in is and whether we believe it has any way of helping us find our way to a future we’d be proud to hand future generations. If it is, great. If not, I say we get up off our knees and begin working. Now.

That said, I got ninety-eight percent in statistics in my undergrad so I can’t resist taking a read of Bott’s results. Here’s what I see.


Bott’s analysis jumped right in with what he seemed to most want to know: did people agree with Gretta Vosper or not. Indeed, the questions posed in the God survey were phrased in exactly that manner. I am not a professional researcher, but I’m fairly certain that your response to being asked if you agree with someone or not can be influenced by what you think of that person. By using my name in the introduction to the survey and then repeating it throughout, Bott, I believe, undermined the integrity of his own data. Would results have differed if my name hadn’t been used or if the statements had come from Bill Phipps in 2016 rather than in the late 90s? If they had simply asked the questions without referring to me? I don’t know. I’m simply saying that if you want true results in a survey, I would think it imprudent to start off by naming someone many in your demographic report to respond to with “visceral reactions” and others believe is “the devil incarnate”. (And yes, those are actual statements about me shared by people in the United Church.) When you do, you risk the possibility that some responses will more about a respondent’s feelings about the person named than they are about the actual data being collected.

Nevertheless, let’s carry on. Bott’s first result analysis shows that 20% of clergy do not believe in a theistic, supernatural god and that 80% believe in a god that is either theistic or supernatural. Because of the phrasing of the question – Would you include yourself in that 50% [of clergy who don’t believe in a supernatural, theistic god as stated by gretta vosper] – Bott really can’t say that the full 80% believe in a theistic, supernatural god. Some may have excluded themselves on the theistic side and others may have excluded themselves on the supernatural side bumping the number up. Indeed, this is immediately evident when the numbers are broken down. The results show that 30% of correspondents identified as not believing in a supernatural god. That drops the number who say they believe in a theistic, supernatural god to at best 70%. I was disappointed to see that The Observer didn’t note that distinction and printed the claim that 80% of clergy in the UCC believe in a theistic, supernatural god which is clearly inaccurate.

When looking at the definitions of god people chose to align themselves with, fifty-one percent claimed panentheism. It is not clear, however, whether a panentheistic god (I believe in the existence of god/God, and while God/god is greater than the universe, includes and interpenetrates it) is supernatural or not. Because it exists beyond the universe, one might expect that it is. If that were the case, however, the number of people who claim belief in a supernatural god should be over 85% since a clear 34% percent believe in a god charged with supernatural revelation (add that to the 51.3% percent who identified as panentheists to get the 85%). But only 70% claimed not to believe in a supernatural god. We can only assume that some who believe in a panentheistic god must believe that god to be supernatural while others must consider it a completely natural phenomenon. Things are getting fuzzier.

But who is suitable for ministry?

They get really fuzzy when you try to figure out who the United Church might now claim is suitable for ministry and who is not. Due to the ruling created by the United Church’s General Secretary, an unelected official, to address “concerns about a female minister in the United Church who calls herself an atheist”, clergy must now be in ongoing affirmation of the questions they answered at their ordination, commissioning, or admission service. That means that ministry personnel must be able to profess belief in a Trinitarian God in order to be suitable for ministry in the UCC. When we look at the statistics, those who are and those who aren’t isn’t immediately apparent but there are alarm bells that begin ringing – and loudly.

The Trinity, or as our Moderator has of late referred it in her recent pastoral letter, the Triune God, is a God who is at once Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Bott’s survey shows that only 1.5% of clergy polled went out of their way to state that they believe in “God as Trinity”. Yikes! That could mean that 98.5% of United Church clergy don’t meet the new theological standard set out by Toronto Conference Executive in its request to the General Secretary! But let’s not get hysterical; what of the other categories? Could those who expressed belief in other kinds of god not also be talking about the Trinity?

It would have been so easy to answer that question if Bott had framed the second category in the God survey in a more orthodox way using the phrases that mark the new orthodox position within the United Church. Instead of “I believe in one god/God as the creator and ruler of the universe, and further believe that God/god reveals godself/Godself through supernatural revelation” had he actually shortened it to “I believe in one God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit”, we’d have our answer. But he didn’t. Which is interesting in itself, don’t you think?

The Maginot Line

The Maginot Line

A church bent on drawing the Trinity as its Maginot Line should have inspired a question based on the position of that line if it was at all central to the theological discourse within the denomination. It should have been, because of the current review, of especial interest.

If you search the United Church website, however, you will find that none of its documents, including the letters and statements of our Moderator, use the phrase “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” except our statements of doctrine. Those statements must align themselves with the requirements of the World Council of Churches where the Trinity is the lowest common denominator holding churches together. The word “triune” only shows up in in the Moderator’s latest pastoral letter which broke her silence regarding the potential (pending) split in the church due to the drawing of the Trinitarian line. The word “Father”, which might be expected to be used in liturgies or social justice statements in a Trinity dominant church, outside those same doctrinal pieces, only appears once in reference the god called God, and that in the title of a hymn. Clearly, the main image of god in the United Church is not Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, despite what our statements of doctrine attest. Which is very likely why it didn’t occur to Bott to include it.

Still, it is important to explore the categories presented in the God survey and see if any of them might be construed in such away that the majority of United Church clergy could claim ground on Toronto Conference’s side of the UCC’s freshly painted line. The categories are panentheists, traditionalists, naturalists, metaphorical believers and a few others.

The Holy Trinity

Which categories could be assumed to belong with Toronto Conference or be identified as traditional, Trinitarian believers? Definitely the traditionalists and the 1.5% who identified as Trinitarians. That’s 35.6% of clergy polled.

After we have that nailed down, however, we have to make assumptions using logic, a challenging and slippery tool when in the hands of believers. Let’s assume that those in the God survey who identified as naturalists, who held metaphorical ideas, who doubt or deny God’s existence, or refuse to do either, are not traditionalists and would not embrace the idea of a Trinitarian God. I think that is pretty logical though if you’re in one of those categories and do embrace a Trinitarian God, please share what that means to you in the comments section, below. That takes us up to 6.3%.

Next, taking a look at those who identified as “other” and removing any that might fall down on the Father, Son, Holy Spirit side, we get up to 12.3% of clergy claiming a non-Trinitarian concept of god. A not insignificant number when you start holding reviews and finding people unsuitable. Somewhere close to two hundred and thirty clergy would not pass the General Secretary’s test for suitability. Whoops.

But it might be far worse than that. Back to the panentheists. Are they or aren’t they capable of answering “Yes” to the Trinitarian question? Would they be in literal agreement with the concept of the Trinity. Hard to tell. Perhaps, like the question of whether god is supernatural or not, some of them would and some of them wouldn’t. Maybe they just don’t know. Surely many would find it challenging, if not impossible, for a panentheistic god to be described using the terms Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In a recent chat on Facebook, I asked a colleague who identifies as a panentheist, if he could answer the question, “Do you believe in God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?” with a “Yes.” He didn’t answer me. I asked again. He still didn’t answer me. So, let’s suppose that whether panentheists identify as theists or supernaturalists, they are not Trinitarians or are very odd ones. pantheismAgain, there are going to be people who get screaming mad about me “defining them” but I’m looking at every definition of panentheism I can find and not once have I seen Trinitarian or the words Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; more often than not, the writing clearly delineates the two as separate and different. If you’re an exception, please share your understanding of a Trinitarian panentheistic god called God below.

That creates a very different picture of the God survey than the one shared by Bott, The Observer, and various columnists. Yes, 95% of UCC clergy may claim belief in god, but up until now, we’ve been able, encouraged even, to define god as we have come to understand it. That 95% cuts a wide path down which vast numbers of definitions, mine included, meander. If we slide the panentheists – over 51% of UCC clergy according to Bott’s survey – over to the group that would not be able to answer “Yes” to the first question asked of ministry candidates at their services or ordination, commissioning, or admission, we leave only that 35.6% of clergy who might honestly profess belief in the Trinity, a god who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit at once. Two-thirds of active United Church clergy, 63.4%, almost twelve hundred of our eighteen hundred active clergy could be found to be unsuitable under the new theological test set by the General Secretary. Whoops again.

United Church clergy do not want their ideas of god mandated; they cringe when someone tries to suggest what they do or don’t believe. Many have recognized that the review process created to address concerns about me creates a theological orthodoxy to which clergy will be called to adhere. Others think this is all about me and that once this review is over, the ruling will never again be used; they can ignore the current proceedings.

Most have no idea that the General Secretary’s ruling can also be used to sweep aside essential agreement, previously entrenched in the Basis of Union and only changeable by a vote of the church’s entire members. They have no idea that clergy who affirmed the ceremonial questions posed to them at their ordination, commissioning, or admission, who are called to meet those questions a second time in a review process, may be required to meet them literally. There will be no room for metaphor or stretchy theist definitions when the determination of suitability is based on a literal belief in the Trinity.

I will go through with a Formal Hearing unless the church clarifies its theological position for me prior to that process and proves it a waste of our time. The General Secretary, at the request of Toronto Conference, redrew the theological landscape upon which we have laboured and ministered for over ninety years. In doing so, she closed off access to that wide theological swath upon which we used to meander, exploring understandings of god, Christianity, and church. She has installed upon it a very narrow the gate through which we must all now squeeze. Biblical or not, I know many would rather the wide swath than the narrow gate and dialogue to doctrinal censure. And so I will attend the Formal Hearing and lay my credentials down in a bid to remove the blight of the General Secretary’s ruling from the United Church.

There are a lot of people who are arguing over whether or not I belong in the United Church. The real question with which you should concern yourself, however, is, “Do you?”


*From the preface to A Song of Faith: This is not a statement for all time but for our time. In as much as the Spirit keeps faith with us, we can express our understanding of the Holy with confidence. And in as much as the Spirit is vast and wild, we recognize that our understanding of the Holy is always partial and limited.

**Taken from the Nineteenth Article of Faith in the Basis of Union.

40 thoughts on “Do you still belong in this UCC?

  1. Rev. Lynn Elliott

    thank you again Gretta. I had also concluded that the survey was flawed to say the least and that indeed it supported much of what you have said. I also came to 63% who do not believe in God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
    What most upsets me and thank you for naming this so clearly is the involvement of our General Secretary in this matter. My understanding is that she can rule on our behalf and the Executives on matters which already exists in our manual and bylaws etc…to rule on something that is not exsisting is out of order for her to state. She does after all work for the UCC which is all of us and we are to guide the changes to the manual. I am deeply troubled by her sense of entitlement beyond the bounds of her job description and that she presumes to understand the call clergy have accepted while still acknowledging essential agreement. That is like someone in my congregation telling me what I should believe. I believe that more should be investigated about her performance in her role and the ways she has taken liberties.

  2. Kelly

    Quite right – the survey was deeply and fatally flawed. Terrible procedure, terrible questions, totally unscientific.

    However, just a quibble–I’m a metaphorist, I suppose, because I believe that all language is fundamentally metaphorical in nature, never touching the reality it points to. And so for me, the idea of attesting to the Trinity is not problematic at all, despite seeing the idea of God as primarily metaphorical in nature. Who are we to name the Ultimate? I don’t have any great language for this. But I like and use the metaphor of the trinity because it helps me understand the diversity and community inherent in all that is ultimately good, and like a Zen koan, it helps me wrestle with the idea that unity and diversity can only be present together.

    1. Gretta Vosper Post author

      Hi Kelly,

      Thanks for this. I agree that metaphor is one of the strongest ways that we have to speak about things that are beyond description and there is nowhere that this is more evident than in religion since religion is all about speaking about things that are beyond description. And, as you know, I am totally comfortable using metaphor. At my “interview”, I was asked if I thought of god as a metaphor. But a metaphor has to be for something so god as a metaphor for love, which is how I might use it, becomes difficult because we need metaphors to unpack what we mean by love. And, the word god is too often understood not to be a metaphor but to be an actual being which many of us no longer believe. Same thing with the Trinity which is often used metaphorically but what it is used for is often not clear so people keep seeing it as a literal thing. And if it is a metaphor for god, then we’re back to a metaphor for a metaphor. Complex thinking to which many minds much greater than mine have been put over the ages. But, if we’re really talking about how we might live better together, I’d rather skip the religious metaphor and struggle with explaining love! Metaphorically, of course. 🙂

  3. Craig

    While I identify as a historically orthodox Christian, adhering to the Western orthodox traditional conception of the Trinity, I’m aware that Eastern Orthodoxy (EO) adheres to a form of panentheism. The way I understand it, the way in which the EO goes a bit beyond Western conceptions of the Trinity is in their view that it’s God’s inherent omnipresence that permeates creation. This, then, amounts to panentheism.

    You can see more at wikipedia:

    While there may be other views, my personal conception is that it’s God’s threefold attributes of omnipresence, omnipotence and omniscience that sustains all creation, which doesn’t require God to be ‘inside’ creation in order to sustain it. I’m not sure there’s an official position on this issue in Western Orthodoxy, however.

    In addition, while I’m not sure, I think that some of those who adhere to Process Theology – which embraces a panentheistic view (see wiki) – still believe in a Trinity (though probably not in the same sense as historically orthodox Christianity, I think). In any case, it may be worth your time to check out.

  4. George Menzies

    ”To others, I now realize, the term theist is simply stretched to cover whatever it is you need to cover – supernatural or not, being or not, interventionist or not, triune or not; these can all remain safely under the heading “theistic” if you want them to. I know, it’s confusing. Suffice it to say, I’m not using any words that use theist as their root anymore. I’m only going to speak of non-traditional ideas of god and hope someone asks me what I mean.” Yes, they should ask what I mean, but not after I censor myself.

    (editted out) Wrong. Mean what YOU mean when you say what you say. If people seem confused about what you say, even though you are clear in your own mind what their (your words) meaning is together (i.e. grammar), then their confusion is their problem.

  5. John Ford

    Gretta is about a decade ahead of me. With the tenacity of a limpet I have clung to the rotting hulk of Christianity more out of a perverted sense of duty than anything else. It has only been relatively recently that I have confronted my own warped belief structure, let go of the fettered timbers and sought clearer waters.

    One of the reasons, perhaps the major reason, I decided to move on was that I was sick of the institutional legalism which pervades the Churches. Having lived for years in the Australian bush I know most people survive a snakebite. But few of us survive patrolling pharisees armed with legal writ and sanctioned from on high. After all, IS employs the same tactics. Admittedly in the 21st Century the Church does not actually murder people but it does render them inutile, worthless and dependent, parasites clinging to the pomp and ceremony on offer in the hope that they can make it through next week.

    So one can play with statistics and, as Gretta has observed, construct them to suit any given situation. Whether the people who go to church believe in God or not, or to what degree, is really neither here nor there. The point is, they should be encouraged to let go, not in the hope that God will save them being swept away, but in the confidence that as living witnesses to the potential lies within; that really, we are the realm of implicit possibilities that cry out for expression.

    Gretna has opened the doors to those possibilities.

    1. Robert Monroe

      Very well spoken, Mr. Ford. I enjoy your train of thought and the energy of your words. Thanks!

  6. Helena

    This article is so on point.

    Like Kelly (commenter above), I am a methaporist (with thanks for the terrific word!) and continue to use some of the traditional concepts of Christianity. However, I am all too aware that when we hold them too tightly, they crumble to dust in our fingers. Try to get your head around a panentheistic God … it’s impossible. Like the Zen koan Kelly refers to, it is useful as a point of contemplation and questioning, but answers exactly nothing. Indeed the God of the Song of Faith is so nebulous as to be meaningless if held to anything beyond a poetic understanding. The Song declares so itself: “God is Holy Mystery,
    beyond complete knowledge, above perfect description.” How can adherence to belief in something that, by definition, is beyond comprehension possibly be used as a litmus test for suitability to lead?

    When I left my beloved Catholic Church, it was because, when I went to a priest to discuss my doubts, he reassured me, more or less, that “it was okay to have doubts, because eventually I would be lead back to the proper beliefs if I just stayed with the church”. I left. I wanted to be in a church where I could explore my beliefs honestly. When I discovered Gretta, I thought the UCC might just be it. It wasn’t a matter of whether I or anyone agreed with everything she said (for the record, I mostly do). It was the fact that she was ALLOWED TO BE. She was allowed to explore a new path and do so honestly. So I am extremely disappointed with the turn this has all taken. Already my 10 year old son (a self-declared atheist) has decided he is done with church. If Gretta is turned away, I will follow him. #ifgrettagoesigo

  7. Sally Boyle

    I appreciate this article a great deal and want to express my gratitude to Gretta for stating so clearly much of what I also believe. I also want to comment on the role of the General Secretary. It has been my understanding that it is within the purview of the General Secretary to comment upon and, indeed, make rulings upon the temporal matters of the church. I assume this is why we “employed” a lawyer in this position. However, matters of faith, belief, how we express our belief etc. are discerned and concluded and ultimately ruled upon by a long-standing study of the matter within the denomination. We have spent years discussing how best to rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic however when a matter of deep theological and faith understanding within the denomination comes to light there is an attempt to shut down conversation in a heart beat. This is a theological conversation. It needs to happen over a long period of time with the usual attending petitions and resolutins and ultimately some statement by a General Council in the future.

    1. George Menzies

      Yes, obedience, that’s the core question. I should not ask ‘obey or not obey’ because life is not that simple. Striving for excellence means taking the risk of perhaps asking of yourself more than you can really deliver, but you know the scripture ‘do unto to others as you would have them do unto you’: that is the core answer and I believe the expression of God’s love. The fact of humans that seems to raise that demand beyond our capacity is the fact of human individuality; ‘to do unto others’ must take into consideration each person’s identifiable differential facts and the differential facts of real temporally immediate context. In the worse of conditions, this may mean life or death decision scenarios, and being finite in wisdom and knowledge, we may find ourselves asking for God’s forgiveness, so we should cut ourselves a little slack, eh? 🙂

  8. Ian Lenathen

    Seems to me the name United Church has become an oximoron… The blessed ones (who know more than the rest) can only continue to put their interpretation of the church forward as the true church.
    The rest of us should just accept their deicisions and be happy that we have been enlightened by their pontifications.
    I am always amazed the concept of unconditional love, is not used in any definition of church values. There is always a caveat which must be obeyed, to prove your adherence to the sacred truth.
    Having a sacred trruth which must be believed by the followers, is the universal definitive role of any church. Churches are in in the domain of men and therefore take care of manly requirements.
    If based on love, gender would be mute, and doctrine non essential.
    It is time to ezplore the concept of Love, trunping the concept of God. Thanks Gretta for shaking up the ever present status quo.

  9. Steve Schuh

    Doug Todd’s May 24, 2016, article with the ‘sensational’ headline – picked up by the Ottawa Sun – had a much fuller discussion in the comments section of the Vancouver Sun. There (and on Doug’s Facebook post) I critiqued Richard’s survey and Doug’s grossly misleading interpretation of it:

    To his credit, two weeks later Doug posted another article about Richard’s survey using much clearer categories, though still spinning the same story:

    The primary confusion revealed by the survey is that self-identified panentheists (51% of clergy respondents) very frequently ALSO identified with supernaturalism, which is technically incompatible. While this is partly explained by the survey’s horribly skewed wording, clergy may also be genuinely confused by panentheism’s metaphoric use of supernaturalist vocabulary – the panentheist God is mistakenly thought to be supernatural because God is still described, for example, as ‘exceeding’ the natural universe and continuing to be ‘the subject of action verbs’ (Cobb). The critical distinction, it seems to me, is between realism and non-realism, and I’m not sure how many people are ready to draw that line clearly, or to cross it.

  10. Meg Jordan

    My previous comment was much more eloquent but somehow it did not get uploaded. I will try again.
    Suffice it to say that so far as I am concerned A Song of Faith has already done the work that makes it clear that there is a wide range of ways in which the United Church in all of its diversity enables us to understand the ancient formulae of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. I know you know but I quote it here for others.

    With the Church through the ages,
    we speak of God as one and triune:
    Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
    We also speak of God as
    Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer
    God, Christ, and Spirit
    Mother, Friend, and Comforter
    Source of Life, Living Word, and Bond of Love,
    and in other ways that speak faithfully of
    the One on whom our hearts rely,
    the fully shared life at the heart of the universe.

    We witness to Holy Mystery that is Wholly Love.

    I was recently ordained by Toronto Conference and in response to the question about belief in God I almost answered with these words of A Song of Faith but did not want to make my ordination into a dog and pony show. Now I wish I had spoken out.
    I do not choose to call myself an atheist but if you are able to join me in creating sacred ceremonies that invite wonder and awe around the fully shared life at the heart of the universe–which I know you do–and work together to create a world of love and justice and peace–then so far as I am concerned we both belong in this UCC. We need to talk.

    1. George Menzies

      That’s what happens when words are given semantic inclusion to the degree that the use and birth of each word is lost and then so are we. Theo, theist, atheist

  11. David Atwood

    I would describe myself as Trinitarian but like Kelly noted, for me the Trinity is like a Zen Koan and rather than “defining” God, there is something about it that also eludes our a priori attempts to think of God. For instance, there is a tendency to focus the attention on the “persons” in the Trinity in an almost “atomistic” way, rather than the relationships between the persons. For me the relationships in G-d are primary and precede the “persons.” Additionally maybe the whole concept of an interventionist God only exists because we are still carrying in our thinking a Newtonian “container” notion of space/time that understands G-d to be either “outside”, or alternatively “inside” and part of the universe, whereas neither are correct because the whole inside/outside argument is based on a false dualism which is part and parcel of the western way of thinking.

  12. David Kilshaw

    As I understand things, the Maginot line extended down into the Alsace-Lorraine region of France. They make good cheese there. Can we talk about Cheese now? Maybe it’s not cheese, but they make something good. Let’s talk about that. Given the medieval question, “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” perhaps today’s question could be, “Does east meet west when a non-traditional non-theist, a traditional non-theist, a non-traditional theist and a traditional theist ride in a Fiat together?” If so, “How would they decide who would drive? Who would read the map, if the vehicle doesn’t have GPS?” All too complicated for me. But I do like Camembert. Best if served at room temperature.

    Just so you know, I didn’t read anybody else’s replies. That’s allowed on the internet. It is part of the new rules of intelligent dialogue. In fact, I didn’t read the article. I just saw the map of the Maginot line and knew my opinion was of critical importance to everyone There you have it. I wish I was going to be in NZ this weekend… Love to hear Gretta live and in person. Have a nice day.

  13. Eric

    As a (nonbelieving) outsider who has followed this story with interest, I ask this out of sincere curiosity – why is it important that Gretta and this congregation remain in the United Church of Canada? Why not start your own church or your own denomination? If it’s not important to believe in God, why is it important to belong to this one particular ecclesiastical institution? What is gained by continuing to affiliate with a Church run by people who fundamentally disagree with you about God as opposed to starting a new Church? What is lost by putting yourself in a position where you’re no longer answerable to an institutional polity with which you have obvious disagreements?

  14. Karen

    Okay two things:
    1. This post is really really really long. Some long posts can be good. Some can appear defensive (‘let me explain why Richard Bott’s analysis of me me me and me is wrong, wrong, wrong,me, me, me’ that kind of thing.) And hey I am no big fan of Bott’s due to blah blah blah but really, you come across a bit defensive and like he got under your skin a bit. you you you.
    2. update on my praying for you in order to be less irritated by you and what I feel is your need for constant attention/need to mock the UCC as much as possible whilst simultaneously drawing a salary from them: I find prayer difficult at the best of times. Maybe words bouncing of the ceiling and such. Who knows. I don’t claim to know or not know, you know? So when I’m out riding my bicycle I have simply been asking to be less irritated by you and your need as per above. it is working a bit! I’d say I am 25 per cent less irritated. Phew. Seventy five per cent left to go. No one said this would be quick.
    3. okay a third thing. you never responded to my pointing out the myriad places you have given interviews (more since I listed them) as at least some evidence pointing toward your need to be at the centre of all of this even though yes you didn’t ask for it and the UCC is shameful oh my goodness.
    Seventy five per cent left! Now go be a prayer warrior to the god you don’t believe exists and shame on the dinosaur UCC, etc.

    1. George Menzies

      Blessed are the weak in spirit for they comprise 90% of the working masses. Let’s face it, more killing is done in the name of a God than belief in no God, but that’s the reality of humanity. Insisting there is no God does SF all. In the middle east, atheism gets the death penalty. Because humanity is what it is, atheism is a dead horse.

      Be kind, be gentle, be understanding

  15. Jane Ridout

    I just wanted to comment on the post regarding Gretta seeking publicity through interviews and the like. As a member of the United Church of Canada who has a non theistic and non traditional view of God, I think Gretta has started a very meaningful conversation about how our notions of what God is affect our place in the church. I think the general secretary and the ‘official’ church should be asking different questions. First, does Gretta believe we should try to be kind and treat others the way we would like to be treated? Second, is it important for people to have a spiritual community that we can belong to where we can safely explore and develop our spiritual gifts? Third should we work within that community to try to make the world a better place? If any United Church minister can answer yes to those three questions I would think their congregation would be a wonderful place to be.

    In our very secular world we need places where people can experience the spiritual in community with others, and holding people to literal and rigid ideas just shuts most people out of our churches. If we want everyone to feel they are welcome to join us in the United Church of Canada, as members we need to be prepared to challenge and reject such narrow views.

  16. campbell Connor

    I am a retired 85 year old UC Minister. I am troubled deeply over the Toronto conferences committee decision to declare Gretta Vosper unsuitable for Ministry in our denomination. This decision stems from a slavish holding on to vows which have very little relativeness in this time. Surely there can be no doubt that a community which welcomes All is closer to the vision of Jesus than the deliberation of past councils which espoused creeds designed to separate those not in agreement. It pains me greatly that my church has chosen, thus far, to go down that unholy and divisive path. Gretta Vosper is one of the voices calling us back to the path of Justice, love and acceptance for diversity. Thank you Gretta for having the courage remind us all of our REAL calling.

  17. Ceige

    I heard Gretta being interviewed here in NZ this morning and so have looked up her website. I have to confess I was saddened she believed doing good out of concern for humanity was preferable to doing good in order to avoid receiving punishment in the after life. Saddened because I couldn’t quite comprehend an ordained Minister had not experience or knowledge of a Christian’s motivation for doing what they do, as a response to the love of God in Christ not fear of punishment. “For those who fear have not been made perfect in Love”.

    I cannot now not believe in a truine God that is less than omnipotent and active in our world. When I had suffered for thirty years from scars left by emotional abuse, this God, my Lord, heard the prayer of one with faith the size of a mustard seed saying “if you really died 2000 years ago to pay for sin I shouldn’t have to suffer the consequences of sin.” That night I wept because the pain I felt had gone, I wept because I knew what Jesus had taken on the cross was so much more than my pain and yet at times I had bearly been able to endure the pain I carried. Sure I can question why it took thirty years or why it ever occurred in the first place but that doesn’t remove for me what God did that day.

    I only recently learnt that the wrote words of the Nicene creed I say in Church came not from pompous dictates on high but from early Christian leaders, who having suffered decades of persecution including loosing eyesight and limbs without using violence in return, travelled to Nicea – many in there old age, because they wanted future generations to receive teaching based on the foundational truth of the Truine God they had come to know.

    And I guess that it what it comes down to. I believe our God is a God you can know through Christ. And I suspect why those Christian’s who in many places will risk their lives to tell the Gospel, can do what they do, as the Bible says, “I know in whom I have believed.”


    1. George Menzies

      ”’ “For those who fear have not been made perfect in Love”.

      I cannot now not believe in a truine God that is less than omnipotent …..”

      ‘made perfect’, uh huh.

      1. Ceige

        Yep, “perfect love casts out all fear because fear has to do with punishment.

        And if you have grown up ‘in fear’ of ‘punishment’ as a child, the unconditional love of God in Christ (who takes all punishment upon himself) ;the freedom of love without fear of ever losing it is the most unfathomable yet amazing hope.

        NB: the translated perfect in biblical translation comes from a root word with a meaning slightly different from our modern one; perfect implies the fulnesss of what is meant to be… sort of like love as it should be.

  18. Ceige

    Are you referring to the belief Christians hold of Jesus being the only way to God? – a path not found through other religions?

  19. Ceige

    No actually religions are quite different many are quite happy for their adherents to follow other faiths as well, for example although Buddhism has no God many Buddhists worship Hindu Gods.

    Buddhism has no God, it is a philosophy of living right and obeying set rules, being born again until you are able to finally reach Nirvana which means absolute nothingness – it operates on a merit system, a friend of mine who had Polio and was Buddhist maintained this was her due because of what she had done in a past life. Hinduism has many God’s and by appeasing the different God’s or appealing to them you seek their favour or escape their wrath. Islam has only one God and through Muhammad’s teaching and scholars interpretations of it you are encouraged to please God by obeying and doing set things – not knowing whether or not you will recieve God’s mercy (forgiveness) or judgement (punishment) until after you die.

    Christianity is actually the only religion or faith which offers grace or unconditional love.

    1. George Menzies

      Yes, they are different. Thanks for your input.

      ”Christianity is actually the only religion or faith which offers grace or unconditional love.”

      Hell is definitely out then.


  20. Ceige

    As the saying goes, “the door of hell is locked from the inside.” One could say given the human condition we are already living in ‘hell’ and different religions offer there own versions of how to ‘solve’ this. Christianity doesn’t negate the existence of hell (as is obvious by the use of the word in the Bible) but it does offer a way out if people want to take it.

    1. George Menzies

      ”Christianity doesn’t negate the existence of hell (as is obvious by the use of the word in the Bible) but it does offer a way out if people want to take it.”

      That's an imperfection that can never be remedied.

  21. Greg

    As a young non-theistic church musician who, over the last few years, has grown to consider the United Church something of a home for me, thank you for existing. I hope that the UCC will always be a place that is accepting of non-traditional interpretations of God like mine. Maybe one day I will have the honour of composing hymns for you.

  22. Alan Hardiman

    My hunch is that the “very narrow gate” was installed by the general secretary in reaction to Gretta Vosper’s having gone public. This affair is reminiscent of the “Honest to God Debate” that raged in the UK following the publication of Bishop John A.T. Robinson’s book of that name in 1963, for which he was vilified by many conservatives in the Church of England.

    For years, clergy have learned to say things in ways that can be interpreted variously, according to the individual beliefs of the listener. During their training in theological colleges associated with modern secular universities, candidates for ordination have been taught many things that have rarely filtered down unvarnished to their congregations, likely fearing that if they did, it would no doubt lead to controversy, bad feelings, and smaller congregations with a concomitant reduction in offerings in the collection plates.

    Among the things they were taught in curricula approved by the governing bodies of their churches are textual criticism, which established that prior to the invention of printing, no two manuscripts of the bible agreed out of several thousand extant copies, all of which were written in various ancient languages; further, the methods of literary historical criticism, form criticism, redaction criticism and tradition history showed that the biblical text, if it could be reliably reconstructed at all, was very much the work of human beings.

    They were taught that in the early 20th century, Rudolf Bultmann in Germany urged that the bible should be “demythologized,” and they were exposed to the writings of leading thinkers such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer (“Christ the man for others”), Paul Tillich (“God is the ground of our being”), William Hamilton and Thomas Altizer (“the death of God”), Robert W. Funk (the Jesus Seminar), and Bishop John Shelby Spong (“Christianity must change or die”), among many others.

    Having taught and tutored Greek to more than a few candidates for ordination (at least in the years when Greek and or Hebrew were academic requirements), I am familiar with the ongoing tension in the student body between the “radicals” and the “fundies” and can testify to a general apprehension in the ranks about revealing too much of modern theological thought to the people in the pews—and rightly so, if the tempest around Gretta Vosper is any indication.

    The thinking seems to be that it’s all right to learn this stuff and to discuss it in the closed ranks of the clergy, but heaven help you if you mention it to the paying customers, whom you must not “offend” in their primitive Sunday School beliefs, lest they take their business elsewhere.

    For too long, this story has been right out of “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” but now the cat is out of the bag, the boat has been rocked, the pigeons have come home to roost, and yes, it’s time to pay the piper—or not.

    I am not surprised at the church’s reaction to Gretta Vosper’s coming out as an atheist, but I will be if they do the right thing and stand by one of their own, whom they have clearly had a hand in educating very well.

  23. Alan Hardiman

    Small correction: Robinson’s 1963 book was entitled “Honest to God.” David Edwards’ edited book, “The ‘Honest to God’ Debate” followed. My punctuation was sloppy.

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