An open letter to the Moderator of the United Church
from Bishop John Shelby Spong
Dear Moderator Cantwell,
I write with some alarm at what is happening in the United Church of Canada, a church that I have long admired. I recall your history. Your church decided that women were not to be excluded from ordination long before the first woman ever applied. In 1988 your church proclaimed that homosexual people were not ineligible for ordination. That stand resulted in a loss of members, but your church responded to that loss with a campaign slogan that rang throughout Canada: “Proud to be United.” The rest of the Christian world rejoiced to witness your passion for truth. I have come to Canada under the auspices of the United Church of Canada to lecture more times than I can count. These events have been in every province of your nation from the Maritimes to British Columbia, from Nova Scotia to the islands off Vancouver. I have led conferences in each of your UCC conference centers. I have written articles in praise of the United Church of Canada. It was the one Christian body in the world that seemed free of the need to be tied to the past, but was rather courageously open to the future.
Now to my dismay, a segment of the United Church of Canada has decided that it is no longer secure enough or open enough to contain one of its most creative, future-oriented pastors. I refer to the Rev. Gretta Vosper of the West Hill United Church in Toronto.
I have known Gretta for years. I was present when she was installed to head The Progressive Christian Movement in Canada; a movement I helped to found in the United States and that now has chapters in most of the other countries in the English-speaking world. I have encouraged her in her writing career. I wrote the foreword to her first book, With or Without God, and I pushed her to write her book on prayer entitled Amen.
I have admired her as she sought to move Christianity into the future, not in some ivy- towered part of academia, where things that she says are so well accepted as not to be controversial, but in a congregation of real people, who are trying to make sense out of their Christian faith without twisting their 21st century minds into 1st century pretzels. For engaging in this creative effort, which the whole church will sooner or later be required to do, some elements of the United Church of Canada now want to banish her from the ministry of your church. I presume that they want to be allowed to remain comfortably in their pre-modern mentalities. If the United Church of Canada is not broad enough to embrace this creative and unique pastor then this church that I once admired so much has sounded its own death knell. Gretta’s “sin,” if one can use that word, is that she has dared to share with her congregation the scholarship available in the great academic centers of Christian learning throughout the world.
We Christians are living today on the other side of Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo. We understand such things as the vastness of space and the generally accepted 13.8 billion year age of this universe. In such a worldview, there is clearly no theistic God hovering above the sky of a three-tiered universe, ready to intervene in supernatural ways. Does that mean there is no God? Of course not! It does mean, however, that God can no longer be conceived of as a being, supernatural in power, dwelling externally to our world, who is standing by ready to invade human history to answer our prayers or to impose the divine will. It means that our traditional pre-Copernican God language is simply no longer a language we can use. Rethinking God in non-theistic terms is one of the great concerns of contemporary Christian theology. The primary theologian under whom I trained, Paul Tillich, a Reformed theologian out of Germany, made this so clear. Please note that Dr. Tillich was probably the best read Christian theologian in the 20th century. He died in 1965. His ideas hardly represent new thinking. This means that those who want to banish Gretta are simply not aware of where Christian theology is today. They do not comprehend the wide gap that exists today between the Christian academy and the Christian pew. Gretta is one of the few pastors willing to live and work on the front lines and she dares to do so while leading a real congregation in which she is both loved and admired. She and her congregation are making an attempt to bridge this gap and to bring relevance to 21st century Christianity. Instead of trying to silence her, your church should be celebrating the fact that you have produced an incredible star.
Gretta has called herself “an atheist minister.” While that language is startling to some, the Christian academy knows exactly what she is saying. To refer to oneself as an “atheist” does not mean that one is asserting that there is no God; it means that the “theistic” definition of God is no longer operative or believable. It has not been operative in intellectual circles since the 17th century. Perhaps if Gretta had called herself a “non-theistic” pastor, people would not respond with the negativity that is born out of such incredible and profound theological ignorance. Gretta’s style, however, is to shock people into opening their minds to new possibilities and thus to call them into a new understanding of God. Under the impact of her ministry one cannot hide in the time-worn platitudes of our religious past. That is exactly what the Christian Church of today needs to hear and the issue with which it needs to wrestle. An “in your face” style is not for everyone, but it is a necessary aspect of ministry that can help awaken an irrelevant and dying church. I assume she must have believed that the United Church of Canada had within its leadership sufficient theological learning that her words would be properly understood. The leaders of this church need to assert loudly that they do, or the Christian world will be left to draw the conclusion that your church is no longer capable of living in the modern world.
The vast numbers of former Christians, who have dropped out of organized religion, have done so as a direct response to the small minds saying unbelievable things that they confront inside so many traditional churches. They are bored by what they experience. Institutional Christianity will die of boredom long before it dies of controversy. Controversy is indeed a sign of life.
Gretta uses language that will cause secular people to turn their heads, to say:” Did I hear that right? Surely a Christian pastor cannot be saying what I just heard. Is there something about Christianity that I have missed, something about which I have never thought before? Should I perhaps re-enter church life to listen anew?” Surely you do not want to penalize a pastor whose style has gotten the attention of the audience that now listens to Gretta across not only Canada, but throughout the rest of the Christian world. Those are exactly the people that Christianity must attract if it wishes to avoid its almost relentless journey into medieval irrelevance.
Gretta is also quite correct in calling for the church to abandon its victimizing forms of Christianity. There is no such thing as “original sin” into which we have fallen and from which we have to be saved. That idea is nothing more than a hangover from such 4th century thinkers as Augustine, the Bishop of Hippo in North Africa. The concept of “original sin” assumed that there was an original perfection from which we have fallen. It assumes a passive human helplessness from which divine rescue is essential. It assumes that God does not know how to forgive and so God requires a human sacrifice and a blood offering before both divine forgiveness and divine love are possible. It assumes that salvation is achievable only through the invasion of our world by a theistic deity. This is the portrait of the God who decided to punish Jesus for our sins. It is this dated theology that permeates the Christian Church today and it is this theology that Gretta Vosper is challenging. Out of this theology we Christians continue to say strange things like: “Jesus died for my sins.” This theology turns God into a monster who requires a human sacrifice and a blood offering; it turns Jesus into a victim and it turns human beings into guilt-filled creatures, groveling before God and begging for mercy! Besides all of these liabilities we also now know that this theology is simply wrong.
Those of us who live in the 21st century are inevitably post-Darwinian people. We know that there never was an original perfection from which we have fallen. Darwin taught us that at the beginning there was only a slow evolution over billions of years as we journeyed from single cells of life into the status of self-conscious complexity that marks human life today.
If there was no original perfection, then there could not have been a fall from perfection. One cannot fall from that which never existed. If there was no fall then there is no such thing as original sin from which we need to be saved. One cannot be saved from what never was nor can one be “restored” to a status one never possessed. Finally there is no need for a deity, defined theistically, who mounts the rescue operation. So the whole way we tell the Jesus story has got to be rethought and reformulated. To say that publicly, as Gretta does, is not to be a threat to the church, it is to be the hope of the church.
These are the things that the United Church of Canada needs to hear if any part of it wants to remove Gretta Vosper from her ministry. Such a church will look “heroic”, only to an increasingly neurotic band of “true believers,” who think they can protect God from knowledge and it will become the laughing stock of the members of our increasingly secular society, who are quite sure they want nothing to do with the kind of Christianity that you will then represent.
I grieve over the direction in which at least some parts of the United Church of Canada are now walking. I urge you, as the leader of that church, to call your church back from this precipice.
John Shelby Spong