Tag Archives: Jordan Cantwell

“Call your church back from this precipice.”

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

With Jack and Chris 2015

Do you really want to risk that?

 

A letter to United Church of Canada elected officials and senior staff
from Ben Robertson, Windsor, NS

To paraphrase Blaise Pascal, I apologize for writing such a long letter; I
didn’t have time to write a shorter one.

As a member of the United Church of Canada, I am writing to express my
deep concern with the process that has been initiated to review the
“suitability” of Rev. Gretta Vosper to continue as an ordained minister of
that church. I have been following Rev. Vosper with great interest for a few
years and am very supportive of the work she is doing. I will state up front
that if the church decides that she is not longer suitable for ministry, I will be
forced to question my own relationship with the United Church of Canada.

First, a bit of background. I was brought up in a rather traditional and
conservative Christian church, the First Methodist Church in my hometown
of Athens Georgia. At an early age I began to question the beliefs that had
been taught me, and by the time I finished university, I decided that these
teachings made no sense, so I stopped going to church entirely. Some
years later I became aware of some of the work that was being done on the
subject of the historic Jesus, and as a student of history, I began to read
many books on that subject. All this was done outside of the context of any
church, since I still found that the church’s message as I perceived it did
not resonate with me.

In 1993, I moved to Canada to marry a lovely Nova Scotia lady and
subsequently accompanied her occasionally to services at her church,
Windsor United. I did not particularly enjoy the services themselves, since
the incessant “God language” was a bit of a turnoff, but Rev. Bill Gibson’s
sermons were always interesting and thought-provoking, more grounded in
real life than theology. I also noted that the church had a pretty good
choir, which I eventually joined in order to indulge my love for choral singing.

Over the years, I found this church to be a welcoming community that, to
my surprise and delight, included a sizeable number of people whose
beliefs tended toward the more “liberal” end of the spectrum. I have been
able to be quite outspoken about my lack of belief in the traditional
interventionist God, and in the annual Lenten discussion groups we are
able to have a respectful dialogue in which all views are honoured. I
eventually became a member of this church by transfer, which did not
require making any affirmative statements of belief. I did so as a way to
support this inclusive community which I believe is providing a valuable
service to the members as well as to the wider community of the town. I
continued my study of scholarship on Christianity and the Bible by such
authors as John Dominic Crossan, John Shelby Spong, and Tom Harper,
among many others, with encouragement from Rev. Bill.

One of the first things that made the United Church of Canada seem
interesting to me was the time when Rev. Bill Phipps, newly appointed
moderator, mused to a reporter about his doubts concerning some of the
traditional tents of Christianity, such as the divinity of Jesus and the
historicity of the resurrection. The fact that he could make such statements
and not be removed from office was intriguing, and I thought, this is an
interesting church, indeed. Much later, when I became aware of Rev.
Vosper’s writings and her work in her own supportive congregation, I was
impressed with what seemed to be the ability of the church to accept such
wide-ranging views among its clergy, much as my local church accepts a
wide range of belief (or lack thereof) among the congregation. It seemed to
speak to a church that is mature enough to allow its members and clergy to
think critically about the big questions, a church that can allow for open
dialogue and even controversy.

Now it seems that she is to be subjected to a test of her “suitability” for
ministry, using a process that had to be created especially for her case. It is
my understanding that there have been no real complaints about her from
within the church. Her congregation lost ⅔ of its members when she
eliminated the Lord’s Prayer from the service, but they have since grown to
about 100 who support her, encompassing a broad spectrum of thought
and belief, from theistic to atheist and everything in between – probably not
all that different from Windsor United and many other UCCs across the
country. It would seem to be a growing and vibrant church at a time when
most are shrinking and many are shutting their doors (not ours, as it
happens).

This causes me deep concern. If she is found to be “unsuitable” and is
expelled, what next? What about other UCC ministers? I’m sure you are
aware that there are a great many clergy across the United Church whose
beliefs are not that different from Rev. Vosper’s but who remain quiet.
Is this test to be applied to all, or is she being singled out because of her
notoriety? Are we going to go on a witch hunt? When we have had other
controversial issues to deal with (such as gay marriage), the church
engaged in a lengthy process of deliberation, with congregations across the
country invited to have structured discussions. Now it seems that we are in
a big hurry to have what some have called a “heresy trial.” Why the
difference? And what about the many in the pews who have serious doubts and
questions about the articles of faith? Such people are there for various
reasons – perhaps habit, tradition, a need for community, or a need to feel
grounded in something.

Many are non-theistic “spiritual seekers” who choose to pursue their quest in the familiar context of the Christianity that they grew up with. If a voice like Rev. Vosper’s is to be silenced, what place is there in this United Church for us?

If Rev. Vosper is allowed to continue to minister to her flock (which it seems
they would welcome), I seriously doubt that many people are going to leave
the UCC. If she is rejected, however, is it possible that a great many will be
forced to ask whether the UCC is a suitable spiritual home for them?
Do you really want to risk that?

Instead of this headlong rush to judge one person, perhaps it would be
wise for the church to take a deep collective breath and give some serious
thought to what the church should look like in the future. I don’t mean an
administrative restructuring like we are going through now, I mean really
look at what this church wants to be and to whom it wants to minister.

There are some who say that the UCC is shrinking because it has
embraced liberalism. While it is certainly true that many people of a more
fundamentalist or evangelical bent have left over the years, it is not the
whole story. Most churches are shrinking for a variety of reasons. I contend
that a big factor is that a great many people who are in need of spiritual
nourishment find the church’s ancient formulas and outmoded language,
derived from prescientific cultures of thousands of years ago, to be
offputting. Is the UCC interested in reaching out to these people and finding
ways to engage them, or does it prefer to be a closed club for those who
are willing to affirm belief in these ancient ideas? Or to put it another way,
does the UCC want to step bravely into the 21st Century, with all the risk
that entails, or does it prefer to turn its back on progress and hope for the
best?

I would prefer to remain a part of a church that is inclusive, welcoming to
all, and big enough to allow for doubt, deep questions, and outspoken
unbelief, even among its clergy. If that is not the United Church of Canada,
then so be it.

Respectfully,
Ben Robertson
Windsor NS

The Rev. John Shuck, Presbyterian Church (USA), Letter of Support

August 21, 2015

The Right Reverend Jordan Cantwell
Moderator, UCC
3250 Bloor St. West, Suite 300
Toronto, ON M8X 2Y4

Nora Sanders
General Secretary, UCC
3250 Bloor St. West, Suite 300
Toronto, ON M8X 2Y4 Canada

David Allen
Executive Secretary – Toronto Conference
65 Mayall Avenue, Toronto, ON M3L 1E7

The Reverend Bryan Ransom
President – Toronto Conference
65 Mayall Avenue, Toronto, ON M3L 1E7

Dear Esteemed Colleagues in the United Church of Canada,

I am writing on behalf of Rev. Gretta Vosper. Gretta is a friend and colleague. I am a pastor in the Presbyterian Church (USA). I host a radio program, Religion For Life, and Gretta has been a guest twice.

I am writing in hopes that you will be an advocate for Rev. Vosper. I have nothing to say about polity and process within the United Church of Canada, of course. What I wish to write to you about is larger than Gretta, you or I, or our respective denominations. I wish to write about the intellectual future of Christianity and the importance of ministers like Gretta Vosper as they fearlessly present to us the issues we face.

What are these issues?

We live in a universe that is 13.75 billion years old. Earth is 4.5 billion years old. It is a pale blue dot in the suburbs of a galaxy that is one of billions. Humans have evolved through a process of natural selection. We share a common ancestor with all of life going to back to single-celled organisms from perhaps three billion years ago. It is an incredible universe that science is unfolding before our eyes. Yet religion with its ancient creeds and symbols is still in a pre-modern era.

All of the symbols and doctrines of faith from creation to eschatology including “God” are products of a pre-modern era in which humanity was “created” around 6000 years ago in a garden in the midst of a geocentric universe over which Father, Son, and Holy Ghost could be imagined as real entities existing in real time and space. These doctrinal formulations are little more than poetry today.

As one wag put it: Galileo put God out of a home and Darwin put God out of a job.

A supernatural interventionist deity, a god called God, is no more credible than a hammer-wielding Thor scaring humanity with his thunderbolts. By virtue of living in a modern world, we are all a-theists whether we want to admit it or not. No one expects a divine being to send rain, heal diseases, stop the sun in the sky, spin the planets, or cause my team to win in battle or in football, except perhaps fundamentalists.

What we do with our symbols of faith, how we approach them, what we keep, what we reject, what we redefine and reimagine is the responsibility of our generation of ministers and theologians. “God” must be on the table for dissection. That is our task. The one thing that will cripple our work is the silencing of our most creative minister-theologians. This is from American biblical scholar, Roy Hoover:

“Those who insist upon the unaltered retention of traditional forms of religious understanding and language and who retreat from the challenge posed by the actual world after Galileo want to direct the Christian community into the confines of a sacred grotto, an enclosed, religiously defined world that is brought completely under the control of scripture and tradition; and they want to turn the ordained clergy into antiquities dealers.” The Fourth R, Jan. – Feb. 2004

Gretta Vosper and courageous clergy who tell the truth are our last hope for a faith that will have any integrity. You may not agree with the approach that Gretta and West Hills United Church are taking. We will not agree on one clear approach to theology in this time. Agreement isn’t the point. The point is not to punish voices and force people to mouth a wooden formula created in a pre-modern world.

We need ministers and theologians to experiment and to try out new ways of being church. We need ministers and theologians to articulate new ways of doing good in our world. Both our denominations have strong commitments to social justice and ethics. That is the heart of the church. Diana Butler Bass, author of Christianity After Religion quotes Harvey Cox:

“Faith is resurgent while dogma is dying. The spiritual, communal, and justice-seeking dimensions of Christianity are now its leading edge….A religion based on subscribing to mandatory beliefs is no longer viable.” p. 109-110.

West Hills United Church and Rev. Gretta Vosper are Christianity’s leading edge. I hope you will consider the larger picture as you reflect on this particular situation. Once we start down the road of silencing creative clergy, then all clergy begin to run scared. Once we do ministry from a context of fear, the love vanishes.

This is an exciting time. The world is watching The United Church of Canada, a denomination that Rev. Gretta Vosper loves and serves. May your church be a leader in exploring a faith for a 21st century mind.

Sincerely,

Rev. John Shuck

Reply

Hello Mr. Shuck,

I’m responding on behalf of Moderator Jordan Cantwell, General Secretary Nora Sanders and Toronto Conference President Bryan Ransom. Thank you for sending your letter regarding Rev. Gretta Vosper.

You raise many good points in your letter, not least of which is your regard for Gretta as a friend and colleague. I experience her in both of those ways too, and am glad of it.

The process we are going through does not have a predetermined endpoint. Our Executive heard many people asking how a minister can say the things Gretta says and still be a minister. Others, like you, have written eloquently in her support. My hope is that at the end of the process, we’ll have a good reason for maintaining her as a minister – or we’ll have a good reason for saying she is not to continue in that role. What we have not done is to pre-judge the outcome and we, like many others, await the recommendations that will eventually come to us.

Again, thank you for writing, and for being a good friend to Gretta.

David W. Allen (Rev.)
Executive Secretary, Toronto Conference
The United Church of Canada