Why I Support Rev. Vosper Even As I Disagree with Her


This shouldn’t be a remarkable claim. It is possible to support someone, especially if they are undergoing an unfair process, even if there are disagreements with them. What is the disagreement? Gretta Vosper is a self identified atheist who serves as a pastor in the United Church of Canada. I’m a revisionary theist. I think the term God is of central importance for progressive Christianity. She disagrees.

What is the process she is facing? The Toronto Conference “decided it wanted to investigate her fitness to be a minister. Nora Sanders, general secretary of the church’s General Council, issued a ruling in May laying out a review process that could ultimately lead to Vosper’s defrocking. Essentially, the review should determine whether she was being faithful to her ordination vows, which included affirming a belief in “God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” As was noted in the piece, this process was just made up.

What does that mean? It means that a process that never existed before, when she came to her religious understanding, is going to be used against her. The rules are changing midstream which should be a warning flag. Now other denominations have had language about ordination vows as a criteria for standing. The United Church of Canada never has had that criteria. This is the criteria for standing:

presbteryAnd Rev. Vosper fits that criteria. She has the support of her congregation and she has always recognized the relationship with the presbytery and the wider United Church of Canada. So if she is defrocked it will be from a brand new process they invented. And the problem there is what is entailed: How does one evaluate whether one affirms belief in God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit?

I believe in God language and in particular trinitarian affirmations of it, but I know I hold a revisionary theism that locates those words to realities in this life and world. Like Rev. Vosper, I reject the supernatural.That is, all of God that we can know and salvifically relate to is to be found in the world of humans, our natural world, and the processes which sustain, transform, and connect us to one another.

Would I be defrocked under this process? We’re assured by fellow liberals in the church, no. Of course not. This one process we just invented is just going after one person. Is that the case? Do new instruments of power just go away? Do not different people in the future come across those instruments, ready to use them against some other individual or group of folks? I think history shows us that is exactly what happens.

So I hope she wins. I hope the process is undone. I hope no one ever has to fear a defrocking for a doctrinal disagreement. And yet I think she’s wrong. I don’t believe I could be fed at her church. A church without God language, without the sacraments, without the regular reading of scripture. Why?  Because to me, those are the very resources of the Christian tradition that we can access reality. To lose that is a shame.

And I’m not convinced as some are, that this is the wave of the future. Whether you are mainline or evangelical or a seeker, the desire to build roots, to relate to holy things, to engage in ancient practices, to explore religious language has increased. Unlike many baby boomers who experienced the heavy handedness of the church, many millennials and gen x’ers, like myself, are in the process of reconstructing, not tearing down.

As one millennial puts it:

“You know, those strange rituals and traditions Christians have been practicing for the past 2,000 years. The sacraments are what make the church relevant, no matter the culture or era. They don’t need to be repackaged or rebranded; they just need to be practiced, offered and explained in the context of a loving, authentic and inclusive community.”

And, progressive Christians can have a unique role to play, to help in that process. And Rev. Vosper and her congregation do too. Because they indicate that there is no line of inquiry or re-imagining that will be artificially cut off because of some eclessial authority. It means that there are no questions that can’t be raised in the church. So even if I wouldn’t join her congregation, we need her in the church.

Dwight Welch is the pastor at the United Church of Norman, Oklahoma

PS. Writing about other denominations outside of one’s own is fraught with difficulty so if there are any corrections to polity in this piece, I welcome them.

4 replies »

  1. She does not have the support of her congregation. The article you referenced mentioned that only fifty out of the previous 150 stayed after she abandoned having the Lord’s Prayer read.

    It is absolutely within a denomination’s right to have limits on those who are permitted to publicly associate themselves as a teacher in that denomination and to use the facilities and resources of the denomination.

    If they have to make the process up now, it’s only because it’s the first time anyone has had the audacity to try to claim that as an athiest, they still have the right to preach from the pulpit.

    This is so mind-boggling, it belongs in the The Onion.

    • It should be noted her congregation now is close to 100 and is on board. I would have not joined or stayed in her church myself. But I think it is accurate the congregation today supports her. And in a congregational system without bishops, it is the local church which should have some priority in all this.

  2. She is a minister in a Christian denomination. She is responsible as an ordained minister for Word, Sacrament and Pastoral Care. She can not preach the word with integrity if she does not believe it. She can not administer sacrament if she does not believe it is anything more than water, bread or wine, and she can not give pastoral care when she is not trying to pastor/shepherd God’s flock.

    I worked for Shaw Cable, I initially liked the job and thought the company was great. Eventually after nearly four years I got really sick of the job and I thought Shaw was pretty lousy, particularly after they instituted some terrible rules that made our jobs harder and make customers angrier. I did not start picking up the phone, “Thank you for choosing Shaw, but you should really choose Telus, MTS or Sasktel.” Nor did I start telling customers, “Oh your internet is not working? THERE IS NO INTERNET!”

    I think Vosper should believe whatever she wants. But I don’t think she should stand behind a United Church pulpit and give the rest of the denomination a worse name in the process. As a gay man who can’t really exist in most of the rest of the church, I do not want people in other denominations looking at our’s and saying, “If we start accepting gays, we’re going to accept everything else, just like the United Church!”

    Nobody is suggesting that Vosper be killed, or mistreated. They’re asking that she be removed from a job that she’s not fit for.

  3. David, Thank you for bringing this to our attention. This is important. In the United Church of Christ – USA we say that there is room for much theology, and Process Theology is absolutely acceptable. It’s not “common”, or commonly acknowledged in its entirety, but many concepts, ways of understanding and naming, or not naming God, are a part of Process Theology and are often found in the local church setting. Because I was leaning in the direction of Process theology during my ordination journey, I had many voices warning me to walk carefully, softly, because my local district committee was, at that time, making it very clear that the people that formed the current committee were not happy that so many “liberal” candidates had been ordained in the past few years. I was warned that my Christology was under scrutiny also, as my theology of atonement was not strong enough. As is common, the makeup of the committee has again shifted and theologies being voiced in Ecclesiastical councils are again much broader. This in itself represents a concern with Rev. Vosper’s situation. The specifics of theology can flex quite a distance in the more local, in both geography and timeline, setting. I would be very, very leery of creating special rules based in one person’s situation!!! Local gatekeeping is,sometimes, just a covert expression of exclusion of those “not like us”. Prayers for all involved and that the love of God we find expressed so strongly in the life of Jesus guides them all.

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