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:
And 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.