Gretta Vosper and the right to believe what you want

"Ideas over People" cartoon by nakedpastor David Hayward
“Ideas over People” cartoon by nakedpastor David Hayward

[Like this cartoon? Get a quality print for your home or office HERE for just $19!]
Rev. Gretta Vosper is a minister in the United Church in Canada, and she is presently the pastor of West Hill United Church in Toronto. She is an atheist. Here’s some background. You can also read the story on West Hill’s own website. Please read up. It’s a fascinating and frustrating story. For me anyway.

Gretta has written two books, Amen: What Prayer Can Mean in a World Beyond Belief, and With or Without God: Why the Way We Live is More Important than What We Believe.

She is going to be tried for fitness for ministry. She will be asked to confirm her vows.

Yes, it’s a heresy trial.

It reminds me of the famous heresy trial of Bishop Pike that began in 1962. The attacks he received, Gretta receives.

She’s getting some support, even and especially from her own congregation. However, the attacks she’s getting online is immense. One day, in her defense, I wrote a response to someone’s negative post about her on Facebook:

“My point is a simple one, although controversial: Gretta has the right to believe what she believes or doesn’t believe. She represents a growing number of Christians or people who wish to continue associating with the Christian religion and its community. Therefore, her valid voice must be allowed a place in the institution where people like her wish to gather. This whole story is so reminiscent of the Bishop Pike heresy trials that began in 1962 and should be a lesson to us. But the church is unwilling to bend at all for the millions of people like them.”

She has the right to believe what she wants. That’s what she stands for. And I support her!

Anyway, in this supportive post she’s quoted as saying, “how one lives is more important than what one believes”, and it reminded me of the cartoon above that I drew back in 2010.

I’ll be writing and cartooning more about this important story.

Why do I care about this? Because what she’s standing up for is what I stand up for: your right to believe what you want to believe, as Bishop Pike said, in a way that does not offend your intellect or your conscience. Do you want space to believe what you want to believe… or even not believe? Consider joining as at The Lasting Supper!

Download my eBook "Money is Spiritual" for just $10!

45 Replies to “Gretta Vosper and the right to believe what you want”

  1. David,

    I get where you are coming from here, and I agree that we all should be free to choose what we do or don’t believe. But, I don’t think that freedom entails liberty of the consequences of belief.Rev. Vosper might be out of the bounds of the (quite liberal) confessional witness of the UCC. If her beliefs constitute a separate truth claim than the truth UCC claims to believe, wouldn’t the responsibility fall upon her, and the congregation that supports her to strike out a separate path if the UCC decides her beliefs and that of her congregation are beyond the pale? Of course it’s important to be tolerant of other beliefs, but it is also alright for (at least to me) institutional bodies such as churches to make distinctions about what is in keeping with their deeply held beliefs and what is not.

    This ecclesiastical process is actually a sign of spiritual health to me, and I don’t see why this can’t be a peaceful parting of ways that builds mutual understanding and respect. It seems like Rev. Vosper has built a meaningful community for her church, and it would be a shame to see that damaged. What worries me most in the process is how the UCC has structured ownership of its properties and congregations, because if this congregation were to face disruption or dislocation that would be a shame.

    Anyway I always appreciate reading your thoughts, even as a curmudgeonly old school Presbyterian, always thought provoking.

    It seems like Rev. Vosper displays an admirable courage of conviction, and that this has been meaningful to her community. But convictions always have consequences. I think this is part of the beauty of believing in something deeply.

  2. I really enjoy Gretta and what she has added to the church. It’s a shame if that relationship would be ended. It’s the wrong way to go. The lectionary text on 8-30 is from James where it is written, “Be doers of the word, not simply hearers.” Gretta is doing the work of the word. It’s usually the hears who have the problem with the doers not knowing the right words, not using tribal language, not affirming crusty creeds. Thanks for your art, David. This one is profound on several levels.

  3. I like what Jed wrote. There are always ways to have dialog. And, if there are irreconcilable differences, then let the church multiply, rather than allow it to condemn and destroy.

    Slightly modifying the statements in a blog article (concerning thoughts from Dr. Gottman), we need the following:

    Respect and trust. Listening more than Solving. Honoring each other’s Dreams. Honoring the combination of ‘conflict, friendship, and a sense of purpose’.

    I offer that a church heresy trial is like a man deciding to take his wife to public trial, with a threat of divorce. That is a high-stress situation.

    But what if… the ‘trial’ were a dialog, with the ‘threat’ of long-lasting friendship, understanding, and blessing her as she takes a separate path.

    The concerns can be handled beautifully…. why not?

  4. David, I agree with your statement that she has the right to believe what she wants 100%. Where we may differ a bit is in your implication that the church forfeits their right to set job requirements. You know my story well enough to know I am not a fan of organized religion. But I am a huge fan of the FREEDOM to pursue it according to one’s (individual or group) convictions. Many jobs carry with them various requirements, and religious institutions have historically been granted the right to set standards of belief. Even though I may disagree with a belief, I am not at all prepared to state that a church cannot require a certain level of compliance with its beliefs by its pastors.

    It is very much Rev. Vosper’s RIGHT to believe whatever she wants to INCLUDING to believe that there is no God, and I too stand with her in that right. But I fail to see how being a pastor in the UCC is also some sort of right. As Jed mentioned above…we have a right to our beliefs, but not a right to zero consequences. To deny others (the UCC) their right to establish the deeply held beliefs of the institution as a job criteria in selecting suitable candidates for the JOB of pastor to represent them, crosses well outside the scope of rights and squarely into some sort of privilege at the expense of other’s rights.

  5. No, I agree in a way. But I feel something deeper is going on. I’m going to be thinking more about it and writing another post and drawing another cartoon tomorrow. For example, is it possible that the UCC is being invited into it’s own transformation? That’s what I’m wondering. Certainly things can’t go on as if nothing’s happening. But I do wonder if Gretta’s presence in the UCC is like a germ that can provoke an important, relevant, and necessary change.

  6. I think she would give hope to the atheists in the pews on Sunday mornings, and yes, there are atheists in those pews. If she has to break away, then she has to. But I hope she can still lead a community like she does now. She sounds like an awesome person. Both books are on my wishlist.

  7. I read the info on West Hill’s web site and the thing that I don’t get is why they still want to stay within the UCC? As a group they clearly seem to have outgrown their need for that organisation and as they say they are subsidising the UCC rather than the other way round. So they would benefit from those savings.

    Can anyone more knowledgeable or have a clearer understanding help me understand why the need to stay withing the UCC, please?

  8. “He drew a circle that shut me out: heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
    But love and I had the wit to win. We drew a circle that took him in.”
    (Edwin Markham) Gretta, Thank you for making the circle wider for all of us!

  9. To the skeptical lot out there, Rev. Vosper’s insistence on staying on as a UCC minister flies in the face of the UCC’s own stated mission and belief statement. Vosper’s actions seem, to the uber-cynical, a way to retain a paycheck and tax-free housing allowance.

    If I were to apply for a job in the oil patch, and I do not meet the requirements for the job, I would not be hired. If I were working in the oil patch and then lose my ability to perform based on being unable to, say, lift certain amount of weight, then I would be let go. This is the standard everyone in the working world relies on in order to maintain employment and employment standards. Vosper simply doesn’t believe in the UCC’s faith statement and as such, how on earth can she deliver the UCC’s message?

    If I worked in the oil patch, and on my time off, I picketed oil sands sites, I would be fired. Here we have a minister who doesn’t believe in God and yet collects all the benefits of being called “Reverend”. It’s a head-scratcher.

  10. If anyone thinks that a UCC minister stays in the job because of the paycheque and housing allowance, then I think they don’t know much about ministerial terms of employment!

  11. I asked a question earlier out of a genuine interest in this topic.

    I can’t understand why this has become such a struggle about the UCC’s intransigence rather than West Hill saying that we’ve ‘grown’ out of the need for the UCC?

    From everything I’ve read it would appear that the UCC do not provide ANYTHING of value to the West Hill group (other than a possible, but dubiously beneficial, place for meeting.

    Why aren’t most here on this blog not saying to West Hill ‘just get out’ rather than insisting that the UCC be inclusive?

    It’s baffling me…. and I dislike that feeling. Please explain.

  12. It is a good question and an important question – the struggle between the United Church of Canada and West Hills UCC and The Rev. Gretta Vesper. If, as I suspect, they are a covenantal church, there is a promise to honor ethical boundaries for ministry, as well as protecting pledges of commitment around compensation guidelines, which not only include salary, but insurance and pension benefits. Still, the underlying question – Is there room for diversity and a free and responsible search for truth and meaning? Gretta has “pushed the envelope.” It will be interesting to see how the question gets resolved. (It would be helpful to hear a response from those in leadership in the UCC.)

  13. Harvey J, thank you very much for responding. It would appear that beyond a place to meet the UCC is also providing Gretta with a financial benefit.

    My reading of the West Hill website suggested that they were paying all the salaries AND contributing around C$20K per annum to the UCC. Am I mistaken in that understanding?

    My experience of ‘establishment’ is that it never responds in such circumstances so to expect anything from the leadership of the UCC is a bit far out.

    What I’m struggling to understand is why West Hill, which has a very good ‘community’ and leader and who have taken a philosophical path beyond the ‘norm’ needs to still be part of ANY establishment.

    I can understand their wish to influence the UCC for the wider good but right now they seem to be spending time, money and effort on something that they don’t (in my view) need.

    If they opt out they would be in a better position on all 3 fronts to then spend that in changing the views of the UCC if they still felt like it.

  14. @Harvey Joyner hit the nail on the head. My hastily typed “paycheck” should have included the “perks” that Harvey noted.

    @David Hayward — Your question is an odd one. Why is Vosper making it difficult for herself? Why does anyone buck the status quo at any place of employment? Sometimes it works, sometimes it causes you to find yourself looking for employment. This is the head-scratcher: She’s been out as an atheist for years in a place of employment that has a faith statement to the contrary. It seems odd that a church built on the faith around Jesus, and publicly declares that, can have a minister in their ranks that doesn’t believe in that one bit. What’s inside is outside… what’s light is dark…. what’s up is down…. This is akin to Justin Trudeau working for Harper’s election campaign — two divergent claims about how to run a country (and in Vosper and UCC’s case, the case about divine reality) and somehow we’re expected to wave away the duality of the situation with the question about “why make it so difficult on herself?”.

    She’s still able to, under the auspices of the UCC, have a meeting place paid for, her remuneration and potential future payouts (read: retirement fund), and the tax savings for accommodations that the “regular Jane” just doesn’t get to claim. And you don’t want to admit that there is a paycheck attached to this, no matter how under-inflated people claim it to be and that, as a human, is not a motivator to keep said job for as long as possible? I’m skeptical.

    If it were really about humanism and social justice, there are numerous secular agencies out there that would love to hire someone of Vosper’s credentialed and experienced background without carrying around the baggage of being an atheist in a Christian church.

  15. Again, because there is a “connectional” relationship between denomination, church, & pastor, “they” will ultimately have to own the conversation and resolve the question of Gretta Vosper’s ministerial standing.
    Yes, they could dissolve the relationship (or, as you say, “opt out”), but this reminds me of something that a church history professor said to me years ago, “You can shatter stained glass far better from the inside of the church than from the outside.” Perhaps Gretta and West Hill have opted to hang in the ring, hoping to be reformists in their own denomination. It will be interesting to see how this all plays out!

  16. Harvey J, I do understand the motive (and sometimes the effectiveness) of ‘activism from within’ you only have to read West Hill’s website to know that they’ve moved on. For them to INSIST that the rest of the UCC follow is almost as BAD as UCC’s intransigence. (one of these times I’m going to get the spelling of that ‘intransigence’ word wrong…and soon)!!

  17. In an international site like this, lack of intimate awareness of the United Church of Canada is inevitable. As somebody deeply ensconced inside the UCC (been an ordained minister of the UCC for 50 years) these comments: 1) the UCC was born out of an Act of the Canadian Government, back in 1925. It’s religious birth parents (denominations) were the Presbyterian Church, the Methodist Church and the Congregational Church, with a later adoption of the Evangelical United Brethren, and just last week the national council of the UCC voted to pursue formal joining with the United Church of Christ (USA).
    2) While the UCC does confess a Statement of Beliefs, these are NOT doctrines or dogmas, prescribed for all members, and as far as conformity to the Statement, the only requisite is to be in “essential agreement” (a lot of wiggle room for individual beliefs and opinions). 3) There are currently four courts within the UCC – the local pastoral charge, the regional Presbyteries, the large Conferences, and finally the national organization, called the General Council. Each has a prescribed set of policies and practices. 4) to date the only issue that has warranted expulsion of an individual clergy-person has been sexual misconduct and elaborate procedures have evolved to handle cases.

    Individual attitudes and beliefs have never been prescribed by a court of the UCC (until this most recent case). Novitiates and candidates, can be examined by committees and commissions of peers and members set up by a particular court, and if the decision of that committee/commission was to prevent that person from joining that would be recorded, but could be appealed. However (to borrow phrases used by earlier commentators) on the matter of beliefs there really isn’t a “beyond the pale” of certain United Church of Canada’s dictates/dogmas or doctrines.. Ultimately it comes down to the individual’s decision as to whether or not they wish to stay connected to a particular court of the UCC, i.e. that denomination. or religious community.

    In Gretta Vosper’s case – 1) her first court is the pastoral charge which hires or fires her. Westhill United Church continues to want her as their ordered minister. They pay her full salary and benefits. To date that pastoral charge wishes to remain inside the camp of the UCC, and maintain all the necessary links with that denomination. And to date (again) the second court of the UCC polity, i.e., the Presbytery in which Westhill UC belongs, hasn’t decided to jettison that pastoral charge from its ranks.

    For Jed and others to suggest that there are certain “deeply held beliefs” that all UCC members adhere to is total ignorance of our denomination. I firmly support David’s statement that what Vosper is doing is inviting the denomination into its own transformation – whether we are capable of accepting her invitation is being played out – mostly because there has been no way of knowing if everybody is “on the same page”.

    Some excellent comments and commentary, but it would really help if more people understood the United Church of Canada before passing judgments on the case.

  18. Dale P, many thanks for the education.

    Full disclosure, I’m neither a Christian nor a believer of ANY established religion any more. I am however deeply interested in how belief evolves and your post above is a revelation of the UCC which I applaud.


  19. my full sentence should have said:

    ‘….nor a believer of ANY established religion any more, but I cannot deny the existence of a ‘higher being’, call it what you will.’

  20. Dale,
    Thank you for providing a bigger picture of what’s going on in the discussion involving The Rev. Gretta Vesper,
    West Hills UCC, and the United Church of Canada. It sounds like a defining moment. I am your UCC partner and a United Church of Christ pastor in the USA.

  21. Thanks so much Dale. So helpful. I knew most if not all of that. I was ordained into the ministry in the Presbyterian Church in Canada in 1987. I was well educated on the poor UCC’s surrender to the secular powers, etc. I really do think that the UCC has an opportunity here, and Gretta is a key right now for that new door to open.

  22. I know I keep ‘banging on’ about this ….. but has anyone asked Gretta if she wants to be the ‘key’ to a new door or is she just happy with her congregation and wants to move forward with them?

    I get the definite feeling of bias HERE that Gretta should become the ‘motivation’ for the UCC to examine their navel…whether they want to or not AND EVEN WORSE whether Gretta wants them to or not!!

    People, please may I urge you to step aside from providing as much ‘pressure’ on Gretta as she is already getting from the UCC.

    You want to fight with the UCC then please do so on your own ground.

  23. I’m not sure where you’re coming from purvez. It’s obvious that the West Hills UC would like to stay within the fold. This process is being forced on them. They didn’t ask for it. So it seems clear that there are those within the UCC who would like to see Gretta’s credentials taken, or maybe secondly the church to leave the denomination. The fact that the West Hills and gretta are having to lawyer up should indicate that even though they don’t want to fight for their right to belong, they are being forced to.

  24. David EXACTLY!! That’s my question to THEM and all here. Why do they want to remain within the UCC when it is fairly clear to them (by their thoughts and words) and therefore to me that they don’t need them.

    Someone who is a ‘Christian’ perhaps needs to ask them the question so that they can then review the matter themselves.

    I have considered asking the question on their comments section but it may sound presumptuous of me (a non christian) to ask such a question.

    I’ll go back to my earlier comment. Why are most people on this blog not saying to them ‘just get out’?

  25. I would be particularly interested in Dale P’s comment on my question about why West Hill are NOT being advised to ‘just get out’.

  26. Perhaps I need to re-enter the discussion –
    Purvey – first thanks for your self-disclosure. Much appreciated; you have helped move the discussion to another level – likely a deeper one.
    The UCC (United Church of Canada) is currently losing a congregation a week and cannot afford to force another one away! The hemorrhaging cannot continue IF the institutional UCC has any hope of a future.
    Also, the rapid growth among the “Spiritual But Not Religious” (SBNR) in this country is staggering (in British Columbia and the West Coast it’s coming in at over 50% of the total population!) How the institutional Christendom church adjusts to that is critically important right now – and most of the current crop of leaders haven’t a clue! And most are not “risk-takers” and cannot imagine themselves leading the charge. Most protect their salaries and pensions, and do little dances to make themselves feel relevant. It really is quite a sad spectacle. So in the Vosper case, it obviously is a last gasp attempt to plug the dick, hoping that if they can just keep the good ship Lollipop together, something will happen to make it all ‘betta’! Many of us just shake our heads and mutter – “dream on”!
    However, where does that leave us? certainly with a profound hope that there actually can be a transformation taking place in at least one denomination in this country. The rabid evangelical fundamentalists are an amusing side-show, but most people with half a brain won’t even consider approaching them. So that’s just a tiny blimp, and won’t be around for much longer. My thinking is – we really need people like Gretta to suggest options for satisfying our spiritual beings while honoring our past traditions, but within an established institutional Christian church, such as the UCC. It won’t be easy, as we witness, but it’s absolutely necessary now. So it’s worth the fight, and why I encourage Gretta and others presenting lodged inside the institutional UCC to persevere and hang in there.

  27. Dale P, many thanks for your candid opinion. I can see why for people like yourself who are worried about the dissolution of the ‘institutional’ UCC it is so important to retain West Hill within the fold.

    However I would like to suggest that perhaps it’s time to sub divide and re-grow with ‘new vigor’ whilst leaving the stump to whither on it’s own.

    Of course this recommendation comes from an outsider to your faith and belief and can therefore not have a true sense of the gravity of the situation that you feel.

    However as further disclosure, my interest in this topic arises from my being born into the Zoroastrian faith and since my teenage years have struggled with it’s archaic insistence on not allowing anyone into the religion other than by birth. I am therefore well versed in the feeling of despair as ‘established’ faith is used to commit unnecessary suicide.

  28. Perhaps my meaning would be better conveyed by this change in my last sentence above:

    I am therefore well versed in the feeling of despair as ‘established’ DOCTRINE is used to commit unnecessary suicide.

  29. Although this is ‘off topic’ it is I hope a relevant question.

    I was viewing the NakedPastor site via my iphone and although I was invited to leave a comment I could not see any of the existing comments on a topic. Is there some ‘link’ or ‘button’ to click to get at the comments?

  30. Of course she has to right to believe what she wants, as does anyone. You don’t have to right to believe whatever you want publicly when you are an ordained pastor. But of course, histrionics like this cartoon are good fodder for clicks and book sales.

  31. I didn’t say you were, just that you were trying to. Or am I wrong that I can buy a copy of this cartoon for $19? You’re not just defending heresy from an ordained pastor, you are cashing in on it. Cynical world view indeed.

  32. I know your type Drew because I used to be one. But I’ve been cured of that diseased attitude about art, spirituality, and money. Tell you what, I’ll give you 100% of what I made on that print, which is $0.

  33. @Dale Perkins — You may want to consult with the UCC’s web department then:

    The “We Believe” page certainly states the UCC’s doctrine. 100% of the “Web Believe” page talks about God and Jesus. I don’t really find anywhere where atheism is on the list.

    And I quote, “This section presents important historical statements of United Church doctrine-the documents that express the substance of our faith.” So what does any of this mean then if not a doctrine?

    So what you’re suggesting, and what the OP is suggesting, is that Vosper should continue pushing the boundaries of being an atheist in a church that has public belief statements which are polar opposites.

    I also can’t help but chuckle at the delicious irony Drew McIntyre pointed out as well. This all starts to point to “Its OK when we do it” thought patterns. It’s OK when we make money off of the Vosper situation. It’s OK to be an atheist in a Christian church with Christian doctrines. It’s all up to interpretation! What’s next, a UCC Reverend who is actually Muslim and preaches from the Koran? It’s just as ridiculous of a statement.

  34. It appears you’ve stirred up a hornet’s nest David – a small version of what is happening here in Canada via the UCC. As for Aheydis’ comment, not surprised you are confused by what’s happening here – most UCC members are confused by it as well. Of course it’s possible to prove anything if you dig around in past documents written by loyalist working inside the institutional UCC, but that doesn’t necessarily represent everyone under the tent – just other enthusiasts who will support the writer’s assertions – ever been the case since the beginning of recorded church history. However, the shrinking enterprise soldiers on and the hemorrhaging continues until the remnant devolves into another sect with grandiose plans to expand their operations. This has almost zero connection to being a follower of the ancient Nazarean who got himself killed at half my age. by the Jewish collaborators with the Roman occupiers. C’est la vie!

  35. This world is getting too much into religion; people going astray from the main purpose of what actually religions teaches us. Communities are foolishly fighting and killing each other in the name of religion. We need to remember only one little thing; we are all born with a few special and unique features, our appearance, fingerprint and personal religion. Like in a computer we have an operating software, unless this primary software works correctly, we cannot work with other secondary softwares. Corrupt primary operating software will give incorrect results or output; in the same way if our personal religion, with which each one of us are born, is corrupted, we turn evil and our output is negative and unfriendly to this world. Take for instance, two brothers, both Christians, church goers, one turns out to be friendly, helpful and loving while the other is nasty, evil and selfish. How does this happen ? this happens only because we are born with our unique individual religion like our appearance and fingerprint.
    Each one of us, try and live with dignity and respect; this can happen only when we conduct our lives only with what is real and true in this world. Following logic and reality is the only way we can find peace, happiness, reconcile to bitter memories.If you read my blog or you will understand what I mean.

  36. Don’t forget that the congregation that supports her is not the congregation she started with. In her own words the congregation was “devastated” when she came out as atheist and started to change the way she preached. Most of the old UCC types left and were, eventually, replaced by like minded atheists. I suspect one of the ones who felt that had to leave might have lodged a complaint as they now don’t have a local church where they feel welcome.

  37. I would like to state that I honestly think that every person should be free to believe as they wish. However, when those beliefs interfere with one’s ability to do the job for which they were hired the matter is not so clear. The recent Kim Davis case is perhaps relevant. Is it appropriate for her to continue to refuse to do the job she was hired for because her personal beliefs have changed. I don’t believe it is. If I apply the same logic in this case than I have to come to the same conclusion. This minister was hired to be a minister of specific belief community which she has left. A significant number of parish members have left because of it. I belief the ethical position is to voluntarily resign. Forcing a confrontation with a church she no longer represents does not reflect well on her and certainly will cause problems in a church that has accepted, however reluctantly, her deviation.

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