Why the Church needs Gretta Vosper

"Gretta Vosper" cartoon by nakedpastor David Hayward
“Gretta Vosper” cartoon by nakedpastor David Hayward

The other day I posted an older cartoon suggesting that people are more important than ideas, and quickly wrote a short post about the Reverend Gretta Vosper, a United Church of Canada (UCC) minister who is being tried for her fitness for ministry.

I determined to write a more thoughtful post about her and my concerns about her story. Sorry, Gretta, for the black humored cartoon, but I couldn’t resist the symbolism of what you’re going through.

I am interested in her story because she is my friend, but also because this story is important for the church.

I’m not a lawyer (which she needs) and I am not near as smart as I’d like to be to analyze things like this. So, I’m going to write some thoughts that come to mind from my personal perspective. This post will probably be long and rambling, and for that I apologize in advance.

1. When this story first broke, I immediately identified with her. When I left the ministry in 2010, it was because the church and I were “no longer compatible”. That is, I had moved theologically enough that I had stretched beyond the congregation’s ability or willingness to embrace me. You can read my story in my new book Questions Are The Answer. Our divorce was amicable. I admired Gretta’s home church that she has been the pastor of for over 15 years because, even though they have lost some people, they are still an active congregation. This is from their site:

”We haven’t closed. In fact, we continue to draw visitors every week and engage a broad audience that is drawn to the work we are doing. While the media loops the fact that we lost two thirds of our congregation (7 years ago), they don’t note that 8 congregations in Scarborough have closed in the last decade, and they don’t emphasize that we actually made it through those hard days and have grown our way back. Not as far back as we were, but enough to keep our energy high and our passion for our work strong.”

Her congregation still wants her as its pastor. This is significant and must hold sway in the church’s decision.

2. Towards the end of my ministerial career, it became clear that my departure from the ministry was imminent. My blog, nakedpastor, was gaining reputation but for the most part my church and most other churches were largely unaware of what I was saying. The turning point came when I started writing about a dream I had in 2009 and the profound effect it had on my theology. I started to write what I call the Z-Theory. People started noticing, including the leaders of the movement I was a pastor in, the Vineyard. It became abundantly clear my time with the church was drawing to a close when I received a call from one of my authorities informing me that I needed to run my articles and cartoons through them for approval before I posted them. It was suggested that it’s one thing to hold or question certain beliefs, but another to publish them.

I do think this is part of what has contributed to Vosper’s problem. She has published two books, one on prayer and one on belief, where her controversial ideas have been exposed for all to see.

Which leads to the question: Can clergy believe whatever they want, as long as they keep it to themselves while publicly upholding orthodox beliefs? Vosper is not the only minister who questions and even rejects traditional beliefs. In fact, it is rampant among the clergy. But rather than facing the issue at its root, the church would rather not only suggest that its clergy be hypocritical but requires it. The UCC is choosing theological dishonesty and hypocrisy as its default position for its ministers. I would bet that many other UCC ministers are asking themselves right now if they’re next, and I’m also certain that many who aspire to write have had their aspirations dampened.

Employing Christian theological terminology right now, clergy do not only represent God to the people, but the people to God. The UCC is in danger of making its clergy only representatives of their orthodox, authoritarian God to the exclusion of their clergy’s representation of God’s people. Vosper, it would be safe to say, represents a large and growing demographic within the church. The church’s intentions to discipline this rather than struggle with what it means is, in my opinion, short-sighted and suicidal.

This is about power and authority… a top-down strategy to authorize belief and demand conformity. If the authorized belief is not upheld and conformity not achieved, it will be “vindicated by the condemnation of the nonconformist” (Stringfellow). Is this the precedent the church wants to set? Some would argue it has already.

3. I was happy to find churches that helped me evolve spiritually and theologically, even as a pastor. Then the day finally came when, in order to continue on my journey towards spiritual independence, I had to leave the ministry and the church. But I promise you, if the church had widened its arms to be able to embrace me I would have stayed. I do not blame it. It’s just my story. I would guess that Vosper herself has evolved in her theology over time within the embrace of the UCC. I would hazard a guess that when she took her ordination vows, she took them with integrity and a clear conscience but that over time she’s changed her mind as any intelligent adult would and should. She also happens to be the pastor of a congregation that has understood this and given her room for it, welcomes it, encourages it, and wishes to stay in relationship with this idea of spiritual and theological evolution not only for Vosper’s sake but theirs. The congregation’s commitment that they were “ready to travel new roads”, and that they chose Vosper to travel with them, carries within it the assumption, as they’ve found out, that you cannot predict where these new roads might lead. They have evolved together, and I think that’s an admirable thing that should be congratulated and emulated rather than tried and disciplined.

4. Many years ago, while I was a pastor in the Vineyard Movement, I attended a conference of pastors and leaders where I heard the very last sermon the Vineyard’s founder, John Wimber, preached. I wasn’t necessarily looking forward to it. He was very sick by then and others who’d heard him before said he was weak, had lost his fire, and that I should’ve seen him in his glory. But, I was blown away. I will never forget one of the things he said, and I paraphrase:

”The pastor’s task is to help people move from one spiritual stage to the next.”

When I heard him say that, I absolutely knew that this is what I was here for. Without a shadow of a doubt. So I made my mission more intentional and focused. Some might insist that this is exactly what I’m doing now with The Lasting Supper. I would agree! I am passionate about helping people move spiritually along their own paths, to boldly go where they’ve never or even anyone has ever gone before, to explore and find their own spiritual independence and live it out as they themselves choose. For some, this might mean going back to a form of belief and even going back into the church and even ministry. For many, this might mean embracing a kind of agnosticism and leaving the church. For others, this might even mean progressing to a more atheistic position. Etcetera. For me, the goal is not mine to choose, but yours! How you believe or not is not my concern. My concern is that you are self-determining, sovereign, autonomous, independent, and free.

On West Hill’s website, this same sentiment is expressed:

”But for the past fifteen years, Gretta has encouraged us to engage in what we believe is most important in life whether we believe in God or not – the way we live.”

I applaud this, I wish more local churches would embrace this, and I wish the church authorities would encourage, nurture, and facilitate it. Otherwise, its clergy will just be brainwashers, propagandists, and indoctrinators, rather than pastors who help people spiritually evolve.

5. I’m a fan of William Stringfellow’s writing. I first came across him in Sojourners Magazine many years ago. I started collecting his books. My all time favorite of his is An Ethic For Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land:. But along the way I noticed his interest in the Bishop Pike story, an American Episcopal bishop who was tried for heresy beginning in 1962. Stringfellow, a lawyer become significant lay-theologian, wrote about it in great detail in the book, The Bishop Pike Affair. Vosper’s situation reminded me of Pike’s story. I would urge her lawyers and supporters to read the book for an insightful heads-up on what to expect and how to manage it.

Bishop Pike was passionate about re-examining and re-articulating the faith. A few people wrote about Pike. Here is an example:

“He is an uncomfortable and disturbing factor in the circles I inhabit. He does not… destroy my faith, but he forces me to re-examine my faith and to re-discover its power in the contemporary scene which he seems to understand in clearer terms than I do… The real significance of the sermon lies in the fact that Bishop Pike is aiming to revive the new generation’s lagging interest in religion and to have religion speak in terms modern man can understand.” (a fellow Bishop)

By the end of Pike’s life (which you can read in yet another Stringfellow book, The Death and Life of Bishop Pike… another bizarre and fascinating read)… Pike spelled out his position in his work, “If This Be Heresy”, and Stringfellow graciously simplifies it for us in 3 points:

  • A personal God of the universe,
  • The servant image of Jesus, or the man for others,
  • The ongoing and potential continued development of human personality (even after death).

Stringfellow asserts, “Forgive us, bishops one and all, if we profess to discern in these three affirmations a suspicious resemblance to the doctrine of the Trinity.”

I would go even further, as I’m sure Pike and Stringfellow would 50 years later, that even these terms, including God, Jesus, and the implied Spirit, are powerful symbols that must be continually re-examined and re-articulated for the sake of the contemporary mind.

As one Bishop proclaimed in defense of Pike:

”I believe the whole thing… I will venture to say there isn’t one Bishop here that believes any more than I do and that takes more delight in the worship from that Prayer Book than I do. I believe it from cover to cover, and the Bible too… I don’t reject one supernaturalistic representation of the Bible,… of the creed, of the Prayer Book. I interpret it all symbolically.”

I claim that Vosper, rather than blowing her own horn or trying to make a buck off the church while she can— as some have accused— is actually working in the spirit of Bishop Pike to bring about this same honest re-examination of traditional beliefs, polity, and social awareness and action as someone who appreciates the tradition and all it holds dear, but only in a different way than the church would wish.

6. This brings me to my final point where I pretend to be wise enough to offer advice. I ended up in the Vineyard church because, believe it or not, it was more spacious than anywhere else I’d been. I was sorry I had to leave because I considered it my spiritual family. Now, I’m pretty much out of the loop. My loss. Their loss. There is one Vineyard church we visit, but its graciousness is unfortunately a very rare thing. I really did hope that the Vineyard’s passion to be relevant would translate into significant internal transformation rather than just the modernization of non-essentials like music styles, dress codes or drinking. I think they lost an opportunity. I’m not talking about me. What I mean is that I feel there came a point in the Vineyard’s life where it faced a fork in the road: change or solidify. It chose solidify. I could no longer stay.

The UCC has been given an opportunity here with the Reverend Gretta Vosper. I read the Statement of Faith on the UCC’s website, and honestly I’d have to say I was surprised. It came across as far more conservative than I expected. Certainly most of its members would not subscribe to many of their statements, and even more certainly many of their clergy would not either. I know I’m guessing, but I think it’s a good guess.

The UCC is being given the chance to change or at least re-examine, redefine, and re-articulate, its Statement of Faith. For example, like Pike and Stringfellow, is it possible and allowed to take these statements symbolically? Not only among its membership, as it undoubtedly does to some extent, but among its clergy, as it most certainly does.

When I was educated, prepared, and ordained for ministry in the Presbyterian Church in Canada (PCC), we took great pride in looking down on the UCC for its capitulation to and cooperation with the secular powers. We were the hold outs of union, which essentially to us meant compromise. For example, the PCC insisted that it’s name be “in” Canada, a geographical designation, rather than “of” Canada like the UCC, a possessive one. Presbyterians, in my experience, must and love to be exact in their Reformed theology. So we took great delight in charging the UCC with a generic faith. It was a fault. But now, I’m thinking, it is a virtue. Is it fair to say, now to its credit, that the UCC could never be accused of dogmatic orthodoxy? Is it possible that the UCC, in its efforts to be inclusive, are now being invited to be truly inclusive, even of its own members and clergy that are undoubtedly re-examining traditional beliefs?

Even in the UCC’s own preamble regarding its Statement of Beliefs, it makes a prophecy:

”But Christians of each new generation are called to state it afresh in terms of the thought of their own age and with the emphasis their age needs.”

Thankfully, the UCC helped to create the Reverend Gretta Vosper, and she is fulfilling its vision. It is uncomfortable. It is challenging. It is upsetting. But it can also be positively life-changing for the church.

It has been invited and it is being done. This is their chance.

(*** UPDATE September 8, 2016: Gretta has been deemed unsuitable for ministry. Read the report here.)

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

27 Replies to “Why the Church needs Gretta Vosper”

  1. David, I read your entire post this morning and was very impressed – you have a profound grasp of the dynamics embedded both inside the United Church of Canada (might have to change that given the discussions underway with the United Church of Christ, which is a US phenomenon) and Gretta Vosper herself. Referencing both Stringfellow and Pike is brilliant and helpful, and could be useful in recognizing what is really happening now inside United Church circles.
    My anger at the institutional UCC is essentially situated in the wrestling you’ve gone through and seemingly survived and made stronger – your quotes from others, including that line from the founder of Vineyard’s final sermon, are very helpful. I would ask permission to share those and your entire script with others (not wishing to break copyright if that applies).
    So without delving into particular points and commenting I simply thank you.

    Dale Perkins

  2. I really enjoy following your blog and cartoons.

    Having been raised Southern Baptist and also having experienced the PTSD that resulted, I have become both saddened and hardened by the orthodoxies and systematic theologies of others. Some of us are so hell-bent on being right that we find the carnage from inquisitions and heretical trials to be useful, right and God-purposed. It seems the state of man across all systems that we have these sorts of people that need their orthodoxies to be pure, and yet, if we all were to be honest with ourselves we’d have to truly know our assumptions, the assumptions that we each make as we come to our faith and belief and living statements. And, if we are truly honest with ourselves around the assertions of orthodoxy and the reformed theology ilk, we each would have to say that we are uncertain at best. Many ask me whether I believe Jesus was God and whether he was crucified and resurrected and I tell them that I don’t know, I wasn’t there. I then say that I choose to believe in a Good and Loving God that gives a damn about me (and you) and I emphasize “choose” there because as with any view that we take on this world, we can see the good and the bad in it. My assumption is the choice to focus on what I perceive the good to be and trust that the bad will be taken care of and made well. Perhaps this was a cosmic transaction of atonement in Jesus Christ, perhaps it takes hold in the story of Christ relative to a Jewish people ruled by oppressive law, or perhaps it is in the telling of separate faith traditions. I regularly ask my old church friends that if the fruits of the Spirit are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, etc., then why does the Dalia Lama look more Spirit-filled than the vast majority of Christians I know? I usually get some discourse around the types of people that become Christians but orthodox beliefs around Christology and being “filled with the Spirit” suggest in many ways that the Spirit of so many people’s faiths is flaccid at best.

    It seems like every 500 years, the church goes through a pretty dramatic shift. I believe we are in one of those shifts. Change or Die will become the mantra of those that deeply question the rightness or utility of so many orthodoxies (and unorthodoxies too). And, I hope for your friend’s sake, that she take heart in the notion that she appears to be helping others move toward the Spirit of Christ, regardless of some intellectual proclamations that none of us can assert with certainty, and which looks more Christ-like to me than any dogmatic sort pounding on a podium about right thinking and belief (especially right thinking that seems contradictory to scientific principles in biology, neuroscience, geology, psychology, etc. as well as the widely understood contextual criticism that helps one question indeed the foundation for all of this).

  3. I’m confused why Rev. Vosper would need a lawyer to defend herself against the UCC charges. Even more than confused, I am disturbed the UCC does not see a problem with asking a minister whose congregation desires her to continue leading it to go so far as obtaining a lawyer to state her case to them. Perhaps my confusion comes from being American and not understanding how churches operate in Canada. Or perhaps my confusion comes from thinking it is absurd for a religious organization to make a doctrinal difference into a legal battle.

  4. I love her name is Vosper, close to vesper.

    This story reminds me of something that I have been pondering for awhile. Isn’t an atheist who loves the model we have in Jesus Christ in some ways just as much of a Christian as someone who believes Jesus is the Son of God? Theology aside, does Jesus’ humanity and/or divinity really matter? I personally no longer care whether or not God exists, but I like the model presented in Jesus. To me that is what really matters.

  5. I’m sorry, but I can’t agree with this column, at all. It shows an utter and complete misunderstanding of how the review process works and what it is in the United Church of Canada.

    First, a review is a question-driven process. No questions? No review. Questions have been asked about the consistency of The Rev. Vosper in regard to her public statements as opposed to her public professions of faith and belief at the time of her ordination and every single time she was covenanted into a new pastoral relationship, including in 1997 with her current congregation. Questions have been asked by church members and at least one other congregation, as is their right in the United Church. You can find all of what is public in the process by going to the Toronto Conference web page and reading the minutes of the Executive starting in mid-April.

    The questions deserve answers. The process by which that happens is called a review. It is a very black and white process. The closest parallel I can draw of the review is the kind of professional, vocational inquiry of any regulating college such as those for teachers, doctors or lawyers. It is not a trial nor a witch hunt and any attempt to paint is as such is disingenuous at best.

    Because the process for making inquiry was not clear, The Executive of Toronto Conference asked the chief administrative officer of the denomination, the General Secretary, about what to do. That’s her role. She issued a ruling outlining a process, which, at the moment is not public, but is being appealed by The Rev. Vosper, which is her absolute right. That appeal will be heard this fall by the Judicial Committee of the General Council of the United Church (which sounds more grandiose than it is).

    No one is questioning The Rev. Vosper’s pastoral relationship. This isn’t about the congregation. It’s about her and her public statements in respect to what she has committed to publicly. Period.

    None of us know the outcome of the review. It could well be that the review finds her work and words acceptable. There may be other outcomes. None of that is known and any speculation is completely inappropriate.

    This is not about standing. This is about answering questions about what someone has said; call it accountability. It’s not more than that.

    I have been through the review process myself. It’s not all that unusual in the United Church. I can easily count on the fingers of both hands now many colleagues have been reviewed over the years and who have continued in effective ministry. I count myself among that group. But the review is, unfortunately, a blunt instrument. It is not a “let’s sit down and see what we can work out” kind of process. It’s not a conversation over coffee. I’ve walked the walk and I would not wish it on anyone. You don’t need a lawyer. But I also have no sympathy for any kind of financial campaign nor any attempt to drum up support against what is perceived as an unfair process. It’s not unfair. It’s an unequivocal process and a calling to account. And it will take time to complete. Until then, we wait.

  6. So David Shearman, would you say that this process, that you say is very frequent, is an adversarial one, especially as it applies to Rev. Vosper? From everything I’ve read, it seems so. And if the UCC has lawyers, shouldn’t she?

  7. No. It’s not adversarial. Any attempt to paint it as such, at this stage, is simply wrong. In the United Church, ministers are accountable to the church. If questions are asked, we are required to answer them. Nothing more and nothing less. And that is all that is happening here. If anything, a review is a structured conversation. And the decision can be appealed, I believe.

  8. I should add that at the review stage, lawyers are not normally involved. At the formal appeal stage (which is not where we are) they may be involved.

  9. David, you’ve attempted to set the process into some context. I can only respond that it’s an absurd process, which won’t prove anything, but is intended simply as a mechanism to jettison deviant OMs who refuse to bow to the ecclesiastical authorities who occupy our church bureaucracy. These bureaucrats are ignoring other critically important issues, in order to maintain their tenuous hold on power. Apart from that, the entire process is a dumb sideshow which will only result in more hemorrhaging of membership as well as professionals from ‘mother church’. And no one, it seems, has the wisdom to bow out and drop the whole sordid affair.

  10. Throughout history there are examples of individuals that have been turned upon only to become the ultimate catalyst of change, UCC I suspect will eventually change and with no little help from the many others like yourself. Any organization held within its own bounds are destined to feed on their own to change I just hope UCC has the vision to take some of the leaps of faith that it will need.

  11. Good observations Bernard. Oh it would be nice if ‘mother church’ might learn something from this self-inflicted fiasco. As studies coming out of the States describe, the vast majority (a guess on my part, since there is no research to claim this or its opposite) are primarily concerned about keeping their jobs and pensions in tact. Many current grads of theological schools have zero hope of landing a FTE job in their denomination, and must be content with part time work, supplemented by other vocational pursuits. Theology and statements of faith are only surfaced when the culture of the institution becomes totally defensive – just circling the wagons and firing away at anything out there perceived to be antagonistic or hostile. Again, not doing the research, but in BC (western most Canadian province) the ONLY thing professional OMs get disciplined and ejected for is sexual misconduct – the UCC it seems loves sex! However, in Vosper’s case she publicly admits to not believing in the god we call God (just another way of saying she’s an a-theist – just like JAT Robinson and Paul Tillich before her – also it seems as Pike and Stringfellow declared. However, many of the UCC OMs raced quickly over to calling themselves “panentheists” which apparently makes them feel virtuous and orthodox and protected from the judicatory powers that be.. What a sad situation we’re going through in the UCC right now! Nevertheless we live in hope.

  12. And the story reminds me again of those important words uttered centuries ago:

    “The Two Universal Sects

    They all err—Moslems, Jews,
    Christians, and Zoroastrians:

    Humanity follows two world-wide sects:
    One, man intelligent without religion,

    The second, religious without intellect. ”

    , born AD 973 /, died AD 1058 / .

    Al-Ma’arri was a bld Arab philosopher, poet and writer.[1][2] He was a controversial rationalist of his time, attacking the dogmas of religion and rejecting the claim that Islam possessed any monopoly on truth.”

    Maybe Gretta should start a new movement called Al-Ma’arri Was Right !!

  13. Dale, call it an “absurd” process if you wish. It is exactly the same process for every single ministry personnel right across the United Church of Canada and has been in place for several decades. It has nothing to do with power and everything to do with accountability. As ministers of the church, we are accountable to that church. No one is excepted, including The Rev. Vosper. Not you and not me. BTW, while reviews are used as the process of inquiry for sexual misconduct, reviews are far more common than you think. We had several in the presbytery I was in Bay of Quinte Conference in the 1990’s, unrelated to any sexual misconduct. There have been several in this conference, Toronto, unrelated to any sexual misconduct in the last two years. They are public in that the conclusions are included in the conference executive minutes, which are public.

  14. I should also add that the United Church as a whole sems to be shying away from any kind of conversation about the commitments The Rev. Vosper is being asked about. At the recent meeting of the General Council, commissioners took no action on one proposal on S.11 of the Basis of Union and refered another similar proposal to the General Council Executive. http://www.gc42.ca/news/take-no-action-basis-union-proposal

  15. David Hayward, please may I ask why you would NOT advise Gretta to leave as you did? You are stronger for it, it’s evident to yourself and us, AND you are now able to ‘battle’ against what you believe is wrong within the church without having to spend futile time, energy and money in ‘fighting’ the church.

    Right now I get the impression that you want to use Gretta as a ‘weapon’ to poke at the church. If I was cynical enough I would say you were doing it to gain self satisfaction for not achieving from the inside what you wanted to.

    Apologies for my previous paragraph but I’m being devil’s advocate here. I really REALLY want to understand why you DON’T want to give Gretta (and her community) the opportunity to evolve the way YOU DID?

  16. David Sherman:

    I believe you saying that a review is a structured conversation with a decision, but is not adversarial.

    So then, I take it that this is just a nice structured chat about what a person believes, what the United Church of Canada (UCC) believes, and about the essential doctrines of the UCC triumphing over, or changing to, or accommodating the essential doctrines of the individual.

    And if the differences are irreconcilable, that the UCC will give a severance package to the departing clergy. Possibly even help her start her own church (in light of loving those that are not like yourself), and so forth.

    Am I understanding this correctly? A process of questions, reconciliation, and love in action?

  17. Okay David, I realize that the UCC courts each has their own peculiar traditions and practices – until the UCC changes into a three court system, there still are the four courts to deal with and navigate. All I’m contending is that each of us individual practitioners must figure out the politics played out in each court and adapt accordingly. What they are like in Toronto Conference (and their Presbyteries and Pastoral Charges) will be quite different than what it’s like in Bay of Quinte and their Presbyteries/Pastoral Charges. So hardly one template which must be applied exactly the same across the country – or as might be wished for by General Council Powerbrokers and committees, etc. Obviously from last GC meeting, delegates are running away from those discussions, and I understand why.
    So it just underscores the question – why now, and why Gretta Vosper? Who exactly is pushing that file? and why? In that interviews for personnel happen regularly doesn’t mean much since the field is so varied and the landscape so chaotic. I just don’t get it. Is it simply a case of “bishop/archbishop envy” – we really want a Big Daddy running the show and telling us how? The UCC has always prided itself on being conciliatory (ie democratic), but when it comes to carrying a big stick, we just don’t know how to wield it responsibly or in a manner that follows the Way of the ancient Nazarean.

  18. If instead of declaring herself an atheist she instead became a muslim or a satanist, would you still support her? She might loose most of her congregation, and gain many new supporters, but is that enough to keep her? How is it different?

  19. \I have been attending the UCC. since i was 5 yrs old.,and have been a faithful follower to the teachings that have come from the ucc. I however believe that the church politics is wrong. At our church it is a struggle to keep the doors open,and this is being done by seniors who are not going to be able to keep them open ,unless we have young people and this is not going to happen ,unless we come to a more realistic way of reaching our young people. I myself believe that Gretta Vosper’s teachings will reach our young people. change is difficult ,but in order to get the word out and to reach those who are not church goers,then we must listen to ministers like Gretta Vosper. Too many ministers of old sit in thier comfortable pews.

Comments are closed.