Sleepers Awake!

Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them. For it is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret. But everything exposed by the light becomes visible, for it is light that makes everything visible. This is why it is said:

         “Wake up, O sleeper,

         rise from the dead,

         and Christ will shine on you.”

Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. (Eph 5:11–16)

You will hear, over and over again, from United Church sources that the decision to allow Gretta Vosper, an avowed atheist, to continue in ministry as an ordained United Church Minister is nothing to worry about.  They will tell you that this decision, though troubling, is an isolated incident, which does not change the United Church in any substantial way. Do not drink the Kool-Aid.


Every time the United Church stumbles into uncharted territory the official line is predictable soporific reassurances that, as bad as it seems, it’s not really THAT bad.

But wake up! It IS THAT bad!

At this time there are two points I hope you will consider:

The false claim that,

‘This does not affect the whole church, just one minister in one congregation.’

This claim is made in various forms, including the Moderator’s statement in which he declares,

As a Christian church, we continue to expect that ministers in The United Church of Canada will offer their leadership in accordance with our shared and agreed upon statements of faith, celebrating the sacraments, and praying that all who are part of the denomination will help people to love, as Jesus put it, “God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27, NRSV).

I am so proud of Richard Bott for stating clearly what is at stake in this issue, but to assert it as true is not to make it true. His statement has been falsified by the very events to which he is responding.  The bare existence of an atheist minister defies this proper expectation that the process of training and selecting ministry personnel is working on behalf of the faithful congregations who depend on it. Further, the failure to remove this atheist minister communicates that all the checks and balances in our complex system of governance are unable to correct this issue.

When Ms. Vosper became an atheist (whether that occurred before or after ordination) her responsibility seems clear – to honestly acknowledge that her faith does not fall within the rather generous bounds of United Church Ministry and withdraw from ministry.  When she failed to do this, most would argue that her integrity was at stake. But at that time it was only her integrity.  When her congregation found her proclaiming and publishing her convictions on atheism, there came an onus on the West Hill Church Board to address the pastoral relationship. Their failure to dismiss her, or to appeal to Presbytery for her discipline implicated them, the congregation, in this fault. Presbytery, in the United Church system, is the next and best stop for the correction and restoration (if possible) of a minister, but they also were not able (or willing?) to address this crisis, and so the issue languished for several years.

Finally, the bold Gretta Vosper took then moderator, Gary Paterson, to task for a pastoral letter he published calling the church to pray for those affected by the Charlie Hebdo Massacre in France. Gretta chastised the moderator, declaring about his call to prayer:

The prayer posted to the United Church’s web portal is one of the myriad responses and I appreciate that we chose to offer it in a timely manner. I question, however, the merit of such a response because it underscores one of the foundational beliefs that led to the horrific killing in Paris: the existence of a supernatural being whose purposes can be divined and which, once interpreted and without mercy, must be brought about within the human community in the name of that being. This belief has led to innumerable tragedies throughout the timeline of human history and will continue to do so until it fades from our ravaged memory. If we maintain that our moral framework is dependent upon that supernatural being, we allow others to make the same claim and must defend their right to do so even if their choices and acts are radically different from our own; we do not hold the right to parcel out divine authority only to those with whom we agree.

I urge you to lead our church toward freedom from such idolatrous belief.

Yes: She says that calling people to pray to Jesus is perpetuating terrorism and hatred throughout the world. Justifiably, though late to the table, Toronto Conference took up the mantle of Defensor Fides, for in attacking the Moderator, Vosper had crossed a line: “Do not touch my anointed one;” (1 Ch 16:22)

Toronto Conference called upon the Conference Interview Board (CIB), the body charged with the final assessment of people preparing for ministry, and the Interview Board concluded, unsurprisingly, Gretta Vosper was no longer suitable for UCC ministry, and so CIB became the first body in this saga to do its job! They communicated their recommendation to Toronto Conference, and with this in hand, Toronto Conference, the only body left in the United Church with the power and responsibility to remove Gretta Vosper from ministry, suddenly declared that all outstanding issues were settled, and Gretta was free to return to her job with no restrictions.

In summary: it was at first Rev. Vosper's integrity that was at issue, then the session of her congregation, then for Presbytery to discipline her, and finally for Conference to place her on the Discontinued Service  List (DSL). At each of these points the process has made the wrong choices, at each stage a larger segment of the church is implicated. Conference actually was the last stop on this journey - there is no recourse for the national church, therefore it is a national problem. (It does remain to be seen if, in the new structure, the Office of Vocation or the Regional Court will address this issue, but I wouldn't hold my breath.)  The denomination vested authority in the Conference, and the Conference failed, therefore the denomination has failed.

The false claim that,

‘This does not affect the Doctrine of the church, which is set by a complex process’


The boilerplate response from the United Church to concerned parties is expressed by  Alan Hall, Executive Officer Ministry and Employment, Human Resources The United Church of Canada and includes:

What we do know is that this is an agreement among the parties, it is not a change in or determination of our church doctrine or polity.  Section 2 of The Basis of Union defines our Doctrine which can be summed up as we believe in God and we are called to be the church.  Toronto Conference and Gretta Vosper do not set our doctrine.  Any change in Doctrine, or in the terms of the Order of Ministry (Section 9 of The Basis of Union), require not only the positive action of two General Councils but also the affirmation through a remit of a full majority of all pastoral charges/communities of faith and a full majority of all presbyteries/regional councils.  It is a multi-year, open, transparent (often painfully transparent!) democratic process.

In his wry reference to painful transparency, Mr. Hall is referring to the recent process by which several statements of faith were added to the United Church Doctrine a few years ago, including the “Song of Faith.” True enough, it takes a great deal to actually change the doctrine of the church. But it apparently is a lot easier (and perfectly acceptable) to simply ignore it.

Even though the Song of Faith – poetry written by committee, a stream of consciousness smorgasbord of faith options – even its vacuity does not allow atheism as an option for the church. In order to settle with Gretta, Toronto Conference had to treat the recommendation of its own CIB and core beliefs of the church as irrelevant.

And they do this with impunity. The Head Office (in Toronto…) defends the authority of Toronto Conference to do what ever seems best. It is not troubled by the opaqueness of a non disclosure agreement that prevents anyone from examining the terms of this settlement. Many otherwise faithful ministers in the United Church repeat the party line, trying to calm the storms in their own congregations, but by doing so entrench the decision, and the underlying malaise and dysfunction of the national church.

Toronto Conference acts with impunity, but the local congregations bear the cost. Stunned and disbelieving believers will vote with their finances, their feet or, at the very least, their disengagement as the institution tries to lull them back to sleep.

But rather than dispense the national sedatives, I urge congregations and ministers throughout the church to rise up and challenge this senseless capitulation! Insist that the National church find some way to reverse this decision. Sleepers Awake!