United Methodists seem stuck on being stuck. The popular options at the moment seem to be (a) pack your bags, (b) defend The Institution, or (c) wait anxiously for somebody to do something to resolve this mess.
As a diversion from our ecclesiastical anxiety – albeit one I think is highly instructive – let me suggest we look north, across the border, to consider for a moment a bit of a bother stirring the placid waters of the United Church of Canada, the largest Protestant denomination in that country.
It is the curious case of Rev. Gretta Vosper, Minister of West Hills United Church in Toronto. I do not know Rev. Vosper personally but have been interested in this situation for several years. Rev. Vosper is the bestselling author of With or Without God: Why the Way We Live Is More Important Than What We Believe. Rev. Vosper’s aim in her book and her practice of ministry is to deconstruct the Christian faith, dispatch with all the supernatural assertions about God, Jesus, eternity, salvation, sin, authority, and base the whole project, the entire Christian movement, simply on love which, she holds, is the core of Christianity.
So, there you have it, don’t cha know? Something we can all rally around, eh? Just maybe those loon-lovin’ sisters and brothers to the north have a lesson for us bickering United Methodists
And what, you might ask, could possibly be wrong with ditching all that musty theology stuff and just, you know, focusing on love?
Let’s be clear that, despite our differences on the virtues and culinary value of poutine, regarded as the Canadian national dish consisting essentially of French fries, cheese curds, and gravy, on both sides of our northern border there is widely held agreement that people are pretty much free to believe whatever they choose to believe about humanity, divinity, eternity, spirituality, and on and on.
What makes Gretta Vosper’s situation of interest is that she is an ordained minister of a congregation of the United Church of Canada and yet claims to believe neither in God nor the Bible. As you might imagine, this got the attention of those leaders in the United Church of Canada who are responsible for the credentialing, ordination, and accountability of pastors. After about five years of negotiations as to whether an atheist can be the pastor of a Christian congregation, the United Church of Canada, in the fall of 2018, decided to let Vosper remain as a pastor in good standing.
In an open letter to the denomination, the Rt. Rev. Richard Bott, Moderator of the denomination, said that there are “a variety of feelings” about Vosper’s ministry. He wrote that the church was struggling with two core values “which are central to our identity.” The first “is our faith in God,” wrote Bott. “The second is our commitment to being an open and inclusive church.”
Though the agreement reached between Rev. Vosper and the denomination is confidential, it is clear that while you can be a pastor in the United Church of Canada without any belief in God, Christ, the established doctrines of the Church or the authoritative role of Scripture, you clearly cannot be a pastor in the United Church of Canada without a hearty commitment to “inclusivity.”
You might, of course, be wondering what the West Hill United Church in Toronto thinks about their pastor. And, at least by all indications on the congregation’s website, Pastor Vosper is perfectly aligned with the congregation she leads on this point. The VisionWorks Statement of the West Hills United Church, the congregation’s statement of its guiding values, has no mention of God, Jesus, or Scripture. Instead, all traditions, perspectives, and personal perspectives are given, at least in theory, equal standing:
No source is assumed to be inherently authoritative or to contain absolute or universal truth, nor is any source accorded a privileged status based on claims for its supernatural or transcendent origin. Love alone is our guide for discerning wisdom in any source. Vision Works 2021 Statement West Hill United Church Toronto
(If you would like more context and background information, here you go: News Report United Church of Canada and Rev Gretta Vosper)
As you might imagine, not all members of the United Church of Canada are satisfied with the denominational affirmation of an atheist pastor. The members of Little Current United Church of Canada, in the town of Little Current (population 1,516) on the north shore of Manitoulin Island, Ontario, unanimously voted to send a resolution “up the chain” of denominational authority to request additional policy guardrails to avoid the ordination of atheist pastors in the future. For the story from a local angle, here you go: Manitoulin News Atheist Pastor Resolution Sent Up the Chain.
The believers in Little Current United Church, I imagine, think they are only asking the denomination to do what is common sense (i.e., assure local churches that the pastors they receive as their spiritual leaders are, in fact, committed to the Christian faith and not simply promoting a personal moral vision). My expectation, based on our experience in United Methodism, is that the believers who worship at the Little Current Church, who pay the bills, care for the sick, lead the Bible Studies, stock the food pantry, tell others about Jesus, and welcome anybody who wants to join them, well, before too long, they too, may find they are choosing between (a) packing their bags, (b) defending The Institution, or (c) waiting anxiously for somebody to so something to resolve the mess.
Church is, indeed, stranger than fiction. The Rt. Rev. Bott, in his open letter, equated “belief in God” with “our commitment to be an open an inclusive church.” In fact, they are not even in the same category of commitment. United Methodists have substantial Doctrinal Standards which are aligned with the faith that has always been believed everywhere by Christ-followers but also highlights the particular emphases of our Methodist understandings. “Inclusivity”, from that perspective, is not a matter of identity check boxes, quotas, or demographic formulae. It is the joy-filled, grateful outcome of response to Jesus’ gospel invitation: whoever is thirsty for the Living Water, whoever is hungry for the Bread of Life, whoever is searching for the Way, the Truth, and the Life, come! (see Revelation 21:6).
The title of Pastor is rooted in the Latin word for “shepherd.” And the role of the shepherd, from the perspective of the Christian Scriptures, is seeking the lost sheep and guiding them to green pastures and still waters. What a gift for wandering sheep to encounter a pastor who knows the Way not only to their well-being, but also their eternity.
But how deeply tragic when the shepherd is the one who is lost and wandering…
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