Atheist Minister - Say What?

by Debbie L. Kasman in , ,

Gretta Vosper, a popular 57 year old minister who calls herself an atheist minister preached for nearly two decades about love, kindness, and human connection until she was deemed “unsuitable to continue serving” by the United Church of Canada's Toronto Conference Review Committee.

Vosper has been an outspoken voice in a slow but growing movement within the United Church toward downplaying Jesus and the Bible.  She believes in a more metaphorical interpretation of religious symbols and a greater emphasis on humanist, environmental and social justice causes.

Until 2016, her unorthodox approach was welcomed by the United Church.  Top elected church leaders, enthusiastically came to her defense, whether they agreed with her or not.  No one questioned her when she published her first book, With or Without God: Why the Way We Live Is More Important Than What We Believe, or when she published her second, Amen: What Prayer Can Mean in a World Beyond Belief.

The tipping point came when she began to call herself an atheist. 

In 2013 former U.S. President, Jimmy Carter, made a bold statement about religion, too.  Like Vosper, he believes we need to challenge our out-dated attitudes and beliefs.  Religion and tradition are powerful and sensitive areas to challenge but challenge them we must, he said.  He announced that he was losing his religion for equality.  As a practicing Christian for all of his life, it was a painful and difficult decision.  He said women and girls have been discriminated against in a twisted interpretation of the word of God for too long, and that’s what brought him to his life-altering decision. 

The world’s great religions were developed 5,000 years ago during a time when the major empires were sweeping the world.  During this time there was only one right way to think about everything.  Moses parted the Red Sea, Elijah went to heaven in his chariot, Christ was born of a biological virgin and there was no questioning these things.  But the world has changed exponentially since that time.  We are now faced with one of the most difficult and dangerous situations ever in the world today - terrorism - and terrorism happens because of hardened, rigid, fundamentalist thinking.  This type of thinking happens in all religions, not just in Islam, and it's extremely dangerous. 

Fundamentalist believers cause eighty percent or more of terrorist acts today.  They might be southern Baptists bombing abortion clinics in the south, Buddhist groups putting poisonous gas in the Tokyo subway system, or Al-Qaeda bombing the World Trade Centre but they all think in rigid, hardened ways. One of the big challenges in overcoming this growing problem is overcoming the idea that the Bible, the Talmud and the Quran are supposed to be taken literally.  

When people like Vosper and Carter, square pegs in round holes, make bold statements and are then deemed “unsuitable to continue serving,” we hold the entire human race back.  It’s those who challenge traditional thinking that push the human race forward. 

Vosper and her supporters will have a chance to respond to the report’s conclusions at a hearing scheduled for Sept. 15.  If the committee finds that she should be put on the “Discontinued Service List” — the most severe outcome she faces— there will be a further hearing at the national level of the church. 

Will the church support Vosper’s efforts to push the human race forward or will they squash her attempts and keep their thinking in a box that is 5,000 years old, one that contributes to eighty percent or more of terrorist acts in the world today?

We'll have to wait and see. 

[Editor’s note: As of November 2018, Vosper is no longer in danger of a defrocking after both sides reached an agreement. The settlement came during a week of routine preliminary motions ahead of a full hearing that was supposed to occur later in the month. Vosper’s lawyer, Julian Falconer, called it an important day for the United Church. Vosper had called herself an atheist because she does not believe in a “theistic, interventionist, supernatural being called God.” She had written an Open Letter to the church’s spiritual leader following the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris in January 2015 in which she pointed out that belief in God can motivate bad things. Now Vosper can continue being a minister with the United Church and draw participants across a wide spectrum of belief and unbelief.]

Debbie L. Kasman

Debbie is an international educational consultant and former teacher, principal, principal assistant to the superintendent for Special Education, acting interim superintendent for Curriculum and Special Education, and student achievement officer at the Literacy and Numeracy Secretariat at the Ministry of Education.  She is author of the book Lotus of the Heart:  Reshaping the Human and Collective Soul.  In her new career as a writer, she has lots to say about spirituality, female leadership, and the need to transform things, including education.