Opinions expressed here are my own and do not represent the views of the congregation I joyfully serve. But my congregation loves me!

Thursday, September 03, 2015

Gretta Vosper: Can't We Talk About It?

My conversation with Gretta Vosper airs this week on Religion For Life.   She is being reviewed as to whether she can continue as a United Church of Canada minister.   With her public statements can she  still affirm her ordination questions?  She tells her story on the radio program that airs on stations beginning tonight and then via podcast on Sunday.

I wrote a letter of support for her and for her church to church officials.  I am posting it below.

Here is my issue.  It isn't about believing stuff or not believing stuff.  It isn't about vows and other means of control.  It is about actually engaging the world as it is.   It is about asking the questions and being straightforward about what we see, hear, and think.

More than that, it is about conversation with one another about what we see, hear, and think.   Can we not talk about the challenge the modern world brings to the concept of God?   Why must our conversation devolve into identity politics?   Gretta and her church invite the conversation.

Will the United Church of Canada have a conversation or close down all discussion through disciplinary means?  Everyone loses with the latter approach.   With the former, there is hope for growth and understanding.

If you are just catching up with her story, go here for background.

*My apologies to West Hill United Church.  In my letter I called the congregation, West Hills United Church.  I corrected it.*





August 21, 2015

The Right Reverend Jordan Cantwell
Moderator, UCC
3250 Bloor St. West, Suite 300
Toronto, ON M8X 2Y4

Nora Sanders
General Secretary, UCC
3250 Bloor St. West, Suite 300
Toronto, ON M8X 2Y4 Canada

David Allen
Executive Secretary – Toronto Conference
65 Mayall Avenue, Toronto, ON M3L 1E7

The Reverend Bryan Ransom
President – Toronto Conference
65 Mayall Avenue, Toronto, ON M3L 1E7

Dear Esteemed Colleagues in the United Church of Canada,

I am writing on behalf of Rev. Gretta Vosper. Gretta is a friend and colleague. I am a pastor in the Presbyterian Church (USA). I host a radio program, Religion For Life, and Gretta has been a guest twice.

I am writing in hopes that you will be an advocate for Rev. Vosper. I have nothing to say about polity and process within the United Church of Canada, of course. What I wish to write to you about is larger than Gretta, you or I, or our respective denominations. I wish to write about the intellectual future of Christianity and the importance of ministers like Gretta Vosper as they fearlessly present to us the issues we face.

What are these issues?

We live in a universe that is 13.75 billion years old. Earth is 4.5 billion years old. It is a pale blue dot in the suburbs of a galaxy that is one of billions. Humans have evolved through a process of natural selection. We share a common ancestor with all of life going to back to single-celled organisms from perhaps three billion years ago. It is an incredible universe that science is unfolding before our eyes. Yet religion with its ancient creeds and symbols is still in a pre-modern era.

All of the symbols and doctrines of faith from creation to eschatology including “God” are products of a pre-modern era in which humanity was “created” around 6000 years ago in a garden in the midst of a geocentric universe over which Father, Son, and Holy Ghost could be imagined as real entities existing in real time and space. These doctrinal formulations are little more than poetry today.

As one wag put it: Galileo put God out of a home and Darwin put God out of a job.

A supernatural interventionist deity, a god called God, is no more credible than a hammer-wielding Thor scaring humanity with his thunderbolts. By virtue of living in a modern world, we are all a-theists whether we want to admit it or not. No one expects a divine being to send rain, heal diseases, stop the sun in the sky, spin the planets, or cause my team to win in battle or in football, except perhaps fundamentalists.

What we do with our symbols of faith, how we approach them, what we keep, what we reject, what we redefine and reimagine is the responsibility of our generation of ministers and theologians. “God” must be on the table for dissection. That is our task. The one thing that will cripple our work is the silencing of our most creative minister-theologians. This is from American biblical scholar, Roy Hoover:

“Those who insist upon the unaltered retention of traditional forms of religious understanding and language and who retreat from the challenge posed by the actual world after Galileo want to direct the Christian community into the confines of a sacred grotto, an enclosed, religiously defined world that is brought completely under the control of scripture and tradition; and they want to turn the ordained clergy into antiquities dealers.” The Fourth R, Jan. – Feb. 2004

Gretta Vosper and courageous clergy who tell the truth are our last hope for a faith that will have any integrity. You may not agree with the approach that Gretta and West Hill United Church are taking. We will not agree on one clear approach to theology in this time. Agreement isn’t the point. The point is not to punish voices and force people to mouth a wooden formula created in a pre-modern world.

We need ministers and theologians to experiment and to try out new ways of being church. We need ministers and theologians to articulate new ways of doing good in our world. Both our denominations have strong commitments to social justice and ethics. That is the heart of the church. Diana Butler Bass, author of Christianity After Religion quotes Harvey Cox:

“Faith is resurgent while dogma is dying. The spiritual, communal, and justice-seeking dimensions of Christianity are now its leading edge….A religion based on subscribing to mandatory beliefs is no longer viable.” p. 109-110.

West Hill United Church and Rev. Gretta Vosper are Christianity’s leading edge. I hope you will consider the larger picture as you reflect on this particular situation. Once we start down the road of silencing creative clergy, then all clergy begin to run scared. Once we do ministry from a context of fear, the love vanishes.

This is an exciting time. The world is watching The United Church of Canada, a denomination that Rev. Gretta Vosper loves and serves. May your church be a leader in exploring a faith for a 21st century mind.

Sincerely,

Rev. John Shuck


I received this reply:


Hello Mr. Shuck,

I’m responding on behalf of Moderator Jordan Cantwell, General Secretary Nora Sanders and Toronto Conference President Bryan Ransom. Thank you for sending your letter regarding Rev. Gretta Vosper.

You raise many good points in your letter, not least of which is your regard for Gretta as a friend and colleague. I experience her in both of those ways too, and am glad of it.

The process we are going through does not have a predetermined endpoint. Our Executive heard many people asking how a minister can say the things Gretta says and still be a minister. Others, like you, have written eloquently in her support. My hope is that at the end of the process, we’ll have a good reason for maintaining her as a minister – or we’ll have a good reason for saying she is not to continue in that role. What we have not done is to pre-judge the outcome and we, like many others, await the recommendations that will eventually come to us.

Again, thank you for writing, and for being a good friend to Gretta.

David W. Allen (Rev.)
Executive Secretary, Toronto Conference
The United Church of Canada
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