Should the Atheist Pastor Be Defrocked?

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When I told the people of Northern Ireland that I was an atheist, a woman in the audience stood up and said, ‘Yes, but is it the God of the Catholics or the God of the Protestants in whom you don’t believe?’ – Quentin Crisp
Tell me about the God you don’t believe in – Marcus Borg

 

Atheism is a tricky business – especially these days. It used to be simple: an atheist was someone who didn’t believe in God. Then many of us read or heard Marcus Borg describe his many conversations with university students. He recounts, “Every term, one or more of them says to me after class,‘This is all very interesting, but I have a problem every time you use the word ‘God’ because, you see’ – here there’s usually a pause and a deep breath – ‘I really don’t believe in God.’ I always respond the same way: ‘Tell me about the God you don’t believe in.’”*

As Borg tells it, the student then describes a version of God that he or she perhaps learned in Sunday school, from his or her parents or simply from popular culture. When Borg says, “ Well, I don’t believe in that God either,” a space opens up for conversation about other possible ways of understanding the Divine.
The United Church of Canada had an opportunity to enter such a space for conversation. Last week a review committee that found Gretta Vosper, pastor of West Hill United Church in Toronto “not suitable” to continue in her pastoral role because she doesn’t believe in God. Now she faces a formal hearing to determine whether or not she should13174092_952285084869494_4268620792734363335_n be defrocked.
A petition circulating in support of Rev. Vosper concludes:
“Persuaded that the theological conversation Gretta Vosper has provoked is a matter for dialogue and not a matter for discipline; we, the undersigned, urge the sub-Executive of Toronto Conference to reject the recommendations of the report of the Conference Interview Committee.”But what does Gretta Vosper believe? It might be easier to begin with what she does not believe: “I do not believe in a theistic, supernatural being called God.”

At her ordination in 1993, when asked if she believed in God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. She said yes, speaking metaphorically. Eight years later, she began to deconstruct the idea of God. She said, “Our hymns and our prayers and the way that we did things, they all reinforced this idea of a supernatural divine being who intervened in human affairs. I just took it apart – I was not willing to continue to let (my congregation) think that I believed in that kind of God.” The worship service now uses more metaphorical interpretation of religious symbols and places emphasis a strong emphasis on environmental and social justice.
She’s been controversial, to be sure. The congregation has undergone a severe decline in membership. However, those who’ve stayed are steadfast. One member has said, “West Hill is the future of what religion will be like. We’re thinking and saying what the rest of the world is scared to, but moving towards.”
So is Vosper a church-wrecking heretic? Or a prophet, pushing to bring the “God” conversation into the church – a role she describes as “irritating the church into the 21st century”
 As more people discover that there are other ways of thinking about their concept of God, the old definition of “not believing” becomes more problematic. Agree with Vosper or not, she is bringing to the fore a conversation that needs to happen. Heresy trials aren’t the way to go.

 

*Borg, Marcus, The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith. New York: HarperCollins, 2003, 68-69.

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