The other day I posted an older cartoon suggesting that people are more important than ideas, and quickly wrote a short post about the Reverend Gretta Vosper, a United Church of Canada (UCC) minister who is being tried for her fitness for ministry.
I determined to write a more thoughtful post about her and my concerns about her story. Sorry, Gretta, for the black humored cartoon, but I couldn’t resist the symbolism of what you’re going through.
I am interested in her story because she is my friend, but also because this story is important for the church.
I’m not a lawyer (which she needs) and I am not near as smart as I’d like to be to analyze things like this. So, I’m going to write some thoughts that come to mind from my personal perspective. This post will probably be long and rambling, and for that I apologize in advance.
1. When this story first broke, I immediately identified with her. When I left the ministry in 2010, it was because the church and I were “no longer compatible”. That is, I had moved theologically enough that I had stretched beyond the congregation’s ability or willingness to embrace me. You can read my story in my new book Questions Are The Answer. Our divorce was amicable. I admired Gretta’s home church that she has been the pastor of for over 15 years because, even though they have lost some people, they are still an active congregation. This is from their site:
”We haven’t closed. In fact, we continue to draw visitors every week and engage a broad audience that is drawn to the work we are doing. While the media loops the fact that we lost two thirds of our congregation (7 years ago), they don’t note that 8 congregations in Scarborough have closed in the last decade, and they don’t emphasize that we actually made it through those hard days and have grown our way back. Not as far back as we were, but enough to keep our energy high and our passion for our work strong.”
Her congregation still wants her as its pastor. This is significant and must hold sway in the church’s decision.
2. Towards the end of my ministerial career, it became clear that my departure from the ministry was imminent. My blog, nakedpastor, was gaining reputation but for the most part my church and most other churches were largely unaware of what I was saying. The turning point came when I started writing about a dream I had in 2009 and the profound effect it had on my theology. I started to write what I call the Z-Theory. People started noticing, including the leaders of the movement I was a pastor in, the Vineyard. It became abundantly clear my time with the church was drawing to a close when I received a call from one of my authorities informing me that I needed to run my articles and cartoons through them for approval before I posted them. It was suggested that it’s one thing to hold or question certain beliefs, but another to publish them.
Which leads to the question: Can clergy believe whatever they want, as long as they keep it to themselves while publicly upholding orthodox beliefs? Vosper is not the only minister who questions and even rejects traditional beliefs. In fact, it is rampant among the clergy. But rather than facing the issue at its root, the church would rather not only suggest that its clergy be hypocritical but requires it. The UCC is choosing theological dishonesty and hypocrisy as its default position for its ministers. I would bet that many other UCC ministers are asking themselves right now if they’re next, and I’m also certain that many who aspire to write have had their aspirations dampened.
Employing Christian theological terminology right now, clergy do not only represent God to the people, but the people to God. The UCC is in danger of making its clergy only representatives of their orthodox, authoritarian God to the exclusion of their clergy’s representation of God’s people. Vosper, it would be safe to say, represents a large and growing demographic within the church. The church’s intentions to discipline this rather than struggle with what it means is, in my opinion, short-sighted and suicidal.
This is about power and authority… a top-down strategy to authorize belief and demand conformity. If the authorized belief is not upheld and conformity not achieved, it will be “vindicated by the condemnation of the nonconformist” (Stringfellow). Is this the precedent the church wants to set? Some would argue it has already.
3. I was happy to find churches that helped me evolve spiritually and theologically, even as a pastor. Then the day finally came when, in order to continue on my journey towards spiritual independence, I had to leave the ministry and the church. But I promise you, if the church had widened its arms to be able to embrace me I would have stayed. I do not blame it. It’s just my story. I would guess that Vosper herself has evolved in her theology over time within the embrace of the UCC. I would hazard a guess that when she took her ordination vows, she took them with integrity and a clear conscience but that over time she’s changed her mind as any intelligent adult would and should. She also happens to be the pastor of a congregation that has understood this and given her room for it, welcomes it, encourages it, and wishes to stay in relationship with this idea of spiritual and theological evolution not only for Vosper’s sake but theirs. The congregation’s commitment that they were “ready to travel new roads”, and that they chose Vosper to travel with them, carries within it the assumption, as they’ve found out, that you cannot predict where these new roads might lead. They have evolved together, and I think that’s an admirable thing that should be congratulated and emulated rather than tried and disciplined.
4. Many years ago, while I was a pastor in the Vineyard Movement, I attended a conference of pastors and leaders where I heard the very last sermon the Vineyard’s founder, John Wimber, preached. I wasn’t necessarily looking forward to it. He was very sick by then and others who’d heard him before said he was weak, had lost his fire, and that I should’ve seen him in his glory. But, I was blown away. I will never forget one of the things he said, and I paraphrase:
”The pastor’s task is to help people move from one spiritual stage to the next.”
When I heard him say that, I absolutely knew that this is what I was here for. Without a shadow of a doubt. So I made my mission more intentional and focused. Some might insist that this is exactly what I’m doing now with The Lasting Supper. I would agree! I am passionate about helping people move spiritually along their own paths, to boldly go where they’ve never or even anyone has ever gone before, to explore and find their own spiritual independence and live it out as they themselves choose. For some, this might mean going back to a form of belief and even going back into the church and even ministry. For many, this might mean embracing a kind of agnosticism and leaving the church. For others, this might even mean progressing to a more atheistic position. Etcetera. For me, the goal is not mine to choose, but yours! How you believe or not is not my concern. My concern is that you are self-determining, sovereign, autonomous, independent, and free.
On West Hill’s website, this same sentiment is expressed:
”But for the past fifteen years, Gretta has encouraged us to engage in what we believe is most important in life whether we believe in God or not – the way we live.”
I applaud this, I wish more local churches would embrace this, and I wish the church authorities would encourage, nurture, and facilitate it. Otherwise, its clergy will just be brainwashers, propagandists, and indoctrinators, rather than pastors who help people spiritually evolve.
5. I’m a fan of William Stringfellow’s writing. I first came across him in Sojourners Magazine many years ago. I started collecting his books. My all time favorite of his is An Ethic For Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land:. But along the way I noticed his interest in the Bishop Pike story, an American Episcopal bishop who was tried for heresy beginning in 1962. Stringfellow, a lawyer become significant lay-theologian, wrote about it in great detail in the book, The Bishop Pike Affair. Vosper’s situation reminded me of Pike’s story. I would urge her lawyers and supporters to read the book for an insightful heads-up on what to expect and how to manage it.
Bishop Pike was passionate about re-examining and re-articulating the faith. A few people wrote about Pike. Here is an example:
“He is an uncomfortable and disturbing factor in the circles I inhabit. He does not… destroy my faith, but he forces me to re-examine my faith and to re-discover its power in the contemporary scene which he seems to understand in clearer terms than I do… The real significance of the sermon lies in the fact that Bishop Pike is aiming to revive the new generation’s lagging interest in religion and to have religion speak in terms modern man can understand.” (a fellow Bishop)
By the end of Pike’s life (which you can read in yet another Stringfellow book, The Death and Life of Bishop Pike… another bizarre and fascinating read)… Pike spelled out his position in his work, “If This Be Heresy”, and Stringfellow graciously simplifies it for us in 3 points:
- A personal God of the universe,
- The servant image of Jesus, or the man for others,
- The ongoing and potential continued development of human personality (even after death).
Stringfellow asserts, “Forgive us, bishops one and all, if we profess to discern in these three affirmations a suspicious resemblance to the doctrine of the Trinity.”
I would go even further, as I’m sure Pike and Stringfellow would 50 years later, that even these terms, including God, Jesus, and the implied Spirit, are powerful symbols that must be continually re-examined and re-articulated for the sake of the contemporary mind.
As one Bishop proclaimed in defense of Pike:
”I believe the whole thing… I will venture to say there isn’t one Bishop here that believes any more than I do and that takes more delight in the worship from that Prayer Book than I do. I believe it from cover to cover, and the Bible too… I don’t reject one supernaturalistic representation of the Bible,… of the creed, of the Prayer Book. I interpret it all symbolically.”
I claim that Vosper, rather than blowing her own horn or trying to make a buck off the church while she can— as some have accused— is actually working in the spirit of Bishop Pike to bring about this same honest re-examination of traditional beliefs, polity, and social awareness and action as someone who appreciates the tradition and all it holds dear, but only in a different way than the church would wish.
6. This brings me to my final point where I pretend to be wise enough to offer advice. I ended up in the Vineyard church because, believe it or not, it was more spacious than anywhere else I’d been. I was sorry I had to leave because I considered it my spiritual family. Now, I’m pretty much out of the loop. My loss. Their loss. There is one Vineyard church we visit, but its graciousness is unfortunately a very rare thing. I really did hope that the Vineyard’s passion to be relevant would translate into significant internal transformation rather than just the modernization of non-essentials like music styles, dress codes or drinking. I think they lost an opportunity. I’m not talking about me. What I mean is that I feel there came a point in the Vineyard’s life where it faced a fork in the road: change or solidify. It chose solidify. I could no longer stay.
The UCC has been given an opportunity here with the Reverend Gretta Vosper. I read the Statement of Faith on the UCC’s website, and honestly I’d have to say I was surprised. It came across as far more conservative than I expected. Certainly most of its members would not subscribe to many of their statements, and even more certainly many of their clergy would not either. I know I’m guessing, but I think it’s a good guess.
The UCC is being given the chance to change or at least re-examine, redefine, and re-articulate, its Statement of Faith. For example, like Pike and Stringfellow, is it possible and allowed to take these statements symbolically? Not only among its membership, as it undoubtedly does to some extent, but among its clergy, as it most certainly does.
When I was educated, prepared, and ordained for ministry in the Presbyterian Church in Canada (PCC), we took great pride in looking down on the UCC for its capitulation to and cooperation with the secular powers. We were the hold outs of union, which essentially to us meant compromise. For example, the PCC insisted that it’s name be “in” Canada, a geographical designation, rather than “of” Canada like the UCC, a possessive one. Presbyterians, in my experience, must and love to be exact in their Reformed theology. So we took great delight in charging the UCC with a generic faith. It was a fault. But now, I’m thinking, it is a virtue. Is it fair to say, now to its credit, that the UCC could never be accused of dogmatic orthodoxy? Is it possible that the UCC, in its efforts to be inclusive, are now being invited to be truly inclusive, even of its own members and clergy that are undoubtedly re-examining traditional beliefs?
Even in the UCC’s own preamble regarding its Statement of Beliefs, it makes a prophecy:
”But Christians of each new generation are called to state it afresh in terms of the thought of their own age and with the emphasis their age needs.”
Thankfully, the UCC helped to create the Reverend Gretta Vosper, and she is fulfilling its vision. It is uncomfortable. It is challenging. It is upsetting. But it can also be positively life-changing for the church.
It has been invited and it is being done. This is their chance.
(*** UPDATE September 8, 2016: Gretta has been deemed unsuitable for ministry. Read the report here.)