The United Church is the largest Protestant denomination in Canada, having formed in 1925 as a union of Methodists, Congregationalists, and some Presbyterians. Because of my family roots, I have always felt a kinship with the United Church. My great-grandfather and his identical twin brother were both Methodist ministers who joined the United Church with the 1925 merger (and who, incidentally, were so identical they sometimes switched pulpits without telling their congregations who had no idea they had had a guest preacher!). My grandparents on my mother’s side grew up United as did my mother. My mother often joked about her own mother speaking of “those lingering Presbyterians,” referring to Presbyterians who did not participate in the 1925 merger. My roots in the United Church grow out if its earliest days. This is why I feel such heartache around the current theological crisis through which the United Church is going. Perhaps the one blessing that has come out of my mother’s dementia is that she is not aware of what is happening. It would break her heart.
The latest example of this crisis developed a few years ago when the story broke of an ordained United Church minister named Gretta Vosper who came out publicly as an atheist. Now, this, in and of itself, would not qualify as a theological crisis (except, perhaps, for Gretta). It is a sad truth that every once in a while, one learns of a pastor who has lost his faith (or discovered that he never had one to begin with). My heart goes out to these pastors whose theological foundations have crumbled. They (and their congregations) deserve our prayers and our support. To my knowledge, though, never before has the suggestion been made that belief in God is irrelevant to pastoral leadership—not until Gretta. And this is what has spurred the latest theological crisis in the United Church. The mere fact that this is an issue for discussion reveals how far some United churches have fallen away from any semblance of orthodox Christianity. How, in God’s Name, can a person shepherd the flock of God who does not believe in God? The mere notion would be laughable were it not so tragic. Vosper’s “coming out” strikes at the very core of what it means to be a pastor and what it means to be a church. The Apostle Paul tells us that God sets apart men and women for pastoral ministry in order to “build up” the Body of Christ (Ephesians 4:12). Again, how can an atheist recognize the call of God? How can an atheist build up the Body of Christ?
Vosper has indicated that she considers the United Church's decision to review her “fitness for ministry" a “betrayal” by her denomination. I would suggest, however, that if anyone is guilty of betrayal it is Vosper herself. Were Vosper to have come out as an atheist and resigned from her congregation I would have respected her honesty and integrity. To argue, however, that belief in God is irrelevant to pastoral ministry is a betrayal of her vows, a betrayal of the Church, and a betrayal of every pastor who has ever sought to shepherd a Christian flock.
Some people may ask, “Why are you, a Baptist, addressing an internal matter of the United Church?” Aside from my United Church roots previously mentioned, all churches, no matter their denominational flavour, are part of a larger Christian community. We are brothers and sisters in Christ and what affects one church affects us all. I firmly believe that the churches of our community are not in competition with one another (at least we shouldn’t be). We all have the same mandate—to grow the Kingdom of God—and when one church or church body loses its bearings we are all diminished. My hope and prayer for some of my brothers and sisters in the United Church is that they will recover their biblical roots and discover afresh what it means to be a part of the Church, the Body of Christ, the temple of the Living God.