Dear United Church family,
Emotions are high in some of our communities as we absorb and respond to the decision made by the Toronto Conference sub-Executive to request that the General Council Judicial Committee conduct a formal hearing to consider whether to place the name of the Rev. Gretta Vosper on the Discontinued Service List (Disciplinary).
Feelings in the church about the suitability for ministry of a self-proclaimed atheist vary greatly. The diversity of letters, e-mails, and phone calls on this subject, received by me and others, attests to that. At the heart of the concerns being raised is a tension between two core values, both of which are central to our identity as United Church. The first is our faith in God. The second is our commitment to being an open and inclusive church.
The opening line of A New Creed states: “We are not alone, we live in God’s world.” Faith in God is foundational to our understanding of ourselves as Christians and as a church. Yet the language we use to describe God and how we understand the ways that God works in our lives and the world vary significantly. The openness to such diversity in thought and belief is one of the qualities that many appreciate about the United Church.
Looking at the formal statements of faith that our church has approved over the years attests to the importance of both of these core values. Each of these statements affirms our faith in the triune God. By adopting all of them as doctrine, we have intentionally provided tremendous latitude in how we think and speak about the ultimately inexpressible mystery that is God.
Following the example of Jesus, we seek to be an open and inclusive community that welcomes everyone, regardless of where they are in their spiritual journey. We celebrate the fact that our churches can be places where all are welcome and all belong, no matter what you do or don’t believe.
But many people have different expectations of those in ministry leadership who have committed to teach and to preach the faith tradition of the church and preside at the sacraments. The idea that an atheist would be serving as a minister of a United Church congregation leaves them scratching their heads. For some this is simply a natural extension of our commitment to be an open, inclusive, and questioning church. For others it is a violation of the covenant entered into by an ordered minister at ordination or commissioning. Like so many important issues in our church, there are many points of view.
It is not for me to defend or critique the Toronto Conference sub-Executive decision. Good and faithful members of the United Church made this decision prayerfully and faithfully. It was their decision to make. Like all difficult decisions, not everyone will agree with the choice they made.
I will also not be commenting on Ms. Vosper’s ministry. This is not something that as Moderator I believe is appropriate to do, particularly when this matter is still before the church’s courts.
What I do want to say as Moderator is the diversity in our church has been and will continue to be a source of strength, so long as we do not allow our differences to divide us.
It is good that we feel so deeply about this issue—that speaks to the high importance we place on our faith and our faith communities. This conversation is not over; perhaps it has just begun. We need to ensure that our churches are safe places where we can have honest, frank, and non-judgmental conversations about what we believe and what we expect of our spiritual leaders. To do this, we must speak together in an attitude of love and care for one another and for the church. And we must resist the urge to dismiss or vilify those with whom we disagree.
Let us speak and listen to one another with compassion and humility, seeking to understand even when we can’t agree. This is what it means to be an open and inclusive community that believes in the God of love and seeks to walk in the footsteps of Jesus.
Lastly, I appeal to all members, adherents, and friends of the United Church to hold our sister, Gretta Vosper, the community of West Hill United Church, Toronto Southeast Presbytery, Toronto Conference, and the members of the General Council Judicial Committee in your hearts and your prayers in the coming days, weeks, and months. May we receive strength and grace to genuinely embody a generous and humble love for one another.
Yours in faith,
The Right Reverend Jordan Cantwell
The United Church of Canada