Settlement suggests atheists welcome in United Church ministry

The United Church of Canada reached a settlement agreement with Rev Gretta Vosper recently, meaning she will be able to continue in her role as a minister.

Vosper came to prominence after openly declaring herself an atheist within the Christian and Protestant denomination. Vosper ministers a congregation in Toronto. Officials in the church had sought to defrock her in an internal hearing.

The settlement means that hearing will not go ahead.

The United Church released a follow up statement reasserting its belief in "a God most fully revealed to us as Christians in and through Jesus Christ"; yet this position is hard to reconcile with the fact it is allowing an atheist to continue to lead one of its congregations.

Vosper's commitments to "just and compassionate living" fit well within the definition of Humanism. At the same time, she clearly sees value in the established tradition and structure of the United Church.

This settlement comes after the United Church made similar arguments at the Supreme Court of Canada as the BCHA in the Trinity Western University law school case - namely that there is no organizational claim to religious freedom.

I'm definitely pleased to see this settlement but it does leave me with more questions than answers.

Are atheists formally welcome in the United Church?

The Clergy Project demonstrates that Vosper isn't the only atheist minister out there. How many other United Church ministers are atheists?

Does Vosper's Christian atheist congregation suggest an alternative organizing model for Humanist communities? A rebirth of religious humanism, if you will.

Religion, like all natural phenomena, is an evolving and ever-changing thing. It's possible that Vosper's approach represents a renewed attempt at a natural, secular or civic religion, with more focus on the here and now than unsubstantiated existential claims. Or it could be a result of a search for relevance by an institution that sees declining attendance each year.

In any case, I'll be watching with keen interest.

Photo: Facebook/Gretta Vosper

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