While all of us who minister do so only by the grace of God, and I am keenly aware of my unworthiness for this high and holy calling, I think some of the minimal qualifications of pastoral ministry are rather intuitive–such as believing in God.
The United Church of Canada has decided, apparently, that theism is not strictly necessary for pastors. No doubt it is still desirable in the eyes of that denomination’s discerning leadership that their pastors believe in God; but it is not a deal-breaker. That is the inescapable message of the news that the denomination has decided Rev. Gretta Vosper, an avowed atheist, will continue to pastor West Hill United Church, in Toronto.
The article linked above, from the liberal Religion News Service, is enlightening. It begins, “Gretta Vosper is surprised to still be a minister.” I’d imagine quite a lot of people share her surprise. It’s a rather puzzling thing, until you follow the (il)logic.
How does the United Church of Canada justify this decision? Why would a Christian denomination allow an atheist to shepherd a church? The key is inclusivity. The denominational leaders found themselves wrestling with the tension between two of their “core values”: “our faith in God” and “our commitment to being an open and inclusive church.”
So, by “inclusive” they mean not simply that they welcome different groups of people, but that they welcome people with a variety of doctrines (or lack thereof) into the clergy. Aha. That would create a conflict with your cherished belief in the existence of God. The leaders of the United Church of Canada have found themselves in the embarrassing situation of wanting to affirm x and not-x at the same time. I suppose the implication of their solution is that they will accept either x or not-x (please choose one); which is to say that the United Church of Canada believes nothing at all, or at least not with any real conviction.
How does a denomination get to such a pitiful place? Quite obviously they have let themselves be swept along by the winds of western cultural trends and ideologies; the zeitgeist, rather than the Holy Ghost, has been filling their sails. But it’s more specific than that.
The atheist pastor herself offers what may be the key. In this she does a valuable service to orthodox Christianity, if we will heed it. From the article:
Vosper was willing to go through with the hearing even if the ruling went against her. She said she is fit for ministry in the church.
She said she believes what she was taught in seminary.
“Everything I teach is consistent with the theological training I received,” the 60-year-old said. “I was taught the Bible was a human construction, and there is much wisdom in many texts, both ancient and contemporary.”
During her studies, Vosper said she learned that the Bible isn’t the only source of spiritual or moral authority.
“If the Bible is not the authoritative word of God for all time,” she says, “why does it take such a central position in the United Church?”
Well, I think she has put her finger right on the problem. The rot took hold of their seminaries, particularly a rotten doctrine of Scripture, a loss of the orthodox doctrine that the Bible is uniquely inspired, completely true, and utterly authoritative. Her seminary professors passed down to her a faith uprooted and blighted, and at whatever point in her journey it followed the logical course and became no faith at all.
But Vosper can perhaps take some comfort that the Bible does not enjoy nearly so central a place in the United Church as she feared. If that were the case, they might have put more weight on the fact that the Bible starts with the words, “In the beginning, God…” (Gen. 1:1).
We have here a wake-up call for faithful Christians in the United Church of Canada–it might be time for an exit plan; a cautionary tale for the orthodox–guard your institutions, because what’s taught in seminary doesn’t stay in seminary; a warning for theological moderates who want to see more doctrinal inclusivity in your denominations–you might find yourselves inclusive’d all the way to atheism.
The good news is that this disease is easily preventable. There’s a ready antidote to this poison. There’s an extremely popular book that could be studied in seminaries to promote deep and widespread theism among the ministerial students. “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17, NASB).