Q&A: Gretta Vosper, the United Church minister who doesn’t believe in God
Gretta Vosper is a United Church minister, an avowed atheist and a natural-born agitator. Some of her superiors want to kick her out of the church. She refuses to go quietly
You’re a United Church minister who doesn’t believe in God. That’s a pretty clear-cut oxymoron, is it not?
No. I’m a product of the United Church. I grew up in it, earned my master’s of divinity and was ordained in 1993. But I don’t believe in a supernatural interventionist being called God.
What about Jesus—did he exist?
Probably. And he was probably crucified. But was he the divine Son of God? No. Was he supernatural? No. These are invented theological constructs.
You’ve been minister at the east-end West Hill United for 19 years. What does your Sunday service entail?
We stand up and sing songs, sit down and listen, interact with people. But we don’t use the word God and we have no Bibles. Instead, we read whatever edifies and challenges us to think about love and lifting each other up. That might include poetry, plays, novels or movie scripts. We’ve read from Doctor Who.
So who or what is your God?
Essentially, the positive relationships between each of us. And it’s in community that we place moral authority.
How many congregants do you have?
We had about 150 until we removed the Lord’s Prayer in 2003 and it dwindled to 40. Now we’re back up to about 110, plus a satellite congregation in Mississauga.
Have you ever believed in the big fella?
Not in the Sunday school sense, though when I was a kid my parents would occasionally find me “talking to Jesus.” And apparently I claimed that Jesus taught me to skate. So I did have a sense of some invisible guy who was lending a hand.
When did you decide on the ministry?
Not until after university. As a teen, I was wild. I lied to my parents. I drove a car at 13; I drank underage. Around age 20, I was drawn to the academic study of religion and enrolled in theological college.
When you were ordained, you were asked the following: “Do you believe in God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit?” What was your answer?
“Yes.” Metaphorically speaking, I did. But I had issues with much of church liturgy. Then, eight years later, I delivered an off-the-cuff sermon in which I arrived at the conclusion that God didn’t exist. I thought, uh-oh, I might not have a job next Sunday. But my congregation courageously allowed me to preach. Many colleagues feel the same way I do but don’t state it as forcefully.
You’re a survivor of ovarian cancer. In your darkest moments, did you feel any connection to a higher power, or want to?
No. Some people have told me my survival was a gift from God. I respectfully disagree.
What happens after death?
I have no idea. Probably nothing. Which makes me all the more focused on this life.
After the Charlie Hebdo massacre, the United Church posted a message seeking God’s “gift of transformation” for the aggrieved. You posted a scathing rebuttal about an interventionist God. Tell us what happened next.
Lots of backlash. Now, the general secretary has created a process to review my suitability, wherein the ordination questions will be put to me again.
When they ask if you believe in God, what will you say?
It won’t be a one-word answer. And I’ll need to define each term: God, Father, Son, Holy Spirit. Ultimately, I am offended that my effectiveness might be reduced to a yes or no.
I’d wager that many people agree the idea of God-as-bearded-man-in-the-sky is irrational, but hey, it’s comforting.
Of course. I get it. As the American bishop John Shelby Spong says, “People don’t care about theology; they care about security.” You start messing with that, and they’ll fight back.
Wouldn’t an atheistic community be a better fit for you?
No. I want the United Church to accept that the Bible is not the authoritative word of God and that God is not where moral authority resides, and to recognize the innumerable divisions religion has created across millennia. If they had the fortitude to say that, I think it could change the conversation of religion around the world. And that’s what I’m betting on.
34 thoughts on “Q&A: Gretta Vosper, the United Church minister who doesn’t believe in God”
I would argue that she has faith in humanity. Which is far more powerful, as far as I am concerned.
Thank you, Gretta, for your witness to “the better angels of our character,” without requiring belief in a specific, supernatural deity. There is a diversity of interpretation for that Mystery that animated Jesus and that continues to animate us with new creativity.
You go girl, I think you’re on the mark.
This is a great example of why liberal protestant faiths will soon splinter into irrelevance. Why would any organization pay someone who who works towards the organisation’s destruction?
I think she is just playing with definitions: God, Holy Spirit, Son. How can you define what is not possible to define. I agree tough in the relationship part, ultimately God is relationship: Father, Son, Holy Spirit living in comunion, like we are supposed to live or aim to live.
sounds like an Episcopalian to me but hey it does not matter. the UCC if it continues the decline it has been experiencing for over a decade will cease to exist in the next 20 years or so anyway. she is just a glorified life coach which is a glorified shrink without a MA or PhD but almost as expensive. she might give Oprah a run for he money but then again no Oprah is way too good for that. she is another pollyanna with an axe to grind who wants a return on her investment of years in the wrong place! If I had a choice between re runs of Gilligan’s Island and her “service” I would choose Gilligan’s Island!
Oprah is the worst for peddling worthless woo crap not to mention getting the Doc Oz quack started
The organizations are already doing a great job of self destruction without her.
If that’s where her faith lies, then she has every right to believe and profess that; but she may not have the right to hold that faith and simultaneously retain a job as a minister for a church. I don’t know the rules governing her relationship with her church or her denomination, but it is common for both to have requirements about what the minister will believe and teach about God. Does it not strike anyone as an over-reach to insist on keeping one’s job when atheism is admitted? It’s like wanting to remain President of the United States while openly admitting you find another country more worthy of your trust, loyalty and service. It’s beyond bad form; it’s nonsensical. She should believe whatever her conscience dictates, but should have the decency to see she does not belong as a minister of God when she denies God’s existence.
Wonder what her annual salary is. Sounds like that’s what hard for her to give up. It’s her occupation. Lots of people don’t believe in their occupation. And this, in a nutshell, is what’s wrong with a paid clergy.
I’ve always wondered why it seems the women who are ordained in these recent years are the ones who want to throw the baby out with the bath water…
Of course, John Shelby Spong wants to as well but every time I read about a minister trying to change and alter the theology of orthodox Christianity, it is usually a woman. It is rarely a man.
Perhaps faith in humanity is far more powerful and perhaps it is not. Regardless, in her ordination she took vows to serve her church and her God. If she does not believe in God and tells her flock not to believe in God, she is being a disservice to both her church and her God. Taking out the Lord’s prayer is flat-out apostasy. I cannot see her congregation as members of the Church if they honestly take her seriously.
If she was the pastor of my church, I’d stay home on Sundays and watch football–does it even matter whether I attend or not at that point?
I think I might actually want to go to church.
It doesn’t matter if she has faith in the Flying Spaghetti Monster, this is a church of God, her job is to preach, teach and edify His word, not hers. If she wants to hold self-help clinics every Sunday, good. Go rent a building and do it. Sell some books. Run for office. Get a TV show. But her very presence in the pulpit is a lie, she was hired to teach God’s word, and she’s not doing it, so she’s practicing under false pretenses. Imagine electing a Prime Minister who decides the best way to execute his duties of office is to play golf every day and play poker all night. He wouldn’t be doing what he took an oath to do, and neither is Gretta Vosper.
If you had an idea what a United Church minister makes, you wouldn’t be saying that. What they’re paid for the amount of work they do, the hours they put in, the stress they undergo, is a joke.
Fine, I’ll take your place. I would find a church that doesn’t insult my intelligence to be refreshing.
My own church, a conservative Anglo-Catholic church, does not insult my intelligence. There are dozens of great minds that have come from this Anglo-Catholic tradition–pre-Reformation, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Anselm of Canterbury (both are saints in the Anglo-Catholic tradition and both are still esteemed philosophers), John Henry Newman, etc. If you define a church that does not insult your intelligence as a church that this lady pastors at, then you might as well be an atheist and just simply enjoy your Sundays doing things other than attending a church (unless you attend church simply for social reasons then in which case, you probably could just go to a pub and watch your favorite sports on Sundays instead). I attend church for religious and theological purposes to better my understanding and closeness to God. Maybe if you want a social outlet on Sundays (which is NOT why I go to church), then going to this lady’s church seems like a great thing to do on Sundays. As it does not better my understanding and closeness to God though, I can get the same experience just simply watching football at home.
As a matter of fact, I am an atheist, or perhaps a post-theist. I also happen to be a member of the United Church of Canada, because I prefer to pursue my spiritual interests in the context in which I grew up, although “bettering my understanding” of an unseen supernatural being is not part of it.
I think Gretta performs a valuable service in prodding people to actually think about their faith – many is the time when, if asked why they believe as they do, people have said to me “Oh, I just believe what I was taught and don’t ever think about it all that much.” Reminds me of what Socrates is supposed to have said about a life unexamined.
The only difference between Gretta and a LOT of other ministers is that she is outspoken about her beliefs. Many people would be shocked to find out just how many atheists and agnostics there are in pulpits everywhere. Many of them were taught to think critically about Scripture in theology school, and it eventually led them to disbelief, but they choose to keep quiet about it for various reasons. And by the way, it’s certainly not because of the wonderful paycheques they get. Gretta’s congregation seems to be perfectly happy with her ministry, so perhaps everyone else (including people who don’t even belong to UCC) should simply mind their own business.
And before anyone points out that Gretta’s congregation of 150 shrank by ⅔ after she eliminated the Lord’s Prayer, it should be noted that they have since grown back to about 100 and are thriving at a time when churches everywhere are closing their doors or merging with others.
The United Church of Canada has by and large accepted a wide range of beliefs and even dissent, which means that there can be healthy conflict and dialogue within the church. If the Church does oust Gretta and insist on orthodoxy, then they had better think about what to do about all the other nonbelievers in their pulpits and pews as well.
And if it comes to that, I will definitely take you up on your suggestion of finding another way to spend my Sundays, because it will then have become an organization to which I do not wish to belong.
I’d absolutely LOVE to see your proof and list of evidences that most clergy men in even conservative churches are closeted atheists/agnostics. I have YET to meet a single clergyman who is one. (FYI, I graduated magna cum laude recently with degrees in European history and religious studies.)
Any way, I’ll stick with Jesus here who called his followers to be ONE without dissent and St. Paul who called Christians to be ONE MIND and said there would be ONE FAITH. It may not be the “popular” thing but Truth ain’t a democracy.
Who said MOST clergy? For someone with such a sterling academic record (whoopee for you, do you make a point of bringing it up regularly?), your reading comprehension skills are somewhat lacking.
What evidence I have is anecdotal, probably because – guess what? – they are largely closeted. I guess it’s about as good as your evidence for an unseen supernatural being who takes a great interest in our lives, huh?
What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence. I bring up my academic record when someone starts insulting my intelligence for believing in a deity as you are implicitly doing here. Why not just call yourself an “I’m smarter than thouist”? Clearly, your being an atheist makes you my intellectual superior.
“What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence. ” Yep. Pretty much sums up the God argument.
Notice I didn’t say anything about YOUR intelligence. If you find my statements insulting, that’s your problem.
Intelligence and academic achievement don’t guarantee that someone is right. Sir Isaac Newton is widely acknowledged to have possessed one of the greatest minds in history. I have no doubt that his intellect would dwarf mine (and maybe even yours). AND he fervently believed in God. He also fervently believed in alchemy. Did you know that? In fact, he spent more time on alchemy than he did on what we would consider to be science.
This has officially become a non-conversation. I stated that phrase due to the fact that you asserted that a lot of clergymen are closeted agnostics and atheists that which you have no evidence for. If God=not real due to the lack of evidence then you need to be consistent and reach that conclusion with everything else you do as well. You clearly do NOT believe that principle though as you can assert that a lot of clergy are closeted agnostics/atheists without any evidence whatsoever. Neither do I agree with that principle.
And what does Sir Isaac Newton’s beliefs in alchemy have to do with anything related to this conversation?!? I made my statement as a criticism of this clergy women’s crystal clear non-theistic teachings and was perfectly in line with the discussion and then you turn this into some sort of God debate. I don’t have the energy for a God debate right now thank you very much. If you want to debate the existence of God, find someone else to debate with. I have been suffering massive headaches as of recent and do not want to get into intellectual debates.
I brought up Newton because of your obvious fondness for academic credentials and/or intellect, as though either is an indicator that the person involved is inherently right. Plus citing a number of admittedly great thinkers in church history as though their intellects and achievements have anything to do with actual truth.
I am not surprised that you suffer from headaches – trying to twist your mind around the convoluted arguments for the existence of God must be taxing indeed.
I brought up my academic credentials because you claimed that my church which does not permit a variety of beliefs to co-habit it (as a church should) would insult one’s intelligence. (You at least implied this.)
No, my head does not hurt due to trying to twist my mind around convoluted arguments for the existence of God as I do not debate the issue of God’s existence. One either accepts or rejects. That is none of my business.
I find your accusations against me completely ridiculous. It is crystal clear to me that you’re a troll.
And it’s none of your business what the United Church of Canada does or does not do. You’re happy with your church. Fine. You’re happy being with like-minded people. Fine. Stick to that.
“And it’s none of your business what the United Church of Canada does or does not do.”
Well that’s good I never said it was then.
Truth? Lack of evidence is not proof of nonexistence, especially considering that everybody has a very limited amount of experience with the infinite. Not enough to render accurate truth, just a few facts from your limited point of view. Don’t talk of truth when you cannot perceive all of it.
OK, Mr. Show-Me-The-Evidence Man, you wanted evidence that there are atheist/agnostic clergy (and again, note that I never said or implied MOST), because you have never personally met one (or so you think). Let’s see if this site will allow me to post URLs.
Survey finds that 2% of Anglican priests are atheist, 16% agnostic
“A survey conducted by the Free University of Amsterdam in 2006 found that one in six Protestant priests in Holland were either atheist or agnostic.”
The Clergy Project, “an online community of over 600 members where clergy, present and former, can find support and help as they deal with the issues related to their loss of belief in the tenets of their faith.”
You really are a troll, aren’t you?
Just trying to respond to your request, pal. Remember? “I’d absolutely LOVE to see your proof and list of evidences that most clergy men in even conservative churches are closeted atheists/agnostics.” [Emphasis yours]
Sorry if the response doesn’t jibe with your conviction based on your personal experience (“I have YET to meet a single clergyman who is one.”). C’est la vie.
Anyway, it’s been fun, but gotta go. Time to sacrifice a baby to Baphomet. See ya.
I would like to respond to the discussion regarding the debate about clergymembers who are atheists or agnostics. I do not need to see the statistics because, as a social scientist who looks at the biopsychosocial influences on behaviour, I can see how there are some clergy who would not believe in God. In other words, I believe that your statistics are probably accurate to some degree. Life can change people. Beliefs can change. Also, it is possible that, for any number of reasons, a person may enter the clergy with a weak faith to start with or no faith at all. I used to know a couple who came from a poor town in Italy, over 50 years ago. Although their family background was Catholic, they both were considering entering the monastery for financial reasons, rather than getting married. This does not mean that the didn’t have faith in God, they probably did, but their is a possibility that they did not. Not all people enter occupations for the right reasons. Further, the right reasons, are subject to interpretation and are subjective. At best, one would like to think that those who enter the clergy do so because they have a strong calling to serve God and they want to help others in the pursuit of understanding God. There are many social groups that people can join to help others and have good conversations. There are many service groups that do works to help the community. They, however, to not call themselves a church dedicated to serving God. I think what this woman is doing is inappropriate since she was hired to serve as a representative of God. She said that her church took out their bibles. Perhaps they need to find a new name for their group if they, under her leadership, have collectively deciding to not worship God anymore, which is their choice. It may be confusing for other Christians who are looking for a Christian church to worship at and they stumble upon hers.
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