Note: The opening paragraphs have been updated, December 3, 2018, to include quotations from the article to which this letter is responding. I have also deleted some of my more ill-tempered comments.
The open letter below is published in response to an article which appeared in the November 25, 2018 issue of The Vancouver Sun: https://vancouversun.com/opinion/op-ed/jason-byassee-ignoring-atheist-united-church-pastor-greta-vosper-is-the-best-policy.
I was surprised and somewhat puzzled by your opinion piece published in The Vancouver Sun in response to Gretta Vosper.
I found the internal logic of your argument somewhat difficult to follow, and your assumptions about the history and ethos of the United Church misinformed. For example, your linking of Gretta Vosper's atheism with The United Church's support for LGBTQ2S+ is false and misleading.
"Some of their Baby Boomer forebears in mainline denominations in Canada may have thought that to be more inclusive to the historically excluded gay or lesbian person, First Nations person or other excluded minority, they should tear down historic Christian doctrine."
It is true that you can find both trickles of "tearing down historic Christian doctrine" and mighty streams of justice "to be more inclusive" within The United Church. But it is false to imply that affirming "inclusion" is based on anything other than our call as a Christian church to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ.
And The United Church has not been more decisive in dealing with Vosper's atheism not because of "anxiety," but because of historic conundrums built into the foundations of our church.
"Vosper has long used her denomination’s anxiety over her “beliefs” as a lever to sell her bad books."
My observation of The United Church is that you can detect our identity in our adverbs and adjectives, not in our nouns and verbs. Or in the way our nouns and verbs often leave unstated alternatives. Facility at using language this way was required to overcome the contradictions that the United Church had to finesse in order to allow Presbyterians (well, 2/3rds of them), Methodists, and Congregationalists to become a single, united, church.
For example, before a candidate is ordained: "The Conference shall examine each Candidate on the Statement of Doctrine of the United Church and shall, before ordination, commissioning, or admission, be satisfied that such Candidate is in essential agreement therewith, and as a member of the Order of Ministry of the United Church accepts the statement as being in substance agreeable to the teaching of the Holy Scriptures." I have often joked that this means candidates will be rejected for ordination if they are in substantial agreement with the Statement of Doctrine. We only want conditional, qualified, agreement. And notice the nuance that the Statement of Doctrine itself is NOT "in substance agreeable" to Holy Scripture, but to the TEACHINGS of Holy Scripture. There is no King James authorized text of teachings - only the vast, conflicted, history of Christians seeking to faithfully interpret and follow the desire of God. And it is in this history that The United Church happily has a home.
And for another example, our Basis of Union, Article II, Of Revelation, does NOT say that the Bible IS “the only infallible rule of faith and life, a faithful record of God’s gracious revelations, and as the sure witness of Christ,” but that the Scriptures CONTAINS these. Somewhat like the warning that a chocolate bar may contain nuts, this wording assures us that indeed the only infallible rule of faith and life is contained in Scripture, but it also suggests the unstated possibility that maybe scripture contains something else. Our doctrine of revelation is actually a doctrine of hermeneutics: There is no direct, unmediated, “Word.” God’s self revelations are gracious not directive; not inerrantly guided; not absent of our own freely given participation / discerning / learning. And because humans are frail, and finite, and faulty all of our discernings and learnings are provisional and in constant need of re-examination. “Meaning” is always contextual.
The word, “contains,” directly challenges not historic Christian doctrine, but a view of Scripture that your Southern USA white evangelical confreres hold.
The word “contains” is what has enabled the United Church, from its foundation, not just from its Baby Boomers, to engage with Scripture as primary and foundational, but not as closed and final revelation. And so. Contrary to Scripture, The United Church affirms the equality, leadership, and ordination of women. Contrary to Scripture, The United Church affirms birth control, divorce and re-marriage, and abortion. Contrary to Scripture, The United Church affirms the equality, leadership, and ordination of LGBTQ2S+ persons. Contrary to Scripture, The United Church affirms modern science and its discoveries, among others, about the cosmos, evolution, and climate change. And. Guided by Scripture, The United Church has a long history of not only welcoming the outcast, but of also seeking systemic change to overthrow powers and privileges that create "outcasts." We want justice as well as charity. And so The United Church, among other things, affirms universal health care, free high quality public education, progressive income tax policies that mitigate wealth inequity, strong labour laws and workers rights.
With all respect Jason, you misname what is going on. It is not the historic doctrines of the Trinity, Christology, the sacraments, and so on that enable God’s welcome of the outcast. It is the courage to continually enact the Good News that the time is fulfilled and the Kin_dom of God is at hand. And sometimes that gospel means proclaiming, “You have heard it said, but I say ...” Personal salvation and a transforming relation with Jesus are not the fullness of the Good News. Nor is welcoming the outcast. Jesus was not brutally tortured and publicly executed because he preached the goodness of providing soup lines. His apocalyptic teachings remind us that transforming from our present politics to the Kin_dom of God will require more than a few minor tax and trade policy amendments. We are facing apocalyptic climate change. I pray, for Christ's sake, that you are preparing leaders who have more to offer than sacraments and a personal relationship with Jesus.
When The United Church was founded, it created a hybridized church that was non-creedal and without bishops. And so in The United Church no individual ever has authority - only committees do. This means that authority is always exercised ad hoc - which can be courageous and precedent setting at some times; routine at others; and whimsical, capricious, and horrible at others. For United Church polity, it means that authority is never mentored; there is no learning from experience; there is no colleagueship; there is no institutional memory; and perhaps most significantly there is little or no accountability - committees meet, act, and disperse; it is virtually impossible to hold that group accountable for their actions. You instinctively responded to this reality by appointing yourself our pope for a day - our polity simply does not authorize any individual - even the Moderator - to "be the voice" of the church. The Moderator can only repeat statements and policies that committees have already passed.
If you really want to get to know and love The United Church, you should re-visit the Vosper announcement and research, "Who is 'Toronto Conference'?" Who were the individuals that were "Toronto Conference?" How were they appointed? To whom are they accountable? By what polity were they acting?
And because our founding, 1925 motto is "That all may be one," and because of our commitment to non-creedalism, it is in our DNA to encourage and welcome unhindered exploration of ideas: Why can't an atheist be an ordained minister, you may well ask? And you may wonder: How can a church that, in principle, does not require anyone to adhere to any creed remove a minister for her beliefs?
And because a strong commitment to "the social gospel" has also been a core component of our DNA, it is true that The United Church is particularly vulnerable to the error of the "social gospel" transforming into "virtue ethics." It is this error that Gretta Vosper - and a small number of others - have made. But it is also this genetic origin that gives Vosper the sense that she is a legitimate child - and heir - of The United Church. In 1925, no one imagined that any atheist in her right mind would insist on the right and propriety of being an ordained minister. And so there is no efficient polity for responding to her.
So if you put together our founding DNA of encouraging open exploration of ideas, of understanding all knowledge as provisional, of not requiring anyone to adhere to any creed, of commitment to the social gospel, and of no mentored authority, you can see how someone like Gretta Vosper was able to exploit the finesse that created The United Church.
Finally, let’s be clear that Vosper does not represent her generation. Baby Boomers have been around long enough that it is time for a new generation to have a go at making the world a better place. But your comment in the article about Boomers reminded me of Jack Weinberg's phrase that briefly became a motto of the 60's: "Don't trust anyone over 30." Given how that worked out, I'm not sure I'd recommend repeating it as a strategy for change. Boomers threw out a lot of important, hard-earned wisdom of their elders.
Your article has resulted in a lot of interesting conversations with some of my colleagues. So I am writing this to you as an open letter which I will share with them - and will give permission for them to share as they wish as well. I will even post it on my blog, www.davidewart.ca.
I'd be happy to meet in person if you would like to explore this further.
All the best,
Permission is granted for non-profit sharing and use of these materials, provided the source is acknowledged as, "David Ewart, www.davidewart.ca"