The courage of Gretta Vosper

The courage of Gretta Vosper January 26, 2015


In the wake of the recent terrorist attacks in Paris and Nigeria, religious groups of all types, including Muslim groups, issued statements condemning the violence and attempting to claim the center of their faith for peace. This is an increasingly difficult task.

One example of this drew my friend and United Church of Canada minister, Gretta Vosper, newly into the fray.

Gretta has written two books in which she calls for a post-theistic expression of church to emerge in our contemporary context. Her message is not so much for evangelicals and fundamentalists. They are the “true believers,” attempting to hold together the entire package (literal 6 day creation, inerrant Bible, virgin birth, bodily resurrection, literal heaven, and so forth). Her message is for the liberal churches–the proverbial main line. The historic, liberal seminaries in the United States and Canada teach modern textual criticism and pastors who graduate from those institutions know that the Bible is a human construction with many problems. Yet the average member would never know it. The clergy keep the story alive by hiding the truth behind ancient rituals that keep the institutions going.

This might be nothing more than a quaint past-time until religiously motivated individuals commit brutal murders. That would be a good time for the monotheistic traditions to stand up and say, our God-beliefs breed tribalism that periodically leads to violence. It would be a good time to pull aside the curtain and let all the lay people in on the clergy’s little secret. There is no Wizard. Just a little man with a handful of illusions.

After the attack of the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris which took the lives of 12 people, the United Church of Canada posted a prayer.

A Prayer for All Affected by Paris Shooting

Gracious God,
By the light of faith,
lead us to seek comfort, compassion, and peace,
in the face of escalating violence around the world.

As we read news reports describing the horrifying situations in Paris,
we offer our heartfelt prayers
for those who were injured in today’s shooting;
for the emergency response crews and police officers who are working toward providing security and safety for all;
for the people of Paris who are mourning the death of loved ones.

God of Epiphany,
We humbly offer you our pain, our bafflement, and our cries for peace,
seeking your gift of transformation and your promise of hope.

It is, by all accounts, a tasteful expression of compassion and solidarity. Exactly what you would expect from the UCC. But for Gretta, it didn’t go far enough. In an open letter to the Moderator of the UCC she wrote,

The prayer posted to the United Church’s web portal is one of the myriad responses and I appreciate that we chose to offer it in a timely manner. I question, however, the merit of such a response because it underscores one of the foundational beliefs that led to the horrific killing in Paris: the existence of a supernatural being whose purposes can be divined and which, once interpreted and without mercy, must be brought about within the human community in the name of that being. This belief has led to innumerable tragedies throughout the timeline of human history and will continue to do so until it fades from our ravaged memory. If we maintain that our moral framework is dependent upon that supernatural being, we allow others to make the same claim and must defend their right to do so even if their choices and acts are radically different from our own; we do not hold the right to parcel out divine authority only to those with whom we agree.

She goes on to say,

Where it may once have seemed justifiable, ours is not a time in which personal religious beliefs can be welcomed into the public sphere; we can no longer claim that the impact of religion on political and social structures is purely beneficial. This truth is obvious in the shadow of Paris, Ottawa, and countless other tragedies. We must boldly stand with those who would clear the public sphere from the prejudices of religious belief even as we defend the rights of individuals to hold whatever beliefs allow them to sleep at night.

I admit, when I first read Gretta’s letter I said to myself, “I thought I was bold” Asking the historic Church of Canada to step back from its belief in a supernatural God is a long shot. On the other hand, is it really too much to ask the religious leaders of the nation to be leaders? They have the power to walk us back from the brink. I realize that many social and political forces contributed to the atrocities we are seeing in the past few weeks, but there can be no question that religion is one of the factors. Religion now has an opportunity to be part of the solution. That begins by telling the truth.

Now Gretta faces a fresh round of appeals for her resignation. Will she be the next casualty in a system that is unwilling to take the next step in its religious evolution? I hope not!

Right now she needs our support. Would you be willing to write a letter of support for Gretta and her church? Even if you don’t think the concept of church after God makes any sense, there is a brave congregation full of people who do, who are under attack in Toronto. Please write to the Moderator of the United Church of Canada and express how important you think Gretta Vosper’s stand is.

Gary Patterson
United Church of Canada

And while you’re at it, why not write an note of solidarity and encouragement to the Chairman of the Board of the West Hill UCC, Randy Bowes.

Thank you, Gretta, for your courage. I am with you!

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