Is there a place for an atheist minister?

United Church of Canada Rev. Gretta Vosper has been a controversial figure since 2001 when she made it public she doesn’t believe in a “divine supernatural presence”. In 2013, she fully embraced atheism, and has been a polarizing figure in the media ever since.

The self-described atheist remains a minister of the church in West Hill, Scarborough. For the moment. Her fate as a minister will soon be decided by the church’s general council in a formal meeting to decide whether or not she should be defrocked. 

Vosper has many supporters, including a devoted parish, many of whom claim they will leave the church if she is let go. Although she continues to inspire many of her followers, Vosper has no business being a minister of the church. Not simply because she is an atheist but because all evidence points to the fact that Vesper does not have the best interest of the church at heart. She simply does not believe in what the church stands for, has publicly spoken out against the church, and uses the controversy surrounding her situation to bring attention to her own agenda.

In the wake of the religiously-motivated 2015 Charlie Hebdo shooting in Paris, the United Church of Canada offered a prayer to those affected by the tragedy. Shortly after, Vosper released a letter on her personal website, where she expressed “concern” about the response. In contrast, she urged “freedom from religion”, and suggested a belief in “the existence of a supernatural being” is what led to the killings.

Regardless of what her personal beliefs may be, this public statement was poorly timed. It contradicted the message the church was trying to put out, and simply brought attention to Vosper’s own ideas.  In response to her letter criticizing the church, Vancouver United Church Minister David Ewart wrote his own letter to Vosper on his website. In it, he calls Vosper’s comments “dangerous” and suggests she is trying to bring awareness to her work, saying, “I hope Ms. Vosper’s book sells well. I also hope she ceases promoting it by speaking so dangerously.”

Although it would be presumptuous to say Vosper is using the attention her situation has brought her for profit, there’s no denying she enjoys a certain amount of notoriety that no doubt brings her a lot of attention. In fact, Vosper has published two best-selling books since 2008 about her beliefs: With or Without God: Why The Way We Live is More Important Than What We Believe (2008) and Amen: What Prayer Can Mean in a World Beyond Belief (2012).

Vosper’s critics have noted her ideas are nothing new. There are many books about atheism. Vosper, however, is the only atheist-Christian minister who is actually practising these beliefs. A normal atheist author only reaches people who are actively looking for those beliefs, but Vosper has a platform where people have to listen to her. Vosper enjoys national media coverage about the unusual nature of her position which undoubtedly boosts book sales.

Vosper’s teachings of being a good person and helping your community have touched people deeply. Even her most vocal opponents wouldn’t doubt her strengths as a spiritual leader. Vosper is the founder of the Canadian Centre for Progressive Christianity, which provides spiritual support for people and groups in the contemporary world.

But Vosper doesn’t believe in God. She doesn’t believe Jesus existed at all. Simply put, her place is not in a church teaching the will of God. Maybe it is in her own organization?

By dragging this ongoing conflict out further, Vosper is only hurting the church which has ordained her. Her beliefs oppose what the church is trying to preach, she publicly undermines the church, and uses her position to further her own atheism agenda. That doesn’t sound like a minister who is even interested in keeping position, and certainly not one who should.

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Toby is a second-year journalism student at Durham College. He enjoys writing about entertainment, with a focus on on movies and music. Toby can be heard on Riot Radio as one of the hosts of Talkalypse Now. He hopes to work at an entertainment or music magazine in the future.

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