Sunday, 17 April 2016

Atheist minister a distraction

From time to time I am asked about “that United Church minister who doesn’t believe in God.” That United Church minister is The Rev. Gretta Vosper, who has made headlines in Canada and globally by calling herself an atheist. By that she means that she does not believe in a supernatural, interventionist god called God.

I am not going to argue for or against her theological position. I find my own understanding of God may have some small point of common ground with her, but as I read more and more of her material I find far more points with which I don’t agree.

About a year ago, a formal question regarding Vosper’s suitability for ministry was raised with Toronto Conference, the body which oversees United Church ministers in this area, including Grey County. That started the process of what is called a “review”, in which questions are asked of the subject; in this case, Vosper.

Because this was such an unusual situation, guidance was sought from the General Secretary of the United Church, who proposed a process for the review through what is called a Ruling.

Vosper, in turn, appealed the ruling. The appeal was considered by the Judicial Committee of the General Council. They issued their decision just before Easter. They turned down all five points in the appeal with the brief words, “The grounds for the appeal are not met.”

So what happens now?

Briefly, the review will proceed. Toronto Conference will ask their Conference Interview Committee, the group who interview ministers about their beliefs prior to ordination or commissioning into ministry, to nominate several members to form a review team. There will be ordained and commissioned ministers as well as experienced laypeople involved. They will meet with Vosper and write a report.

One the report is finished, it will be submitted to the conference executive for their final decision.

It would be reasonable to say that all the reviewers will be screened for conflict of interest and apprehension of bias. They will be trained in the review proceedure. They will do their work in isolation, with no interference. They do not make any decisions; only report findings. I expect the review will be conducted this spring. I would not be surprised if it was completed by the end of June.

The final report of the review will go forward to the conference executive, a group of a dozen or so elected lay persons and ordained and diaconal ministers. They will consider the report and make their decision.

I don’t know what the final result will be. But I believe the process will be as fair as possible. I look forward to the result, no matter what it is. The United Church needs to move on from what is, I believe, a distraction. We don’t do theology by popular vote and there are more significant matters the United Church needs to attend to.

Rev. David Shearman is a retired United Church minister in Owen Sound and the host of Faithworks on Rogers TV - Grey County.