Here is the first sentence in the American Humanist Association’s description of their organization:
“We strive to bring about a progressive society where being good without a god is an accepted and respected way to live life.” (source)
Like many secular and humanist groups, the AHA expects their secular celebrants to conduct humanist ceremonies which “express our positive, nontheistic philosophy of humanism instead of traditional faith.” (source)
[As an aside, a couple years ago I interviewed Galen Broaddus, a secular celebrant with CFI. You can read the interview here.]
The Christian Secular Celebrant?
Now imagine a secular celebrant named Gerta who ministers with the AHA. All is fine until one day when Gerta converts to Christianity. Awkward, right? Not for Gerta. She carries on with her duties, although now all references to the indomitable human spirit and the majestic reach of natural science are replaced with references to God and Jesus.
How long do you think it would be before Gerta would be shown the door? I mean, inclusivity is great and all, but you can’t very well have secular celebrants who represent your organization actively denying the fundamental raison d’etre for said organization.
One would think.
The Atheist Christian Minister
With that in mind, we can turn to a topic on which I wrote a series of articles 2-3 years ago: the status of atheist minister Gretta Vosper in the United Church of Canada (UCC), a historically Christian church. (See, for example, “Should Christian clergy be expected to believe that God exists?” and “Are Christian denominations permitted to expect theism of their ministers?“)
For the last three years, Vosper’s status as a minister in good standing within the UCC has been under debate. Just as the hypothetical Gerta in our AHA illustration came to reject the fundamental unifying principles of the AHA, so Gretta Vosper has long rejected the very existence of the triune God (or indeed, of any God) of Christian faith. What is more, she is not quiet about it. Instead, she has repeatedly expressed her own outright hostility toward historic Christian faith.
For example, in my article “The Ongoing Trials of the Minister Who Was an Atheist,” I quote Vosper as describing the Lord’s Prayer as irrelevant, a perspective that is made clear when she introduces it in services with this pandering preface:
“I would introduce it [the prayer] and invite people for whom the words had meaning to say them with me and then I started to introduce it saying, ‘Those for whom these words have meaning, I invite you to say them together, and those for whom they do not I invite you to think of you know, something that’s important to you.'” (source)
But Vosper was never content to quietly hold her personal convictions within the walls of her church. She has long been an evangelist for her atheism. The UCC could no longer ignore that evangelistic impulse when, in 2015, Vosper wrote an indignant open letter to Gary Paterson, the moderator of the UCC.
What had the UCC done that elicited Vosper’s atheistic ire? Believe it or not, the UCC had the gall to post a prayer to their website in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre of January 7, 2015. I mean, how dare a Christian church pray at a time of crisis, right?!
Here is an excerpt from Vosper’s indignant and very public reply to Paterson and the UCC:
“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.
“I urge you to lead our church toward freedom from such idolatrous belief.” (source)
Did you catch that? Vosper, a nominally “Christian” minister, had the temerity to call belief in the Christian God (or indeed, any god) and prayer to that God in the wake of tragedy as idolatrous.
The UCC Welcomes Evangelistic Atheist/Anti-Theistic Ministers. But Christian Ministers? Not so much
That bizarre letter initiated a long and winding UCC inquiry into Vosper’s fitness to minister within the church, an inquiry that has just now concluded after close to four years. (I’m guessing it wouldn’t take quite as long for AHA to figure out that Gerta should be shown the door.)
Except, the UCC decided in a confidential settlement this past week that Vosper’s active and condescending hostility toward Christianity is perfectly fine for a Christian minister. The Toronto Star summarized the outcome in their article, “In surprise settlement, United Church agrees Toronto’s atheist minister can keep her job,” wherein they quote the Right Rev. Richard Bott, the current leader of the UCC:
“The dance between these core values [of faith in God and inclusivisty], how they interact with and inform each other, is one that we continue to explore as followers of Jesus and children of the creator.”
A dance! How nice! And inclusivity! Got it.
In other words, the UCC is inclusive of atheistic pastors who are actively opposed to orthodox Christianity.
But by the same token, they are not inclusive of Christian pastors who are actively opposed to the inclusion of atheistic pastors who are actively opposed to orthodox Christianity.
Inclusivity, it would seem, only goes so far.