My friend Doug Todd, the spirituality and ethics writer at the Vancouver Sun, has started quite a conversation about Gretta Vosper, the self-identified atheist minister in the United Church. “Why on earth, outsiders ask, would a Christian church allow someone who has long been an outspoken atheist to remain in the clergy?” he writes. That’s exactly the question I asked earlier this year, and seven years earlier, in my column for the Winnipeg Free Press.
If you worked for the Winnipeg Jets, but openly cheered for the Maple Leafs, wouldn't it seem a bit awkward?
What if you were a member of Parliament for the Liberal party, but thought that the Conservative policies were far superior -- and you publicly told everyone so. Wouldn't that be disloyal?
If you did either of those things, your boss would either ask you to change your allegiance, or leave your workplace.
Or you'd do the honourable thing, and quit.
That’s what most people would do.
So you'd think that Gretta Vosper, the United Church minister in Toronto who has openly and frequently made it clear she doesn't believe in God, might want to step down from her job and seek another line of work -- especially after she publicly criticized a prayer posted by the United Church on its website in response to the Charlie Hedbo killings.
In the prayer, posted on the day of the attack, United Church members were asked to pray to a "gracious God" to respond to the needs of those who were injured, those who responded to the wounded and to everyone in Paris mourning the death of loved ones.
"God of Epiphany," it concluded, "we humbly offer you our pain, our bafflement, and our cries for peace, seeking your gift of transformation and your promise of hope."
In response, Vosper -- who describes herself as a "Minister/author/atheist" -- wrote a blog post addressed to United Church moderator Gary Paterson, questioning "the merit" of such a prayer.
For her, such a prayer "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."
These beliefs, she went on to say, "has led to innumerable tragedies throughout the timeline of human history and will continue to do so until it fades from our ravaged memory... I urge you to lead our church toward freedom from such idolatrous belief."
Let’s be clear: Vosper, author of the book With or Without God: Why the Way We Live is More Important Than What We Believe, is free to hold these convictions. She is free to question the existence of God.
It’s a right that all Canadians enjoy, and that many practice.
But it seems strange to hold those convictions and, at the same time, receive a paycheque from an organization that actually believes there is a God, and that Christians should pray to that God.
I’m not the only one who feels that way. So does the Rev. David Ewart, a United Church minister in Vancouver.
In an open letter on his website, Ewart acknowledges the provocative role Vosper plays in that denomination. He says he is happy to belong to a church that encourages such conversations.
But, he added, "I can't help but wonder what sort of example she herself is setting. Wouldn't her personal integrity be far more clearly demonstrated by admitting she is no longer in accordance with the church's understanding of her ordination vows?"
Perhaps, he went on to say, her personal integrity could be "far more clearly demonstrated” by leaving the United Church.
Another person who found Vosper's position and perspectives to be unusual is Doug Todd, the spirituality and ethics reporter at the Vancouver Sun.
In a blog post on that newspaper's website titled “Will Gretta Vosper do the Honorable Thing?” he wondered why the United Church had never "publicly taken on Vosper or suggested she stop accepting the money and benefits of the denomination."
The reason, he suggested, might be because church leadership "fears, justifiably, that attempting to terminate Vosper will be a messy affair that simply draws more attention to a woman who does not mind, to put it mildly, the spotlight.”
But even if the church is unwilling to ask her to leave, Doug couldn't help wondering if "it isn't a little gauche" for her to denounce all forms of theism from a Christian pulpit.
In 2008, I wondered the same thing in my column. And now, seven years later, has she gone too far?
Perhaps the United Church, a denomination famous for tolerating a wide range of belief and opinion, might even be starting to think so.