Listen to Rev. Cari’s reference to this “story” in her sermon given on November 25, 2018.
Written by Douglas Todd
With atheist Rev. Gretta Vosper celebrating her victory, the church officials’ decision fits a long-standing pattern in the denomination, which places supreme value on being ‘inclusive.’
File photo: Vosper at her West Hill United Church, in Toronto. PHOTO: COLIN PERKEL
“Worm theology” is used to describe people of faith who perceive themselves as fundamentally flawed, guilty and unworthy.
Based on Biblical references to humans having no more status than lowly “worms,” the term is relevant to last week’s long-awaited decision by the United Church of Canada’s large Toronto conference, which ruled that a high-profile atheist could remain as a clergywoman.
Rev. Gretta Vosper, who heads a small Toronto congregation within what has arguably been called Canada’s biggest Protestant denomination, has long accused her oppressive United Church of Canada employer of persecuting her for writing books that declare the superiority of atheism over belief in a God.
Skilled in marketing through social media, Vosper trotted out the Twitter hashtag #heresytrial to denounce the United Church investigation into a completely legitimate question: Should an avowed atheist be clergy in a Christian church? Vosper and her vociferous backers compared the review committee to the torture-mad 15th-century Spanish Inquisition.
With Vosper celebrating her victory, the decision fits a long-standing pattern in the denomination, which places supreme value on being “inclusive”. The downside is that the denomination increasingly lacks an identity and, judging in part from the United Church Observer magazine, has a relentless habit of lamenting what it perceives as its many moral failings.
It is unfortunate that Toronto conference is not stating the reasons for its ruling. Whether it is confidentiality concerns or something else, the silence means the denomination’s lack of clarity about what it stands for will insidiously drag on. Its 400,000 remaining active members, as well as the almost two million Canadians who tell the census they still identity with the church, will continue to be confused. Many will find the denomination’s leadership increasingly hard to fathom, and most likely irrelevant, in the way it so assiduously mirrors this secular age.
There is nothing wrong with being an atheist, as 4.5 million Canadians will attest. There is no doubt atheists can be highly ethical people. But is it wise to give a long-proud atheist a formal role as clergy in a Christian church, which has historically put theism, in its diverse forms, at its core? What’s next: Self-declared Buddhists, Sikhs, Jews and neo-pagans as Christian clergy?
A disturbing thing about the Vosper case is that the denomination’s policy and leadership seem unable to actually spell out what it stands for. That is a sign of an institution without a definition, which lacks confidence, and may even believe, like a modern version of the Biblical worms: “We’re not worthy.”
It’s good for people and institutions to be self-critical. But just as it’s hard to spend time with human beings who psychologically internalize external criticism and constantly belittle themselves, who wants to be part of a self-defeating organization that doesn’t seem to think much of itself?
To broaden the question for a moment, how much does the United Church, which in its much larger heyday in the 1960s was viewed as the culturally prototypical Canadian church, reflect what is happening to English-speaking Canada in general?
One just has to read The United Church Observer to see how often its editors and others beat up on themselves, or more precisely, the membership.
This year, The Observer has featured key articles about allegedly widespread intolerance, racism, sexism, hetero-normativism, ableism, colonialism and more that the editors seem to believe infects the church body.
Despite the United Church of Canada being arguably the most liberal, tolerant and “progressive” major Christian denomination in the world — it ordained women and homosexuals, for instance, decades before others — the denomination’s magazine continuously tries to expose how its members fall short, especially on identity politics (the prime 21st-century source of “worm theology”).
‘I am the epitome of privilege,’ confessed the new United Church of Canada moderator, Vancouver Rev. Richard Bott. (Photo: UCC)
The cover story of the November issue of The Observer maintains anti-black racism is pervasive in the church. June’s #MeToo cover gave prominence to nine cases of alleged sexual harassment within the church. The May cover story chastised United Church church members for supposedly marginalizing pregnant clergy. The magazine has prominently featured a disabled clergyman claiming members treat him as invisible. And the Observer’s readers are frequently taken to task for failing to properly reconcile with Indigenous people. The scolding goes on.
In regards to spiritual topics, readers of the magazine, which is devoted to “faith, justice and ethical living,” usually have to go to the back pages to find more than fleeting references to Jesus or Christian theology. At the same time, The Observer often sympathetically covered Vosper’s atheistic stance, letting her camp overwhelm its letters section. An ongoing series in the magazine supportively highlights the beliefs of non-Christians, especially the fashionable “spiritual but not religious”.
It’s worth noting the last two three-year-term national moderators of the United Church of Canada have been a gay and a lesbian. So, when the new moderator was elected in July, in the midst of repeated conference floor allegations that the church was racist and “exclusive,” The Observer approvingly reported on how the man who received the most ballots, Vancouver Rev. Richard Bott, immediately issued an apology for himself.
“I stand before you tonight as a person who has exactly one set of lenses,” Bott told the national delegates gathered in Oshawa, Ont. “I am a white, middle-class, university-educated, able-bodied, middle-aged, cis-male settler who grew up and lives on unceded territory of the people of this land. I am the epitome of privilege.”
Not to take the parallel too far, but I wonder how the United Church’s contrite approach to its own existence mirrors that of many other Canadians? Justin Trudeau says Canada is the world’s first “post-national country”. An Angus Reid Institute poll found one-quarter of Canadians think the country does not have a “unique culture”. The pollster has also found Canadians roughly splitting on whether our leaders apologize too often.
To be fair to Bott, it should be noted he at least didn’t apologize for being a Christian, that is, one who believes in God in some form. And after thanking the Toronto conference for its decision on Vosper, Bott explained its move comes out of ongoing tension between the church’s stated faith in God and its commitment to be “open and inclusive” and to show “all are welcome”.
While a psychologist might worry that, if the denomination was a person, it has loose boundaries that make it vulnerable to manipulation, and others might see signs of “worm theology” in its self-flagellation, Bott appears to recognize his exceedingly nice church has a possibly fatal weak identity. He has cautioned that he is “not sure that, as a denomination, we could articulate our communal purpose.”
Even though some individual United Church congregations around the country are managing to thrive, Bott, with that admission, seemed to capture the feeble larger reality of his denomination, which was once-inspiring, once-proud, once-healthy.
Will the United Church of Canada again find its reason for being, its soul?
Written by Douglas Todd
Original article published online in canada.com: November 15, 2018 – 6:56 PM
Updated: November 17, 2018 – 10:49 AM
* Listen to Rev. Cari’s reference to this “story” in her sermon given on November 25, 2018.