Empty Tomb or Empty Gesture?

One of Canada’s leading newspapers, the Toronto Globe and Mail, reported this past Easter weekend on a local church who decided not to sing, “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today, Alleluia,” but “Glorious Hope Is Risen Today.” As the reporter, veteran Michael Valpy, probed to find out in just what that hope consisted, if not Christ the Lord, he was told by the pastor, Gretta Vosper, that her church had no room for miracles. Just moralism.

No “Big God-ism,” as Valpy reported her putting it: “No petitionary prayers…. No miracles-performing magic Jesus given birth by a virgin and coming back to life. No references to salvation, Christianity’s teaching of the final victory over death through belief in Jesus’s death as an atonement for sin and the omnipotent love of God. For that matter, no omnipotent God, or god.”

Now let’s give credit where credit is due. Lots of Christians practice a moralism that is functionally atheistic: “do-goodism,” a previous generation called it. Ms. Vosper has the integrity to call it what it is. In fact, she has the integrity to work her way through the entire doctrinal syllabus and throw it all out:

“She wants salvation redefined to mean new life through removing the causes of suffering in the world. She wants the church to define resurrection as ‘starting over,’ ‘new chances.’ She wants an end to the image of God as an intervening all-powerful authority who must be appeased to avoid divine wrath; rather she would have congregations work together as communities to define God—or god—according to their own worked-out definitions of what is holy and sacred. She wants the eucharist—the symbolic eating and drinking of Jesus’ body and blood to make the congregation part of Jesus’s body—to be instead a symbolic experience of community love.”

Okay, then. Don’t like orthodoxy? Then say so, and say what you want instead. Vosper does. That’s refreshing candour for you.

But then her candour and integrity seem to collide at the end of the article. Valpy presses her on the fact that her church’s doctrinal statements (she is ordained in the United Church of Canada and is a graduate of one of their seminaries) are, indeed, orthodox. So how does she square her outright denial of those statements with her continuing to serve in that communion?

Valpy writes, “She said it would take only a single vote of a presbytery—a local governing body of the church—to bring her before the church courts if a complaint against her is made, and the courts could be interested in examining what it means to be in ‘essential agreement’ with the church’s statement of faith.” (Oh, let’s hope they would be.)

Valpy then quotes her: “I can find myself in there [the statements of faith] but there’s whole parts of it where I go, ‘Oh my goodness, this is terrible.’ If someone says to me, ‘Do you believe in God?’ I can come up with an answer that would satisfy the courts of the United Church. But would it reflect what’s stated in their statement of faith? I don’t think so. But it wouldn’t be very far from what my colleague down the street, and what his colleague down the street from him, would say. That’s the problem.”

I’d say there is more than one problem here, no?

A pastor of a Christian church who thinks “progressive Christianity” means, in fact, the substitution of radically different ideas holus bolus.

A pastor of a Christian denomination who thinks that she could and would finesse her express beliefs so as to “satisfy the courts of the United Church”—which is a condemnation at least of her own willingness to dissemble, if not also of the lack of doctrinal rigor or acuity of those church courts.

A pastor of a Christian church who takes refuge in the idea that other United Church pastors are equally heretical.

And finally, one wonders, as one always wonders at such wolves in sheep’s clothing (Matthew 7:15), how a pastor of a Christian church can continue to draw a salary and look forward to a pension while working in a building all of which have been paid for by people who actually did and do believe the United Church’s statements of faith and wanted their congregations to be pastored by people who believed them too. There doesn’t seem to be much integrity in trying to turn one religion into something else, while living off the tangible benefits of the religion you openly despise.

“Glorious hope is risen today”? Hope in what? Moralism? Led by someone whose integrity seems to be in such tatters?

Sounds hopeless to me.

0 Responses to “Empty Tomb or Empty Gesture?”

  1. Justbennett

    sad and troubling. This is not surprising since Jesus himself predicted it. It is scary because it is hard to guess how far this goes.

  2. Bill Kinnon

    Hmmm. Perhaps one has to ask whether the UCofC can still be considered a Christian “organization”, regardless of its doctrinal statements that may be the only remaining vestiges of its Wesleyan, Congregation and Presbyterian roots. (I was confirmed in a UCofC church 37 years ago. Actually came to faith in Christ nine years later.)

  3. Donna-Jean Brown

    As you have begged many a time, John, would these self-declared non-believers puleeeez just stop calling themselves Christians and start their own “Believe whatever you want” congregations? Although I am grateful to, and amazed by, some United Church ministers who still teach and model a commitment to Christ, I have frequently been astonished by the absolute lack of Christian faith that is the norm in some United church congregations.
    Where is the integrity?!

  4. Kevin Powell

    I think Valpy writes about folks like Vosper because he’s sympathetic to her cause. Not the cause to dismantle the faith but the suspicion of religious authority which informs her beliefs. Church is seen as controlling peoples’ behaviour, ramming ‘biblical’ morality down non-believers’ throats, and limiting individual freedom.

    While I have some sympathy to an extensive critique of the church, both historic and contemporary, it seems to me that (as you rightly point out) she’s using the very apparatus she despises as a means of deconstructing and reconstructing Christianity.

    But, unlike some commenters here, I don’t see it as a UCC issue specifically. While the UCC has its fair share of theological odd balls, so do every denomination. Including (especially?) mine.

    I think a greater, and unacknowledged danger to orthodox Christianity is the gnosticism and pelagianisn that runs free in many of our churches, especially among our evangelical friends.


  5. Jeff Loach

    Serendipitously (!), I had the privilege of addressing a group of United Church Women in that very church building a few days after the article – and the book – were published. The worship gathering that occurred prior to my speaking left me with the distinct impression that these dear people, led by the said Ms. Vosper, acted as if they were speaking to, and about, Someone not of their acquaintance. My heart was very sad.

  6. a UCC neighbour

    Not everyone in the UCC agrees with Vosper – it is a way-out-off-the-radar perspective that very few UCC people would agree with, in fact, if they actually looked deeply at what she says. Fortunately, her “new” book is full of old ideas, is mostly a rant, and in the end is dreadfully boring. No one will read it.


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