Last week, the United Church of Christ’s New Sacred blog posted Jon Berren Propper’s “A Kingdom of Nonbelievers? Maybe.” The blog post takes as a starting point the recent controversy over a United Church of Canada minister, Rev. Gretta Vosper, who has become an atheist but who wants to remain a minister serving a congregation in the UCCanada. From there Propper goes on to ask just how essential having the “right” beliefs should be to building the kingdom of Heaven, and he offers a vision of an inclusive Church that values diversity, love, and action over dogma.
I completely agree with Propper that right belief is often less important than we make it out to be and that churches should be open to all kinds of people who want to explore the common “touchpoints” of the Christian tradition. At First Church Somerville, we are a Christian church where everyone is welcome with whatever beliefs or doubts they may have. I think Propper would feel right at home at here. Our folks come from a wide variety of religious and non-religious backgrounds - completely unchurched, Catholic, Orthodox, Fundamentalist, Evangelical, Baptist, Reformed, Pentecostal, Unitarian Universalist, New Age, Spiritual But Not Religious, interfaith, Jewish, Santería, and even (occasionally) cradle UCC. And, yes, we have a number of non-theists, atheists, and atheist Christians who are official members of the church or who are deeply connected attendees and friends of the congregation.
Why would an atheist come to a Christian church? The answers to that question are as diverse as the people themselves. Some come just to be with their families on Sunday morning. Others come because even though they can’t conceive of “God the Father,” they love them some Jesus all the same. Some are “Jeffersonian” Christians who don’t go in for anything supernatural or miraculous at all, but find great value in Jesus’ teachings. Others do “believe” in some sort of God, but just not the anthropomorphized old man in the sky. Others feel their lack of faith in a personal, loving God as an absence or loss in their life, and they show up every week to explore honestly what they can and can’t believe. Others show up for the music. Others show up for the community. The list goes on. But what is true of all of them is that they know that they have options - there are plenty of non-Christian spiritual communities or humanist groups they could join where they could still hear sermons, sing sacred music, celebrate holidays, be in community, and explore their belief systems outside of the Christian context. But for some reason, they have chosen to be a part of this explicitly Christian church.
And this is where I differ greatly from Propper’s take on Rev. Gretta Vosper. I agree that there is nothing “wrong” with not being a Christian, with belonging to another faith tradition, or with being an atheist. But if we are Christians, we must also at the same time affirm that there is something valuable (for everyone) about maintaining explicitly Christian churches and denominations. The identity we claim and are able to offer to people as the Church of Jesus Christ - the identity of Christian, disciple, apostle, Jesus follower - is also good and true and beautiful. Rev. Gretta Vosper, by her own admission and affirmation, is no longer a Christian. In other words, it’s not that the UCCanada has said that because Vosper claims atheistic beliefs, she can no longer call herself a Christian. She has explicitly identified herself as being a non-Christian. Could she be a part of the kingdom of Heaven? Sure. Is she, as a self-identified non-Christian, a suitable person to lead a Christian church or to hold ministerial standing in a Christian denomination? Absolutely not.
Propper writes about how Judaism makes room for participants and leaders of various beliefs and non-beliefs. True. So do many Christian churches. But does Judaism make room for leaders in the Jewish faith who are not Jewish in their identity? Propper writes that Vosper’s congregants must think “she’s as Christian as can be” because, despite her beliefs, she leads a good life. But because Vosper is not a Christian, even if her congregants did say, “She’s as Christian as can be,” Vosper would likely correct them. Christian identity isn't handed out to (or forced upon) every good person. Christian identity and faith in Jesus Christ are claimed and committed to. Vosper is not a Christian, nor does she want to be Christian. She understands herself as "growing out of the Christian tradition," but if you were to attend her church, you would not find the most common “touchpoints” of the that tradition. The word “God” is rarely used. Common creeds and prayers have been secularized, removing explicitly Christian language. Jesus Christ is not a focus. There is no Holy Spirit. Sacred music has been rewritten and secularized. The Bible is read rarely. There are no Sacraments.
There’s nothing “wrong” with Rev. Gretta Vosper’s spiritual journey or her beliefs. There is nothing wrong with the congregants who remain at her church who support and desire such a community and leader. And there is also nothing wrong with the United Church of Canada being honest about the fact that Rev. Vosper and her church have stepped almost entirely outside of Christian tradition and fully outside of Christian identity.
Liberal, progressive Christians need to think seriously about what the Mission of the Church of Jesus Christ is. Are all welcome here? Absolutely! And if that were the end of our Mission and calling as Evangelists of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, it would be absolutely appropriate for a non-Christian to be a “Christian” minister. But hospitality is only the first step, the base line, the context in which we go on to offer Good News to all people. A non-Christian leader can welcome people into community and take them on a rich spiritual journey! But they cannot offer the Christian Gospel, an invitation into a life dedicated to and transformed by Christ. This is our unique Mission, the sacred gift we, as the Christian Church, have been entrusted with and which no one else can offer.
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Jesus the Imagination
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