The United Church of Canute ?


Legend has it that more than a thousand years ago King Canute of England sat on the seashore ordering the incoming tide to recede. His intention was to demonstrate to the courtiers that the relentless progress of the tide could not be stopped.  The legend has often been interpreted in reverse to suggest Canute really thought he had the power to stem the tide.  Using this reverse interpretation I dub Canada’s largest Protestant denomination “The United Church of Canute”.

The U.C.of Canute apparently believes it can hold back the tide of intellectual progress.

I have sounded off on this before but a few days ago my fears were confirmed when The Toronto Star reported  that the United Church was about to defrock – fire – it’s “atheist” minister, Rev. Gretta Vosper.

The heresy investigation of Ms Vosper has been underway for quite some time but I gather that the actual deed of firing has not yet quite taken place.  I write this in haste because there may still be time for sanity to click in.   Not that I believe my opinion can have any effect. (Obligatory Smiley face here).

Granted, Ms Vosper – aw shucks, her whole congregation calls her Gretta , so Gretta it is — anyway, she, an ordained minister of the U.C.of C., labels herself on her website as an “atheist”.  Shocking as this may appear, in my opinion (and this, being a personal blog, is certainly opinion) Gretta’s chief transgression was audacious honesty.  “Audacious” as in thrusting a stick into an ecclesiastic hornet’s nest and “honesty” in applying a label to herself that could equally apply to many of her ordained peers.  Aye, there’s the rub.

The duo of Star reporters quite accurately said that Gretta “…does not believe in an interventionist, supernatural God.”  They were absolutely correct and Gretta has said so in her books.  I am with her on that.  Moreover, to not believe in a manipulative God pre-ordaining our lives or readjusting them by whim or by favour is not a denial of the possibility of a Creator — a First Cause.  Gretta simply doesn’t go there.  Nor do I.  The great 19th century American humanist and orator, Robert Ingersoll, put it rather well -– “…since nobody knows, all should be permitted to have their opinions, and my opinion is that nobody knows.”

Christian theologs like to go on about the Trinity – the Father Son and Holy Ghost mantra.  It is a charming concept and throughout the ages has made for much convoluted philosophical interpretation from many an esoteric pulpit.  But to the practical layperson it really boils down to the concept of two Gods – the Creator and the Manipulator. God Part 1 and God Part 2.

God Part 1 is no problem. In it’s own “Song of Faith” the United Church proclaims that “God is Holy Mystery,/beyond complete knowledge,/above perfect description.”  I have never read or heard Gretta deny God Part 1.  Indeed she appears to me to be deeply aware of the many mysteries, including love compassion and empathy, that are at the core of human life.  The Star reporters themselves said that rather than preaching about the supernatural, Gretta “… preaches instead about love, kindness and human connection.”

To me it is obvious that there is Atheism Part 1 and Atheism Part 2. Gretta is being charged with Part 2, a charge that I fervently believe could be laid at the door of a vast number of ministers of various denominations and certainly could be applied to a myriad of us common folk.  If you don’t believe me about the ministers, dive into the Clergy Project, of which Gretta is a board member.  And no wonder.  In this age of accelerating scientific probing, dissecting, discovery and understanding of the secrets of the universe it requires a well closed mind to cling to many of the beliefs held by our ancestors.

The concept of an all-powerful tinkering God is an old belief that Gretta repudiates. In the arcane world of theology she is not alone.

Let me elaborate.

Recently I was appalled and then swiftly intrigued by the belated realization that Queen’s University no longer has a Theological College.  A degree from that college used to be one of the major doorways into a United Church pulpit!  And academically Queen’s and all its colleges has always been highly esteemed so, I wondered, what’s going on?

I discovered that just last year the Queen’s “Theological College” morphed into a “School of Religion”.   As such it offers a wide spectrum of courses about the world’s major religions and confers both graduate and post-graduate degrees.  But as of late last year the School of Religion offers no courses on “Theology”.

Theology is a big tent but at its core it is the study of God — just as Geology is the study of the earth’s physical substance and Psychology is the study of the human mind. If one does not believe in the existence of earth or mind one would not likely wish to acquire a degree in studying either of them.  And indeed the College’s own explanation for dropping courses in Theology is lack of enrollment.  But those other courses, studying religions, not God, are apparently doing well.  And so they should do. Religion in all its forms should be exceptionally well studied these days.  But it appears to me that Queen’s may have abandoned God Part2 and is leaving God Part 1 to the Science faculty.  If an institution such as a major university can move forward like this can an institution such as a major church not do the same?

We expect our best universities to be progressive, to open minds, to explore ahead and to peer into the future, so while Queen’s, a highly esteemed and progressive university, has apparently abandoned a belief in God Part 2, the U.C. of C. has apparently abandoned Queen’s.  The university is no longer listed as one of the academic gateways into a U.C. of C. pulpit.

And yet the very foundation of Gretta’s free thinking was laid in the lecture halls of the United Church’s old Theological College at Queen’s University. Paradox upon paradox, is the church now repudiating what it once taught – that the truth will make us free?

If the church defrocks Gretta and thereby refuses to be nudged into the future then surely the United Church of Canute has its feet trapped in the rising tide.


About Munroe Scott

Munroe Scott is a veteran of the freelance writing world.
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6 Responses to The United Church of Canute ?

  1. Diane says:

    You know her and I don’t, Munroe. But why is she calling herself an atheist if she isn’t one? If she has interesting thoughts about the nature of belief and the nature of God, why doesn’t she call herself an agnostic or a questioning believer and talk about that? It seems rather muddled. She always seems to me like someone who insists on playing tennis at the golf course. Tennis may be a perfectly fine game and golf may be doomed. But there are still people who want to play it without having to deal with someone lobbing tennis balls at them. 😉

    • Munroe Scott says:

      Hello Diane. Maybe I have confused you and if so please lay the “muddled” at my door. A major problem, and Gretta tries to meet it head on, is that extremely complex ideas are still being conveyed in archaic language that carries the baggage of thousands of years of insight combined with mythology, pseudo history, fabrication, superstition and even ancient politics. She rejects the concept of what I here call the manipulative God and I would say qualifies as a genuine atheist. A lot of us waffle with the agnostic label and thereby keep out of trouble. In doing so surely we are giving tacit consent to many of the ideas that are helping create current human conflict? Gretta is laying down an intellectual challenge within the bosom of what has been one of the most progressive churches in the world and doing it at one of the most crucial periods in history. She has nailed her challenge to the cathedral door.

  2. Munroe:
    Even Martin Luther believed in God. Gretta is a minister of a church of God (complete with a history of schisms, hymnals praising God and an intact set of sacraments that include communion with God). She is not a minister of, say, the church of Scientology. Surely a prerequisite of someone with such a job title is to actually believe in God. Is not a geologist (to use your example) required to believe in the earth? What sort of God He (or She) might be is fair game, but surely an assertion that She (or He) doesn’t exist is not. Let her become the first minister of the church of Humanism.

    • Munroe Scott says:

      David, I always appreciate and value your opinion. It would be presumptuous of me to try to wade too far into this debate but I would like to say that in my blog I carefully separate God Part 1 (creator) from God Part 2 (interventionist,etc.) and I agree that Gretta is an atheist concerning Part 2. Perhaps the bigger question is, how many other ministers feel the same way and, ultimately, is the God Part 2 oriented church — any church — a valid institution in the world as it is unfolding? Big questions.

  3. Earle Gray says:

    Splendid item. But I no longer think of myself an atheist. I like to think of myself as a humanist. Atheism is negative. It’s what you don’t believe. Humanism is, or should be, a positive believe, in the virtue and power of humanitarianism, in nurturing relationships. Helping one another, even in the smallest ways, adds purpose to life and a path to a contented or even happy life. Atheism can never be a powerful force as long as it is primarily a negative view. But humanism still awaits a profound voice to articulate its powers, virtues, and promise.

    • Munroe Scott says:

      Earle, there is a great deal in favour of what you say and I have no intention of disagreeing with you. In the case of Gretta, however, I feel that her use of the Atheist tag (with respect to God Part 2) was the only way to challenge her pulpit peers within the United Church to question their personal beliefs and to assess the validity of the archaic and often misleading language in which they express themselves. In my opinion, if Gretta had tagged herself Humanist there would have been a yawn coast to coast. The confrontational Atheist tag has brought about what appears to be a modern day heresy trial in a hitherto progressive Church at a time in history when our minds should be expanding as rapidly as our technology. There is more here than meets the eye — or ear. Whatever the verdict this may be a seismic event.

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