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Can an atheist pastor a church?

McDougall Memorial United Church, Morley, Alberta

Constructed in 1875, McDougall Memorial United Church was part of the missionary work of the Methodist church in Alberta which was one of the protestant groups that merged to form the United Church of Canada in 1925. The other three included 60% of the Presbyterian Churches, the Association of Local Union Churches and the Congregational Union.

This is a problem facing the United Church of Canada (UCC). During the 1950s, the UCC was a growing evangelical church. Things started falling apart when one of the church’s lead evangelists, Charles Templeton (1915-2001), walked away from the faith in 1957 embracing Liberalism — rejecting Christ’s Deity and the Bible as the inerrant Word of God.

The fall of Templeton shook the United Church to its core.

Templeton who also worked with Youth for Christ was a close friend of Billy Graham and they even preached together during evangelistic crusades. Graham believed God intended Templeton to be the evangelist that Billy Graham ended up becoming. Templeton was God’s first choice according to Graham.

In fact, Templeton, who had attended a Liberal seminary, tried to convince Graham the Bible was no longer the inspired Word of God. This led to a crisis of faith for Graham, but one he passed and Billy went on to become one of the greatest evangelists the world has ever seen.

But the United Church never recovered from Templeton’s fall. The church leadership began to embrace liberalism and today its attendance is in a free fall and according to Religion News it is closing on average one church a week.

But in a move that has caught everyone off guard, the church is scrambling to draw a line in the sand on faith.

That line was caused by Rev Gretta Vosper , 57, who pastors West hill United Church in Toronto.

Ordained as a United Church minister in 1997, she came out as an atheist in a 2001 sermon to her congregation. Though her lack of faith was well-known in United Church circles, because of the church’s message on tolerance and diversity, the church basically ignored Vosper.

When Vosper first announced her atheism to her congregation nothing seemed to happen, but in 2008 when she decided to remove the Lord’s prayer from the church service 100 of her 150 member congregation walked away. It was also the same year she published her book “Without God.”

But everything came to a head this year when Vosper wrote a letter to the United Church leadership questioning the prayer a fellow minister had written after the Charlie Hebdow massacre in Paris on January 7, 2015 when two Muslim terrorists killed 11 magazine staff after the satirical magazine published cartoons of Muhammad.

Vosper felt the prayer should include a reference that belief in God could cause violence. It was this confession that pushed the United Church to finally move on its atheist pastor.

But Vosper doesn’t want to leave. She believes a person can still pastor a church while an atheist.

In an interview with the Canadian Press, Vosper said, “I don’t believe in the god called God. Using the word gets in the way of sharing what I want to share.”

For the first time in about 50 years, the United Church has put a limit on “unbelief.” Though the church doesn’t necessarily believe in the Bible, it still believes in God of some kind. The church has started a process that will result in her eventual dismissal.

Essentially, the church will ask Vosper to re-confirm her vows which she made at her ordination that affirmed her belief in the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. If Vosper is unable to do this, she will most likely be dismissed.



  1. Most of the articles I have seen indicate that her congregants support her. Even if you feel this is separating from the true message of the Bible, does she not have the right to preach her personal views, and does her church not have the right to follow whomever they choose? If she doesn’t want to leave and they don’t want her to leave, it seems like the matter should be settled.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well, that is not completely true. In 2008, 100 people left decimating what was probably a thriving congregation. With only 50 to 75 people left, it is very doubtful the church is paying its bills including salary and building expenses. I suspect the denomination is kicking in money to keep it afloat.

      But the bigger picture is that it is part of the United Church denomination who believes in God to some extent. It is their denomination, not hers. Now she wants to bring in a completely different message. It is like the manager of Starbucks deciding he is going to sell Second Cup coffee instead of Starbuck products. That’s fine but do it at a Second cup store not Starbucks.

      If she has so much support she needs to start her own group, pay her own bills, buy her own building. As it is she is riding someone else’s coattails.

      If she did leave I wonder if the 100 who left would come back?

      What surprises me is that she hasn’t quit. She is the one who broke her vows. If her word means anything, she should resign.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I can see why many people would say she should start her own church. However, what I get from her is that she loves her church and wants to remain a part of it despite what she probably sees as minor differences in opinion. We are talking about a very liberal church to begin with. They don’t necessarily believe in the Bible, so they probably also have a very vague approach to Jesus, salvation, etc. At this point, most sermons are generally of the motivational sort with sparse allusions to the Bible’s stories of love, kindness, generosity, etc. It sounds like she (and her remaining congregants) don’t see that atheism will stand in the way of her being able to do this. To build on your analogy, it seems like she still wants to serve the same Starbucks coffee even though she only drinks decaf.


      • Well we are going to disagree on this one as well. The issue fundamentally is that this is not her church. She has hurt her church and denomination by losing two thirds of the congregation. The United Church believes in God, she doesn’t. They decide their faith not her. They obviously do not want people leading churches who are atheists as this is not what the United Church is about. She is also the one who broke her vows not them. I am surprised that she didn’t resign her position 15 years ago when she decided to become an atheist. That in itself is telling. She can easily start her own church and her 50 members can join her if they want. This would be the honest thing to do.


      • I agree that the church has the final say, and if they choose to dismiss her, that’s absolutely their right. However, until that happens, I also support her right to attempt to change the organization from within if it’s something that she believes in.

        I don’t know what the specific vows were, but even if they specifically called for a belief in God and not just the overall tenets of their faith, she still has the right to want to enact change. (and again, they have the right to kick her to the curb if they don’t like her rocking the boat) I don’t see this as dishonest; it would have been dishonest for her to pretend to believe when she didn’t.


      • The specific vows called for belief in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In fact, the United Church is going to ask her to reconfirm the vow she made at her ordination. If she refuses to do that then this will be their grounds for dismissal. She is certainly free to change her opinion and I agree it would have been dishonest to pretend to believe when she really didn’t. But some would say she was less than forthright about her changing views, since the church requires some belief in God for its pastors. She should have quit and started her own group, though I suspect she is uncertain the 50 or so people attending her church would have joined her.

        Now in her defense, the theology of the United Church is so all over the map, she may have genuinely believed her atheism was not an issue.


  2. Mojo says

    Church is about community and supporting those members of the community. When the topic of homosexuals holding a ministerial position arose, many churches physically divided and many returned. When we look around, in many churches today, the congregation is basically seniors who cling to the old teachings. If the churches don’t move into the 21st century they will become relics of the past.


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