Canadian Press

Oh! Canada! -- Journalists ignore key questions in Alberta Christian school's Bible battle

Oh! Canada! -- Journalists ignore key questions in Alberta Christian school's Bible battle

Canada, which celebrates its 150th anniversary as a nation this year, is a unique place religion-wise, as my colleague Richard Ostling pointed out recently.

Despite being lampooned by the fictional McKenzie Brothers duo, Canadians are uniformly polite and are among the smartest people around. Any country that can produce literary titans such as Robertson Davies and Alice Munro is no slouch in the scholarship department.

Important trends that have accelerated in recent years are Canada's increased secularization and the acceptance of same-sex marriage. One of the commemorative postage stamps released for the sesquicentennial by Canada Post celebrates the passage of that nation's Civil Marriage Act as a national milestone.

Given those trends, the headlines coming out of the province of Alberta shouldn't be as jarring as they come across -- or should they?

Judge for yourself. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation picked up a Canadian Press news agency story with this blunt headline: "Alberta Christian school worried school division could ban Bible verses." There are several church-state holes in this story (think religious liberty issues, without the scare quotes), which we will be getting to shortly.

Let's dive in at the beginning. This excerpt is long, but necessary. Please read this closely and try to spot what I believe is a revealing typo:

A Christian school southeast of Edmonton says it fears the school division is moving to censor what parts of the Bible can be taught.
Several Bible verses were to be included in a handbook for students at the Cornerstone Christian Academy in Kingman, Alta.
Trustees from the Battle River School Division say they believe the verses might contravene Alberta's human rights code. 

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Oooo, an atheist pastor: Washington Post offers wide-eyed yet manipulative look at Canadian conflict

Oooo, an atheist pastor: Washington Post offers wide-eyed yet manipulative look at Canadian conflict

When I last looked at the Rev. Gretta Vosper, the famously atheistic pastor in Toronto, I praised Canadian media for their measured coverage. "In the United States," I wrote, "we'd be reading and hearing ferocious barrages of rhetoric."

Well, I take it back. Now that a national committee of the United Church of Canada has recommended Vosper's ouster, the report from at least one American publication -- the Washington Post -- isn’t quite that fierce. Just cartoonish. And inferior to the writeup in a Canadian newspaper.

Let's start with the good first. The National Post, that Canadian paper, starts with a straight account of the facts:

A United Church of Canada minister who is a self-professed atheist and has been the subject of an unprecedented probe into her theological beliefs is one step closer to being removed from the pulpit.
Sub-executive members of the church’s Toronto Conference announced Thursday they have asked the church’s general council, the most senior governance body, to hold a formal hearing to decide whether Rev. Gretta Vosper, who does not believe in God or the Bible, should be placed on the disciplinary "Discontinued Service List."
"Some will be disappointed and angry that this action has been taken, believing that the United Church may be turning its back on a history of openness and inclusivity," it said in a statement.
"Others have been frustrated that the United Church has allowed someone to be a minister in a Christian church while disavowing the major aspects of the Christian faith. There is no unanimity in the church about what to do."

This is what Terry Mattingly likes to call the "American model" -- fair, straight, honest. Sad that we had to look outside America to find it.

The National Post continues to say that the conference committee found Vosper "not suitable" as a UCC minister for deserting her beliefs. The 700-word article also allows space for some back-and-forth:

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Atheist minister fights for credentials; are media fighting not to cover it?

Atheist minister fights for credentials; are media fighting not to cover it?

You can tell it's Canada when a minister comes out as atheist, and mainstream media simply nod and report it. In the United States, we'd be reading and hearing ferocious barrages of rhetoric.

Which is not to say that the Canadian coverage of issues surrounding the Rev. Gretta Vosper has been fair or complete.

The basic facts, according to media accounts: Vosper pastors a Toronto congregation in the United Church of Canada. She joined her current church in 1997, then began teaching atheist beliefs around 2001.  Her congregation backed her until 2008, when she stopped reciting the Lord's Prayer. Then 100 of the 150 members left.

This year, Vosper objected to a prayer written by the denomination's spiritual leader (the articles don’t name him/her) in regard to the massacre at Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris. Vosper said the prayer should have added that "belief in God could trigger enthusiasm," according to the Canadian Press wire service.

That got the attention of the Rev. David Allen, head of the denomination's Toronto Conference, who asked headquarters about determining Vosper's "fitness to be a minister." Now, the matter appears headed to a church court this fall.

Much of the coverage cites Canadian Press, which has also produced the longest account and done the most multisourcing thus far. For one, its 600-word piece quotes Vosper extensively:

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