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Is this the end of the line for atheist minister Gretta Vosper?

Is this the end of the line for atheist minister Gretta Vosper?

In coming weeks, the United Church of Canada is to review the position Gretta Vosper, above, who has led the congregation at Toronto’s West Hill United Church since 1997.

The review, according to this report, has been sparked by the godless manner in which Vosper conducts her services. Visit her church and you will find no Bibles …  and the large steel cross – one of the few remaining religious symbols in this church – is hidden behind a cascade of rainbow streamers.

Vosper bluntly says:

I do not believe in a theistic, supernatural being called God.

For her, “God” is simply a metaphor for goodness and a life lived with compassion and justice.

Vosper’s views have ignited turmoil in the open-minded United Church of Canada. A progressive Christian denomination, it began ordaining women in Canada 80 years ago and for decades has allowed openly gay men and women to lead ministries.

But now an unprecedented review will be carried out to determine whether Vosper can stay on as a minister. At its most basic level, the review will ask a simple question that’s likely to yield a complicated answer: can the United church of Canada have an atheist minister?

For the 100-strong congregation at West Hill, the answer is an unabashed yes. Stripped of God and the Bible, services at her church eschew religious doctrine and instead emphasise moral teachings.

The median age of the congregation is around 60 years, but members range from toddlers and teenagers to Jack, the four-year-old mutt who sniffs around in the back row.

This sign appeared outside Vosper's church in 2014

This sign appeared outside Vosper’s church in 2014

Vosper was ordained in 1993, during which she was asked if she believed in God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. She said yes, speaking metaphorically.

Some eight years later, vexed by the archaic language, imagery and stories of the Bible, she delivered an off-the-cuff sermon in which she deconstructed the idea of God.

Our hymns and our prayers and the way that we did things, they all reinforced this idea of a supernatural divine being who intervened in human affairs. I just took it apart – I was not willing to continue to let (my congregation) think that I believed in that kind of God.

She braced herself for a negative reaction. To her surprise, church leaders said they were intrigued by the direction she was heading and encouraged her to push forward.

What followed was years of Vosper and her congregation reinventing the services at West Hill. References to God and Jesus became talk of love and compassion and prayer was replaced with community sharing time. The removal of the Lord’s Prayer in 2008 proved to be a critical test, sending attendance plunging from 120 people to 40 and leaving the church’s financial strength in tatters. Said Vosper:

The Lord’s Prayer was the last thing in the service that still held them to previous generations of church. So it became the lightning rod for all of that loss.

Throughout this time Vosper couched her strong beliefs in linguistic gymnastics, describing herself as a non-theist and, later, a theological non-realist. In 2013, moved by the case of Bangladeshi bloggers facing persecution over their reportedly atheist views, Vosper began calling herself an atheist.

In January of last year, David Ewart, a United church minister in British Columbia, suggested in an open letter that Vosper should just leave the church. Months later, a talk radio host in southern Ontario, Andy Oudman, asked his listeners:

What’s an atheist doing in the pulpit of a Christian church? You don’t have a Christian minister preaching in a synagogue. You don’t have a rabbi preaching in a Christian church. Does the United church have any credibility left if they leave the likes of Gretta Vosper in the pulpit?

The Toronto conference of the United church responded to the concerns last year, saying it would carry out a review to determine whether Vosper was being faithful to her ordination vows and whether she could stay on as minister. Said the Rev David Allen of the Toronto conference:

There are very strong opinions from those who support Ms Vosper, and from those who reject her statements absolutely.

The decision to carry out the review has upset many at West Hill.

“It’s disgusting,” says Wendy Hyland. Her husband, Jim Hyland, calls it hypocritical, given that the congregation is one of the few in the area that has managed to buck the wider trend of declining attendance.

West Hill is the future of what religion will be like. We’re thinking and saying what the rest of the world is scared to, but moving towards.

The controversy has fostered an us-against-the-world sentiment in this small congregation. “She’s way off the beaten track, that’s for sure,” laughs Jeanne Hamel, a 95-year-old who was raised in the United church.

Those of us who are here are willing to follow her. A lot of people took the other road and to me, they chickened out.

Some, such as Eve Casavant, 44, recently started attending West Hill after hearing about Vosper among atheist circles. She was delighted to find the same sort of church she had been raised in, save the burden of belief.

Vosper will have to defend her beliefs before a panel of five people, made up of ministry personnel and laypeople. She said:

When they came knocking on the door, it was kind of like, ‘Really?’ We’ve been doing this for 15 years and I’ve been really public about my beliefs.

She sees the review as a betrayal, as the path she has forged is a logical one in a church that has always prioritised moral teachings over doctrinal beliefs.

I’m a product of the United church. It taught me to critique the Bible as a human construction … This means everything that it says is up for grabs, including God.

Many in the clergy privately share her view on God, she says, turning her into a sort of standard-bearer for a conversation that is already happening in the wider world. Her push to bring that conversation within the walls of the church – a role she describes as “irritating the church into the 21st century” – has already cost her some $60,000 in legal fees spent on an appeal to halt the upcoming review.

Her appeal was denied last month. It was a moment that forced Vosper – for the first time since she came out as an atheist – to confront the fact that she may not be able to find a balance between her beliefs and her career.

I don’t have a lot of hope at this point in time. Before the appeal was denied, I still very much felt that this was my church. But that ruling is really a signal that maybe this is not the church that I advocated for, that I’ve championed.

10 responses to “Is this the end of the line for atheist minister Gretta Vosper?”

  1. Matthew Carr says:

    The problem of an atheist “church” remains: Why should anyone in the congregation listen to you?

  2. Stuart H. says:

    From a purely business point of view, if the woman’s actually pulling in the punters (instead of emptying the pews like the rest) you wonder why her superiors give a flying one.
    I always suspect any church policy finally comes down to financial gain, despite the public protestations of faith, so it might be worth knowing if the site of the church is in an area ripe for redevelopment.
    The zombie carpenter’s chums are never happier than when they’re saving – money rather than lives.

  3. jay says:

    I can’t understand people like this. Why does she even bother with this. It’s at best foolishness,and at worst, hypocrisy.

    Just leave. Go get a real job.

  4. G P Barton says:

    Surely this lady can found her own ministry, without the “blessings” of any religious hierarchy. The people that want to hear what she says will show up. The others who don’t will go to another congregation where they feel comfortable.

  5. Trevor Blake says:

    There are long-standing precedents for secular services offered in a former religious building, such as the Conway Hall Ethical Society…

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conway_Hall_Ethical_Society

    … but wanting to stay on as a Christian leader and collect a Christian paycheck while being an atheist speaker seems disingenuous.

  6. barriejohn says:

    Trevor Blake: She wouldn’t be the only one!

    http://clergyproject.org/

    “Our Stories” are fascinating.

    To the Christians reading this and feeling anger towards me…

    I didn’t go into the ministry, leave my family in CA, move to NW Missouri, and limp along financially for two decades for any other reason than that I was head-over-heels in love with Jesus. I was a true believer that happened to, through no fault of my own, get a glimpse behind the curtain and see that there is no wizard after all. I did not “abandon” my faith because I was not looking for a way to justify a desire for a sinful lifestyle (even as an unbeliever, for two years, I lived as a squeaky clean choirboy) I did not suffer “burnout” or get angry with “the Lord” because I have a handicapped daughter. It may make you feel better to think so, but it’s not true. I was just doing my job, studying the Bible, asking questions, and seeking answers. If it makes you uncomfortable that a devout and passionate pastor can come to the place where he no longer believes in the God of the Bible – so be it. Be uncomfortable. Be bothered. You really should be (we all should be). But, please, resist the urge to make me a villain. If you are angry that someone stood in the pulpit and told you things that aren’t true. I hear you. I know your pain. The same exact thing happened to me. (James Morgan)

  7. remigius says:

    Why not just ask the congregation?

    They could have some sort of vote, or referendum on whether she should remain or leave – I’ve heard they are quite popular, and not at all divisive.

  8. CoastalMaineBird says:

    Matthew Carr: “Why should anyone in the congregation listen to you?

    Would that more of the congregation did.

  9. L.Long says:

    “……by the godless manner in which Vosper conducts her services…..” REALLY!?!?!? And who was the dimwitted delusional idiot who knew about gawd’s manner and also knew it wasn’t the Satan manner??????

  10. Brian Jordan says:

    What happened to the Sunday Assembly? They list plenty of towns an cities on their site but I haven’t seen any mention of them lately. Are they thriving?