Friday, 14 August 2015
Gretta and me
Recently I have re-encountered Gretta Vosper—not directly but on the radio and in the news. Gretta Vosper is something of a well-known personality. For those of you who are not familiar with her, she is a United Church of Canada ordained minister who has declared herself to be an atheist. She has written a number of popular books including: With or Without God: Why the Way We Live is More Important than What We Believe, and Amen: What Prayer Can Mean in a World Beyond Belief.
I became aware of the Rev. Vosper a few years ago when I heard her interviewed on that wonderful CBC radio program Tapestry with Mary Hynes. I was somewhat troubled by what I heard at the time but I guess not enough to follow up on what I heard. I re-encountered the Rev. Vosper last week when I heard a rebroadcast of the program while driving in my car. That was followed by a Canadian Press news item on Huffington Post that stated Vosper was undergoing a process in the United Church that could lead to her being defrocked. The article notes, “An ordained United Church of Canada minister who believes in neither God nor Bible said Wednesday she is prepared to fight an unprecedented attempt to boot her from the pulpit for her beliefs”.
My reaction to hearing the broadcast and the news item was quite visceral—indeed I was surprized by how charged it was. It caused me to investigate and examine her beliefs in more detail to help me understand my reaction more fully. My initial reaction (which probably many people have) to hearing about Vosper was, “if she is an atheist and no longer believes in God (the definition of an atheist), why is she still an active United Church minister leading a congregation in The United Church?” I felt I needed to understand more fully where she was coming from and where she was going in the church.
Vosper “came out” and revealed her atheism in a sermon in 2001. The lay leaders of the congregation agreed to walk with her in the new path she was exploring which was, I presume, the bringing about a non-religious church in a non-religious time. However, there were apparently, and not surprisingly, many of the members of the congregation who could not make that journey with her and left her flock. As she describes in the interview, worship looks very much like a typical United Church worship service with hymns and prayers and a sermon. However, there is a distinct difference. They no longer use scripture passages; they have rewritten hymns to take out any reference to God; indeed they no-longer is the G** word in any in most context. If there is a reference to God they always state, “By God I mean…”
Vosper noted in the interview that she came to the point of “coming out” when she had to deal with the devastation of her daughter who was mourning the loss of a beloved teacher to cancer. The daughter had, unknown to Vosper, prayer for God to heal her teacher. Vosper could not reconcile the devastation of her daughter and her non-belief in an interventionist personal God who answered prayer for which she had no satisfactory answer to comfort her daughter. She decided to stay in her position as a minister due to the pastoral relationship she had with her flock.
My next question is, why Vosper doesn’t join the Unitarian Church (as one on-line commenter noted) where she would fit in with no problem doctrinal? Vosper holds the United Church to be the most progressing denomination in the world and is comfortable staying in the church. As she states on her web site:
My congregation belongs to The United Church of Canada, probably the most progressive Christian denomination in the world. It ordained women over seventy years ago and has been ordaining openly LGBTQ leaders for decades. But theologically it remains in the closet about the human construction of religion and all its trapping. I couldn’t stay in that closet.
I have concluded that Vosper doesn’t want to leave the United Church to join the Unitarians or perhaps lead an independent secular humanist “church” because she would not be able to make an impact on the church. She believe that the church needs to be converted to an organization that does not believe in a supernatural being in the sky who intervenes in human affairs for better or worse—a belief that, in her mind, has caused so many problems in the world.
As noted above, Vosper does not usually use “God” in her worship—but when she does she qualifies if with, “by God I mean…” This seemed to imply that she does believe in some form of higher power. I had hoped to discover what Vosper does actually believe in which could be considered a higher power. Unfortunately in the interview she did not specify what she might mean by God. My investigation to date has not born much fruit. I have not read any of her books. However, the blurb for her book, With or Without God on her web site states:
Envisioning a future in which the Christian church plays a viable and transformative role in shaping society, Gretta Vosper argues that if the church is to survive at all, the heart of faith must undergo a radical change. Vosper, founder of the Canadian Centre for Progressive Christianity and a minister in Toronto, believes that what will save the church is an emphasis on just and compassionate living—a new and wholly humanistic (my emphasis) approach to religion.
What then are the conclusions I have reached at this point in my investigation? First, I must say that I admire Vosper for having the courage to say and stand by what she believes—even if I believe that she is wrong—and I certainly do. I do not believe that she is wrong about wanting the church to move beyond the belief in God as a supernatural person in the sky who is arbitrary and can be bribed (she didn’t say that last part directly, as far as I know, but I extrapolated from what she has said). That has been called succinctly “God the Butler” who is called up to serve us on demand. I believe that the church must change. However, if all that the church is going to become is another place to gather together to be a supportive community and do good works—which are undoubtedly a vital part of being church—how is that different from any secular group such as Rotary already in existence? If we Christians do not believe in God—a higher power who calls us to be more than we are and shows us how we can be that—then that is not Christian.
May the God, who Gretta Vosper apparently does not believe in, bless her and keep her. I wish Gretta Vosper well in her future endeavours however, I hope and pray (to that same God) she will pursues those endeavours in place where atheists have a home: that in my view is not the Christian church.