Rev Gretta Vosper at West Hill United Church sitting in the pews in Toronto.
There is not one mention of God during the 70-minute service at Toronto’s West Hill United church. Bibles are nowhere to be seen. The large, steel cross – one of the few remaining religious symbols in this church – is hidden behind a cascade of rainbow streamers.
But that is perhaps to be expected in a church led by an avowed atheist.
“I do not believe in a theistic, supernatural being called God,” says Gretta Vosper, the United Church of Canada minister who has led West Hill since 1997. “I don’t believe in what I think 99.99% of the world thinks you mean when you use that word.” Tor her, God is instead a metaphor for goodness and a life lived with compassion and justice.
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Vosper’s outspoken commitment to a seemingly clashing set of beliefs has prompted turmoil in the open-minded United Church of Canada. A progressive Christian denomination that began ordaining women in Canada 80 years ago and for decades has allowed openly gay men and women to lead ministries, the church has been left questioning its boundaries.
In the coming weeks, 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 here are light on religious doctrine and instead emphasise moral teachings. The service begins with a nod to the First Nations land on which the church stands and goes on to mention human rights in Saudi Arabia, Syria and Palestine. Global concern is coupled with community-building, with members invited to share significant moments of the past week.
“I’ve lost 25 pounds in the past five months,” announces one man shyly – and each revelation meets with applause. A tall totem pole graces the front of the church and more than half the pews have been changed out for more comfortable chairs. 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.
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,” she says. “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 retooling the service 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. “The Lord’s Prayer was the last thing in the service that still held them to previous generations of church,” says Vosper. “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. “I felt it was an act of solidarity,” she says, likening it to the use of the word feminist to in the 1970s. “If I shelter myself by not using that term, that’s unfair to everyone who is being maligned by the use of that term.”
As news of her stance spread, so did the concerns about the provocateur among the ranks of the church. In January of last year, David Ewart, a United church minister in British Columbia, suggested in an open lettert that Vosper should just leave the church. Months later, a talk radio host in southern Ontario took aim at Vosper. “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,” Andy Oudman asked his listeners. “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. “There are very strong opinions from those who support Ms Vosper, and from those who reject her statements absolutely,” said the Rev David Allen of the Toronto conference.
The decision to carry out the review upsets 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,” says the 65-year-old, highlighting its metaphorical interpretation of religious symbols and emphasis on environmental and social justice. “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. “It’s like that sense of community without the barriers,” she says. “It’s a beautiful thing and it is too bad it’s not being as embraced as it should be.”
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In the coming weeks, Vosper will have to defend her beliefs for a panel of five people, made up of ministry personnel and laypeople. “When they came knocking on the door, it was kind of like, ‘Really?,”’ says Vosper. “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,” she says. “But that ruling is really a signal that maybe this is not the church that I advocated for, that I’ve championed.”