I'm an ordained minister in the United Church of
Canada. Although I'm able to use the title Reverend, I do
not, simply because I think it supposes an expectation of
privilege, which I eschew.
West Hill United is a small, but growing
congregation - 100 on a Sunday - dating from the
suburbanisation of Toronto. We've a history of political activism,
social justice, progressive spiritual exploration, and open and
engaging conversations. We've doubled in size in the past five
years, after losing a significant number of members due to the
shift in our perspective - not mainly over theology.
I was in London in 2005 for a gathering of leaders in
Progressive Christian networks around the world, and
I'm here to speak in London and Oxford this month. In 2005, it was
pretty clear that, in Canada, we're somewhat further down the road
than the C of E leaders and those of other networks. We've been
able to get more easily to the implementation stage of a critical
theological perspective which becomes, necessarily, a non- and then
an a-theistic one.
When I was young, the main religious
influence in my life was Jesus. Legend tells of his teaching me to
skate - despite him being a Palestinian Jew. And I was known to
disappear for hours at a time so I could talk with him.
My recollection of God is much vaguer. I
didn't have an image of a celestial being, but more of a sense of
love that was made real through Jesus. I was in one of the first
cohorts to use the New Curriculum, a Sunday-school programme that
was grounded in contemporary scholarship and not in traditional
doctrine related to the authority of scripture or the "reality" of
Over the years, my understanding of God
evolved through a belief that God was a universal force to the idea
of god - lower case - being what we have the opportunity and
responsibility to create between and within us. My use of the word
"god" stopped when it became abundantly clear that my use of it
reinforced traditional understandings rather than inviting them to
evolve as well.
The role of an atheist minister in a
congregation is exactly the same as that of any
other person in pastoral ministry, except that I'm also responsible
for ensuring that anything that comes out of West Hill as an
official document or presentation is devoid of exclusive
theological language. Individuals who speak at West Hill are
encouraged to express their beliefs but not to assume or say that
others must or should share their beliefs. We're very intentional
about creating a theologically barrier-free space.
Marcus Borg argues that the loss of exclusively
Christian language will be the death of
Christianity. It may be. But I believe it is more
important that we pursue the evolution of the human species as it
relates within itself and to the natural world around it than that
we protect ancient religious traditions.
Salvation has always been a corporate undertaking for
me, and one that is very this-worldly. It is the
radical social-justice perspective presented in the Gospels and
attributed to Jesus. I believe that we are on the brink of
catastrophic change which will undermine all our assumptions
regarding human community, and that we in the Church who have
worked to create communities of justice and compassion are those
who should be turning our attention to preparing individuals and
communities for the change.
I want to inspire those who know how to create strong,
resilient communities, which, in turn, create
strong, resilient, and engaged citizens to let go of those elements
they think are essential to their religion, and address, instead,
those things that are now essential to the human family. There is
no getting out of this alive. I want us to live, as we are dying -
and we all are - in ways that make us proud to call ourselves
human, to have been part of this incredibly beautiful thing called
At West Hill, we pray, but not in a
manner that would be recognised as such, except, perhaps, by
Unitarians. We share our celebrations and concerns with one
another, and we find that, in doing so, we create resilience both
in the community and in ourselves.
The prayer we say each week together -
referred to as Our Words of Commitment - is based loosely on the
prayer erroneously attributed to St Francis of Assisi. My husband
and I wrote it when parents of the children asked us to stop having
them lead the congregation in the Lord's Prayer, because it
reflected a god the parents did not believe in.
Mostly, when I pray, it is for
attentiveness within my relationships with self, others, and the
My role is similar to that of any minister in a
single-clergy church. I'm responsible for leading
the Sunday Gathering. We call my sermons "Perspectives" to
acknowledge that what I say is merely my perspective on the
subject, and to encourage congregants to share their own
perspective to what I offered. I provide pastoral care within the
congregation. Additionally, I am charged with the responsibility of
taking our work out to a wider audience.
I'm eager to engage those on the edge of church and
beyond who know that the way we've built our cities
and our economies has pushed us away from one another rather than
toward; those who lament the loss of civility and the loss of
nurturing communities; those who have once had that in church, but
can no longer abide the theology and doctrine; and those who never
related to church but who yearn for meaningful conversations and
vibrant, diverse contexts in which to have them.
No, I don't think there is anything we need from
beyond, or that there is a beyond. We alone have the
answers to our problems. But "we" are more fragmented and isolated
from one another than we've likely ever been. We cannot find or
implement the solutions to those problems if we are still operating
in a Monsanto Protection Act mindset, or anaesthetising ourselves
with more and more seasons of Downton Abbey and Doctor
Who instead of getting to know our neighbours.
Religion, for good or ill, creates a cohesive social
fabric, which, I believe, played an important role
in moderating the needs of human community. Align that cohesive
fabric with a violent nation state, and you desecrate humanity.
Rend that cohesive fabric with destructive corporate aggression,
and you desecrate humanity. Only we can pull ourselves back from
these tragic consequences of the breakdown and abuse of human
I grew up in Kingston, Ontario. My mom is
one of my greatest supporters. She left her church shortly after
the publication of my first book, when people in the congregation
stopped looking her in the eye - a source of some sadness for me. I
have two grown children, neither of whom attend church, but both of
whom are involved in positive social change.
I love photography, and mix much of my
work with my online presence and my services. I quilt and knit when
I can, and make jewellery for amusement and to raise funds for my
congregation. I sew some of my own clothes. I love gardening, but
find I have too little time to do it. And I've just completed a
60-kilometre walk to raise money for women's cancer research. I'm
an ovarian-cancer survivor, and I feel very lucky to have an
extraordinarily positive prognosis.
I sometimes envy the solitude truck drivers
enjoy, and wish I had a life that allowed me to read
more exquisite works of fiction like Anthony Doerr's recent All
the Light We Cannot See. I imagine a retirement making
jewellery and quilts to auction off as fund-raisers, but realise
that is unlikely with the trajectory I am on.
My most urgent desire is to create spaces in people's
lives into which beauty can reside, regardless of
the challenges they otherwise face in their lives.
Water, and the wind through trees are my favourite
sounds. And my husband playing his compositions on
My parents influenced me, of course, but
also some significant teachers and companions on the journey. Jack
Spong and his wife, Christine, have been elemental to my life and
work. When all seemed overwhelming, and I was reduced to tears,
they have always been right there encouraging me and challenging me
to "keep talking". If it hadn't been for their generous support of
me, I believe I'd have given up long ago.
If I was locked in a church I'd choose my husband [Scott
Kearns] as my companion: best conversation ever, and
an amazing piano player.
Gretta Vosper was talking to Terence Handley
She is speaking this weekend in Oxford. See
www.pcnbritain.org.uk/events for information.