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Gretta Vosper, atheist minister

26 September 2014

'My use of the word "god" stopped when it became clear that it reinforced traditional understandings'

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 God.

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 life.

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 planet.

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 community.

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 the piano. 

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 MacMath.

She is speaking this weekend in Oxford. See www.pcnbritain.org.uk/events for information.

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