The Rev. Gretta Vosper is struggling to straddle the spreading fault line of North American Christianity.
The 60-year-old, thrice-married pastor of West Hill United [Christian] Church of Canada in Toronto, is also, coincidentally, an atheist.
While she may seem to some a bridge to short between faith and heresy, her devoted congregation members beg to disagree.
Four years after Vosper was hired to lead the West Hill flock in 1997, she gave a sermon titled “Deconstructing God,” in which she bared “her disbelief in a theistic God,” according to a Feb. 1 New York Times news feature by Catherine Porter.
Thunderbolts did not fly through the church’s stained-glass windows. In fact, she recalls that congregants, already an inclusive, tolerant, liberal bunch, supportively hugged her afterward.
“Most of the congregation was in a similar place theologically,” Debbie Ellis, a member at West Hill for more than two decades, told Porter. “The idea of a savior from our sins keeping us from actual eternal damnation was not something many believed in.”
A fading of faith
Canada and the United States have both experienced what might be called a sag in enthusiasm for organized Christianity in the past few decades, with roughly two-thirds or more of their citizens claiming membership in various Christian denominations — Catholic and Protestant — and nearly a fourth, known as “Nones,” claiming no religious affiliations of any kind.
It is a secularizing trend that Western Europe began much earlier and led it to become far less religious than their more faithful cousins in the Americas.
Although a hopeful trend in the minds of secularists — atheists, agnostics and the religiously unmoved — it has been worrisome and traumatizing for many of the traditional faithful. It has led to some nasty blowback by conservatives unnerved by what they fear are rampaging cultural transformations.
“In a country where thinning congregations have led to many church sanctuaries being converted into condominiums, Ms. Vosper’s outspoken views have stirred an existential passion,” Porter wrote. “She has made headlines and received death threats, one taped to the church’s front door that said, “Suffer the witch not to live.”
Burglar alarms and panic buttons
Vosper herself was so shaken by the antagonism coming at her that she installed an alarm system at her home, began wearing a panic button at work as a precaution (to contact law enforcement if necessary), and stress caused her to withdraw from ministerial work for a number of months as she faced being defrocked by the national church body.
After a formal hearing, the United Church’s ecclesiastic authorities deemed her “unsuitable” for the ministry because she “does not believe in God, Jesus Christ or the Holy Spirit.” Vosper called it a “heresy trial.”
However, at the 11th hour as top church leaders readied to jettison her from the ministry, her local church body in Toronto agreed to let her continue her ministry there.
Some people might wonder why a full-bore atheist would even want to be a minister in a Christian church, but Vosper’s answer to that reflects the spiritual dissonance that many secular-leaning but spiritual-feeling North Americans experience regarding religion.
“This is my church,” she explained to Porter. “The United Church made me who I am.”
Throughout the Americas, people are wrestling with their discordant sense of faith in view of reality. And churches are adjusting to the turmoil. In my own small Midwestern town, there is a newish church named Fusion, that is emphatically nondenominational, and even seems to encourage nonbelievers to attend. I’ve read of once-Christian churches in Scandinavia that are now wholly secular but hold Sunday gatherings at the church building as they always have.
Like Vosper, they may have resolutely moved-on from dogma but still hold fast to the physical traditions and rituals that have been so comforting and reassuring over many years.
But the process is generally far from smooth everywhere, as the faithful/faithless divide rapidly widens in both nations.
What does it mean?
The settlement between the national church body and Vosper’s Toronto church is confidential, so people don’t know exactly what it all means. Congregants were left “to divine for themselves” how the seemingly oppositional positions have been resolved somehow, according to the Times article. But the church fathers weren’t imprecise.
“This doesn’t alter in any way the belief of The United Church of Canada in God,” the church announced in a statement, confusing many.
So Vosper continues to minister at a church that, although being the pre-eminent Protestant sect in Canada, is also markedly liberal. It was the first Canadian church to ordain transgender ministers and to support abortion and homosexual unions before either were legalized in the country.
God is ‘love’
Vosper believes her atheism is a natural, rational evolution that many people of faith are experiencing. God is love, she now believes, and what’s important are not supernatural devotions but the real-world’s humanist virtues of justice, compassion, integrity and forgiveness. She recalled her tipping point:
“We were caught in the story of Christianity that was centuries and centuries and centuries old, regardless of the fact we could say with a lot of confidence that the story was not entirely true — even its most important and sacred beliefs,” she added. “Once I realized that, then I was kind of screwed.”
She had a reverse epiphany, you might say.