Since 2013, Gretta Vosper’s unfolding story has regularly appeared in Canada’s religious and secular media. As the atheist pastor of Toronto’s West Hill United Church, she has achieved what many consider paradoxical or simply contradictory. First, over those years she has kept the congregation’s loyalty. More surprisingly, last November, after several years living under threat of an ecclesiastical heresy trial, she finally settled with the denomination and will continue in her position.
This decision pleased Rev. Vosper and West Hill’s congregation, while also eliciting carefully stated support from United Church leadership. How this outcome developed is bewildering to many. Yet it was almost predictable, given the welter of doctrines, beliefs, doubts and controversies that have shaken churches in the western world over the last decades.
What does it mean to be a church whose pastor does not believe in the supernatural? A fascinating entry in West Hill’s website explains that the congregation continues to discern “what this ‘theologically non-exclusive’ church is really like” (westhill.net). The church’s brief Mission Statement offers a more concrete but still vague idea: “Moved by a reverence for life to pursue justice for all, we inspire one another to seek truth, live fully, care deeply and make a difference.”
To many who have uncritically, or after careful thought, believed in God as Creator and Sustainer of the universe, such words are befuddling. Yet while an atheist pastor and congregation is news to an historic Christian denomination in Canada, similar phenomena have a long history.
Consider the infamous late 1960s’ “Death of God Movement” and its unforgettable public relations coup on Time magazine’s April 8, 1966 cover. Several prominent American and British theologians adapted ideas of Friedrich Nietzsche, developing them for the political and spiritual chaos of those years. Most of those men (yes, all men) have by now met their Maker, whose existence they debated. Perhaps less radical than it seems, “Death of God” theologians contended not so much that God never existed. Rather, concerned that God no longer mattered much in Western Civilization, they grappled with the issue in theological and sociological terms.
THE ETHICAL CULTURE MOVEMENT
To be sure, Gretta Vosper has admitted disbelief in a supernatural being or force directing the universe, a position many of West Hill’s 110+ regular attendees also embrace. Though Pastor Vosper’s atheism does not appear to be militant or proselytizing, West Hill’s services use no Bible, never mention God and find their service themes in contemporary media or events.
Thus West Hill and Rev. Vosper follow the long-worn path of benevolent secular humanism. They approach Unitarianism’s expansive inclusiveness, though without its pervasive, if indefinite divine spirit. As well, West Hill and Vosper seem clearly, if unofficially, related to a small historical movement known as “Ethical Culture,” established around 1870. Its followers hold liturgical services with prayers, songs and messages, supporting one another to become better people and to do good in the world – a vague, though constant hope.
GOOD WITHOUT GOD?
A most generous look at Vosper’s godless religion might liken it to what historian Diana Butler Bass has offered in a meditation for Franciscan Fr. Richard Rohr’s Center for Action and Contemplation. Looking back 1900 years, she reminds readers that true religion means “embracing the ancient insight [from Justin Martyr] that the [Christian] faith is a spiritual pathway, a life built on transformative practices of love rather than doctrinal belief” (from “People of the Way,” cac.org).
Still, even if Pastor Vosper and her congregation’s mission is benevolent, the large problem remains that she does not share the source of her ministry and ethics with Saint Justin. More bluntly, can we really be good without God? Why does Rev. Vosper need the United Church, even if its leaders accept her?
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