A Canadian Preacher Who Doesn’t Believe in God
TORONTO — The Rev. Gretta Vosper hadn’t noticed the giant industrial metal cross rising in front of her church for years, hidden as it was by a bushy tree. But then someone complained about it.
Since Ms. Vosper does not believe Jesus was the son of God, the complainer wrote in an email, she should take the cross down.
“The next day, a storm took the tree out,” she said, peering up at the cross with a benign smile.
Some Christians might call that an act of God. But Ms. Vosper does not believe in God either. Instead, the parable says more about her determination. Despite being an outspoken atheist, Ms. Vosper has steadfastly maintained her place in the United Church of Canada, which with two million followers across the country is Canada’s pre-eminent Protestant church.
“This is my church,” said Ms. Vosper, 60. “The United Church made me who I am.”
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. She has made headlines and received death threats, one taped to the church’s front door that said, “Suffer the witch not to live.”
The thrice-married reverend has also driven a deep rift into a progressive church considered as Canadian as maple syrup. In 2015, a public letter she wrote sparked so much ire, the local jurisdiction of the church launched a review committee to examine her beliefs.
After a much-publicized hearing, which she called a “heresy trial,” the local panel ruled her “unsuitable” for ministry since she “does not believe in God, Jesus Christ or the Holy Spirit.” She was on the verge of being defrocked. But, just as the national church’s final review of her case began last November, the local jurisdiction settled with Ms. Vosper and agreed she could continue to minister her congregation in Toronto’s gritty east end.
“This doesn’t alter in any way the belief of The United Church of Canada in God,” the church announced, to the confusion of many. Since the terms of the settlement are confidential, congregants were left to divine for themselves what these two seemingly contradictory positions meant.
“So, everyone has to be included, including an atheist minister? It’s nonsense,” said Bruce Sanguin, who led Ms. Vosper’s congregation before moving to Canada’s west coast. “Does the United Church stand for anything? Is it just the New Democratic Party — a socialist party — at prayer?”
David Giuliano, the church’s leader from 2006 to 2009, compared Ms. Vosper to an Amazon manager who doesn’t believe in online shopping. “I suppose someone could have the skills to do it,” he said. “But why would she want to?”
Ms. Vosper has felt she belongs in the church since she was a child, growing up in a rambling house in the university town of Kingston, Ontario, with a view of one of its stony steeples from her bedroom window. The family would all bundle up and go there on Sundays, and both her parents — an engineer and a nurse — were active members.
Although as a child, she claimed Jesus had taught her to skate, she never considered herself a devotee. Instead, she says she has always understood God obliquely, as love.
After graduating from college with an arts degree and in search of adventure, Ms. Vosper moved to the far north of Canada, where she was married and had a daughter. After her marriage broke down, she returned to Kingston as a single mother and enrolled in divinity school.
“I wanted to learn how to make the world a better place through it,” said Ms. Vosper, who is sprightly, with short salt-and-pepper hair, chunky glasses and a penchant for bubbling over with language.
By then, the United Church of Canada was propelled more by social justice than theology, according to Kevin Flatt, author of “After Evangelicalism: The 60s and the United Church.” The first church to ordain transgender ministers, its leadership supported abortion and same-sex union before either became legal in Canada.
Divinity school cemented her metaphorical views of God, Ms. Vosper says. But once she began preaching, she realized many congregants thought she was talking about an all-knowing, all-seeing spirit who answered prayers and called some to heaven and others to hell.
“I realized how little of what I said got through to anyone,” said Ms. Vosper.
“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.”
So, four years after she was hired at West Hill United Church in 1997, she delivered a sermon called “Deconstructing God,” laying bare her disbelief in a theistic God.
She recalls congregation members hugging her afterward.
“Most of the congregation was in a similar place theologically,” said Debbie Ellis, a member at West Hill for more than two decades. “The idea of a savior from our sins keeping us from actual eternal damnation was not something many believed in.”
Since then, Ms. Vosper has slowly stripped away the traditional biblical language from her Sunday “weekly gatherings.” In its place, she put words and rituals that reflected her congregation’s agreed beliefs — love, justice, compassion, integrity, forgiveness.
To sit through a service at West Hill United is to feel like you’re watching an old classic film that has been dubbed into a different language.
Instead of the Lord’s Prayer, the congregation recites the “Words of Commitment,” which Ms. Vosper wrote with her third husband, the church’s musical director, Scott Kearns. They stand to sing humanist hymns dedicated to peace and love that the two also wrote.
Ms. Vosper gave up her robe and ordination stole, which she had lovingly stitched herself, using swaths from her life including part of her childhood living room curtains. She dresses like any other member of the congregation and preaches while walking the aisles between them.
On a recent Sunday, she pointed out a lantern near the pulpit, lit up by many wicks that were tied together by the members of the congregation.
To her, the close relationships between congregants is the definition of God.
“I see us as beams of light between each of us, and that light is a source of strength and encouragement and courage and bravado sometimes and peace and healing,” she said.
She wears a wick around her left wrist.
For years, Ms. Vosper seemed to hanker for a “heresy trial” in her op-eds, public statements and books. But the church, which has made “inclusivity” a core principle, would not be goaded, even after Ms. Vosper publicly announced she was an atheist in 2013.
That changed in 2015, after Ms. Vosper’s public letter which reprimanded the church’s moderator for his prayer for victims of the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris.
The prayer asked a Gracious God to “lead us to seek comfort, compassion and peace, in the face of escalating violence around the world.”
Ms. Vosper still considers the prayer “egregious.”
“God is not the power that allows that to happen,” she explained. “We have the responsibility to make that happen ourselves.”
Once the hearing was launched, Ms. Vosper’s congregation of self-described agnostics and atheists rallied behind her. They traveled across the country, holding discussions and raising 80,000 Canadian dollars, about $59,000, for her legal fees.
But the storm her positions whipped up was nasty. Ms. Vosper had an alarm system installed in her home and was forced to wear a panic button at work, as a precaution.
As the hearing dates dragged on, she went on stress leave for months, and could no longer muster the energy to write songs or fashion jewelry, which she loves to do.
She had wanted a “rich and vibrant conversation” about the church’s language, she said. Instead, she found herself fighting for her job. Although she won, she does not feel particularly victorious.
Just before the final hearing was about to start, another storm hit her church, and water poured through the roof flooding the sanctuary.
A biblical person might read meaning into that, but not Ms. Vosper.
“It just made it more difficult for us,” she said.