That triumphal barnburner of an Easter hymn, Jesus Christ Has Risen Today — Hallelujah, this morning will rock the walls of Toronto’s West Hill United Church as it will in most Christian churches across the country.
But at West Hill on the faith’s holiest day, it will be done with a huge difference. The words “Jesus Christ” will be excised from what the congregation sings and replaced with “Glorious hope.”
Thus, it will be hope that is declared to be resurrected — an expression of renewal of optimism and the human spirit — but not Jesus, contrary to Christianity’s central tenet about the return to life on Easter morning of the crucified divine son of God.
Generally speaking, no divine anybody makes an appearance in West Hill’s Sunday service liturgy.
There is no authoritative Big-Godism, as Rev. Gretta Vosper, West Hill’s minister for the past 10 years, puts it. No petitionary prayers (“Dear God, step into the world and do good things about global warming and the poor”). No miracles-performing magic Jesus given birth by a virgin and coming back to life. No references to salvation, Christianity’s teaching of the final victory over death through belief in Jesus’s death as an atonement for sin and the omnipotent love of God. For that matter, no omnipotent God, or god.
Ms. Vosper has written a book, published this week — With or Without God: Why the Way We Live is More Important than What We Believe — in which she argues that the Christian church, in the form in which it exists today, has outlived its viability and either it sheds its no-longer credible myths, doctrines and dogmas, or it’s toast.
She is considered one of the bright, if unconventional, minds within the United Church, Canada’s largest Protestant Christian denomination. She holds a master of divinity degree from Queen’s University and was ordained in 1992. She founded and chairs the Toronto-based Canadian Centre for Progressive Christianity.
Other Christian clergy and theologians have talked about the need to dramatically reform the doctrines of a faith that, with the exception of its vibrancy in the United States, has lost huge numbers of adherents throughout the Western world it once dominated as Christendom. In Canada, where 75 per cent of the population self-identifies as Christian, only about 16 per cent attend weekly services.
Addressing those statistics, what Ms. Vosper proposes is not so much reform as a scorched-earth approach.
A number of leading theologians in Britain — where the decline in adherents is more dramatic than in Canada — are on the same path, people like Richard Holloway, former bishop of Edinburgh and primate of the Scottish Episcopal (Anglican) Church, who has likened the Christian church to a self-service cafeteria stacked with messy trays of leftover food urgently in need of being thrown out.
Like Bishop Holloway, Ms. Vosper does not want to dress up the theological detritus — her words — of the past two millennia with new language in the hope of making it more palatable. She wants to get rid of it, and build on its ashes a new spiritual movement that will have relevance in a tight-knit global world under threat of human destruction.
She says there’s been virtually a consensus among scholars for the past 30 years that the Bible is not some divine emanation — or in Ms. Vosper acronym, TAWOGFAT, The Authoritative Word of God For All Time — but a human project filled with contradictions and the conflicting worldviews and political perspectives of its authors.
And yet, she says, the liberal Christian churches, including her own, won’t acknowledge that it is a human project, that it’s wrong in parts and that, in the 21st century, it’s no more useful as a spiritual and religious guide than a number of other books.
She says now that the work of biblical scholars has become publicly accessible, the churches and their clergy are caught living a lie that few people will buy much longer. “I just don’t think we can placate those in the pews long enough to transition into a kind of new community that doesn’t keep people away.”
She wants salvation redefined to mean new life through removing the causes of suffering in the world. She wants the church to define resurrection as “starting over,” “new chances.” She wants an end to the image of God as an intervening all-powerful authority who must be appeased to avoid divine wrath; rather she would have congregations work together as communities to define God — or god — according to their own worked-out definitions of what is holy and sacred. She wants the eucharist — the symbolic eating and drinking of Jesus’s body and blood to make the congregation part of Jesus’s body — to be instead a symbolic experience of community love.
Theologians asked to comment on her book said they wouldn’t until they’ve read it.
But one of her colleagues who knows her well, Rev. Rob Oliphant, the progressive pastor of Toronto’s Eglinton St. George’s United Church, said, “While I’m somewhat sympathetic to the aims of it all — getting rid of the nonsense and keeping the core faith — I think that there is something lacking in it all. Gone is metaphor, poetry, symbol, image, beauty, paradox.”
Ms. Vosper said she and her congregation have tried hard not to lose those elements in their search for the sacred and the transcendent in life.
She met with members of her congregation last Sunday to discuss what the impact might be of her book.
She said it would take only a single vote of a presbytery — a local governing body of the church — to bring her before the church courts if a complaint against her is made, and the courts could be interested in examining what it means to be in “essential agreement” with the church’s statement of faith.
“I can find myself in there [the statements of faith] but there’s whole parts of it where I go, ‘Oh my goodness, this is terrible.’ If someone says to me, ‘Do you believe in God?’ I can come up with an answer that would satisfy the courts of the United Church. But would it reflect what’s stated in their statement of faith? I don’t think so. But it wouldn’t be very far from what my colleague down the street, and what his colleague down the street from him, would say. That’s the problem.”