There is a Bible on a pedestal in Gretta Vosper’s West Hill United Church in Toronto. She would prefer it did not have a special place, she said, because it is just a book among other books. In a similar way, the cross that is high above the altar has no special meaning, but there are a few older congregants for whom the Bible and the cross are still nice symbols so there they remain.
Though an ordained minister, she does not like the title of reverend. It is one of those symbols that hold the church back from breaking into the future — to a time “when the label Christian won’t even exist” and the Church will be freed of the burdens of the past. To balance out those symbols of the past inside West Hill, there is a giant, non-religious rainbow tapestry just behind the altar and multi-coloured streamers hang from the ceiling.
“The central story of Christianity will fade away,” she explained. “The story about Jesus as the symbol of everything that Christianity is will fade away.”
The head of the United Church of Canada, David Giuliano, who went to divinity school with Ms. Vosper 20 years ago, said if he felt the way that she does, he would not be a minister. But it is not his job to condemn, he said, and the church is structured in such a way that complaints have to come from the congregation before any action can be taken. And so far there have been no complaints. He also sees the United Church, considered the most liberal of the mainline Protestant churches, as broad enough to encompass a wide range of theologies.
Even Rev. Giuliano agrees that the name Christian — which carries the baggage of colonialism and other ills — should probably be phased out. Instead, he would replace “Christian” with “Follower of the Way” or “Follower of Jesus.”
But it is an absolute certainty that Ms. Vosper would not go for “Follower of Jesus.”
Ms. Vosper does not believe in the Virgin Birth, the Resurrection, the miracles and the sacrament of baptism. Nor does she believe in the creeds, the presence of Christ in communion or that Jesus was the Son of God.
In With or Without God, her book that was formally launched this week, she writes that Jesus was a “Middle Eastern peasant with a few charismatic gifts and a great posthumous marketing team.”
The Bible is used in her services, but it gets rewritten to be more contemporary and speak to more people. Even the Lord’s Prayer — also known as the Our Father — does not make the cut because it creates an image of a God who intervenes in human existence. And then there is the “Father” part that is not inclusive language and carries with it the notion of an overbearing tyrant who condemns people to hell.
So why exactly does she still call herself a Christian, let alone a minister?
“I could leave the Church because I don’t hold those orthodox understandings,” she said.
“[But] I think that in a generation or so we might stop using the term Christian, and I hope, perhaps we will stop using labels for every religious tradition. There is nothing wrong with a faith tradition evolving.
“And I believe that’s what we’re doing. It’s been evolving for a long time but we’re afraid to acknowledge that so this is merely the next iteration of what Christianity needs to be.”
She envisions a time when there is no religious divisions and everyone shares in their common values and their only differences are cultural. Still, she said there is no conflict with this and being in the church.
“The church is extremely important because it can be a transformative element in individuals’ lives and communities,” she said. “And that was the root of what the Christian Church was about: transforming the way people see themselves in relation
to the communities around them and in relation to each other and about living that in community. Christianity took over that story and manipulated it into a very different story.”
Ms. Vosper believes most liberal ministers do not really believe in orthodoxy and see things like the Resurrection or the miracles as metaphors, not real events. She is also chair of a group called the Canadian Centre For Progressive Christianity, which also espouses a vague form of religious belief, in which they offer a challenge to the church to do a “complete overhaul of the beliefs it has been carrying about for the last several hundred years.
“It’s not that we’re trying to do something new. It’s that we’re trying to catch up on a thousand years of backlogged progress files that have yet to be inputted into the 21st century.”
In With or Without God, Ms. Vosper writes: “[It is time to live] in the current paradigm, being progressive enough to let go of the beliefs and traditions to which we’ve had to tip our hats and curtsy in the past but which can no longer prevail in our contemporary world.”
Ms. Vosper did not change her views over time but said she felt the same way when she took her divinity degree at Queen’s University in 1990. She said when the creed was mentioned, which contains those declarations of faith that acknowledge basic Christian tenants, it was uncomfortable. “I fled when I had to read the creed,” she said.
For all of this, she still feels rooted in the church. She still loves the stories, metaphors though they may be. And she still measures her life against the meaning of those metaphors.
The focus of her “spiritual” life is love. And since love is the common bond between all people, it is really the only thing worth believing in.
“Here in the context of seeking out harmony with all things, the purest understanding of those values that enhance and sanctify life becomes the foremost spiritual practice,” she writes.
“We call it love, radically inclusive love. It is here, in the caring, challenging, prophetic role with which it is so familiar that the church can really shine.”
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