When Gretta Vosper steps on stage at the University of North Georgia’s Hoag Auditorium, some in the audience may be skeptical. Some may be intrigued. All Vosper asks is they have an open mind.
The not-so-typical minister at the 80-plus-member West Hill United Church of Canada will be in town for the summer portion of the university’s Mountain Top Lecture series at 9:30 a.m. Saturday, Aug. 25. She’s a self-proclaimed atheist who believes “the way you live is more important than what you believe.”
“We have people in our church who are traditional believers, who have a very clear understanding of a God that they believe in, and we have people who have no belief in God whatsoever,” said Vosper, who received her master’s in divinity from Queens Theological College in 1993. “But either of them hear me talking about what it is they believe.”
She’ll be giving lectures on “The Promise of Progressive Christianity,” “Babies and Bathwater: Which Should We Really Throw Out” and “Planning our Legacy.” As she lives out and shares her “progressive faith,” Vosper said her “hope is to share the message that we share at West Hill.”
In her ministry and what she’ll be speaking about during her Mountain Top Lecture is the danger of the “brittle definitions” Christians have long held about the Bible, God and prayer.
When she speaks from the stage at her church’s gatherings in Toronto, each person interprets her words in their own way. As time passes, Vosper said the world, especially the United States and Canada, will continue to “experience a lot of fragmentation.” She said a lot of that has to do with the declining number of Christians.
By having a place like West Hill United Church where people can gather and feel a sense of community and belonging, Vosper said her hope is to see that fragmentation change.
“There are a number of people who have been looking for that kind of community, so we regularly get requests if we know of a church in another place in the country that people can go and get this kind of community, and for the most part there aren’t many in Canada,” Vosper said. “In the United States, the Oasis communities have begun to grow in a number of different cities.”
Apart from being a minister, Vosper is on the board of the Oasis Network, “a place for the non-religious to come together to celebrate the human experience.” She founded the Canadian Center for Progressive Christianity and has also authored two books on the topic of belief.
“When I went to school, when we talked about God, we used it as a metaphor for things, and it became clear to me, when I used that word, I was talking about the importance of what we create between each other,” Vosper said. “So if we create a relationship of love, respect and encouragement, that was strengthening God in the world. But God wasn’t a being to me.”
To Vosper, when she talks about God, she said she’s not talking about “God the Father, who lived in heaven.” She was surprised when people didn’t understand that, so she began to identify as a nontheist, meaning she didn’t believe in God or gods.
Later she began identifying as an atheist, which hasn’t gone over well with the United Church of Canada. Vosper has been involved in a heresy trial with the denomination since 2016.
“It’s the most liberal denomination on the planet, or so I thought,” Vosper said. “I believe it’s taking a turn toward the more conservative at this point in time, because I think it thinks it will be able to reach more conservative people if it goes in that direction.”
Within that denomination, Vosper uses different terminology than most. At West Hill United Church, it’s not called church; it’s a gathering. They don’t worship or sing hymns; they sing songs. And they read all sorts of different literature like “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” Charles Dickens and “Doctor Who.”
“We don’t privilege the Bible,” Vosper said. “We read from it periodically, but not very often.”
She said one of the most powerful moments during her church gatherings is when they sing. They sing many familiar hymnal tunes, but the words are completely rewritten.
“We have visitors every week, and when they’re given back a song they haven’t been able to sing for years because of the theology, and they’re able to sing it fully because they don’t object to any of the words, they’re often reduced to tears,” Vosper said. “It’s a very emotional moment for people.”
She hopes to share everything she has come to learn over the years during her lecture. She hopes those who attend walk away with a sense of inspiration to “create space” for those that need it.
“They can do exactly what they do in their congregation, but without all the language,” Vosper said. “So they can create rich, social connections with one another.”