The Journey from Lamentation to Involvement
Gretta Vosper is an ordained minister of the United Church of Canada, and she is also a professed atheist. At first sight, such a statement appears to be an oxymoron, but her integrity is beyond question.
I went to Oxford in September to hear her lead a weekend conference of the Progressive Christianity Network, with the theme of: With or Without God.
On returning to Lincoln, it has been fascinating to see the reaction of friends, when I have told them that I participated in a conference led by a non-theist ordained minister. My own expectation of the weekend had been a mixture of curiosity and excited anticipation.
In contrast, the immediate reaction of my Christian friends and colleagues in Lincoln has mainly been a mixture of irritation and self-defence, followed by embarrassment if I asked how they perceived God. But then, to be honest, I am usually unwilling to declare how I perceive God, for fear of being laughed at, scorned, or maybe even excommunicated. So I am wrong to criticise them, since I am equally unwilling to go public on how I see God. . . at least for the present.
The underlying question is, of course, a matter of defining what you believe. This is always challenging, in almost any concept other than pure science. It is dangerously easy to write a statement that excludes people, rather than setting out a creed that establishes the common ground on which a group can agree. Anyone who has ever tried to write a corporate mission statement, or even the constitution for a social club will know how tough it can be to keep everyone happy. I think that West Hill Church succeeds in nailing its colours to the mast without being hoist by its own petard. It does this by defining rules for the language they use in a communal “Church” context, and at the same time respecting differences of opinion and approach.For me, one of their most fundamental statements is this:
“Language we use in all formal settings on behalf of this community. . . . will communicate respect for everyone’s right to hold their own viewpoints, beliefs, and interpretations of experience.” I find this simple declaration every bit as important as West Hill’s core values of Love, Justice, Compassion, Respect, Freedom, Integrity and Community.
Society today is frequently divided by religion, and I believe that this stems from a failure to understand whether religion is primarily about what we believe or about how we behave. Gretta’s book With or Without God carries the tag-line “Why the way we live is more important than what we believe.”
West Hill’s core values are echoed in the words of the prayers and songs they use in their gatherings. There is little, if any, mention of the life of Jesus, but there is a constant celebration of his teachings and messages. The supernatural is notable by its absence, and there are no promises of any benefits in following any particular pattern of belief. The language is devoid of medieval phraseology, and the meetings are devoid of any conventional liturgy.
When Gretta had explained this, she then went on to talk about the sense of loss and lamentation when, as a Christian, one absorbs the implications of such rigorous pruning of one’s religion. I found an emptiness in my emotions that was initially disconcerting, but this sense of loss faded as I acknowledged the powerful sense of becoming more in tune with everyday reality, and the contemporary world. There is a real sense of commitment when my participation is linked to my actions, rather than tied to my acceptance of historical stories from a couple of millennia ago.
There is also a sense of freedom in believing I am allowed all my spiritual beliefs, however whacky they might appear if I have to verbalise them. When I participated in the Sunday Meeting at the end of the weekend, I felt powerfully connected with everyone who was present. Sadly, that is not a sensation I often feel in traditional Anglican liturgy, when I am often deliberately silent in some verses of particular hymns, when the words are at odds with my beliefs.
I definitely buy into Gretta’s statement that the way we live is more important than what we believe. I can align myself more easily with an accepted code of conduct, than I can with a dubious statement of dogma.
I will end this piece with one of Gretta’s prayers:
As I Live
As I live every day, I want to be a channel for peace.
May I bring love where there is hatred and healing where there is hurt; joy where there is sadness and hope where there is fear.
I pray that I may always try to understand and comfort other people as well as seeking comfort and understanding from them.
Wherever possible may I choose to be a light in the darkness, a help in times of need, and a caring, honest friend.
And may justice, kindness, and peace flow from my heart forever.
I don’t think many people would have a problem with that, from the Pope to Richard Dawkins, (or vice-versa.)
For more about West Hill Church and Gretta Vosper’s books, follow this link.