Reactions from the conference floor 2

The Canadian minister and theologian, Gretta Vosper, came to the UK in September 2014 at the invitation of PCN Britain and the Sea of Faith Network. She was accompanied by her husband, hymn writer, Scott Kearns. Her church, West Hill United Church in Toronto, has dropped reference to God from its hymns and liturgy. The world they celebrate is the natural world; the values they make sacred are human values. How did this go down with PCN members? Andy Vivian has been getting some reactions and giving his own.

Reactions from the conference floor 2

John McKechnie is a PCN member from Edinburgh. He has visited Gretta Vosper's church at West Hill in Toronto, but wasn't able to attend her UK conferences. After the Oxford conference he wrote to ask me for feedback on the event. This is what I wrote to him

We had a healthy 80+ at Oxford and 60 at London. There was enthusiasm for her challenging and liberating approach to the baggage of the Bible and for her devotion to a vocabulary that doesn't require ‘mental callisthenics’ – her term for the continual reinterpretation that some of us do when confronted by traditional terms we no longer take at face value. She recalled the moment back in 2001 when a ‘view from the pew’ survey in her church revealed to her that despite preaching progressively for several years, as she'd allowed the rest of the service to remain full of traditional hymns and liturgy, the congregation simply hadn't begun to take on board her teaching. I think that was the point when she really began to take West Hill liturgically away from theism.

She had a healthy way of debunking expressions which sound good but don’t mean that much. Even ones I cherish, like Ground of Being suddenly seemed empty. In this vein she also came out strongly against mysticism - I wonder what people will have made of that? I think there was a feeling that she has a lot to offer but might be throwing out the baby with the bathwater. One delegate moderated his praise with this question: ‘While agreeing with her exegesis, why was it necessary to sideline Jesus (even a non-miraculous Jesus) as much as she does?’

The biggest surprise for me was learning some of the non-theist songs that Scott Kearns has written These really moved me in a way I haven’t been moved by singing hymns for years – or at least by most – I’d make a few exceptions. 60 people stayed for the service on Sunday. There was a good sense of community in the chapel and people entered fully into the experience of a West Hill type service. I'm sure there were a few tears shed. Personally, I'm not sure that I would wish to attend a church where that was what happened every Sunday, but then I am a Quaker, now. However, having left the Church of England in part because of the words of the hymns, I was pleased to be able to buy a book of Scott’s hymns to try out on Friends.

John McKechnie wrote back to me with some observations of his own, when he'd visited Gretta's church in Canada.

I wanted to respond to you with some of my own reflections after attending West Hill this summer. To set the scene, I did so (with my wife) from a Presbyterian background (but not as regular attenders).

I would find it easy to attend West Hill regularly as the whole service is in plain English and no mental callisthenics were required (what a great way to put it). That is not what I noticed actually – it was more that it just seemed natural. But it was also hard work because there was no jargon sliding past you taking you on to the next thing. Concentration was turned on much more than in a conventional service.

I also liked the idea of moving about and greeting each other at the designated point during the service instead of the usual hit or miss approach to welcoming visitors and greeting friends.

It was much more interactive than conventional services: prayers would not have been recognised as traditional prayers. Of course, Gretta Vosper gave this part of the service structure but the congregation provided the content; Gretta stood in the middle of the congregation along with elders, providing microphones. Responses were used; when a concern was expressed, the words, In this our time of need, were followed by a collective, 'May love abound'. For a thanksgiving the congregation responded to the words, In this abundant blessing, by responding, 'We share the joy'. These prayers were used very respectfully. It was a very good time.

Then we had a focussed moment – a time of reflection followed by music. No sermon……..but perspectives……….so well thought out on each of the Sundays we were there.

You have already commented on the hymns and I agree with you. I never missed mention of God; there was no bible reading. I am not sure if Jesus was mentioned or not but it would have trivialised the service to have complained. None of that mattered. We were rather taken with their prayer As I live every day – it captures the point of being there for me.

My overall sense was that I had been with a group of people who were further down a road than I was and I wanted to catch up!

(There's a copy of the prayer that John refers to at the foot of this article. It is a rewriting of the prayer traditionally ascribed to St Francis)

At Oxford, Gretta had rejected anything transcendent, beyond the human, that might be called God, in the traditional sense. She poured cold water on the notion of mysticism. Among the audience was Petra Griffiths, who is a PCN member from London and the Coordinator of Living Spirituality. This was her reaction.

I felt respect for much that Gretta said, and found the liturgy that she and Scott created worked in human terms and would be inspiring to do on a regular basis.

I don't accept that there is nothing beyond the human however, owing to experiences of another level of reality that both my late husband and I have had, as well as diverse accounts by people like William James. My husband went through his whole life being sure that there is no reality except that described by science until the last period, when he slowed down and was surprised by becoming receptive to another level lying behind or deeper than the everyday, which he felt had an external aspect to it.

I thought Gretta's point that it is vital now that we look for commonalities rather than differences was a powerful one. The values of connectedness with self, others and all creation have universal relevance in today's world, regardless of our beliefs. There was quite a bit in common between what Gretta and Scott are doing in their liturgies and a series of informal liturgies that our Living SpiritualityJourneying Together Group organises outside the church structure, so that was interesting.

I was interested that PCN wanted to co-host these events, which seem considerably more way out than the PCN vision statement, unless I'm misconstruing things. Of course it's always worth being challenged by a well-thought out initiative such as Gretta and Scott's. It was certainly worthwhile being part of the Oxford events, even if not everyone would want to go down this exact route.

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.

Amen

gretta vosper and Scott Kearns
(c) 2005 West Hill United Church. Permission is granted for reproduction for congregational and small group use, provided appropriate credit is printed with the prayer. For further information, contact West Hill United Church

In our liturgy section you can also find Gretta Vosper's version of the Advent Hymn, O Come, O come, Emanuel, called O Come, Light's Dawning

Back to Blog