Reactions from the conference floor 1

Gretta Vosper, the Canadian minister and writer, presented two conferences in the UK during September 2014. She argued for the side-lining of belief in God from its central role in church life and, with her song writer husband Scott Kearns, showed what a non-theist liturgy could be like. Norman Pope was one of those in the audience at Oxford over the weekend of 26th - 28th September. He writes:

Reactions from the conference floor 1

Gretta Vosper, who is pastor of West Hill United Church in Toronto, spoke with great clarity and verve. She described how, during her first period of theological training, she very greatly enjoyed the exploration of progressive (left-hemisphere) Christian scholarship. But not yet ready to be a minister she spent ten varied and sometimes very difficult years experiencing life’s vicissitudes.

On re-starting her training she was still thrilled by the academic perspective. However her church, The United Church of Canada, became involved in working towards a vision of unity with the Anglican Church of Canada. So it began exploring and enjoying aspects of the more sensuous (right-hemisphere) beauty of the Anglican liturgy and worship. With academic theology using the left side of the brain, and, worship-acts the right there seemed no sensible way for ministerial trainees to hold the two approaches together. Back then she was not aware how much modern systematic theological training was split off or disconnected, in all students, from the potential for creating meaningful opportunities for growth and worship in a congregation. Thus, after the beginning of her third appointment (still standing after eighteen years), she was to discover that she had made no headway in communicating her theologically trained insights to her congregation, and was wrapping her message with hymns and liturgy that conveyed sentiments she had hoped to leave behind. This was a wake-up call, and a leadership crisis.

Her struggle was to surface publicly (in 2001) in what proved a momentous sermon in which she impulsively interjected that she no longer believed in an interventionist God and in fact not in a God of any kind. This led to a conversation with the board of her church about her beliefs regarding a theistic God, a salvific Jesus, and, the centrality of scripture. The board encouraged her as she changed the old emphasis on doctrines and beliefs so as to prioritise life-enhancing values instead. These are “beneath” all the great religious traditions. Nevertheless her services and celebrations are devised so as not to deny or imply criticism of specific spiritual beliefs that individuals may tend to hold. But she had not expected that in eight years more than half of the congregation would have left. They have been replaced by others many of whom would not ordinarily have come to church. A brief look at the content of a Sunday celebration/service should give a taste of how Gretta’s work might be experienced.

Experiencing a non-theist liturgy

Somerville College Chapel, founded in 1935 on non-denominational principles and having a non-religiously affiliated director instead of a chaplain, was a very appropriate venue for the Sunday service. The non-theistic liturgy was led by Gretta. Hymns and songs were led from the piano by her husband, Scott Kearns. For these he used some old church tunes and others of his own composition. The words, from which reference to specifically Christian beliefs including the word “God” had been dropped, had been brilliantly revised. However human themes such as of awe, relationship, sacrifice and fear were to be allowed their place.

After the first hymn the congregation moved around exchanging greetings and creating a positive communal atmosphere. In a celebration of commitments those present were invited to speak briefly about work being done and supported. Then a congregational song about seeking the truth was sung. A short talk by Gretta on the primary themes of interconnectedness and love was followed with time to reflect. A sharing of things that burden us, bless us, and, that inspire replaced intercessions. A somehow prayer-like affirmation of commitment was followed by a song sung while seated about the bond of love that we extend. There followed a reading that celebrated “the crazy-ones” who pushed forward new ways to change the world followed by a hymn celebrating nature. Of particular interest Gretta delivered a “focus moment”, as written partly from an inspired state each week. After another song and a talk we were reminded that we have the choice of being a source of goodness and a reminder that “We are the light of the world”. During a reflection time we were invited to consider what we might change in ourselves and in relationship. A final hymn emphasised love. The whole conference had given us much to ponder. Here I can only sketchily address some of the responses that particularly interested me. I shall begin with my own.

Splitting and noticing something missing

I particularly remembered how, in the early sixties when a graduate geophysics student in Saskatchewan, I moved from my native Irish Methodism to a more aesthetically and emotionally satisfying Oxford-Movement-inspired Canadian Anglicanism. However, when in theological training back in England, I was to find the realist literalness that was expected in parishes but not matched by a firm experiential base was too baffling and contradictive to act upon, let alone believe. I now understand my grievance, in Gretta’s terms, as due to a threatened split as often endured by theological students in the struggle to last their training. But I escaped to teach science. So, I thought the service at Somerville a major contribution towards ruthlessly clearing away all unnecessary and distracting baggage of unsupportable out-dated mythology, assumptions and attitudes. The mutual encouragement of individuals’ responsibility for doing something in the present I thought extremely important in light of the dire needs of our planet. However at times it struck me as rather flatly humanist. Although most found it moving and meaningful I noticed the question, “Was something missing?” asked among some other attendees.

Let me suggest that what we might miss was something the progenitors of what became orthodox Christianity had. They had what they considered to be the facts concerning Jesus’ resurrection and these facts were a source of feelings of awe and hope concerning their lives in the present and in the future. So, they felt empowered to build up the latent core values (including love and compassion) that the Somerville service emphasised. In the last century or so we have distinguished and developed a capacity for rigorous-thinking from our capacity for sensitively developed feeling. It would now be in order to unite them, head and heart. Indeed, recognising this, in the “focus-moment”, not averse to awe Gretta extolled some outer physical facts about our world, as revealed through the natural sciences. But I expected facts concerning our inner world would be included. I expected this because previously she had told us that this focus moment would use a greater contribution from “the other part of the brain”. I was thinking of a state that can be accompanied by steady lower-frequency, perhaps theta, brainwaves in both hemispheres, an intuitive and imaginative capacity found in children but not maintained in our culture, except by artists and those with mediumistic or “prophetic“ abilities. I did not hear well enough to perceive this, but approximately here may rest the seeds of healing our frequent secular and religious partial splitting of outer from inner.

There was a query about psychoanalysis. I believe that a consideration of this now much-extended domain, whose scientific exploration began by the analysis of the unconscious through dreams, must be one of the most significant discoveries of modernity. Light can be thrown on Jesus’ knowledge of it, his work of healing, and his use of the beatitudes as a guide to behaviour in this part of the Kingdom of God. Now it has been extended to experiential therapies that make examination of this inner world available to detailed exploration. Moreover it has been described as the equivalent of the invention of the microscope in the natural sciences. If this were part of the scientific world eulogized by Gretta, and, introduced to ordinary congregations it would help put Christianity and the church on a firmer footing.

Of course poets and artists have had more ready access to this part of ourselves and in answer to the question, “Will there be a god beyond god?” it might be appropriate to quote a poet, W B Yeats:

“Then my delivered soul herself shall learn

A darker knowledge and in hatred turn

From every thought of God mankind has had.

Thought is a garment and the soul’s a bride

That cannot in that tinsel hide:

Hatred of God may bring the soul to God.”

  • Norman Pope 22nd October 2014

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