Self-Identification Gone Wild: Christian Church With an Atheist Pastor


There is not one mention of God during the 70-minute service at Toronto’s West Hill United church. Bibles are nowhere to be seen. The large steel cross – one of the few remaining religious symbols in this church – is hidden behind a cascade of rainbow streamers.

But that is perhaps to be expected in a church led by an avowed atheist.

“I do not believe in a theistic, supernatural being called God,” says Gretta Vosper, the United Church of Canada minister who has led West Hill since 1997. “I don’t believe in what I think 99.99% of the world thinks you mean when you use that word.” Tor [sic] her, God is instead a metaphor for goodness and a life lived with compassion and justice.

Vosper’s outspoken commitment to a seemingly clashing set of beliefs has prompted turmoil in the open-minded United Church of Canada. A progressive Christian denomination that began ordaining women in Canada 80 years ago and for decades has allowed openly gay men and women to lead ministries, the church has been left questioning its boundaries.

In the coming weeks, an unprecedented review will be carried out to determine whether Vosper can stay on as a minister. At its most basic level, the review will ask a simple question that’s likely to yield a complicated answer: can the United church of Canada have an atheist minister?

The more important question might be: can a Christian church that seriously debates keeping around an atheist minister even call itself a church? At what point did we abandon the notion of a “bare minimum”? While there is absolutely nothing wrong with espousing goodness, compassion and justice, if you truly believe that God is nothing more than a metaphor you’re no longer a Christian.

Even though the United Church of Canada is a progressive denomination, it’s quite a leap from ordaining women to ordaining women who don’t believe in God. Most serious people of faith tend to prefer whimsicality not be an integral part of a given church’s process.

The secular world has been trying to draw people away from faith for decades, offering a “lite” version that focuses on spirituality rather than religion. It’s easier and doesn’t have a lot of rules. It has not, however, entertained the possibility of an atheist clergy until now.

Because it’s absurd.