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Preacher who doesn't believe in God is like 'Amazon manager who doesn't believe in online shopping'

Preacher who doesn't believe in God is like 'Amazon manager who doesn't believe in online shopping'

The Rev. Gretta Vosper, the United Church of Canada pastor who doesn’t believe in God, has been the subject of a number of past GetReligion posts.

Just a few months ago, our own Richard Ostling offered a nice primer on Vosper and the progressive Christian denomination to which she belongs.

This past weekend, the New York Times featured a profile of Vosper.

The anecdotal opening of the Times’ story:

TORONTO — The Rev. Gretta Vosper hadn’t noticed the giant industrial metal cross rising in front of her church for years, hidden as it was by a bushy tree. But then someone complained about it.

Since Ms. Vosper does not believe Jesus was the son of God, the complainer wrote in an email, she should take the cross down.

“The next day, a storm took the tree out,” she said, peering up at the cross with a benign smile.

Some Christians might call that an act of God. But Ms. Vosper does not believe in God either. Instead, the parable says more about her determination. Despite being an outspoken atheist, Ms. Vosper has steadfastly maintained her place in the United Church of Canada, which with two million followers across the country is Canada’s pre-eminent Protestant church.

“This is my church,” said Ms. Vosper, 60. “The United Church made me who I am.”

Keep going, and this is an enjoyable piece to read — both in terms of Canada bureau chief Catherine Porter’s writing ability and the journalistic fairness shown to supporters and critics of the pastor who doesn’t believe in God.

Some more crucial material from the profile:

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Got news? It is significant that an Anglican bishop's same-sex wedding was not big news?

Got news? It is significant that an Anglican bishop's same-sex wedding was not big news?

I’m sorry, but it’s time to share the “lighthouse parable,” once again.

Why? We are dealing with another very interesting news story that, well, didn’t seem to attract any attention from the mainstream press in North America. The fact that this news story was not considered a news story — except in niche publications on the left and right — is another commentary on religion-news reporting in this digital day and age.

Once again, silence is important. So, once upon a time there was a man who worked in a lighthouse on the foggy Atlantic Ocean.

As the story goes, this lighthouse had a gun that sounded a warning every hour. The keeper tended the beacon and kept enough shells in the gun so it could keep firing. After decades, he could sleep right through the now-routine blasts. Then the inevitable happened. He forgot to load extra shells and, in the dead of night, the gun did not fire.

This rare silence awoke the keeper, who leapt from bed shouting, "What was that sound?"

So what was the Anglican news a few weeks ago in Canada that drew mainstream silence? Here is the double-decker headline at GayStarNews.com:

Canadian gay bishop marries in Toronto cathedral

Marriage of bishop attended by Anglican Archbishop of Toronto

This event was not private, in any way, shape or form. As this story noted, the Diocese of Toronto posted a press notice online.

Clearly, this was a business-as-usual event for Canadian Anglicans, even though — in terms of liturgy and church law — official same-sex marriage rites remain very, very new. Hold that thought.

The bottom line: Many Anglicans around the world — left and right — would consider the same-sex marriage of a bishop, a rite held in a cathedral just after Christmas, to be a newsworthy event.

Was this news? Apparently not. This is interesting, a decade or so after the years in which every move by the openly gay Episcopal Bishop Vicky Gene Robinson drew intense coverage, if not cheers, from mainstream journalists.

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Why is Jordan Peterson everywhere, right now, with religious folks paying close attention?

Why is Jordan Peterson everywhere, right now, with religious folks paying close attention?

Jordan Peterson is a very hard man for journalists to quote.

Some journalists have learned, the hard way, that he is also a very easy man to misquote.

Readers and “Crossroads” listeners (click here to hear this week’s podcast): Perhaps you are among the millions of YouTube consumers who witnessed his famous “Gotcha” moment on Channel 4, during a somewhat tense interview by British journalist Cathy Newman.

This was the viral clip that launched the University of Toronto psychologist even higher into the cyberspace elites. Read the following, from the Washington Times, but know that this is news media territory — on the issue of pro-trans speech codes. This was not an example of what this man is saying in the online lectures that have created a massive digital community:

“Why should your right to freedom of speech trump a trans person’s right not to be offended?” the reporter asked at the 22-minute mark of a 30-minute interview.

“Because in order to be able to think, you have to risk being offensive. I mean, look at the conversation we’re having right now,” the psychologist answered. … “You’re certainly willing to risk offending me in the pursuit of truth. Why should you have the right to do that? It’s been rather uncomfortable. … You’re doing what you should do, which is digging a bit to see what the hell is going on. And that is what you should do. But you’re exercising your freedom of speech to certainly risk offending me, and that’s fine. More power to you, as far as I’m concerned.”

Ms. Newman paused, sighed and struggled to find a response until her guest interjected, “Ha. Gotcha.”

“You have got me. You have got me. I’m trying to work that through my head. It took awhile. It took awhile. It took awhile,” she said with a repetitive concession.

I will admit that there is a guilty-pleasure factor, when watching reporters try to grill this man.

However, that’s not the point of this week’s podcast or my two recent “On Religion” columns on this topic for the Universal syndicate — “Jordan Peterson: The Devil's in the details of all those YouTube debates.” Click here to read Part II.

It’s obvious why Peterson gets so much analog news ink — his digital ink numbers are simply astonishing.

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Not really new news: Immigration has affected churches in Canada (and elsewhere) for years

Not really new news: Immigration has affected churches in Canada (and elsewhere) for years

"There is no new thing under the sun," the writer of Ecclesiastes tells us in chapter 1, verse 9. While it's doubtful that said author was also a newspaper editor, it's a handy point for editors to remember, I believe. Too little of what is reported as "news" is, actually, "new."

These thoughts came to mind as I read a story in the Globe and Mail, Toronto's flagship paper whose reporters cover the whole of Canada as well as the rest of the world. "Immigrants providing a boost to declining church attendance in Canada," the headline reads.

Take a look at this longish excerpt to get a flavor of the piece:

Eli Wu brought his wife and teenaged son to Vancouver this past summer, emigrating from China in search of a better education for his child. He wasn't searching for God, but after arriving in Canada he found himself drawn in an unexpected direction.
In China, he said he didn't pay too much attention to Christianity, although some of his family members attended church. Organized religion was prohibited in China during the Cultural Revolution, but there was a revival of Christianity at the beginning of 1980s, when the government lifted restrictions on religion. Still, the Chinese government maintains some control over worship.
"In China, [things like] getting baptized and accepting legitimate Christianity are controlled by the government," Mr. Wu said. "When the gospel is discussed in China, because of some political factors, it cannot be [considered] too real."
The decline in the number of Canadians identifying as Christian is a well-documented and persistent trend. But among the people who will file into the pews for Christmas services are a growing number of immigrants, many of whom have converted to Christianity after arriving here, often from China.
New congregants such as international students come because church offers them support and community and an escape from loneliness. Others, like Mr. Wu and his son, come after experiencing Canada's religious freedom.

Here's the journalism problem: The fact of churches welcoming and accommodating immigrant populations is nothing new.

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How liberal is this denomination? Canadians debating whether a pastor must believe in God

How liberal is this denomination? Canadians debating whether a pastor must believe in God

At first, this story reads like it must be news satire from The Onion.

Or, given the religious nature of the piece, maybe the Babylon Bee would be a more appropriate fit.

But actually, this in-depth report on whether a Christian pastor must believe in God is real news out of Canada, via The Guardian. And here's what kind of surprised me: It's fascinating and generally handles the subject matter well.

Let's start at the top:

TORONTO — 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 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?
For the 100-strong congregation at West Hill, the answer is an unabashed yes. Stripped of God and the Bible, services here are light on religious doctrine and instead emphasise moral teachings. The service begins with a nod to the First Nations land on which the church stands and goes on to mention human rights in Saudi Arabia, Syria and Palestine. Global concern is coupled with community-building, with members invited to share significant moments of the past week.

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