Reconciling preachers' split identities

Gretta Vosper is one of the leading lights of progressive Christianity — a worldwide movement that seeks to update Christian beliefs and practice so that they are in line with the modern world — in North America. She is a minister in the United Church of Canada, and founder of the Canadian Centre for Progressive Christianity based in Toronto.

She was keynote speaker at the recent Common Dreams conference for religious progressives held over four days at St Kilda Town Hall in Melbourne. In this interview recorded for Eureka Street, she defines what she means by religious progressive, why progressive thinking struggles to make a mark in Christian Churches, and the need for continual reform in all religions. (Continues below)

Vosper was ordained in 1992, and since 1997 has been minister of the United Church congregation in West Hill, Toronto. The United Church is the largest Protestant denomination in Canada, with three million members, and 3500 congregations spread throughout the country.

Like the Uniting Church in Australia (inaugurated in June 1977), it formed from an amalgamation of the Presbyterian, Methodist and Congregational Churches. But in Canada it happened much earlier, in 1925, making it the first such union worldwide that sought to overcome the denominational divisions in Christianity.

Vosper has a Master of Divinity from Queen's Theological College in Kingston, Ontario. She often travels around Canada on speaking engagements, regularly appears on TV and radio, and is a prolific contributor to Canadian print media.

She founded the Canadian Centre for Progressive Christianity in 2004 which 'provides a network, resources and support for those exploring at and beyond the boundaries of Christian thought'.

She says the centre caters to two groups: progressive clergy, and the 'growing pockets of believers who are well aware of the gap between scholarship and preaching'; those folk in the pews who 'hunger for more ... and yearn for connection with like-minded people and for the assurance that their thinking is not so off-the-wall after all'.

Vosper argues there is 'a lag of about 60 years between the scholarship that ministers study at school, and the words they speak from the pulpit. For many, this creates a split identity — a sense that they lead a secret spiritual life that they have to suppress throughout their active ministry.' Her Centre for Progressive Christianity offers an outlet for that suppressed spiritual life.

In 2008 she published her acclaimed book, With or Without God: Why the Way We Live is More Important than What We Believe, which became a best-seller in Canada.

Peter KirkwoodPeter Kirkwood is a freelance writer and video consultant who worked for 23 years in the Religion and Ethics Unit of ABC TV. He has a Master's degree from the Sydney College of Divinity. 

Topic tags: Gretta Vosper, Progressive Christianity, United Church, Canadian, toronto



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Existing comments

If the preacher is doing his/her real job, instead of whatever happens to be the transient fad of the moment, the "lag" will be of roughly 2000 years.
Leander Gonzaga | 21 May 2010

How sad to see this tired, dreary, bankrupt line being wheeled out yet again. Revd Ms Vosper is peddling a warmed-over, pseudo-scholarly neo-modernism that has all the excitement of 19th century German liberal Protestantism. This sort of thing invariably leads to the denial of the historical dogmas of the Christian tradition, divine revelation, the supernatural and a personal, transcendant deity. The churches which have embraced it - such as the Uniting Church of Australia - are the ones in the steepest and fastest decline and are "progressing" towards extinction.
Sylvester | 21 May 2010

I heard Gretta Vosper at conference and had a number of reservations about her and her claim as a Christian minister. However for Sylvester to deride "This tired, dreary bankrupt line being wheeled out yet again' is ironical. This is just what he then did with 'historical dogmas of the Christian tradition, divine revelation, the supernatural and a personal transcendant (sic) deity." As a former RC it has become the church of Constantine (following Origen} ore interested in power and itself as an institution than the message from Jesus. Which is not to say that there are and have been hordes of incredible followers of Jesus in it- e.g. Oscar Romero and those lay and clerical like him in South America. Whatever else Gretta Vosper is more concerned with human welfare than sneering.
Brian Poidevin | 21 May 2010

Brian Poidevin evidently regards God, divine revelation, Christian tradition, etc., as 'tired, dreary, bankrupt'. Interesting. He then goes on, in a sweeping generalisation, to dismiss twenty centuries of the Catholic Church as being 'ore [sic] interested in power and itself as an institution than the message of Jesus'. Is that not sneering? And is Revd Vosper's rejectionism not equally sneering of the faith and values of many Christians?
Sylvester | 21 May 2010

I did not dismiss many who have belonged to the Catholic Church but I dismiss many of the claims made out of the institution and and specifically the Vatican which has been for centuries Constantinian and even more so, with a brief interlude, since 1870. However, leaving aside the Eastern churches, in the west we do have the Old Catholic Church and many parts of a presently conflicted Anglican Communion. And at the very least the do not perpetuate the nonsense about only male priests. Please do not tell me that Jesus picked only male apostles as though when he lived is irrelevant.
However, it is a well known psychological fact that argument only tends to reinforce the "true" believer I probably should desist. But Sylvester might contemplate "Caatholica" sometimes.
brian Poidevin | 21 May 2010

Given the symbiosis between religion and society in pre-modern times, it was inevitable that the Church would become "Constantinian". The fact that Christianity has now moved away from the Constantinian model is no reason to excoriate that era as worthless. Among the glories of Catholicism during that age is its heritage of art, architecture and music, in many cases made possible by the Church's "Constantinian" relationship to the State in terms of patronage.

You either accept the Catholic package or you don't - the main thing is to have informed reasons for one's position. Your description of the Catholic position on who can be ordained to the priesthood as "nonsense" is - dare I say it - sneering.
Sylvester | 21 May 2010

Still believing in a god made in the image of man ??
Geoff | 22 May 2010

The future of all churches in the West is to look at good biblical scholarship and church history. The Church has always have to live in a changing world and express deep theological truths in different ways. Unfortunately in the 19th and 20th centuries preachers were loath to bring biblical sholarship into the pulpit because "it might upset the simple faith of the peasants"

These days with intelligent congregations a good understanding of biblical scholarship and theology strengthens ones faith rather than destroys it.
John Ozanne | 22 May 2010

How long do we need to suffer hearing these pseudo intellectuals using so many words to say nothing at all. The problem with the church is that we have compromised so much with the world that we are often indistinguishable from it. Get back to the gospel of salvation for sinners through grace as expressed by the Bible. It is not a cliche, it is not out of touch with modern scholarship as our boring friend seems to think. It is what the world needs to hear.
steve | 22 May 2010

"Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears; And they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables. But watch thou in all things, endure afflictions, do the work of an evangelist, make full proof of thy ministry." - 2 Timothy 4:2-5

Paul Shirt | 10 June 2010

Sorry! I think video needs tweaking ... I experienced a lot of echoing.
Murielle Parkes | 08 November 2010


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