Scott Douglas Jacobsen: We have been in contact for over one year now, well over – while I get my act together and compile our larger project.
You have been a figurehead of controversy around Christian culture in the country, whether willingly or not – ’tis the case. For those that do not know, or at least who do not know your point of view – even who you are (Vosper, 2017), regarding the United Church of Canada and the context and narrative in the last few years, what happened and is ongoing?
Gretta Vosper: I am currently a minister in the United Church of Canada. This year marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of my ordination and I’ve been serving a congregation in West Hill – the very east end of Toronto – since 1997.
A few years into our work together, I realized that the church language I had grown up with and taught to use to describe concepts and ideas that could be described with plain English was problematic.
It both misled my congregants to think I believed in a supernatural, theistic being called God, which I did not, and prevented people without such beliefs from experiencing what I call the off-label benefits of the church community – belonging, recognition, affirmation, and an increased sense of well-being that comes with those things.
After engaging the church in a conversation about that dissonance, we began the work of creating a theologically barrier-free space and gathering. West Hill is now a haven for those who do not believe any religious concepts as well as continuing to serve those who do but for whom theological language is not necessary.
Unfortunately, rather than recognizing that it had, over the past many decades, trained leaders to serve this constituency, my denomination chose, instead, to retreat to a more conservative theology.
In doing so, the work we were doing at West Hill became controversial among those who did not know what we were doing or why. Their complaints led to a heresy trial which is currently being conducted under the guise of a “Disciplinary Review.” The end result may be that I am stripped of my credentials and no longer able to serve my community in leadership.
Jacobsen: With that background, what is new? You are involved in an organization called The Oasis Network. There is a brief statement of values on the website:
People are more important than beliefs.
Reality is known through reason.
Meaning comes from making a difference.
Human hands solve human problems.
Be accepting and be accepted. (The Oasis Network, 2017).
Other than these as an introduction to The Oasis Network as a statement of principles and values. What does the organization do in and for the community of the formally irreligious – the formerly religious?
Vosper: The Oasis Network has grown out of the desire of many individuals who have known church and experienced its “off-label benefits” but who do not hold religious beliefs to create meaningful community. Added to those many people are others who have no experience of church who are also looking for a place where meaningful dialogue happens and deep friendships can be nurtured.
Each Oasis community operates autonomously but collaborates with all the others. Research indicates that in order to provide the kind of experiences that allow people to flourish, communities need to meet weekly; so Oasis communities do that. They can pick whenever they want to meet but most of them have found that Sunday morning is the best time – it’s not a school or work night and most people have it free.
Oasis gathering replicate the gatherings of church without the doctrine and, for the most part, without the religious trappings you’d expect to find in church. For instance, there is a speaker each week but most Oasis communities don’t sing; they welcome different local musicians who are happy for a gig with a really attentive audience.
West Hill still sings, of course, because it grew out of the desires of a congregation that had a tradition and adapted it beyond doctrine. So it sings songs and hymns that have no mention of God or Jesus but reflect the humanitarian values we espouse. And they don’t, of course, pray to an interventionist God but some of them – not all – like West Hill, allow for a time for participants to share stuff happening in their lives – good or bad.
And there is a coffee time when some of the most important stuff happens: people get to know one another, become involved in one another’s lives. It’s magical, if I can use that word!
Jacobsen: What is the relevance of such as organization now? How did you become involved with it?
Vosper: I think Oasis communities are filling a very important need in a world that is emerging from social experiments for which we cannot predict the outcomes. As I’ve noted, there are serious off-label benefits to religion that go to personal well-being.
Which may sound self-centred. But personal well-being goes to our ability to engage in our communities and the world beyond our front doors. We have built our social democracies with the input of people who felt good enough about themselves and confident enough about what they had to offer that they engaged beyond their own “tribe” in the wider community.
Liberal Christianity (read any religion) transfers positive social values in a way that conservative iterations do not. And the great liberal Christian institutions of the twentieth century helped embed those social values we cherish in our communities as a result.
We are now watching the demise of those same institutions. And it is easy for those who do not believe in religious beliefs to dismiss the death of these institutions as a good thing. But it isn’t. Liberal Christians helped negotiate the social fabric of our nation, mitigating the effects of the fundamentalist versions of its own story and the individualistic relativism of an unchecked libertarianism.
What the loss of institutions like United and Anglican Churches of Canada might mean for the future of Canada’s social democracy is unknown but I’d be willing to bet it will be a meaner, and less comfortable country than what I was privileged to grown up with.
And it will be subject to the influences of those two powers – religious fundamentalism and individualistic libertarianism. That isn’t a pretty picture. So I think the loss of these institutions might be tragic.
Jacobsen: With a rapidly, very fast, growing formally irreligious population in the country, what can, even should, be done at present to accommodate that growing (and often young) population, e.g. development of secular or atheist churches, or Sunday Assemblies, foundation of organizations such as The Oasis Network, and so on?
Vosper: Building on my concerns for Canada’s social democracy, I think it is very important that we find ways to engage individuals in communities that present humanitarian values as central to each person and every neighbourhood.
Liberal Christian institutions that are closing churches every week need to assess the cost of those closures which, as I’ve said, go far beyond their statistical and revenue losses. Perhaps their legacy could be the sale of those buildings and the use of that money as an investment in the future.
They could lay the foundations for secular communities like Oasis to take the ethos those institutions have nurtured and that define this nation, and craft it in ways that speak to and engage new generations and their emergent needs.
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Gretta.
The Oasis Network. (2017). The Oasis Network. Retrieved from http://www.peoplearemoreimportant.org/.
Vosper, G. (2017). About. Retrieved from http://www.grettavosper.ca/about/.
Image Credit: Gretta Vosper.