A United Church of Canada congregation overseen by an openly atheist minister seldom uses the Bible during worship and has replaced the Lord's Prayer with a nonsectarian affirmation.
The Rev. Gretta Vosper, leader of West Hill United Church of Toronto, Ontario, is currently facing the possibility of being defrocked for being an atheist.
Vosper has pastored West Hill for several years. Since the year 2000 the church has undergone extensive change, both in what it teaches and in membership numbers.
Andrea DiPede, spokesperson for West Hill, told The Christian Post that worship services at her church "have moved away from language that references God in order to create an environment without barriers to participation."
"The services are themed around love, justice, compassion care and responsibility, and living in right relationship with ourselves, with others and with the world," said DiPede.
"Music is a very important part of the service and community at West Hill United; songs at West Hill United Church are also themed around these values."
DiPede also told CP that at West Hill they "don't recognize the Bible as more authoritative than other sources" and that "some of our members publicly identify as atheists."
"We rarely read the Bible in our services, and when we do, we read it alongside other sources of inspiration. We draw from many sources, including novels, journal articles, blogs, poems, nonfiction books, memoirs, videos and music in our services," continued DiPede.
"The services at WHUC are inclusive for those with many differing interpretations of 'God,' some which would be considered traditional and some which would be considered progressive, as well as for people who choose to journey without belief in God, but who continue to choose values based living."
The Lord's Prayer has also been replaced by an invocation called "As I Live," which was written by Vosper and West Hill Music Director Scott Kearns and lacks any mention of God or Heaven.
"As we came to recognize that the words of that traditional prayer no longer reflected our values and represented a barrier to participation to people who don't believe in a personified God, we stopped using it," said DiPede.
"Many members of our community use [As I Live] for daily devotion at home, and many of us have even brought it into our workplaces and other communities."
A declining congregation
Despite the calls for greater inclusiveness, West Hill United Church has seen its membership decline considerably over the past several years.
According to the Rev. Alan Hall, executive officer of ministry and employment for the United Church of Canada, in 2000 West Hill had 324 members.
"The most recent membership statistics we have for West Hill United are for the year 2014. That membership number is 147," Hall told CP.
"In 2014, 128 pastoral charges have fewer members than West Hill United and 90 pastoral charges have more members. … In the year 2000, 189 pastoral charges were smaller than West Hill United and 63 pastoral charges were larger."
The year after, West Hill reported 324 members. In 2001, Vosper preached a sermon at the church where she declared disbelief in the God of the Bible, but stopped short of self-identifying as an atheist.
"In 2001, I made it clear that I did not believe in a supernatural, interventionist, divine being," noted Vosper on her website. "So, in 2001 I shared my beliefs which were consistent with atheism but I did not actually identify as an atheist until 2013."
From 2001 to 2009, as Vosper became more publicly atheist and West Hill made the changes to their worship services, attendance declined to around 150 and below.
DiPede of West Hill told CP that from 2010 to 2014 attendance "rounded out between 70-80" before kicking up again in recent times, including a few hundred visitors earlier this week.
"Our average attendance for our Sunday service has hovered between 100 and 120 people this fall. West Hill has welcomed upwards of 200 visitors so far this year, and this past Sunday, West Hill United welcomed the commitment of 18 new members," said DiPede.
West Hill's trend of decline can be argued as typical for the Toronto Conference. In 2000, the conference had approximately 66,000 members; in 2014, the number was about 37,000.
An embattled pastor
Last year the United Church of Canada began an investigation into the effectiveness of the ministry of Vosper given that she no longer believes in God.
If the Church concludes that Vosper is no longer effective as a minister, she will be placed on the Discontinued Service List (Disciplinary), which is tantamount to being defrocked.
In September the Conference Interview Committee for the United Church's Toronto Conference ruled 19–4 that Vosper was "not suitable" to remain a minister.
"In our opinion, she is not suitable to continue in ordained ministry because she does not believe in God, Jesus Christ or the Holy Spirit," concluded the committee's majority.
"Although The United Church of Canada is a big tent, welcoming a diversity of theological beliefs, Ms. Vosper is so far from center of what holds us together as a united Church that we have concluded that she is not suitable to continue as an ordained minister in our Church."
Later that month, the sub-executive of Toronto Conference agreed with the recommendation of the committee to hold a formal hearing on Vosper's effectiveness, thus continuing the process that may lead to her defrocking.
"Ms. Vosper may remain in ministry at West Hill United Church, Toronto Southeast Presbytery, until the results of the formal hearing are known," noted the sub-executive.
"… until the results of the formal hearing are known, no call, appointment, or transfer for Ms. Vosper will be approved by Toronto Conference [and] no further restrictions will be placed on Ms. Vosper's functioning at this time."
The Rev. David W. Allen, executive secretary for the Toronto Conference, said in an interview with CP that the process for creating the formal hearing to determine whether or not to place Vosper on the Discontinued Service List (Disciplinary) was still pending.
"The General Council sub-executive has not yet scheduled the formal hearing yet; I believe that will happen through the Church's Judicial Committee," said Rev. Allen.
"Setting a date will happen after a panel of three to five people have been set up and they consult with Ms. Vosper and the Conference to determine suitable dates."
According to DiPede, should Vosper be defrocked, West Hill's Presbytery would select an interim minister for a period likely to be between one and three years.