Can a Christian church employ an atheist minister? That is the question currently being examined by the United Church of Canada. Gretta Vosper, the minister who has led the congregation at West Hill in Toronto since 1997, affirms: “I do not believe in a theistic, supernatural being called God. I don’t believe in what I think 99.99 per cent of the world thinks you mean when you use that word.”

Vosper’s sermons are light on scripture, often eschewing the word “God” altogether and focusing instead on general moral teachings. It appears to be working. Her 100-strong congregation has not faced the declining attendance rates of other churches.

When she was ordained as a minister in 1993, Vosper was asked whether she believed in God, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. She said yes, speaking metaphorically. Almost a decade later, frustrated by the archaic language and imagery of the Bible, she delivered a sermon deconstructing the idea of God. Rather than cracking down, the United Church of Canada – known as a progressive and broad-minded denomination – encouraged her to push the boundaries. For years, Vosper described her position with a series of linguistic contortions, labelling herself a non-theist and a theological non-realist.

The tipping point came in 2013, when she began to identify herself publicly as an atheist. She has said in interviews that this was not the result of any change in her belief system but a wish to show solidarity with Bangladeshis suffering persecution. Her words caused outrage in some quarters, raising questions about why exactly an atheist was preaching in a church at all – even one that prides itself on its progressive values.

Vosper’s Twitter bio claims that she is “irritating the church into the 21st century”. Whether she succeeds in her mission to carve out a space within religious institutions for those who do not believe in God remains to be seen. With her legal appeals to prevent an official United Church review rejected, her days at the pulpit may be numbered.

A version of this article appears in the Witness section of the Summer 2016 issue of the New Humanist. Subscribe today.