One was an editor of books and novels for 41 years, hailed by her peers as “the best editor in London,” who made a mark as prize-winning author mostly of her memoirs. Asserting and living out her independence to the end, she passed away recently at the age of 101.
The other is a pastor of the United Church of Canada in Toronto, who is also an outspoken atheist supported by her congregation. For this she was tried and found “unsuitable” for ministry in 2015, in spite of which the local jurisdiction allowed her to continue ministering her congregation in a working-class neighborhood in that city.
I thought it worthwhile to share their remarkable stories with you, dear readers, as a way of reminding ourselves that human beings in all corners of the world bring meaning to life in many interesting and positive ways. Diana Athill and the Rev. Gretta Vosper were both profiled in the New York Times international edition on Feb. 4.
Diana Athill’s “fiercely independent life” is manifested in two of her memoirs – “Stet: An Editor’s Life,”and “Somewhere Towards the End” (published when she was 91). Lena Dunham wrote: “Perhaps her greatest legacy was her refusal to cede to societal expectations as she carved out a persistently unusual world for herself, in which the demands of femininity – marriage and children, specifically – were rethought and redefined.”
And yet, looking back, Athill also said: “I was not ashamed of valuing my private life more highly than my work; that, to my mind, is what everyone ought to do.” Conscious that she wanted to be remembered for her own writing – “we [editors] are only midwives – if we want praise for progeny we must give birth to our own” – she began to write her memoirs at a late age, to much critical acclaim.
She came out with a book about her memories of a somewhat privileged childhood (“Yesterday Morning”); about love lost to depression, with her partner killing himself in her home (“After a Funeral”); an early broken engagement that left her with a fear of lasting intimacy (“Instead of a Letter”). “Stet” was about a book editor’s work, praising the written word and the people who make it their mission to tell stories.
“’Somewhere Towards the End’ is one of several volumes that make up a masterclass in revealing without flaunting,” wrote Damian Barr in the Guardian. Athill “did that thing on the page that Brits do on the beach: stripping under a towel. You knew she was naked, but never glimpsed anything; nothing she didn’t want you to.”
As an editor, Barr described Athill this way: “Nobody who has been edited by Diana doubts the value of her contribution. Steel is more yielding. She’s at my shoulder as I write now: ‘More here, less there, stop being sentimental.’” Generously, she brought out the best in other writers’ work” describing it as “like removing layers of crumpled brown paper from an awkwardly shaped parcel, and revealing the attractive present which it contained.”
For her outstanding works, Diana Athill was awarded the Order of the British Empire in 2009.
Now 60, the Rev. Gretta Vosper says she has felt since childhood that she belongs to the United Church of Canada (UCC), which is the largest Protestant church in that country, with two million members. “This is my church,” she avows, “The United Church made me who I am.”
After a failed marriage and a daughter in the 1960s, Ms. Vosper enrolled in a divinity school, because she wanted to “learn how to make the world a better place through it.” At the time, the UCC was impelled more by social justice than by theology. It was the first church to ordain transgender ministers. Subsequently, its leadership supported abortion and same-sex union before these became legal in Canada.
After her ordination, she began preaching. Observing the reactions of many congregants, however, she noticed that something was amiss: “We were caught in the story of Christianity that was centuries and centuries and centuries old, regardless of the fact we could say with a lot of confidence that the story was not entirely true – even its most important and sacred beliefs.”
She had always understood God “obliquely” as Love, so perhaps it wasn’t a turnaround when she finally admitted her atheism and spoke what was in her heart. In 1977, after delivering a sermon titled “Deconstructing God,” she recalled, congregation members hugged her. This was affirmed by Debbie Ellis, a member of the congregation for 20 years. “Most of the congregation was in a similar place theologically,” Ellis said. “The idea of a savior from our sins keeping us from actual eternal damnation was not something many believe in,” she added.
From then on Ms. Vosper discarded her robe and ordination stole. She began replacing the traditional biblical language in her Sunday “weekly gatherings” with rituals reflecting her congregation’s consensus beliefs: love, justice, compassion, integrity, forgiveness. Instead of the Lord’s Prayer, they recite the “Words of Commitment” which she wrote with her husband (the church’s musical director) and sing humanist hymns on peace and love, which the couple also composed.
The close relationship among the congregants is the definition of God, Ms. Vosper said. “I see us as beams of light between each of us,” she explained, “and that light is a source of strength and encouragement, and courage and bravado sometimes, and peace and healing.”
What spurred the public hearing into her “heresy trial” in 2015? In the wake of the terror killings of the Charlie Hebdo newspaper staff in Paris, she publicly reprimanded the church’s moderator for asking God to “lead us to seek comfort, compassion and peace.” She said, “God is not the power that allows that to happen. We have the responsibility to make that happen ourselves.”
Interestingly, her congregants backed her up vigorously. They travelled across Canada holding discussions on her case and raising 80,000 Canadian dollars (US$59,000) for her legal fees.
To be sure, the beliefs and lifestyles of these two distinctive women – who could be total strangers to most of us – would hardly gain open adherents in our country where social and political conservatism hold sway. Still, they provide us a glimpse of the fascinating diversity of the times we live in.
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Published in Philippine Star
Feb. 9, 2019