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Atheist minister faces Conference review

Rev. Gretta Vosper, minister of West Hill United in Toronto and a self-declared atheist, faces a church trial on her suitability for ministry in The United Church of Canada.

By Mike Milne

Toronto Conference began what it calls a review process this past spring. But because Vosper has appealed a ruling on the process, the review, if it moves forward, is unlikely to take place until autumn.

The review was sparked by informal complaints about Vosper’s well-publicized declarations of atheism, plus a formal letter to the Conference from the board of downtown Toronto’s Metropolitan United, asking for “clarification of the shared values and beliefs of The United Church of Canada” and expressing concerns about “West Hill United’s atheistic/post-theistic beliefs.” 

Reviews are usually based on a minister’s effectiveness; suitability for ministry is normally determined by a Conference interview board before ordination, commissioning or admission and rarely, if ever, revisited. So Toronto Conference’s Executive voted to ask General Council general secretary Nora Sanders how to deal with concerns about Vosper, “with a focus on continuing affirmation of the questions asked of all candidates at the time of ordination, commissioning or admission.”

The first of those three questions is, “Do you believe in God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and do you commit yourself anew to God?”

The process suggested by Sanders approves asking Vosper those questions again, linking 
ministers’ suitability for ministry in the United Church with their effectiveness as ministry personnel. 

Toronto Conference asked Vosper to respond to the questions in writing by early June and face a five-member commission from Conference’s interview board later in the month. Instead of doing that, she appealed the general secretary’s ruling. The appeal must be considered by different levels of the General Council’s judicial committee before the review sought by the Conference can go ahead.

If Vosper’s appeal is denied, Conference could resume its review of her ministry and possibly recommend that she be placed on the church’s Discontinued Service List (Disciplinary), which — if confirmed by a formal hearing — would amount to firing her. 

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