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Atheist minister review on hold

By Mike Milne


A Toronto Conference review of a minister who calls herself an atheist remained on hold last fall, while The United Church of Canada’s judicial committee decided whether to consider her two appeals.

Rev. Gretta Vosper, minister at West Hill United in Toronto and an author with well-publicized post-theistic beliefs, faced a church trial on her suitability for ministry last spring, after Toronto Conference received a letter expressing concerns about her ministry from another Toronto congregation. Conference asked General Council general secretary Nora Sanders how to handle the matter and was told it could review Vosper’s effectiveness for ministry by asking her to revisit her ordination vows.

The first question asked of candidates during ordination, commissioning or admission to United Church ministry is, “Do you believe in God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and do you commit yourself anew to God?”

Reviews of serving ministers are usually based on effectiveness, but Sanders ruled that Vosper’s effectiveness was contingent on her suitability for ministry — and that suitability could be gauged by her current response to ordination vows. There is no record of a minister ever being asked to restate those vows.

As well as appealing Sanders’s ruling, Vosper is appealing Toronto Conference’s actions, with help from high-profile Toronto lawyer Julian Falconer. The 13-member executive of the 39-member judicial committee, with representatives from each Conference, will decide whether or not to hear Vosper’s appeals, after reading her submissions and responses from the general secretary and Toronto Conference.

If it decides an appeal has merit, the judicial committee’s executive will then name a committee, from among judicial committee members, to meet in person to consider it.

In the meantime, Vosper says she has heard from both detractors and supporters. Those voicing support in open letters to United Church leaders include Munroe Scott, biographer of former moderator Robert McClure. Scott writes, “The idea that the UCC bureaucracy should be planning on a legalistic review of Gretta’s beliefs and ministry is, quite frankly, extremely disturbing.”

In another letter, U.S. progressive Christian theologian Bishop John Shelby Spong writes that “rethinking God in non-theistic terms is one of the great concerns of contemporary Christian theology.” He asks Moderator Rt. Rev. Jordan Cantwell to “call your church back from this precipice.”

Vosper, for her part, says that “the appeal of the ruling is not just about me. . . . I am appealing as a member of the clergy who are now faced with an entirely different understanding of the requirements for belief.” She says her employment as a minister is in jeopardy, “but a whole lot more is at stake.”







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