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Judicial panel denies Vosper appeal

Atheist minister’s suitability may now be reviewed

By Mike Milne

A decision by a high-level committee last March has paved the way for a Toronto Conference panel to review whether Toronto minister Rev. Gretta Vosper is fit for continued ministry in The United Church of Canada. Ten members of the executive of the church’s judicial committee — the denomination’s court of last resort — decided not to hear Vosper’s appeal of a ruling by the general secretary of the General Council that mandated the review.

As a result, Vosper — a self-declared atheist — will be asked to revisit vows she gave at her ordination 23 years ago to determine her ongoing effectiveness as a minister. The questions begin: “Do you believe in God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit . . . ?”

Ministers who are found to be ineffective can be removed from active service and placed on the church’s Discontinued Service List. Complaints about ministers’ effectiveness usually come from their congregations. In Vosper’s case, however, her congregation at West Hill United considers her to be highly effective and supports her ministry. The request for a review originated with the board of Metropolitan United in downtown Toronto, which asked Toronto Conference to look into Vosper’s ministry. The Conference then asked general secretary Nora Sanders for a ruling on how such a review could be carried out. The general secretary’s ruling, made last year, links ministers’ effectiveness with their suitability for ministry; revisiting ordination vows is a way to measure suitability, the general secretary ruled.

Gretta Vosper, minister of West Hill United in Toronto. Photo by Scott Kearns
Gretta Vosper, minister of West Hill United in Toronto. Photo by Scott Kearns

The judicial committee was presented with 1,700 pages of submissions from lawyers representing the general secretary and Vosper, but the decision of its executive to disallow the appeal took up only one page and cited no detailed reasons. (The committee rarely allows an appeal to proceed, and its decisions are typically succinct.) In her bid for an appeal, Vosper argued that the general secretary’s ruling unilaterally redefined “the church’s understanding of ministry,” and should have been subject to a church-wide vote, or remit. In her final submission, though, Sanders argued that she simply made a “procedural ruling that extends to The United Church of Canada as a whole: any minister whose suitability is in question may be assessed using the review process.”

Vosper hired high-profile Toronto human rights lawyer Julian Falconer to represent her; she claims to have spent about $60,000 on legal fees in the months leading up to the March ruling. She says her congregation has been “100 percent supportive” of her and is “incredibly dismayed and concerned” that her appeal will not be allowed. Details about submissions for Vosper’s appeal are only available because they were posted on her legal firm’s website.

A five-person Toronto Conference review team will consider Vosper’s case and make a recommendation to the 40-member committee that assesses the suitability of would-be ministers as part of the church’s normal candidacy process. Perhaps as early as next month, the committee will make a recommendation to the Conference sub-Executive, which will render a final decision on whether Vosper continues as a United Church minister or is placed on the church’s Discontinued Service List, effectively firing her from West Hill United.

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