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Presbytery turns down bid to halt Vosper hearing

By Mike Milne

A last-ditch effort to halt a hearing that could defrock a self-declared atheist, who is serving as a minister in The United Church of Canada, was rejected by a church court in mid-January.

The church’s Toronto Southeast Presbytery turned down a motion asking for a suspension of proceedings against Rev. Gretta Vosper, who had earlier been declared not suitable for ministry by a higher church court. The Presbytery’s action means a formal hearing to decide whether Vosper, the longtime minister at West Hill United Church in Toronto, should be removed from the ordered ministry will likely go ahead later this year.

Backed incongruously by the strains of a local orchestra practising in a nearby meeting room, about 100 members of Toronto Southeast Presbytery also rejected a call for Toronto Conference to return responsibility for ministry oversight and discipline back to the Presbytery. The church’s constitution gives that responsibility to Presbyteries, but Toronto Conference took it over in 2013 as part of an experimental program. In the spring of 2015, the Conference launched the process that led to Vosper being declared not suitable for ministry.

Speaking against the motion, Rev. Randy Naylor of Parkwoods United Church called Presbytery “a group of friends” and said that discipline was better handled by Conference. Rev. Eric Bacon, a minister at Lawrence Park Community Church, spoke in favour and cited public statements about 20 years ago by former moderator Very Rev. Bill Phipps, who questioned the divinity of Jesus but was supported by General Council as part of “the diversity that exists within the United Church.” Rev. Robin Wardlaw of Glen Rhodes United Church said that he’d rather see “a big, messy discussion about who we are” than a formal review.

Most of the speakers supported Vosper and the motion, but when votes were counted, less than a third of Presbytery members were in favour.

Rev. Christopher Levan, minister of College Street United and originator of the motion, later cited fear as a factor in its defeat. “They were afraid to do this because we are basically in a kind of identity crisis as a church.”

Presbytery followed up by voting unanimously to host a “colloquy,” or theological discussion, within the next year, looking into topics raised by Vosper’s review, such as what it currently means for ministers to be in essential agreement with the theological statements in United Church’s founding document, plus “the unfolding development of Christian theology and the future mission of the Christian tradition in Canada.”

Members of West Hill United, who have long called for dialogue instead of discipline of their minister, aren’t waiting on Presbytery but are offering to talk to congregations or interested groups any time this year. Get-togethers, with guests from West Hill appearing in person or through technology, are already planned for Toronto, Victoria, Fredericton, Montreal and Edmonton. A statement from the congregation says that talks can be about “the review process, beliefs, doctrine, church beyond theological barriers, inclusive language — or anything else.”

For his part, Levan hopes to help Toronto Southeast Presbytery organize the colloquy or gatherings with “good speakers” that “will be a chance to inspire a national conversation that may change who we are.”

Vosper — who spoke at the meeting and prepared an exhaustive list of answers to frequently asked questions relating to her review and church polity — later said in an interview that she was glad that the discussions will take place but is resigned to facing a formal hearing organized by the denomination’s judicial committee sometime later this year.

The colloquy, she says, “will take place while I am being fired by the church. I’m glad they are going to have that conversation, but I’ll be gone.”

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