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Atheist minister Gretta Vosper meets with her supporters before the start of the Toronto Conference Sub-Executive meeting, held on Sept. 15. More recently, the Sub-Executive voted to ask the United Church of Canada’s General Council to hold a formal hearing to determine whether to dismiss Vosper. Photo by Hugh Wesley

Atheist minister Gretta Vosper one step closer to dismissal, formal hearing requested

By Mike Milne and Observer Staff

After nearly a week of deliberating, the sub-Executive of Toronto Conference voted to ask the General Council of The United Church of Canada to conduct a formal hearing to determine whether to fire Rev. Gretta Vosper — the last step in a long process that now seems increasingly likely to remove the atheist minister from her pulpit.

Vosper, minister at West Hill United in Toronto, will be allowed to remain in her job until the results of the hearing are known.

In its statement, released on Sept. 22, the sub-Executive says that it “recognizes that this is not the decision that some people had wanted. Some will be disappointed and angry that this action has been taken, believing that the United Church may be turning its back on a history of openness and inclusivity. Others have been frustrated that the United Church has allowed someone to be a minister in a Christian church while disavowing the major aspects of the Christian faith.”

The decision also points out that there is “no unanimity in the church about what to do.” It received correspondence from church people on both sides of the divide; a petition in support of Vosper garnered more than 1,100 signatures.

It calls on the church “to show loving kindness to everyone, irrespective of belief or no belief.”

A prolific blogger, author and guest speaker, Vosper calls herself an atheist and has been serving her church for 19 years. She has stated that she does not believe in a Trinitarian God or a supernatural god. She said love is the most sacred value and that she had stopped using the word “God” because it was a barrier to participation in the church.

Commenting on the sub-Executive’s decision, Vosper stated, “From the outset of this process, we have urged the Toronto Conference to recognize that their decisions would impact not just one minister, but an entire congregation, and many more members of this church. In spite of the many letters of support and concern about this process, the sub-Executive has continued down a path that can only result in division.”

Her 220-member congregation supports her wholeheartedly and attempted to block Conference’s review of her ministry.

Randy Bowes, the Chair of West Hill’s board, stated, “This decision means that the covenant between a congregation and their minister of choice can be interfered with by church courts. We have sought a dialogue since day one. West Hill is saddened by this result. We continue to express our support for Gretta throughout this difficult process”.

On Sept. 8, a Toronto Conference committee looking into the beliefs of Rev. Gretta Vosper had determined that she is “not suitable” for ministry in The United Church of Canada. In a report, the majority of the 24-person Conference Interview Committee found that Vosper is “unwilling and unable to reaffirm her 1993 ordination vows” and “is no longer in essential agreement with the statement of doctrine of The United Church of Canada.” It recommended that Toronto Conference sub-Executive ask the church’s General Council to call a formal hearing to consider placing the name of Rev. Gretta Vosper on the Discontinued Service List (Disciplinary).

A week later, Toronto Conference’s sub-Executive heard presentations from Vosper, her congregation, Toronto Southeast Presbytery and her lawyer Julian Falconer. More than 50 of Vosper’s supporters, mainly from her congregation, attended the open portion of the meeting wearing buttons calling for “dialogue not discipline.”

Vosper appealed to the sub-Executive’s spirit of generosity, and her congregation attested to the strength of her ministry as an indication of her suitability. Falconer said moving to a formal hearing “is a huge mistake” and called for Conference to put the review on hold for a year in favour of a structured dialogue or debate.

A date for the formal hearing has not yet been announced.

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