Two years after a Toronto Conference interview committee decided that atheist minister Rev. Gretta Vosper was “not suitable to continue in ordained ministry,” the General Council of the United Church of Canada has scheduled a formal hearing to decide whether she will be removed from the church’s order of ministry. A confidential mediation process earlier this year ended in failure.
Vosper has been minister of West Hill United, in an eastern suburb of Toronto, for more than two decades. She dropped the Lord’s Prayer from worship 10 years ago and publicly identified as an atheist in 2013, but has always had the support of her congregation. She is an active blogger and a bestselling author with two books in print and another on the way.
If the hearing ends with a decision to place her on the church’s Discontinued Service List (Disciplinary) she will be effectively fired from her post.
Like Vosper’s earlier review — by a committee usually tasked with determining the suitability of candidates for ministry — the formal hearing will likely hinge on interpretations of the requirement that ministers be “in essential agreement” with church doctrine. While the majority of the 24-member interview committee said Vosper had veered away from the church’s statements of doctrine, four members noted that doctrine is evolving and stated that Vosper’s belief “in a non-theist God” was widely shared in the church, so she was suitable for ministry.
The formal hearing panel includes a retired judge, Justice Robert A. Blair, formerly of the Court of Appeal for Ontario, along with Rev. Roslyn Campbell of Calgary, a retired minister who also has a law degree, and Rev. Kate Crawford, minister at Huron Shores United in Grand Bend, Ont.
The panel has scheduled up to four weeks of hearings in November and early December but met Oct. 1 to consider intervener status, requested by West Hill United and Unifaith, the faith workers’ community chapter of the UNIFOR union.
Rev. Alan Hall, General Council’s head of ministry and employment, would not estimate church costs for the formal hearing. “There are not many of them,” he says. “They cost what they cost, depending on how long they run.”
As for Vosper, her legal bills continue to mount, far beyond about $70,000 raised so far in a GoFundMe campaign by the Friends of Gretta Vosper Association. She is hoping the hearing won’t take three weeks, “but neither I nor West Hill are prepared to say, ‘That’s somebody else’s problem and we’re going to give up because it’s too expensive’.”
The church’s action against her is “unprecedented,” says Vosper. “And it leaves a lot of people at risk. It flattens the theological landscape immediately, because we can all be judged by conservative interpretations of [United Church] theology.”