The congregation of atheist minister Rev. Gretta Vosper is finding a path forward in its ministry even as the controversy in the wider United Church over Vosper’s legal settlement continues to swirl.
Like many United churches, Vosper’s congregation of West Hill United in east Toronto faced various setbacks, including declining attendance, during the COVID-19 pandemic. The surprise for them was moving online and discovering a global community
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“That was an unexpected blessing,” says council chair Michael Lawrie. “We started to gather people from farther away. We have regular people attending from Vancouver, Seattle, northern Ontario and Quebec. There is quite a West Hill community in the [United Kingdom] and Africa.”
The online presence has outgrown the in-person experience, leaving leaders wondering how to serve both facets of the congregation. A typical Sunday morning might see 20 people attend in person. The online presence is double that.
Lawrie says the congregation’s saving grace was a surprise offer from the Boys and Girls Club of East Scarborough to purchase the building. “The church wasn’t even on the market,” he explains. “They came in below market value on cash but said we could have rent-free existence.”
The 2020 sale freed up funds to enlist the help of Listenology, a management consultancy firm. The congregation is now undertaking a two-year plan exploring Sunday gatherings and its identity.
Last January, the congregational working group presented its first report on the gatherings, committing to engaging online and in-person congregants equally through interactive technology. Council member Jean Skillman is leading the group’s next step, which is articulating West Hill United’s identity. “Our hope is that as we get the refreshed message and branding, [more] people will be able to find us [online],” she says.
According to Skillman, the congregation’s relationship with the wider church is repairing. Legal proceedings led to a settlement between Vosper, the congregation and Toronto Conference in 2018 after the latter sought to remove Vosper from her post due to her openly atheist beliefs. Vosper kept her job at West Hill United.
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But repercussions from the conflict emerged at last year’s General Council, which considered three proposals, grouped together as one, seeking ways to better ensure that ministers’ beliefs line up with the denomination’s faith statements. The majority of discussion groups didn’t support it — if they discussed it — and one group mentioned that the Office of Vocation already provides a mechanism for complaints and a review process. Commissioners recommended that the General Council take no further action on the proposals, which were referred to the Executive for a decision.
Since General Council 44, the Executive has asked the Theology, Inter-Church and Inter-Faith Committee, together with the Office of Vocation, to revisit how the denomination assesses ministers’ faith. The committee is expected to review the proposals, along with notes from the discussion groups, and report back to the Executive before the next triennial denominational meeting in 2025.
Rev. Wanda Stride is a writer and minister at Trinity-St. Andrew’s United in Brighton, Ont.
This story first appeared in Broadview’s July/August 2023 issue with the title “West Hill United forges ahead.”
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