Title Title
IMG_4344 'Atheist minister' church trial due after three years
Summary Summary
  The minister said her atheist views have been known for years but only when they went public did the church decide to do something
Highlights Highlights
Content Content
Gretta Vosper's congregation at West Hill United Church (Author: Marilyn Walsh) <em>WikiTribune is still reporting this article and this story is in progress. </em>
  Gretta Vosper, a self-declared atheist and ordained minister, <span style="font-weight: 400;">has been awaiting trial by The United Church of Canada's ecclesiastical court for over three years, on the question of whether she is allowed to continue in her job with her theological beliefs. The trial has been delayed several times but it is currently scheduled to begin in November 2018 for five weeks.</span>
  "T<span style="font-weight: 400;">hat's 25 days of hearing, which is a lot longer than much more serious crimes take," Vosper told <em>WikiTribune. </em>"T</span><span style="font-weight: 400;">hey're trying to use a disciplinary process for a heresy trial."</span>
  <span style="font-weight: 400;">Vosper, 60, wouldn't disclose to <em>WikiTribune</em> exactly how much she has spent in legal fees over the years, but said an organization supporting her have raised close to $70,000, "which doesn't near cover it."</span>
  [caption id="attachment_89185" align="aligncenter" width="1632"]<img class="size-full wp-image-89185" src="https://s3-eu-west-1.amazonaws.com/wikitribune-uploads-master/2018/09/20145240/IMG_4340.jpg" alt="Gretta Vosper leading her congregation in an adapted version of a hymn (Author: Marilyn Walsh)" width="1632" height="1224" /> Gretta Vosper leading her congregation in an adapted version of a hymn (Author: Marilyn Walsh)[/caption]
  <span style="font-weight: 400;">She has been t</span><span style="font-weight: 400;">he minister of West Hill United Church in Toronto for 18 years, and</span><span style="font-weight: 400;"> her position has been under review, as an 'unsuitable' minister, since 2015. The <a href="https://www.ucobserver.org/faith/2016/11/unsuitable/">national magazine</a> of The United Church </span>published a picture of Vosper's head, with 'unsuitable' written across her face in 2016.
  She doesn't understand why the church are taking her to trial now. Vosper said she was ordained 25 years ago with the understanding that her <span style="font-weight: 400;">belief was a metaphorical one and has been speaking about her views publicly and regularly since then. She said when she used to use the word 'God' in services older generations assumed that she meant "a father figure in the sky who treated us like crap and then saved us later on," despite the fact she made it very clear in </span><span style="font-weight: 400;">her first book that she "did not believe in a traditional understanding of God." Vosper's understanding of God is believing in the human spirit to improve the lives of themselves and the wider world.</span>
  <span style="font-weight: 400;">Vosper told <em>WikiTribune</em> many members of The United Church have privately talked to her about also "having nontheistic understandings of God" too. And despite speaking publicly about her religious views on a radio show for six years, only when her story got picked up on another radio show in 2015, and it </span><span style="font-weight: 400;">went more public did the church decide they needed to do something about it, according to Vosper.</span>
  <span style="font-weight: 400;">"The church is becoming more and more conservative, and the reason it's becoming more and more conservative to appeal to growing number of evangelical protestants," Vosper told <em>WikiTribune</em>. She said the church should be reaching out to those who don't identify with any religion, but "t</span><span style="font-weight: 400;">he big tent concept doesn't work with them [the evangelical protestants]."</span>
  <strong><em>WikiTribune has asked the United Church of Canada for comment and will add this once we receive it.</em></strong>
  Eight years after she was ordained, <span style="font-weight: 400;">Vosper delivered an off the cuff sermon deconstructing the idea of God, expecting that she would be </span><span style="font-weight: 400;">removed from her position. At the end of the service there was "like little bits of God all over the floor, and a bunch of people thought I had totally lost it" she said. T</span><span style="font-weight: 400;">o her surprise, board members were sympathetic in a meeting afterwards and asked what it would look like if she delivered sermons without any religious language or mention of God.</span>
  She stopped reciting the Lord's Prayer in 2008, which sent attendance plunging from 120 people to 40 and damaged the church’s financial strength, according to <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/apr/24/atheist-pastor-canada-gretta-vosper-united-church-canada"><em>The Guardian</em></a>. Now she has an average congregation of around 85, which is made up of <span style="font-weight: 400;">traditional believers, atheists, and and all kinds. "We don't identify as an atheist church."</span>
  [caption id="attachment_89187" align="aligncenter" width="1632"]<img class="size-full wp-image-89187" src="https://s3-eu-west-1.amazonaws.com/wikitribune-uploads-master/2018/09/20145817/IMG_4344.jpg" alt="Gretta Vosper's congregation at West Hill United Church (Author: Marilyn Walsh)" width="1632" height="1224" /> Gretta Vosper's congregation at West Hill United Church (Author: Marilyn Walsh)[/caption]
  In 2013 however, she self-identified as <span style="font-weight: 400;">an atheist, in an act of solidarity with the <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Attacks_by_Islamic_extremists_in_Bangladesh">Bangladeshi secular bloggers</a> who were then arrested and later killed. Vosper said "they were given the term atheist in order to incite hatred against them, and it worked." </span>
  West Hill Church <a href="http://www.westhill.net/blog/2017/6/2/refugee-resettlement-we-wont-let-them-journey-alone.html">has a sponsorship agreement</a> with the government so that refugee Ibrahim, an atheist and LGBTQ rights blogger in Bangladesh forced to remain in hiding after his image was widely shared, and his refugee family can be resettled in Canada.
  Nowadays Vosper's church has no bibles and she has adapted the words to around 60 traditional hymns, removing all religious references. And rather than remembering Jesus returning from the dead on Easter Sunday, West Hill Church celebrate an event they call 'Dream Away,' which "addresses the picking up of broken dreams by those left behind."
  Vosper believes the United Church needs to constantly reform, saying it did so in the past, so that women and then married women can be ordained, before allowing <span style="font-weight: 400;">gays and lesbians do to the same in 1988.</span>
  So why does Vosper still want to be a minister? "Q<span style="font-weight: 400;">uite honestly I don't care if the church survives," she told <em>WikiTribune</em>. </span>
  <span style="font-weight: 400;">However, "h</span><span style="font-weight: 400;">ere in Canada, we are now currently experiencing the last generation that would identify as Christian." Among this generation people are</span> <span style="font-weight: 400;">more likely to volunteer, they donate probably three to four times more to charity, they vote way more regularly, and are far more engaged in their civic community, she said. </span><span style="font-weight: 400;">"My end game is civic engagement. I want people to be engaged in their communities and in the world. I almost drive my husband crazy because I am so passionate about the need for us to engage."
  <span style="font-weight: 400;">If Vosper's hearing in November goes unresolved it will end up in Canada's civil courts, however that can't happen until it goes through the ecclesial courts. </span>
  <span style="font-weight: 400;">If she is struck off from being a minister "there will be severe consequences for the denomination," she told <em>WikiTribune</em>. "Many who participate in congregations have outgrown traditional Christian beliefs long ago; they have stayed in the UCC because they have felt welcome. If I am dismissed, they will no longer feel welcome. As for my colleagues, they will be under a new and threatening regime."</span>
Categories Categories
  Canada, Culture, North America, Religion, Religion
Article type Article type
Tags Tags
  atheist minister, Gretta Vosper, United Church of Canada
Author byline Author byline
No No
Has hero Has hero
No No
Hero Alignment Hero Alignment
Hero Image URL Hero Image URL
None None
Featured Image URL Featured Image URL
Sources Sources

Subscribe to our newsletter

Be the first to collaborate on our developing articles

WikiTribune Open menu Close Search Like Back Next Open menu Close menu Play video RSS Feed Share on Facebook Share on Twitter Share on Reddit Follow us on Instagram Follow us on Youtube Connect with us on Linkedin Connect with us on Discord Email us