'Atheist minister' church trial due after three years

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  1. 'I don't care if the church survives' - Gretta Vosper, the 'unsuitable' minister

Gretta Vosper, age 60, has been awaiting trial by the United Church of Canada’s Christian court for over three years, on the question of whether she can continue as a minister when she is an atheist. The trial has been delayed x number of times but it is currently scheduled for the end of November until the first week of December 2018. 

“That’s 25 days of hearing, which is a lot longer than much more serious crimes take,” Vosper told WikiTribune. “They’re trying to use a disciplinary process for a heresy trial.”

Vosper wouldn’t disclose to WikiTribune 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.”

She has been the minister of West Hill United Church, in Toronto, Canada, for 18 years, and while her position has been under review, an ‘unsuitable’ minister, for the past three.

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 belief was a metaphorical one, she has been speaking about her views publicly for years and made it very clear in her first book that she “did not believe in a traditional understanding of God.”

Vosper told WikiTribune many members of the United Church have privately talked to her about “having nontheistic understandings of God,” but only in 2015 when it went more public, did they decide they need to do something about it.

“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 WikiTribune. We should be reaching out to those who don’t identify with any religion, but “the big tent concept doesn’t work with them,” she said.

Eight years after she was ordained, Vosper delivered an off the cuff sermon deconstructing the idea of God, expecting that she would be 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. To 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.

She stopped doing the Lords Prayer in 2008, which sent attendance plunging from 120 people to 40 and left the church’s financial strength “in tatters”, according to The Guardian. Now she says she has an average congregation of x, which is made up of traditional believers, atheists, and and all kinds. “We don’t identify as an atheist church.”

In 2013 she self-identified as an atheist however, in an act of solidarity with the Bangladeshi secular bloggers who were murdered. Vosper said “they were given the term atheist in order to incite hatred against them, and it worked.” 

Nowadays Vosper’s church has no bibles and she has adapted the words to around 60 traditional hymns, removing all religious references. Vosper believes this is the next logical step in the reformation of the United Church, which previously changed rules so that women and then married women can be ordained, before allowing gays and lesbians do to the same in 1988.

So why does Vosper still want to be a minister? “Quite honestly I don’t care if the church survives,” she told WikiTribune. However, here in Canada, we are now currently experiencing the last generation that would identify as Christian.” Amongst this generation people are 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. “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,” she said.

WikiTribune has asked the United Church of Canada for comment and will add it once we receive it.

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