'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

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Gretta Vosper, a self-declared atheist and ordained minister, 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.

“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, 60, 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.”

Gretta Vosper leading her congregation in an adapted version of a hymn (Author: Marilyn Walsh)
Gretta Vosper leading her congregation in an adapted version of a hymn (Author: Marilyn Walsh)

She has been the minister of West Hill United Church in Toronto for 18 years, and her position has been under review, as an ‘unsuitable’ minister, since 2015. The national magazine of The United Church 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 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 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.

Vosper told WikiTribune 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 went more public did the church decide they needed to do something about it, according to Vosper.

“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. She said the church should be reaching out to those who don’t identify with any religion, but “the big tent concept doesn’t work with them [the evangelical protestants].”

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

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 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 The Guardian. Now she has an average congregation of around 85, which is made up of traditional believers, atheists, and and all kinds. “We don’t identify as an atheist church.”

In 2013 however, she self-identified as an atheist, in an act of solidarity with the Bangladeshi secular bloggers 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.” 

West Hill Church has a sponsorship agreement 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 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.” Among 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.”

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.

If she is struck off from being a minister “there will be severe consequences for the denomination,” she told WikiTribune. “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.”

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