'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, an ordained minister, has been awaiting trial by The United Church of Canada’s ecclesiastical court for over three years. The court is meant to decide whether Vosper should be allowed to continue her job with the church, given her unusual (in the circumstances) theological beliefs – she doesn’t believe in God. Vosper is a self-proclaimed atheist.

The trial is scheduled to begin this November. It was going to take place last November but was cancelled when the church could not form a Formal Hearing Committee. There have also been several unsuccessful mediations.

The Church’s Executive Officer of Ministry and Employment, Alan Hall, told WikiTribune “This is the earliest possible date that the two parties – the Reverend Vosper and the Toronto Conference – indicated readiness and availability to proceed. The length of time scheduled reflects the indications of the two parties of the time that they expect will be required to present their arguments.”

The trial is expected to last 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’s spent in legal fees over the years, but said an organization supporting her has raised close to $70,000, “which doesn’t near cover” her legal expenses.

Gretta Vosper leading her congregation in an adapted version of a hymn (Author: Marilyn Walsh)
Gretta Vosper leading her congregation in a traditional religious hymn with adapted secular lyrics. (Photo courtesy of Marilyn Walsh)

She’s been the minister with the West Hill United Church in Toronto for 18 years, and her position as an “unsuitable” minister has been under review since 2015. In 2016, the national magazine of The United Church published a picture of Vosper with “Unsuitable” written across her face.

Vosper says she doesn’t understand why the church is taking her to trial now. She says she was ordained 25 years ago with the understanding that her belief was a metaphorical one, and has been speaking about her views publicly ever since. Vosper says that in the past when she used the word “God” in services, older generations assumed she meant “a father figure in the sky who treated us like crap and then saved us later on.”

However, she made it clear in her first book that she “did not believe in a traditional understanding of God.” Vosper’s understanding of God is people believing in the human spirit to improve their lives and the wider world.

Minister Gretta Vosper on the cover of The United Church Observer (Author - Gretta Vosper; Copyright: CC BY SA 4.0)
Minister Gretta Vosper on the cover of The United Church Observer. (Photo by Gretta Vosper; Copyright: CC BY SA 4.0)

She says many members of The United Church have privately talked to her about “having nontheistic understandings of God.” Despite speaking publicly about her religious views for years, it was only when her story and views got picked up on a radio show in 2015 that the church decide it needed to do something, according to Vosper.

“The church is becoming more and more conservative, and the reason it’s becoming more and more conservative is to appeal to a growing number of evangelical Protestants,” Vosper says. The church should be reaching out to those who don’t identify with any religion, but “the big tent concept doesn’t work with [evangelical Protestants],” she says.

Evolution of beliefs

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 says. To her surprise, board members were sympathetic 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 says she has an average congregation of around 85, which is made up of traditional believers, atheists and others. “We don’t identify as an atheist church,” she says.

Gretta Vosper's congregation at West Hill United Church (Author: Marilyn Walsh)
Gretta Vosper’s congregation at West Hill United Church in Toronto. (Photo courtesy of Marilyn Walsh)

In 2013, Vosper self-identified as an atheist in an act of solidarity with a group of Bangladeshi secular bloggers who were arrested and later killed. “They were given the term atheist in order to incite hatred against them, and it worked,” she says. 

West Hill Church has a sponsorship agreement with the Canadian government so that Ibrahim, an atheist and LGBTQ rights blogger in Bangladesh, who has been forced to remain in hiding after his image was widely shared, can be resettled in Canada with his family.

Nowadays, Vosper’s church has no bibles and she’s adapted the words to about 60 traditional hymns, removing all religious references. Rather than remembering Jesus’ returning from the dead on Easter Sunday, West Hill Church celebrates an event it calls “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 has done so in the past so that women could be ordained, then 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. “Here in Canada, we are currently experiencing the last generation that would identify as Christian.”

Among the current generation, she says, people are more likely to volunteer than in the past, they donate probably three to four times more to charity, they vote more regularly and are more engaged in their civic community.

“My end game is civic engagement,” she says. “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. That can’t happen until it goes through the ecclesial courts.

And if the court removes her from the church?

“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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