Metro Morning

United Church about ethos, not belief, says minister who faces defrocking

An unabashedly atheist minister who does not believe in the Bible should be defrocked for her beliefs, a United Church committee has recommended in a split decision that seems likely to stir further dissent in the church.

Rev. Gretta Vosper could lose her ministry for her belief in atheism

The United Church has decided to go ahead with an unprecedented review that could lead to the defrocking of Rev. Gretta Vosper, an ordained minister who believes in neither God nor Bible. (Colin Perkel/Canadian Press)

An outwardly atheist United Church minister who stands to be defrocked for her beliefs told Metro Morning Friday that embracing different interpretations of God has always been a tenet of the church and is something that should be celebrated and supported, not punished. 

"The United Church has always been about ethos, it has not been about belief," Rev. Gretta Vosper told host Matt Galloway. "That's the United Church that many people have been drawn to."

In a split decision, a church review panel has recommended Vosper be kicked out. 

In a report, the panel said Vosper would not be ordained were she applying today given her extreme beliefs.

"She is not suitable to continue in ordained ministry because she does not believe in God, Jesus Christ or the Holy Spirit," the report by the Toronto Conference interview committee states. 

"Ms. Vosper does not recognize the primacy of scripture, she will not conduct the sacraments, and she is no longer in essential agreement with the statement of doctrine of the United Church of Canada."

Vosper, however, said her understanding of God has "evolved" since her Bible study days. 

She now believes that by helping and caring for each other, people "create this positive power within ourselves and that that's God, but that it's entirely dependent upon us. It doesn't come from the supernatural realm, we can't make things better by praying to another realm."

And while the United Church is known for allowing a wide range of spiritual views, the panel is still recommending that Vosper, 58, lose her job as minister in the West Hill congregation in Toronto's east end. 

Not everyone on the interview committee, comprising 23 lay and ordained members of the church, wants to see her gone. In a dissenting view, four members concluded that Vosper was "suitable" as a minister. The church has evolved since its founding and must continue doing so to meet the spiritual needs of Canadians, they argued.

"Many of Ms. Vosper's theological positions, while not in the mainstream, are not unique amongst the ministers and lay persons of the United Church," the dissenters said. "The United Church has a history of welcoming theological diversity, and to find Ms. Vosper unsuitable could stifle exploration and stunt that diversity."

Vosper says the minority view shows that a "significant number" of people in the church share her views.

"This conversation is not over and indeed might get ramped up," Vosper said.. "This has been a very adversarial process and so that, in and of itself, has cost the United Church greatly."

Galloway asked Vosper how she could hold a leadership position in a church if she doesn't believe in God. Vosper said she wants to stay within the fold of a church that has, up until now, allowed her to embrace spiritual diversity.

"The Church taught me to develop wide understandings of God and to develop my own," she said. "I am as close to a Child of the United Church of Canada as anyone can be." 

Argued against 'singular definition' of God

In June, Vosper appeared before the committee to defend her views, arguing she was on the receiving end of a church inquisition. She argued against a "singular definition" of God and pleaded for ministers and members to be allowed to explore and define their own ideas.

The committee, however, felt Vosper had gone far too far.

"Although the United Church of Canada is a big tent, welcoming a diversity of theological beliefs, Ms. Vosper is so far from centre of what holds us together as a United Church that we have concluded that she is not suitable to continue as an ordained minister," the report states.

"The committee is not recommending any form of remediation because Ms. Vosper has been so clear and unequivocal about her beliefs."

The conference's sub-executive will receive the panel report next week and Vosper and her supporters will be able to speak to its findings. The executive will then decide whether to ask the church's governing body for a formal disciplinary hearing that would ultimately decide on whether to fire her.

Randy Bowes, chairman of the West Hill board, told The Canadian Press his biggest concern was the message the report sends to other United Church congregations, which make up the country's second largest religious group.

Vosper, who was ordained in 1993 and joined her West Hill congregation in 1997, has been upfront about her beliefs for years.

Things came to a head after she wrote an open letter to the church's spiritual leader following the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris in January 2015 in which she pointed out that belief in God can motivate bad things.

With files from The Canadian Press

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