Opinion split after atheist minister keeps job


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Last month’s decision by the Toronto Conference of the United Church not to fire Gretta Vosper — the minister who doesn’t believe in God — has generated a lot of discussion.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 01/12/2018 (1465 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Last month’s decision by the Toronto Conference of the United Church not to fire Gretta Vosper — the minister who doesn’t believe in God — has generated a lot of discussion.

The situation goes back to 2013 when Vosper, the minister at West Hill United Church since 1997, publicly declared herself an atheist.

Things came to a head in 2015 when she publicly criticized the denomination for posting a prayer on its website after the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris.

Colin Perkel / THE CANADIAN PRESS files Rev. Gretta Vosper, an atheist, is seen at her West Hill United Church in Toronto.

In her open letter, she denounced the “existence of a supernatural being whose purposes can be divined and which, once interpreted and without mercy, must be brought about within the human community in the name of that being.”

In 2016, the Toronto Conference conducted a review that found Vosper “not suitable” to continue as a minister because she was no longer in “essential agreement” with the church’s statement of doctrine.

It also found she was “unwilling and unable” to reaffirm the vows she made when she was ordained in 1993.

The conference went on to ask the General Council, the denomination’s top governing body, to conduct a hearing.

Before that hearing took place, the Toronto Conference and Vosper reached a settlement on Nov. 7 to let her keep her job.

In a brief joint statement, the Toronto Conference, Vosper and West Hill Church said the parties had “settled all outstanding issues between them.”

The terms of the agreement are being kept confidential.

The reaction was immediate. A few lauded the decision, saying it showed the openness of the United Church. But others were critical.

Reading the critical comments of those from other denominations, I wondered how many understood how the decision came to be made.

The United Church is not monolithic or hierarchical. It follows a congregational model, in which individual congregations and conferences have freedom to make decisions about the best ways to be the church in their communities. There’s no United Church pope who can enforce the rules.

In this case, the decision was made by one of the denomination’s conferences, not the whole United Church, even if some in the larger church support it.

And even if, as some think, the United Church should have been more decisive, the fact is that many denominations have trouble dealing with difficult issues and people. At the same time, faith-based groups often place a high value on repairing and restoring difficult or broken relationships.

This goes double for the United Church, which is even more disposed towards inclusion, welcoming and understanding than most other denominations.

As for what’s behind the settlement, in the absence of any information there is lots of speculation.

Some are suggesting that it comes down to money — the Toronto Conference may not have the funds to fight an expensive case.

The issue of cost was hinted at by Vosper’s lawyer, Julian Falconer, who was quoted as saying “both parties took a long look at the cost-benefit at running a heresy trial and whether it was good for anyone (and) the results speak for themselves.”

Another idea that has come up is that by settling, the conference believes the issue will fade away. Pursuing the case would only turn the spotlight on Vosper for weeks or longer, giving her a bigger pulpit and prolonging the public relations problems for the church.

It has also been suggested the denomination feels this has gone on long enough, that it has bigger issues to focus its energies and limited funds on. This would include how it can be faithful to its own unique calling to bring hope and healing to a hurting world.

Looking at the situation, I have to think that although Vosper has taken things to the extreme by becoming an atheist minister, she is not alone. Many Christians today are asking deep questions about their faith and about God.

Some are expressing these doubts and asking questions quietly. A few, like Vosper, are doing so very publicly.

As for the United Church, members are divided about the decision. But one thing many seem to agree on is appreciation for how their denomination is willing to be open to all sorts of questions about how to be faithful in the world — even if that results in a situation like with Gretta Vosper.


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John Longhurst

John Longhurst
Faith reporter

John Longhurst has been writing for Winnipeg's faith pages since 2003. He also writes for Religion News Service in the U.S., and blogs about the media, marketing and communications at Making the News.

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