Athe­ist church min­is­ter keeps her job


TORONTO — A United Church min­is­ter who had faced an un­prece­dented ec­cle­si­as­ti­cal court hear­ing over her pro­fessed athe­ism is no longer in dan­ger of a de­frock­ing af­ter the two sides reached an agree­ment in the long-run­ning case.

In an un­ex­pected devel­op­ment this week, Rev. Gretta Vosper and the church set­tled ahead of what some had dubbed a “heresy trial,” leav­ing her free to min­is­ter to her east-end Toronto con­gre­ga­tion.

“It’s go­ing to be won­der­ful,” Vosper said in an in­ter­view Fri­day. “We’ll be out from un­der­neath that heavy cloud. Now we’ll be able to re­ally fly.”

The set­tle­ment, the terms of which are con­fi­den­tial, came dur­ing what was sup­posed to be a week of rou­tine pre­lim­i­nary mo­tions ahead of the full hear­ing later in the month.

The church did not im­me­di­ately re­spond to a re­quest for com­ment Fri­day but said in a state­ment that the for­mal hear­ing had been called off in light of the agree­ment, while the Right Rev. Richard Bott, who was elected in July to lead the United Church in Canada, said in a pub­lic mes­sage that he was pleased with the res­o­lu­tion.

At the same time, Bott ac­knowl­edged the con­tro­versy that has been swirling around Vosper and the church’s ini­tia­tive to fire her. In a mes­sage to ad­her­ents, Bott ref­er­enced the church’s core val­ues of faith in God and in­clu­sive­ness.

“The dance be­tween th­ese core val­ues, how they in­ter­act with and in­form each other, is one that we con­tinue to ex­plore as fol­low­ers of Je­sus and chil­dren of the cre­ator,” he said. “As a Chris­tian church, we con­tinue to ex­pect that min­is­ters in the United Church of Canada will of­fer their lead­er­ship in ac­cor­dance with our shared and agreed upon state­ments of faith.”

Vosper, 60, who was or­dained in 1993 and had served as min­is­ter of West Hill United Church since 1997, has been up­front about her athe­ism and non-be­lief in the Bible for years.

Most of her cur­rent con­gre­gants are sup­port­ive of her views but some have been crit­i­cal, say­ing her be­liefs are at fun­da­men­tal odds with the doc­trine and val­ues of the United Church, Canada’s sec­ond­largest re­li­gious de­nom­i­na­tion.

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.

Fol­low­ing com­plaints, the Toronto Con­fer­ence in­ter­view com­mit­tee con­ducted a re­view that found in a split de­ci­sion in 2016 that Vosper was un­suit­able to con­tinue in or­dained min­istry be­cause “she does not be­lieve in God, Je­sus Christ or the Holy Spirit.”

Vosper’s lawyer, Ju­lian Fal­coner, called it an im­por­tant day for the United Church that his client no longer was risk of sanc­tion.

“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,” Fal­coner said. “They rec­og­nized there’s a place for Gretta, and that there is no rea­son to sep­a­rate the min­is­ter and the con­gre­ga­tion.”

Vosper, who was al­lowed to keep her po­si­tion pend­ing out­come of the aborted hear­ing, is free to con­tinue her min­istry with­out any re­stric­tions. She calls her­self an athe­ist to de­scribe her non-be­lief in a the­is­tic, in­ter­ven­tion­ist, su­per­nat­u­ral be­ing called God.

Crit­ics have called it ap­palling that the church would al­low an athe­ist to stand in a pul­pit and not pro­claim the Gospel of Christ. Ei­ther way, Vosper said it has been a long road to clear­ing her name.

“There have been times of ela­tion when I have felt the in­cred­i­ble sup­port and en­ergy of that sup­port and love and af­fir­ma­tion from my con­gre­ga­tion and across the coun­try and around the world,” she said. “And there have been mo­ments of in­cred­i­ble de­spair.”


Rev. Gretta Vosper is seen at her West Hill United Church in 2015. An un­prece­dented ec­cle­si­as­ti­cal court hear­ing that could see the United Church de­frock a self-pro­fessed athe­ist min­is­ter who does not be­lieve in the Bible has been called off.

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