Ottawa — The Rev. Gretta Vosper is a dynamic, activist minister with a loyal following at her Protestant congregation in suburban Toronto. She is also an outspoken atheist.
“We don’t talk about God,” Vosper said in an interview, describing services at her West Hill United Church, adding that it’s time the church gave up on “the idolatry of a theistic god.”
Vosper’s decision to reject God, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit and to turn her church into a haven for nonbelievers “looking for a community that will help them create meaningful lives without God” has become too much even for the liberal-minded United Church of Canada.
The United Church, the country’s largest Protestant denomination, has begun an extraordinary process that could end up stripping Vosper of her rights to continue as a minister.
Last week, a special committee of the Toronto Conference of the United Church requested that a formal hearing be convened by the General Council of the United Church to determine her fate as a minister. That followed a review of Vosper’s actions by a separate committee.
“In our opinion, she is not suitable to continue in ordained ministry because she does not believe in God, Jesus Christ or the Holy Spirit. 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,” the committee said in a report released recently.
Ordained in 1993, the 58-year-old Vosper says she began questioning God’s existence 15 years ago and openly came out as an atheist in 2013.
Vosper said that the United Church has a tradition of “pushing the envelope” and pulling down barriers — in accepting the ordination of women, embracing the LGBT community and performing same-sex marriage. She said her views about religion have evolved. After initially rejecting the idea of a supernatural god and the idea of god as “the father,” she moved eventually to rejecting God completely. Instead, she preaches values, including justice, compassion and love.
Vosper’s congregants have been supportive, but she admits to be at the receiving end of an outpouring of “anger and vitriol” from her fellow clergy and other United Church members on social media.
“My understanding is that the United Church of Canada is a Christian church based on the teachings of Jesus Christ,” Pamella Fell wrote on a United Church website. “Why, why, why is she still in the United Church if she isn’t a Christian?”
“I don’t understand in the least why someone who doesn’t accept the basic beliefs of our church would fight to remain,” added Avis Michalovsky.
And there has been sarcasm as well. “Churches are ipso facto in the God business,” wrote Rosie DiManno, a columnist with the Toronto Star. “To deny God’s existence logically means you’re in the wrong business. Like Bill Gates swearing on a stack of handwritten computer code. Or Alcoholics Anonymous hosting a pub crawl.”
Like other mainstream denominations, the United Church of Canada, founded in 1925 as a merger of several denominations, has seen its numbers fall sharply in recent years. It reported having 436,292 members at the end of 2014, less than half the 1,063,951 it had at its peak in 1964. But a spokeswoman notes that the Canadian census of 2011, which has a broader definition, counted more than 2 million “adherents” of the United Church.
“It’s become a question of the church’s public integrity,” the Rev. Don Schweitzer, a professor of theology at St. Andrew’s College in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, and editor of a history of the United Church, said of the dispute with Vosper. “It’s tough on the United Church because we’ve created this mantra of inclusiveness and now it’s been tested. It goes against the grain to tell somebody that you have to leave.”
Schweizer said there is lots of room to express doubt in the church but “doubt is one thing, and declaring yourself an atheist is another.”
If in the end, if the church declares her unsuitable to continue as a minister, Vosper indicated that she’ll leave the United Church — and she thinks many of her congregants will come along.
“I am not interested in remaining in a church that won’t accept me,” she said.