United Church of Canada Minister Requests Defrocking Over Possible Firing of Atheist Clergywoman

United Church of Canada minister Gretta Vosper. In 2013, Vosper officially came out to her congregation as an atheist.
United Church of Canada minister Gretta Vosper. In 2013, Vosper officially came out to her congregation as an atheist. | (Photo: Scott Kearns)

A retired clergywoman of the United Church of Canada has requested to be removed from the denomination's list of clergy over the Church's treatment of an openly atheist minister.

The denomination is in the process of possibly removing Gretta Vosper of West Hill United Church from her position as a minister due to her being an avowed atheist.

The Rev. Beverley Burlock, a classmate of Vosper's from Queen's Theological College, wrote an open letter requesting that she be defrocked in light of the effort to remove Vosper.

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Posted to Vosper's website last Thursday, the letter denounces the treatment Vosper has received over the past several months as the investigation into the effectiveness of her ministry continues.

"Never EVER was I subjected, in any of my pre-ordination interviews over the several years, to such an intensive and excessive interrogation as [Gretta] faced before the subcommittee, which basically amounted to a heresy trial," wrote Burlock.

"I did not become a minister who had to swear I believed in a list of set vows that were unalterable and infallible, and sign to that."

In addition to concerns over Vosper, Burlock added that she wanted to be removed from the list of clergy because she believed the Church was becoming too conservative.

"Ever since the later union with Evangelical United Brethren, it seems the United Church has been gradually slipping into a more conservative perspective," continued Burlock.

"We are no longer the open and exploring, the inclusive and progressive denomination we once were, emphasizing social justice issues, which drew so many people, including me, to it."

The lead pastor of West Hill United Church of Toronto, Ontario, in 2001 Vosper told her congregation that she was religiously skeptical and in 2013 officially came out as an atheist.

As a result, West Hill changed it order of worship, opting to remove the Lord's Prayer and most Bible reading from their services.

The Lord's Prayer has been replaced by an invocation called "As I Live," which was written by Vosper and West Hill Music Director Scott Kearns and lacks any mention of God or Heaven.

Despite the calls for greater inclusiveness, West Hill United Church has seen its membership decline considerably over the past several years.

According to the Rev. Alan Hall, executive officer of ministry and employment for the United Church of Canada, in 2000 West Hill had 324 members.

"The most recent membership statistics we have for West Hill United are for the year 2014. That membership number is 147," Hall told CP.

In response to her avowed disbelief in Christian teaching, in 2015 the United Church began an investigation into the effectiveness of Vosper's ministry.

If the Church concludes that Vosper is no longer effective as a minister, they will put her on the Discontinued Service List (Disciplinary), which is tantamount to being defrocked.

In September the Conference Interview Committee for the United Church's Toronto Conference ruled 19–4 that Vosper was "not suitable" to remain a minister.

"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," concluded the committee's majority.

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

Later that month, the sub-executive of Toronto Conference agreed with the recommendation of the committee to hold a formal hearing on Vosper's effectiveness, thus continuing the process that may lead to her defrocking.

"Ms. Vosper may remain in ministry at West Hill United Church, Toronto Southeast Presbytery, until the results of the formal hearing are known," noted the sub-executive.

"… until the results of the formal hearing are known, no call, appointment, or transfer for Ms. Vosper will be approved by Toronto Conference [and] no further restrictions will be placed on Ms. Vosper's functioning at this time."

A specific date for the formal hearing has not yet been set.

Follow Michael Gryboski on Facebook: michael.gryboski Follow Michael Gryboski on Twitter: MichaelGryboskiCP

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