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Atheist minister moves closer to defrocking as formal hearing requested

Rev. Gretta Vosper is seen at her West Hill United Church in Toronto on Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2015.


A United Church minister has moved one step closer to potentially losing her job over her avowed atheism and disavowal of the Bible.

In a decision released Thursday, the sub-executive of the Toronto Conference said it would request a formal hearing on whether Gretta Vosper should be defrocked.

Questions about whether she should be allowed to remain as minister have to be answered, the sub-executive said even as it deplored the divisive nature of the debate and expressed sorrow at the "vitriol" directed at those involved in trying to get those answers.

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"The debate about Ms. Vosper and her statements has been a catalyst for much discussion within the United Church and in places outside the church," the sub-executive said in a statement. "There is no unanimity in the church about what to do."

The decision by the sub-executive comes on the recommendation of a hearing panel, which found in a split decision that Vosper was not suitable to continue as a minister in the church given her theological beliefs.

For the time being, Vosper, 58, keeps her position at West Hill United Church in Toronto's east end and no restrictions are being placed on her.

In a statement in response Thursday, Vosper also noted how divisive the process has been.

"In spite of the many letters of support and concern about this process, the sub-executive has continued down a path that can only result in division," Vosper said.

The minister recently told The Canadian Press that she intended to hang on to her job as long as possible.

Vosper continues to enjoy strong support from her congregation, which said it would continue to stand by her.

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"This decision means that the covenant between a congregation and their minister of choice can be interfered with by church courts," Randy Bowes, chairman of West Hill's board, said in a statement. "West Hill is saddened by this result. We continue to express our support for Gretta throughout this difficult process."

The sub-executive acknowledged that support, saying it had received correspondence and a petition urging the church to take no action against her but also said others did want the church to act.

Some comments made on the conference website showed the depth of feelings some members of the church have on the issue.

"I wonder why our church is unwilling to stand up for the traditions and values that has led us since Jesus walked the earth with us," said Rev. Bill Jones in one post. "I am ashamed of the United Church throwing everything away that has been the basis of our faith by allowing an atheist to stand in a pulpit and not proclaim the Gospel of Christ."

Vosper was ordained in 1993 and became minister at West Hill in 1997. She has made no bones about her unorthodox views, describing herself an atheist as a way of describing her non-belief in a theistic, interventionist, supernatural being called god.

In an unprecedented report two weeks ago, a reviewing panel said she would not now be ordained given her extreme beliefs.

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"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 said in its report.

"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 United Church is Canada's second largest religious denomination.

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