A retired United Church minister has asked to be formally defrocked as a protest against the potential firing of a colleague for her atheist beliefs.
In a scorching open letter, Rev. Beverley Burlock asserts the church has lost its way, and its treatment of Toronto minister Gretta Vosper shameful.
Vosper is due to face an ecclesiastical court hearing – date to be determined – that could see her dismissed after a subcommittee denounced her views as extreme.
"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," Burlock, of Port Mouton, N.S., says in her letter.
"Gretta is being treated the same as the 'religious authorities' of his day treated Jesus, who called them out on putting law over compassion."
Burlock says she can no longer stay silent when her colleague is being abandoned and hung out to dry like a "sacrificial lamb."
United Church officials did not immediately say what they planned to do with Burlock's request – another sign that the proceedings against Vosper have caused a deep rift in Canada's second largest religious denomination.
Vosper, 58, was ordained in 1993 and became spiritual leader at West Hill United Church in 1997. She has been the focus of an unprecedented church review of her fitness to be a minister in light of her atheism, disavowal of the Bible and rejection of the concept of God. Her congregation has been resolute in supporting her – as have others across the country.
In a letter last week to the church's moderator, Rev. Jordan Cantwell, more than two dozen current and former ministers from eastern Canada urged an end to the proceedings against Vosper.
"To remove her on the grounds of her beliefs would not only ignore and offend her very obviously effective leadership, it would offend our tradition of heterodoxy and inclusion, and send a chilling message to our progressive colleagues all across the church," they write.
They also ask for their letter to be shared with the judicial committee that will hear the case against Vosper.
Church spokeswoman, Mary-Frances Denis, said the letter would not be forwarded to the committee because the panel must deal only with arguments put forward by Vosper and the Toronto Conference and not the opinions of those seeking to influence the outcome of the case.
For her part, Burlock maintains the issue goes beyond how Vosper is being treated.
The United Church, she argues, is stagnating, becoming more closed minded. When former moderator Bill Phipps said Jesus was not divine, she writes, the ensuing consternation did not lead to an "inquisition or defrocking."
"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."