In late January I interviewed Gretta Vosper, the self-described “atheist minister” in the United Church of Canada, about the unexpected decision by that church not to hold a hearing about her suitability for ministry.
I wrote about that decision in the Winnipeg Free Press and also for Religion News Service in the U.S.
Since you can never say everything that needs to be said in a short article, below find a transcription of our conversation.
Were you surprised when you were offered the settlement?
Gretta: I was very surprised. We certainly didn't expect any action at that point of time. I was totally convinced that, barring some miraculous intervention, I would end up outside of the church. Every indication suggested that that what was going to happen.
On the first day [of the hearing] there was someone present who had been a mediator on a couple of previous occasions when we had tried to find a settlement. He sought permission to try to do that again prior to starting and a formal hearing panel. They agreed. He spent all day Monday [working at it].
I went home Monday night feeling it was entirely futile and a waste of time and energy. [When we] came back on Tuesday something had shifted. I'm not aware of what [it was]. My lawyer may know, but he hasn't disclosed that to me.
Were you surprised that all the charges were dropped?
Gretta: Yes. It was unexpected. There are a number of things that that the church has the power to do when someone has been through a disciplinary review. If that person is allowed to remain in their position, often there's a supervisor given to that person so there is an ongoing relationship for a period of time.
After [a period of time] there's another assessment of how the situation is going. That supervisor can lift that supervisory requirement. But they [the Toronto Conference] didn't even choose to do that.
John: So there is no monitoring?
Gretta: No. There’s no monitoring. And that surprised me as well. Because if the if the church felt that the positions that I was espousing in my congregation were antithetical to what the church does, then it would seem that they would want to have someone fairly close to me watching. But that was a choice they didn't make.
John: Why do you think the settlement was offered?
Gretta: Part of me thinks that it may have been simply that the church had been betting on my backing down because of the financial burden [the legal bills]. And so when we were there the first two days it was very, very clear we were going to go the full length.
My husband and I had talked about that. We understood the financial implications.
John: What have you paid in legal expenses?
Gretta: My legal fees have stretched to over $220,000. [Yet my husband and I] felt it was extremely important. So we decided to move forward. The Friends of Gretta Vosper [a fundraising initiative for her legal fees] was going to continue to fundraise.
We felt that even if there was an outcome that was not in our favor, it was important that the church go through that and make it very clear why [we were doing that].
John: Why do you feel so strongly about this?
Gretta: Everything I teach is consistent with the theological training that I received from the United Church [at Queens Theological College on the late 1980s]. I just simply choose to express it in a different way.
I choose to use everyday language in order to share my beliefs and to engage the congregation, rather than speaking in archaic theological terms and having to follow with a phrase about what I really mean when I use that word.
It shouldn't be surprising if an individual who's trained in the liberal church determines that that language is unhelpful and chooses to use different language. And that's really what we do.
I was taught the Bible was a human construction, and there is much wisdom in many texts, both ancient and contemporary.
We don't privilege that text [the Bible] anymore [and] suggest it has an authority beyond all other wisdom in the world. That's what I understood my theological training to be teaching me. I would not have been able to articulate that when I was at theological college, or even [for my first] few years in ministry.
But really that's the challenge. If the Bible is not the authoritative word of God for all time, why does it take such a central position in the church?
John: So in terms of the settlement, are there any terms or things you need to abide by or do?
Gretta: No. There are there are some things that were signed under a nondisclosure agreement, which was a challenging thing [for me] to do. Obviously, I'm not able to discuss those with you.
But there's nothing in that that influences what I am able to do, that has any impact on [my ministry]. I am able to function in ministry with all the rights and privileges that clergy have.
John: Why do you think the review was initiated?
Gretta: The review was instituted in 2015 because [the church worried] there was going to be a huge breach in the relationships that clergy have with one another, and that congregations [and individuals] have with the United Church, if I was allowed to stay.
John: What response have you heard to the decision?
Gretta: I'm aware of at least one individual who has challenged her congregation to consider ways to respond with vehemence against the decision. But I know there are . . . many who are relieved. There are many who will not say what their position is for fear of censure from the United Church.
John: It sounds like you see your battle almost as being a battle on behalf of all progressive clergy in the United Church. Is that the case?
Gretta: Yes. That's true. And that certainly was the impetus for carrying on . . . that ruling [against me, from the hearing] could have put all clergy at risk.
I think there has been a subtle steering of the denomination in a conservative direction that has been ongoing probably for the last 10 or 15 years. I think there are some things the United Church has done in the past [that are] at risk as a result of that.
The United Church generally has been a progressive church. So it's not that I'm fighting on behalf of a small group of people in that church. But that, you know, the social impact that the United Church has had around [things like] LGBTQ, a decision made so long ago, that led the church and also challenged communities around churches.
We've pushed policies around a number of things that put us on the cutting and sometimes leading edge of progressive thought in Canada, [things like] the conversation around Palestinians and the impact Israel and its policies has on those people—something some people call a slow genocide.
The United Church has made statements on that [issue] much to the distress of many of its partners and members. It has not not faltered in that work.
But if it has, unfortunately, privileged and protected a very conservative interpretation of doctrine. Certainly when I was at theological college that was not being taught.
I was one of the few in my year who actually had been raised with the new curriculum in the 1960s and so had never had a supernatural judging Father God and who had never believed that Jesus had died and risen to save me from m sins. I've never had any of that literal theology.
I was one of the few in my first year at the college who didn't have to have my entire conservative theology deconstructed so that it could be put back together in a in a much more contemporary way that was informed by critical scholarship.
I was fighting on behalf of that voice of the United Church.
John: You are known as the atheist Minister. Is that a moniker you chose for yourself or that has been applied to and how do you respond to it?
Gretta: Yes I did choose that myself. I took that label on and I was happy to do so. I was doing it within a theological milieu and I expected that my colleagues who are all theologically trained would understand what I meant by that. That proved not to be the case.
A lot of the negative commentary that takes place about me [comes] from colleagues who have chosen to interact exclusively with a caricature of who I am and what my beliefs are and who have never had a conversation with me or in fact read any of the things that I have written.
So they take that label in the most negative way that they possibly could and they express their ire in relation to that.
John: Do you think the Toronto Conference offered the settlement because they just wanted this whole thing to be over? After all, it would have generated more publicity that the Church may have wished to avoid.
Gretta: Yes, I think so. We had booked three weeks for the trial, so it would have been three weeks of daily engagement. Then the decision coming down would have made a big deal too.
John: How do you think others in the church view you through all of this?
Gretta: There is this big very big perception that I am constantly sending out press releases and trying to get media attention. I have not sent out press releases. I think my lawyer did a couple of times, including one about the settlement.
But all of the interviews that I have given have pretty much come as yours did, simply a request from someone who wants to know what is going on and share it with the people that they write for.
John: The United Church is not officially saying anything about the settlement to the media, except to acknowledge it happened.
Gretta: It confuses me a little bit that the United Church doesn't realize how important this is. Interest in church and religion is dwindling. [But then] the general media connects and says they want to talk about what it is that's going on. I think the United Church has had an opportunity to really engage media, but they haven’t.
I think the interest in what is happening could have been leveraged by the United Church in a very positive way, had they chosen to do that. This is a moment in the United Church's history when it has much to engage about, and they don't seem to have any sense of that.
John: Why did you stay in the church despite all of this?
Gretta: I still feel this is my denomination. This is my heritage and to refuse to allow me to participate and continue in ministry felt like a betrayal.
I wanted to clarify what it was I was doing. Unfortunately, the disciplinary review completely stifled any conversation about what it is we're doing at West Hill and why we're doing it.
And that's the important piece here. I want people to know what it is that we're doing, why we feel so passionate about it, why we think that it's so important, why we think it's the work that the United Church has to do, and [why it] is perfectly placed to do that work. [By] not doing that work it’s abdicated its responsibility.
I talk about it because I think what we do is crucial. I think it's significantly important and I think that if we had the opportunity to have a conversation with people [in the United Church across] Canada they would find a serious and significant avenue for the work they do to provide for the needs of a fast-growing sector of Canadians who currently have no community that replicates the kind of social well-being and social connections that the United Church [provides].