Rev Gretta Vosper doesn't believe in God, Jesus or Bible: Church panel says enough is enough

Rev Gretta Vosper is an atheist but leads West Hill United Church in Toronto, Canada.

Atheist pastor Gretta Vosper should be dismissed from ministry in the United Church of Canada, a Church committee has decided.

The saga has been going on for quite a long time. The minister of West Hill church in Toronto, she said in 2001 she didn't believe in a supernatural, interventionist, divine being". The UCC, extremely relaxed about doctrinal issues, was OK with this until in 2013 she declared herself an actual atheist.

The panel appointed to hear her case reported exhaustively on what she believed (not much) and concluded, rather drily given the drama of the situation: "Therefore, the Conference Interview Committee recommends that the sub-Executive of Toronto Conference request that the General Council conduct a formal hearing to consider whether to place the name of Rev Gretta Vosper on the Discontinued Service List (Disciplinary)."

It was, however, a majority decision and the views of the dissenting minority were recorded as well. Their argument was that doctrine develops, UCC theology should be a big tent, and that: "By presenting a faith with much of the traditional structure removed, Ms Vosper is appealing to those who are part of the 'spiritual but not religious' group who define their religion as 'none'."

To a large extent, of course, it's entirely up to the UCC who it chooses to recognise as a minister. But there are surely some basic beliefs to which anyone who aspires to that office needs to subscribe. Belief in God is the main one of these. Vosper is clear that she doesn't, and that there is "no reason to remain aligned with a doctrine that does not fit the contemporary and ever-evolving scientific understandings of the universe or ethical perspectives on human dignity and rights". Furthermore, she said that "even if she were given incontrovertible proof that a god does or gods do exist, the evidence of the cruel and capricious realities of disparity, tragedy, illness, and anguish in the world, and the truth that our world and our experience of it is wrapped not only in beauty but also in excruciating pain, would prevent her from worshipping it or pledging her allegiance to it, no matter the cost".

There is much more of the same. Moral codes are socially constructed. Jesus was "an itinerant Middle Eastern preacher who managed to engage a group of people who were looking for the same things". There's no Holy Spirit at all. Prayer at her church is called "community sharing": "For example, a person may say that they are concerned about X. The congregation will respond, "May love abound." The Bible isn't inspired (there's no one to inspire it). She said the whole disciplinary process was flawed and invited the committee to decline to participate in it; they declined to decline.

There are, perhaps, three questions that arise from all of this. First, why is she so keen to remain a minister? The answer seems to be that whatever her hostility to many elements of her faith tradition, she still values it for the sense of spiritual community it provides. That this spirituality has no anchor in any objective truth doesn't seem to matter. You can have a godless church and a faithless faith, she thinks, which cherry-picks the best of your religion while avoiding the inconvenience of thinking any of it is really true.

Second, why has it taken so long for the UCC to act? Her views have been well known for a long time. It only took action when in 2015 the Toronto Conference received letters and emails urging that it take notice of the fact that one of its ministers was an atheist. But her ecclesiastical superiors have known exactly what she thought for ages. She has an active blog and is a prolific speaker and author. The suspicion has to be that they were hoping the problem would go away.

Third, how much do you have to believe in order to be a minister – or a Christian? That, of course, is the $64,000 question. No one, if they are wise, would like to see heresy-hunts in any denomination, in which any departure from what's regarded as orthodoxy is met with punishment. But any Church – and any membership organisation – has a right to decide that someone's views have departed so far from its own that it no longer makes sense for them to identify as a member. That's what the UCC, eventually decided in the case of Gretta Vosper.