TORONTO - An unprecedented ecclesiastical court hearing that could see the United Church defrock a self-professed atheist minister who does not believe in the Bible has been postponed indefinitely.
The hearing on whether Gretta Vosper is suitable for the ministry — scheduled months ago — was to have taken place this month.
However, Vosper, who is the minister at West Hill United Church in Toronto's east end, recently received a letter informing her of the delay.
"It is now clear that the panel will not be established in time to hold the hearing on the dates that you are holding in November 2017," according to the church letter sent to her.
Acting on complaints about Vosper, a United Church reviewing panel in September last year recommended in a split decision that Vosper be defrocked for her beliefs. The hearing scheduled for this month was to make a final church decision on her fate.
Vosper, 59, who has been fighting to keep her job as a minister, said the church offered no reason in its letter for the delay, nor did it indicate when the hearing before a judicial committee might now take place. A church spokeswoman suggested the issue was, in part, logistical.
"I understand the judicial committee executive has not finalized dates for the hearing," Mary-Frances Denis said this week. "The parties are still working on a number of preliminary matters that need to be addressed, including finding dates that would accommodate everyone's schedules."
Vosper, however, wondered whether the problem runs deeper than a scheduling issue.
Under laws governing the church's court system, she said, a hearing is supposed to mirror the civil courts in providing an impartial forum. Given the charged nature of the proceedings against her, Vosper questioned whether that would be possible.
"I do think that it will be a challenge for them to put together an unbiased committee as they are required to do in order to meet the standard set by the civil courts," Vosper said. "Even if they were to find a United Church member who had never heard of me, as soon as the issues were shared, the individual would very likely have a strong opinion."
The minister, who was ordained in 1993 and joined her West Hill congregation in 1997, has been upfront about her beliefs for years. Most of her current congregants are supportive of her views but some church members have been critical, saying her beliefs are at fundamental odds with United Church doctrine and values.
The Toronto Conference interview committee, which conducted the review on Vosper, deemed her unsuitable to continue in ordained ministry because "she does not believe in God, Jesus Christ or the Holy Spirit." However, a four-person minority on the 23-member committee disagreed, saying the church had always adapted to meet the spiritual needs of its members and that Vosper's unorthodox views were shared by others.
While the saga unfolds, Vosper said she and other West Hill members have been travelling across Canada to talk to other United Church members and adherents. The response, she said, has been welcoming.
"Each has been rich and rewarding for all who have participated, and has allowed West Hill's people to share their perspective about what it is we do," Vosper said. "That has been very good."