How Gretta's ministry became grounds for a legal battle
The steps that have led to The United Church of Canada (UCC) requiring Gretta's ministry be officially reviewed to determine her effectiveness are complicated and have a lot to do with the United Church as a denomination. Here is a brief, or relatively brief, summary.
This April, the Executive Secretary of Toronto Conference, David Allen, and the Personnel Minister, Dale Hildebrand, requested a meeting with Gretta to inform her that concerns about her theological stance had come to the Executive of Conference at its April meeting.* David noted that the only two reasons for reviewing a minister in the UCC - matters of effectiveness in ministry and failure to submit to the authority of Presbytery - had been discussed by the Executive but that neither case gave them grounds to review her. Nevertheless, the desire to review her based on her theological position was so great that the committee voted unanimously to ask the General Secretary of the General Council, the church's highest executive staff, to create a process that would enable them to do so, directing the General Secretary to focus specifically on the questions of ordination.
Within a fortnight, the General Secretary ruled that in order for ministers to be effective, they needed to continue to be suitable. That sounds logical; however suitability in the UCC is something determined by congregations and committees prior to an individual's ordination or commissioning and after careful consideration of a candidate's understanding of ministry and, sometimes but not always, interpretation of doctrine. Any doctrinal questions asked seek to determine whether the candidate is in essential agreement with UCC doctrinal statements. (Yes, it's complicated - there is a lot of background history in the UCC related to "essential agreement". We'll post a link to that soon.)
The Sub-Executive of Toronto Conference met a week after the ruling came from the General Council office. With six people in attendance, only four of whom were eligible to vote, the decision to review Gretta's effectiveness based on the new interpretation was passed unanimously.
Why this review poses a bigger risk to the UCC than Gretta ever could
No UCC minister, once ordained or commissioned, has ever been questioned as to their suitability apart from, as noted above, effectiveness of his or her ministry, compliance with Presbytery, or criminal activity which, in truth, would likely come under "effectiveness". The General Secretary's argument was, however, that if the minister was no longer in continuing affirmation of the questions asked at his or her ordination, he or she could no longer be deemed suitable and, if not suitable, then certainly not effective. In essence, she interpretted the existing grounds for review, stretching them to cover what it was Toronto Conference Executive wanted to do: review Gretta based on her theological beliefs.
This new interpretation of "effectiveness" actually places all ministers within the UCC under perpetual theological scrutiny by requiring that they be in ongoing affirmation of the questions of ordination. Specifically, that means defining God as "Father, Son, and Holy Spirit." Severed from the discernment of committees and congregations within which a candidate's beliefs are considered and interpretted, it will be difficult to discuss them in any manner other than as the literal questions they pose. This challenge will place a significant a stumbling block before clergy who interpret god metaphorically, something previously celebrated and nurtured within the United Church. It will certainly keep conversations about critical, contemporary scholarship where they have been vibrantly engaged for over a century: behind closed doors or within the halls of academia. Cergy who share critical, contemporary scholarship of any kind with their congregations may find themselves in a small room before a review committee answering questions about what he or she believes.
How things got ugly
Gretta has long urged denomination-wide discussions related to concepts of God, theology, language, an beliefs, opportunities for learning and growth. She has written two books on her views and spoken nationally and internationally, applauding the UCC's courage on justice issues across the spectrum and its openness to dialogue, inclusiveness, and respect. As this review process began, she repeatedly argued for it to be held in a collegial manner, refusing intervention that might, in any way, compromise the possibility of a result that would affect her, West Hill, and the denomination positively.
At no time prior to the Executive meeting in April did the UCC officially question her, object to her message, or indicate in any way that she was "out of line".** In keeping with her faith in the UCC's sense of respect and natural justice, Gretta and her lawyer sought an alternate dispute resolution process - one which she hoped might result in broad discussion across the UCC. However, one of the two lawyers retained by the UCC (one to represent Toronto Conference and one to represent General Council), informed Gretta's lawyer that they would not participate in such a conversation. Gretta is deeply saddened by this decision as it contradicts her understanding and previous experience of the UCC as a denomination committed to openness, acceptance, discussion, and respect.
We call it a line in the sand, something that West Hill has so often described as a divisive element within religion, particularly evident when faith traditions rely on doctrine to determine who belongs and who doesn't. In order to engage the widest possible audience, we are sharing this background with you and inviting you to participate as you feel inspired to do.
This is where you come in
Friends of Gretta Vosper Association
A small group of supporters, in response to the UCC's line in the sand, have brought together some of the ways you can be involved.
The Friends of Gretta Vosper Association
The primary purpose of the The Friends of Gretta Vosper Association is “to raise funds to cover Gretta Vosper’s costs as a direct result of the United Church of Canada’s review”** but we have other options for those of you who are unable to help in that area. A Facebook page - Friends of Gretta Vosper - has been set up to provide more information and direct you to a fundraising site to make a donation.
Letter Writing, Social Media, and West Hill
A no less important goal than raising funds is raising awareness of the situation and engaging those who support the work that Gretta is doing with West Hill. Please see these other pages for information on other ways of influencing the outcome of this review and the work we are doing together.
Thank you for participating in this unprecedented struggle. Your support is enormously appreciated.
*The letter to which David Allen drew the Executive Committee's attention came from a congregation within the same presbytery as West Hill. There was no call to action in the letter and Gretta was not named. It requested information on the breadth of belief tolerated in the United Church and (erroneously) noted West Hill's atheistic beliefs as one example. West Hill has invited that congregation to a conversation and we hope it will be an opportunity for vibrant discussion.
**In 2005, when a colleague attempted to initiate a hearing into her beliefs, the Presbytery defeated the motion. Gretta has not been the subject of any further actions since that time although a challenge initiated in a neighbouring conference died before actually getting to the court.
***The major costs that will and have already accrued are the fees associated with legal representation. Please note, these donations are not being made to West Hill United and are not eligible as charitable donations for income tax purposes.