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Hundreds attending United Church triennial general council in Newfoundland

TORONTO — Hundreds of people have been descending on Corner Brook, N.L., ahead of Saturday's opening of the United Church of Canada's triennial conference, which will elect a new spiritual leader and thrash out governance issues.

One hot issue that likely won't be debated beyond the hallways is whether Gretta Vosper, an avowed atheist, should be allowed to stay on as minister of her east-end Toronto church.

"That's at this point a local matter," Nora Sanders, general secretary of the general council, said in an interview.

"It's not something that the general council could deal with in any way."

Vosper, who is fighting a ruling by Sanders that lays out the process for reviewing whether she has violated her ordination vows, has raised eyebrows with her rejection of God and the Bible as a divine book.

The church's Toronto and Hamilton conferences proposed looking at the ordination process on the basis they don't reflect contemporary thinking, Vosper said.

"Whether that will get on the floor of general council is questionable," she said. "I don't know that it would be in their interests to begin a conversation like that."

The 42nd general council runs a week, with election of a new Moderator to take place Thursday and installation the day after.

Twelve candidates, four of them women, are in the running to replace the Right Rev. Gary Paterson, who said in a statement that he had spent several days earlier in the week at a retreat north of Corner Brook "in silence and in prayer" preparing for the conference.

Each candidate will get five minutes to make a formal pitch to voting members in addition to posting statements on the council website.

In all, 356 delegates called commissioners have the right to vote, while about 200 guests and observers will add to the crowd.

For the past three years, a task group has been consulting widely across the church — Canada's largest Protestant denomination and second-largest Christian faith community — about what changes are needed. The group's proposals and responses to them are up for debate.

A key recommendation among 190 proposals up for discussion is to move to three from four layers of governance, and have a bigger general council.

"We're looking to do major reforms of the structures of the church," Sanders said. "Instead of having people chosen from each region, every congregation would be entitled to send people."

Some voting delegates are young people, including 13 commissioners aged 18 and under who have been travelling the country on a pilgrimage since the beginning of July. They will report out on what they have heard about where the church needs to go.

Delegates will also be looking at proposals for mutual-recognition agreements and partnerships with similar-minded denominations in South Korea and the Philippines, as well as a "full-communion" agreement with the United Church of Christ in the U.S.

Colin Perkel, The Canadian Press

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