Last week, a government official in Malaysia urged citizens to “vehemently” hunt down young atheists whose pictures appeared on social media. They were members of the Atheist Republic whose founder, Armin Navabi, has provided a service to over a million subscribers who find inspiration and connection through his posts and encouragement. In a world where non-believers too often find themselves isolated and silenced, Navabi has created something extraordinary. The young Malaysians in the photo had gathered to celebrate the connection freedom from religion too often removes. They are now in great peril.
So I did what I do. I wrote a letter to our own government officials, the Honourable Chrystia Freeland, Minister of International Affairs, and local MPs and post it here so that you might copy what you can and urge your own officials to speak out against this dangerous situation in time to stave off the kind of bloodbaths that have stained the streets of Bangladesh, Saudi Arabia ….. You can find your Canadian Member of Parliament here.
Dear Ms. Freeland,
I write with deep concern for atheists and secular humanists in Malaysia. Recently, whether intentionally or otherwise, one of Malaysia’s Government Ministers, Shahidan Kassim, who is reported to be close to the Malaysian Prime Minister, incited extremists to violence against atheists, secular humanists, and ex-Muslims by challenging Malaysians to hunt them down “vehemently” and return them to the Islamic faith.
The statement from the government official was to a photograph of several young people who are members of a Facebook group, The Atheist Republic. They had gathered together to meet one another and build friendships. It was a casual and friendly gathering and, as so often happens when joy is present, photographs were taken and posted to social media.
The founder of the Facebook group is Armin Navabi, copied on this letter. He is a friend and an ex-Muslim who lives in British Columbia. Subsequent to the posting of the photograph, Armin has been the subject of threats, including a call for his beheading. Others have called for the burning alive of the members of The Atheist Republic pictured in the photograph.
In 2013, Bangladesh, despite its status as a secular state, refused to placate extremists calling for the execution of secular humanists, instead choosing to label them atheists and further incite hatred against them. In 2015, Avijit Roy was murdered by machete-wielding attackers while in Dhaka for a book fair. The editor and publisher of Avijit’s book, The Philosophy of Atheism, were both subsequently murdered. Avijit’s co-author, Raihan Abir, is a good friend. He was recognized as a refugee by the Canadian government in 2015. He and his family are now helping grow Canada and make it a better place.
The congregation I serve has received permission to bring to Canada as a refugee a Bangladeshi atheist and his family. We chose this family because the father’s photograph has been so widely distributed across Bangladesh and elsewhere that he cannot be seen outside of the place he now hides, fearing for his life. The photograph of the happy gathering of atheists in Malaysia will be used to imperil their lives and to “hunt them down vehemently” as Minister Kassim has urged Malaysian citizens to do. All their lives are now in grave danger.
We cannot stand idly by and watch Malaysia become another Bangladesh, indifferent to or even supportive of the murder of atheists and secular humanists. Canada has had a long and friendly relationship with Malaysia, dating back to the earliest days of that country’s founding. We continue to build on our sixty year history and share our Canadian values within our relationship. Those values include the protection of marginalized groups and advocacy for religious freedoms. The right to refuse religion, the freedom from religion must be just as strongly defended as the right to believe.
I urge you to reach out to Malaysia’s Prime Minister, Najib Razak, and remind him of his democratic obligations to protect all Malaysians, regardless of their religious beliefs or lack thereof. I urge you also to request that he publicly and swiftly denounce the words of Minister Kassim before they are used to spread fear, sanction violence, or lead to the murder of innocent civilians.
Thank you for continuing to be a voice for responsible leadership around the world.
In September 2015, The United Church of Canada and the United Church of Christ celebrated together in a service recognizing their intentions to work toward a shared future through what is called “shared communion.” The service culminated a long engagement of respect and dialogue both denominations had shared and brought them together in a worshipping community for the first time.
Although the Niagara Bible Conference disbanded in 1899, its influence has lingered in Protestant Christianity, and indeed, across all religious traditions since for it was out of these gatherings that the five fundamental beliefs of Christianity were articulated. Believing that 19th century theologians had grossly misinterpreted Christianity’s basic tenets, dispensationalists from the Conference, along with others, stated five principles that were non-negotiable.
The inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture
The deity of Jesus Christ
The virgin birth of Christ
The substitutionary, atoning work of Christ on the cross
The physical resurrection and the personal bodily return of Christ to the earth.
Since that time, the use of the word “fundamentalist” or “fundamentalism” has referred to a refusal of contemporary influences on the interpretation of beliefs not only in Christianity but in other religions as well. Indeed, it is often used to refer to the most basic beliefs within a variety of disciplines.
At the gathering, the community shared a statement in unison that was crafted from statements from both The United Church of Canada and the United Church of Christ. “That All May Be One” welded together the high ideals of each body. In doing so, parts of one were poetically paired with parts from the other, creating a liturgical piece which celebrated their common beliefs. It would have been anathema to those who had gathered there some hundred and twenty years before, strengthened in the fundamentalist beliefs they embraced a their conferences.
But the statement created by the two denominations remained decidedly embedded in doctrinal beliefs both denominations recognized. Another way of celebrating our companionship on the journey might have been the values by which the two denominations choose to live, values that are almost exactly aligned and that refuse to discriminate based on doctrinal belief.
While at Chautauqua Institution this summer, acting as Chaplain for the United Church of Christ denominational house, I considered using “That All May Be One” and so downloaded it from the internet. But as I read it again, I realized that its doctrinal statements would not be embraced by a growing number of people in the generations already so ignored by the institutional church. So I worked on it for a time and produced a piece that I believe is ultimately more inclusive as it speaks to the values that are held by people of goodwill, regardless of what their doctrinal beliefs, or lack thereof, might be.
I share it with you today in the hopes that it, too, might edify the deepening relationship between our two denominations. As we journey forward toward a shared future, I know that, for many, the values we share may resonate more deeply than our beliefs. Those values, however, are not reflected in traditional articulations of Christianity so I have refocused the statement for the purpose of finding a shared future that is inclusive of all.
Ah, we are here.
We come into this place together
to challenge one another
to bear the cost and know the joys of love:
to celebrate its presence;
to live with respect in creation;
to become love
in the service of others,
in the pursuit of justice,
and the resistance of evil;
to recognize our humanity
and celebrate it at our table;
to see love and loss in one another’s eyes,
and by them,
to be both convicted and freed.
May love bind us to one another
so we might better serve the world.
As one, we proclaim:
We are not alone,
for we journey together
in the spirit of love.
A chasm of distrust lies wedged between religious and secular world views, preventing meaningful dialogue and sustainable engagement. Often, those who make the journey from religion to secularism are scathing in their indictment of those left behind. Drew Bekius refuses that course. The story around which he built his life crashes around him with cinematic drama. But standing in the wreckage, he draws on a strength of commitment he learns is all his own, and turns it to the work of building dialogue. In an extraordinary offering, Bekius invites those on both sides of the chasm to find their way toward one another and as they do so, to build an alternative to rancour and path toward understanding.
So Many Stories
I have read my share of deconversion stories over the past decade, almost all of them written by men, and most of those long retired. Some served the church through long and well-respected ministries while others wandered the edges of religious belief, poking at it over the years, alone on their journeys of discovery.
Liberal clergy rarely write these books. Their theological education opened them to the world beyond the literal before they ever stepped into their first pulpit. But those who put their stories down on paper wrestle with the dissonance that scorched their ministry, impugned their integrity and left them scarred by sadness, confusion, and anger. Their writing is an exorcism of sorts, naming the betrayals of the wider church, naming, too, the betrayals of their own lack of courage. Such stories are hard to read.
The liberal, mainline deconversions of the laity aren’t usually labelled as such. Their authors labour, instead, over the task of mythologizing a story they were taught was true. The process of their exploration often allows them to remain within their homes of faith. Their books are filled with references to progressive authors who invited them to question and search: John Shelby Spong, the late Marcus Borg, Elaine Pagels, Karen Armstrong, and Bart Ehrmann. Their losses add up to a few good hymns, a sacrament here or there, and the complacent ignorance that might once have soothed them through the Sunday morning services they attended.
Evangelicals who walk the deconversion path, however, have no patience with the texts that have betrayed them. They eschew the liberal taste for myth and soar completely free of religion’s ancient bonds. But their stories often sting with anger and betrayal, their fury unleashed against a belief system they now label as a sham. Whether having served as pastors or offered their talents for the building up of the faith, they reject the Christian story vehemently, finding in it nothing of redemption and only the emptiness of lies exposed. The losses these authors have accounted are wives and children, communities and livelihoods. They have been stripped of more than most liberals could every imagine and paid a cost that has been dear.
I have never blogged about any of these stories or books. The work of reading them has been labour enough for me. Perhaps the stories have been too personal. Or, despite the isolation out of which they each were written, too similar, too routine, even, for me to believe they might be of interest to my readers.
At first glance, you might think the story has the same features of every other deconversion story. It is saturated with the personal. It follows a familiar path, worn by those who have shared their coming out of faith with me before; it is not extraordinary in its features though the crash and burn is both dramatic and entire. Nor is it beyond what I consider a routine telling of the process of deconversation, the ignored questions, the background noise, the moment of awareness, the heavy burden of doubt, and the freedom that comes when belief is finally dislodged. It is a story that, like all the others, is a story of betrayal and loss. It is a story, like all the others, of coming to know and honour oneself. It is a story, like all the others, that tells of the path that leads away from the magical thinking of faith.
But it is a different story because it isn’t a simple monologue. Drew’s story is an invitation to dialogue. And that makes all the difference.
An Invitation to Dialogue
We have been living in a world divided for a very long time. Many of us remained ignorant of that until we woke up early in November to a new reckoning: a morning that captivated our attention, dragging us beyond our disbelief into a shocked and frightened awareness. Over the course of a brutal campaign, divisiveness had been honed as the weapon of choice and the new order had played it well. Those of us who believed in engagement, consensus, and human dignity as a right, were caught off guard, unable to come to terms with the new reality that anger had created, its power the added thrust needed to win.
Much of the divisiveness that won over the American people was rooted in a world that is fast-disappearing: the world of white, male, evangelical privilege. Those who had been feeling the loss of that privilege prevailed, bludgeoning social democracy with vitriol and derision and pointing to the many groups it was too easy to blame: immigrants, Muslims, women, established politicians. Clear these out of the way and American would be great again. How very short-sighted. How very wrong.
In response, the world turned out to stage the largest protest ever seen against the intertwined threats to human rights that evangelicalism and wealth might prove to be. Millions walked in groups as large as hundreds of thousands and as small as a dozen, a demonstration of solidarity that wrapped the globe in pink and power. It bridged division. It united the world.
Drew Bekius, Author, Humanist Coach
I don’t believe you can read Drew’s book of deconversion without feeling his devotion to his craft, to telling the story of faith, to the guidance of those who looked to him for encouragement and leadership. He was a man who worked at perfecting his ministry in every way possible. And he was a man who demanded much of himself and his faith, challenging himself to walk just another step with a devotion he was sure would bring him closer to his Lord. And finally, he is a man committed to unravelling his life, to doing the crash and burn with a flourish, who is able to finally walk away both cleaner and stronger for his failure.
Amidst the unfolding of his story of deconversion, Drew calls us to a conversation, ending each chapter with questions framed for discussion: questions for evangelicals; questions for secular humanists; questions for both those groups to explore together. He has emerged from one world into the other but his love for the people of both remains strong. There is no derision here. There is no arrogant leave-taking. There is only honesty and a call to conversation. It is a call we are desperate for and his book arrives at a critical moment in our history.
Healing the world.
The work of tikkun olam, healing the world, is ours to do. It has been, in the Jewish tradition of its roots, traditionally the work of women who bring the ravaged back into wholeness with the lighting of the Sabbath candles. But here, in Drew’s book, it becomes a work we can all engage because it starts with a conversation, with the calling together of mutually exclusive perspectives, of two world views that have only ever seemed to wish to annihilate each other. Drew challenges us to risk the failure, the divisiveness, the arrogance of our own perspectives and the arrogance of those of others. He does so because he has given his own life, his comfort, his world view, and his belief for this greater faith in the conversation and the people we might yet become.
Statistics always captivate me. The results of polls, the research that is conducted, its interpretation, and the ways in which we respond to the findings – all fascinating. I aced my stats class at university despite not knowing where the exam was held because I’d never been to a class. It’s all in the tools, really, and I had an amazing calculator that did all the work for me, even way back when.
I’m at the Chautauqua Institution at the invitation of the United Church of Christ’s denominational house to serve as a Chaplain for the week. This is the fifteenth summer that I’ve had the privilege of being at Chautauqua for a week but the first time as a chaplain. Scott and I were married here in 2003 and have come every year since. It’s where the larger portions of both my books have been written, the writing, editing, and proof-reading taking place in consecutive summers.
Every week has a theme and this week’s was “Crisis of Faith?” For months, I’ve looked forward to hearing religious leaders and secularists discuss the sociological phenomena related to the rise of the Nones, the demise of mainline Christianity, and the pending implosion of evangelical Christianity which, too, has seen significant decline in numbers for the past couple of decades.
Crisis of Faith??????
As the speakers and topics were announced, however, it seemed that the question mark was being given more weight than the crisis. Several topics, while identifying concerns, seemed to suggest that religion, especially Christianity and Judaism, is doing just fine. So I was relieved to see Jones and Cooperman on the schedule since, I believed, their perspectives would surely help those who visit Chautauqua – an older, predominantly white, Christian crowd who has welcomed John Spong, Marcus Borg, Elaine Pagels and most other progressive Christian thinkers and authors – come to grips with the proverbial writing on the wall.
Robert P. Jones
Jones was dead on. He spoke about the year that went down like no one but Donald Trump could have possibly predicted and shared his analysis of the polls and research the PRRI had done both before the election and following its cataclysmic result. It was a pleasure hearing him. Which was all I could do; I was seated behind a four foot diameter pillar where the sound system could find me but visuals were impossible. The Hall of Philosophy seats about 500 while over three times that often arrive to hear the gifted speakers slated by the Religion Department.
When Jones was finished, it was clear that many had sat long enough on the hard benches of the Hall of Philosophy and as they made their way out, I scored a seat with a view for Cooperman’s lecture. Woohoo!
Cooperman’s statistics were just as interesting as Jones’. He noted several times that he “had no dogs in the game,” a dispassion required for a researcher who doesn’t want to skew the data. I was glad to hear that, since I had sometimes wondered how Pew Research addressed the inevitable problem of bias.
But as he spoke, I sensed a bias toward religion seeping in. Of course, speakers often take the temperature of a crowd or consider who it is to whom we are speaking when we prepare our remarks. Cooperman clearly thought he knew his audience so it may be that he was simply speaking to them as he referenced Robert Putnam’s American Grace to remind us that religious people volunteer more, care more for their neighbours, donate more, and vote more regularly. Overall, they are better citizens. In light of this, there is a grave danger inherent in the rise of the Nones, Cooperman warned, because the Nones won’t care for their communities in the way that religious people do.
Cooperman noted a few of the organizations he believes are addressing the needs of the Nones. Crossfit and Soul Cycle work hard to let their paying members know how important they are. The Laundry Project in Tampa sends its members out to laundromats to offer families a little time by doing their laundry for them or taking care of their children. And he referenced a Bishop in Florida who had created an “End of life planner” for congregations so that they won’t waste all their resources on the last few years of their lives as we humans so often do. But he neglected to mention secular movements like the Oasis Network which are doing the very real and important work of creating communities in which the well-being of the Nones is cared for and nourished.
At the beginning of his presentation, Cooperman had taken an unnecessary shot at Jones when he declared there is no such thing as a “white Christian America” and that the people Jones had surveyed were too diverse to be considered a single group. Maybe that’s what originally raised my hackles. But his remarks about Nones, the largest and fastest growing “religious” demographic in the States, made it clear that he, himself, was more than comfortable casting them as a single monolithic group.
In a way, he is right. The demographic has only recently emerged. It takes awhile to get a feel for who any new group is – what they are like, how they are different, what many iterations of them exist and how they interact both within the demographic and with groups outside of it. The internal diversity of the Nones has yet to be delineated let alone studied.
More Research Necessary
But he was oh so wrong, too. After failing to answer my question about whether the liberal church had abdicated its responsibility to those it had educated beyond belief, Cooperman was asked who the “gods” of the Nones were. With a shrug of his shoulders, he replied, “Shopping.”
[Tweet “The Director of Pew Research suggests shopping is the god of the Nones. Time for more research.]
There may be Nones whose god is shopping. There may well be a statistically significant number of Nones who get their best rush and biggest affirmations at the mall. But there are many Christians whose god is shopping, too. Indeed, as a correspondent noted, the Vatican has a pretty gluttonous record in that regard. To say nothing of the purveyors of the prosperity gospel, something that has arisen out of a gospel narrative that speaks directly against it.
What Nones are Shopping For
I would wager, however, that what many Nones are shopping for is exactly what religious communities provide their members: well-being. That’s what my question to Cooperman had sought to address: had mainline denominations that taught their clergy and laity enough to shatter any literal illusions about Christianity, failed to maintain the greatest and most important element of their work – the bringing together of communities in which people are loved, challenged, edified, and convicted, communities in which individuals engage in the work of creating an ethical framework within which they endeavour to live, communities that will support the challenges such frameworks evoke in people’s lives, celebrating with them when they thrive and lamenting the contexts that breach their best intentions.
It took Christianity two thousand years to create the kind of communities that lead to flourishing in the individuals Putnam writes about in American Grace Grace. In Amen, I cite the research Putnam did with Chaeyoon Lim in which they found that it wasn’t the religious beliefs that create and sustain well-being; it is the number of social contacts enjoyed by those who use religious communities to create them. If the Nones had such communities, and organizations like the Oasis Network are creating them, the Nones will care for their communities just as well as, and perhaps even better than, religious people do now.
Cooperman was wrong about the Nones because he knows nothing about them beyond the statistical significance they provide as he draws his graphs and pie charts that provide churches with information he thinks they need. Rather than insulting the many Nones in his audience or brushing off my question by suggesting those I am interested in are too few to be of any significance in the creation of tomorrow, perhaps he should pay a little more attention to finding out who they are. After all, the Nones are the future whether Cooperman likes it or not. It would be better for him and for all people of goodwill to ensure they have the tools and communities in place that will strengthen their well-being, nourish their hearts, and help them create a future built on truth, goodness, and beauty. If the Nones are shopping for anything, it will be that. In fact, that’s what almost everyone is shopping for, those who find it in their religious beliefs, those who find it in their malls, and those who, right now, have no hope at all for finding it.
A Country Ready, at Last, for Its Most Important Journey Yet
It is Canada Day and across the country, homes, people, cars, and garage doors are decked out in brilliant red and white like never before, on this, our 150th birthday. Celebrations and barbeques are ongoing. Concerts in public parks and along waterfronts are filled to over-flowing. Last night, some of our southern neighbours wondered why fireworks were lighting up the northern sky when it was not yet the fourth of July. More will follow tonight and throughout the weekend.
There is much of which we can be proud. Canada is widely respected in the world and boasts a diversity in its land and its people that is reflected in few countries. Our medicare, our social democracy, and our relatively peaceful communities are the envy of many. Yet we have our challenges and much we have yet to do.
Justin Trudeau and Sophie Gregoire enter teepee on Parliament Hill
Yesterday, our Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, along with his wife Sophie Gregoire, walked casually across the lawn of the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa, removed his shoes, and stepped into a teepee erected by a group of Indigenous activists. Those who had set the teepee up sought to remind Canadians that on this birthday, there are some who cannot celebrate. I tweeted that Trudeau’s action made me incredibly proud. It couldn’t have happened without the courage and determination of those who arrived there in the first place, defying police, being arrested, and returning to make their point. It is a point we must all attend to.
Almost immediately after I posted my tweet, a follower responded to remind me that Trudeau’s actions and the visuals did not make him proud but reminded him of the many tragedies and losses Indigenous peoples have sustained at the hands of those who colonized this land and called it Canada.
He was, of course, right. The land upon which the Parliament Buildings stand was never ceded to Canada but remains Indigenous land. By entering the teepee, I saw Trudeau acknowledging that in a way no former Canadian leader has dared to do. I saw it as a moment of great hope for our country, a moment in which we have the opportunity to choose to move forward in right relationships.
A friend recently said that, as an Indigenous person, he thinks of our Prime Minister as “Just another Trudeau.” The pain experienced by the First Nations of this land at the hand of the government led by Pierre Trudeau was grievous. We have a chance to create something different. We can only move forward with the grief and shame of the past 150 years and longer ever walking alongside us. So it is up to us to find our way toward one another, to lift one another up in dignity and find the greater beauty we were meant to be. It is our journey, each step accompanied with the pain, sorrow, and horror of the past, to take together. I believe those who have long been calling for that journey, the Indigenous activists and the informed and enraged Canadians who have supported them, are being heard. I believe that this is the moment when we can find the courage to look one another in the eye.
In Trudeau’s gesture yesterday, I glimpsed what our future might be in this great land. It is a future in which the wisdom of the Indigenous peoples makes its way into our hearts. It is a future in which the journey we should have taken together is left behind and the journey we can make together can be realized. It is a future in which the beauty we have yet to realize can grow out of the small and great moments of courage and acknowledgement. I know we are ready. Let’s do this.
At West Hill, one of our main “metaphors” is that of light. During our Longest Night service in December, an annual celebration that takes place on the night of the Winter Solstice and has allowed us to discontinue Christmas services, each person in attendance is given a candlewick bracelet and reminded that they are the light of the world. The service not only recognizes the depths of darkness but reminds us that we are light, and so are each responsible for providing light in this challenging world. Many members, myself included, wear the bracelets year round and some drive considerable distances to receive a new one each year.
It seemed appropriate, then, to include the metaphor in our Dream Away service this year. Dream Away is the two-Sunday program that covers off the story of the passion and Easter. I shared more about it in my Easter: Not Quite Yet post which you can read here. Beginning with the idea of light, this hymn emerged to the tune of the hypnotic Let Us Break Bread Together on Our Knees. It may, of course, be used at any time of the year and with any or all of the verses.
The tune in The United Church of Canada’s hymn book Voices United. is harmonized by F. R. C. Clarke, the organist who arrived in my home congregation, Sydenham Street UC in the year of my birth and remained there until his retirement. Clarke chaired the committee that created The Hymn Book, a collaboration between the Anglican and United churches, which I have often suggested terminated the negotiations between the Anglicans and the UCC. Neither denomination could entice its members to wholly embrace it; for the Anglicans, there was too much sentimentality and for United members, there were far too many haughty tunes considered exceedingly difficult to sing. As a highly skilled musician and composer, Clarke undoubtedly had a hand in raising the standards of hymnody in his leadership role in the effort, even though he was a United Church musician at the time.
Throughout my ministry, I have often chosen hymns with which I assume United Church members will be familiar because they are tunes I grew up with. Alas, it seems only Clarke’s own congregation was forced to learn every tune in The Hymn Book. I am certain Clarke would have agreed with me that not knowing those tunes is a great loss to many. In fact, this song, We Are Light, was written solely because the first song I wrote for our Dream Away service was to King’s Weston, a tune Scott didn’t know and assumed the congregation wouldn’t either. I’ll post it next week. In the meantime, enjoy singing this to its very well-known tune.
Usually, I try to find a Youtube video that includes the music so that you can sing along but was unsuccessful this time around. Those instrumentals that followed the verses closely were all too slow and those that were instrumentals paced appropriately were all, well, instrumentals. They weren’t played to accompany singing. When we sang We Are Light on Sunday, Scott played the tune at a faster pace than it is usually sung during communion services. I’d invite you to find what works for you.
We Are Light
Tune: Let Us Break Bread, traditional African spiritual
Traditional Hymn: Let Us Break Bread Together
When we all stand together, we are light.
When we all stand together, we are light.
When we all reach out our hands, ev’ry woman and every man,
When we all stand together, we are light.
When we all strive for wisdom, we are light.
When we all strive for wisdom, we are light.
When we share the truths we know, all humanity then might grow
When we all strive together, we are light.
When we all march for freedom, we are light.
When we all march for freedom, we are light.
When we open wide our eyes, bear the truth that around us lies,
When we all march together, we are light.
When we love one another, we are light.
When we love one another, we are light.
When love wears our barriers through, you see me and I see you, too.
When we all love together, we are light.
This evening, West Hill members will be welcomed at Chalmers United Church for an important conversation about the future of church. With challenges that threaten to drag mainline denominations into a slow but deadly undertow, the events that have shaped West Hill into a congregation that welcomes people of all beliefs are of interest within and beyond the United Church of Canada.
Paul Strand (American, New York 1890–1976 Orgeval, France) Conversation, 1916 Art at the Met
If you’re able to join us, you can find all the information here.
If you’d like a conversation in your town, contact annie dipede, admin at westhill dot net, and discuss the possibilities with her.
As future conversations coalesce, I’ll keep you posted as to the when and where details!
I am often asked what it is that we do at West Hill for Easter. It is one of the keystone events in Christianity. As such, it’s expected that every church will address it in one fashion or another. Sometimes, it is a gruesomely bloody re-enactment of the crucifixion. Sometimes its all bunnies and chocolate (no link required). The interpretation of the story is so broad now that unless you’re part of the team putting the program together, what happens on Palm Sunday and the days following may surprise you.
It shouldn’t be a surprise that West Hill treats the most famous week in the Christian story in its own unique way. We dig beneath the biblical narratives and find the human story that wrestles its way to the fore through the Easter story. It is the same story of countless people who have poured their lives out to make their world better, more humane, more peaceful. And while we don’t mention the characters, places, or details of the Passion narrative, those who know the story will resonate with the underlying themes found in our two Dream Away services.
One of our dreams
It was several years ago, that West Hill created a visionary program we believed was desperately needed by the wider church. Recognizing that Sunday morning services were no longer enough but that many congregations, because of dwindling resources, couldn’t provide much more than that, we imagined ways to distill the crucial work Christianity did in community and share it with those who would never be interested in attending Sunday morning worship services.
We were privileged to work with one of Toronto’s visionary leaders in industry change, Bill Bishop. Through a powerful and evocative process, we developed a three stream, multi-tiered template that could be used by any church or community group seeking to instill the progressive, empathy, and justice-oriented social values of liberal Christianity in their neighbourhoods, towns, and cities.
We applied to a fund in our Presbytery for a grant to get the project going. After the initial three years, we believed the project would be self-funding and eventually provide sufficient income to subsidize individuals and areas that couldn’t afford it. It wasn’t a ton of money, but it was significant and likely more than the granting body to which we applied was used to giving out. We created a slide presentation to accompany the presentation of the application and prepared to meet with the group and discuss the project with them. It was an exciting time.
As soon as the application was submitted, the grant body decided to change its criteria for grant approval. We had, of course, written our proposal to the existing criteria but felt confident that we’d still meet whatever came forward. We waited to be invited to present to the committee. We offered to come to a meeting and discuss the proposal. We waited some more. We reconnected and offered to come to share the slide presentation and answer questions. We waited some more. And some more. And some more.
The dream shattered
Five months later, I received a phone call to advise me that, at that evening’s Presbytery meeting, West Hill’s grant would be denied funding because it didn’t meet the new criteria (a perspective with which we disagree) and because the project, as far as they were concerned, was really only a plan to set up a secular organization. Clearly, the committee had either not understood the proposal or not read it at all. Without seeking clarification, they had dismissed it in the easiest way they had at hand. I was stunned.
I went to the meeting saddened and ready to defend my congregation. There was no discussion. The court was simply advised that the grant was not being addressed because it was about creating a secular organization. No one said anything. Indeed, no one but the committee knew what the proposal was even about.
The Mission Articulation Project
At the same meeting, just after the grants were discussed, a member of the court stood and shared news about the new Mission Articulation Project being undertaken. Its purpose was to encourage congregations to dream a vision for themselves and then to develop strategic plans to achieve that vision. Presbytery was providing leadership, mentors to help congregations who weren’t quite able to do that work for themselves. The presenter spoke with passion and excitement.
It was a challenge to listen to him, I’ll tell you. What he was saying was so troubling. My colleague was encouraging congregations to do exactly what West Hill had spent eight months doing – dreaming outside the box and creating a road map to achieve those dreams. Sure, we didn’t say that we heard God calling us in that direction and we didn’t preface it with scripture verses that would embed it in the old narrative. But it was definitely a vision accompanied by a strategic plan to achieve it. We’d done it and we’d been shut down. Perhaps we were just a year early.
The letter I never sent
So I wrote this letter to the presenter. I never sent it. I’m sharing it now, three Easter seasons since, as a way of sharing who West Hill is and why the story of Holy Week is so important to us.
No, we don’t replay a crucifixion that paid the ultimate cost for our sin and no, we don’t celebrate a bodily resurrection. We untangle the very human story that time has witnessed over and over again: the recognition of exclusion, injustice, brutality, and wrong; the rise of resistance, truth-telling, visionaries and their bands of dreamers; and the forward surge of courageous dreams, carried by the lot of them into a treacherous and fractious world. We acknowledge the very real death of those dreams in a world unwilling to see, allow, or encourage them because that would mean that power recognized its flaws and power rarely does so. Then, on Easter morning, with dreams strewn around us, beaten and broken and without life, we enter. And we find within us the power to lift those dreams up, broken as they have been and dropped over time by hundreds of hands and hearts and lives, and we take them into ourselves, breathing our own life into them. We resurrect them, if you will. Our soloist, this year, sing Amanda Marshall’s, I Believe in You. It seems that we’re all “dreamers looking for a dream”
West Hill has had a challenging couple of years. We don’t know what our future will be. We can’t imagine what it might look like. But no matter what happens to our dreams, we will continue to witness, resist, experience brokenness, and dream. It’s what we do. Even if we are just a band of rebels too stupid to know when to stop.
I want to share with you the work that West Hill has done in reviewing the realities it and the neighbourhood in which it is situated face and in considering the impact on community that the loss of mainline liberal congregations has on well-being and civic discourse. I want to share, too, the work they have done exploring the positive ideals and values that have grown out of our great tradition, and how they have framed a vision of how church might get out of the Sunday morning rut in which it is spinning its wheels or slowly dying. It is a vision of how church can still touch and transform individuals lives and offer them the positive, inspirational benefits that might otherwise be permanently lost if we do not find a way to create accessible, transformational community. It is, to me, one of the most inspiring things I have seen come out of the church in a very long time and I am immensely proud of the people who stretched themselves outside of the box, imagined new ways to be church, and then built a reasonable and achievable framework for making it happen. Futhermore, it is the vision of a structure and program that could be replicated in any community, allowing it to be reflective of the social and theological diversity the United Church serves.
I was inspired to send you this during the last couple of slides of your presentation last night when you showed great enthusiasm and encouragement to congregations that had already done the work of considering their mission and constructing a strategic vision. You suggested that, if a congregation had made it as far as a strategic vision, it might even offer leadership to the presbytery.
What you will read is what the Ad Hoc committee of the Executive and the Executive itself agreed was the development of a secular organization that could not be supported by church. The Chair of West Hill’s Board, and I were advised of their decision yesterday afternoon. It was a disturbing response to a congregation that, under their own steam and with no coaching or encouragement, had undertaken the very journey you promoted last evening, the journey every congregation is encouraged to undertake through the Mission Articulation Program.
For Easter, we do a two part service called Dream Away at West Hill. The first part, on Palm Sunday, builds on the energy of triumph experienced when dreams are set in place and we step into our moment; it’s the ride into Jerusalem and the party atmosphere that ensues. But it ends with the destruction of the dream and the reality that we all live those moments – big, small, life-shattering, bone-chilling moments of loss. The following week, on Easter morning, we start from that same place and work to pick up the pieces knowing full well that you cannot breathe life into an old dream or give strength to those who, dreaming it for so long, have lost their passion and are no longer able to carry it forward. Each dream must be taken in, owned, resurrected inside a new dreamer. And we remind ourselves that, in community, the fragments of broken dreams, millions of them, glitter and beckon. And we work to find hope and rebuild.
I urge you not to take congregations through the MAP process as it currently stands unless the presbytery makes a commitment to support and struggle with the congregations that do the dreaming and commits to risk journeying with them, whatever they understand church to be. If presbytery is only willing to support ministry as they currently understand it, then the MAP process, if it is truly engaged by a visionary group of people, will end as our first Dream Away service ends, with dreams broken and a hollow sense of loss, or, if not quite so dramatic, a slow leakage of hope. Perhaps that is what is already happening in the church, that almost imperceptible deflation of what the UCC might have been.
It may be part of our heritage, but Good Friday is not supposed to be the last word. It won’t be for West Hill; we will regroup and consider our options and the strong and courageous people I have the privilege to work with will continue to care for and support one another and that will be enough despite their dream that so many others currently ignored by church, too, need that same kind of care. Still, right now, it feels a lot like Good Friday and the stunned disbelief of a band of rebels too stupid to know when to stop.
So this might be the greatest thing you’ve ever come across or you might just roll your eyes. There is, of course, no real reason for you to use something like this and if you think you’d like to, there is no guarantee that you’re going to find what you are looking for. But the creation of this app is an indication that there is a need out there and, for all I know, it may be yours.
The United Coalition of Reason has created an app that will help you find local atheist gatherings. Yep. That’s the news. The question, of course, is whether it’s something you want eating up power on your smartphone. And even if you download and install it, there are lots of communities that don’t yet have atheist groups; UnitedCoR is sharing news of groups in only fifty metro areas around the world. That’s a whole lot of atheist groups getting together that aren’t being tracked and a whole lot more atheists who aren’t getting together at all.
Even if you are lucky enough to live in one of the fifty metro areas (in Canada, those include Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver) where UnitedCoR’s app is tracking atheist groups, you’ll need to do some leg work. The sad truth may be that the group you head out to is filled with the last sort of atheists with whom you want to spend time. If you just want to get together to slam religion, there are probably a lot of groups out there who will relish you joining in the ridicule. Too many atheists have expressed frustration to me about the groups they have attended where they may have been warmly welcomed but in which most of the energy of the group’s members is put into the same arguments against religion that we have all heard before.
Who’d want to spend time with angry atheists?
I sure wouldn’t.
Unfortunately, atheists who hate religion have drawn the caricature by which atheists all over the world are all too quickly classified. Even some of my colleagues make that assumption about me and are so happy with it, they don’t bother reading anything I’ve written or reaching out to get to know me.
The reality is quite the opposite, however. Most atheists are lovely people for whom religious belief is simply not important. Perhaps if religious communities didn’t use the exclusive language that has defined them and focused instead on the off-label benefits of religion – increased well-being, rich and rewarding relationships, the building of a meaningful life, a sense of interconnection with the rest of this amazing world – even atheists might find reasons to be part of what’s happening. Maybe UnitedCoR’s app would be blinking with opportunities the world over. (If you’re in Toronto, UnitedC0R’s app will let you know about the Meetup Group, Atheist Community of Toronto run by my friend, Jaime Loo. Be sure to check it out!)
Of course, creating community beyond the beliefs that divide humanity is exactly what has happened at West Hill and is happening at Oasis communities across North America. There you will find five simple principles guiding the gathering which bring together people across widely divergent demographics: People are more important than beliefs; Reality is known through reason; Human hands solve human problems, Meaning comes from making a difference; Be accepting and be accepted. If we all lived that way, what a difference world we would now live in. You can find an Oasis community through the Oasis Network website and we’re working on getting on the app, too!
So. if you’re in a major city or thinking of visiting one, go ahead and download UnitedCoR’s app and check our an atheist group. My hope is you will find a welcoming, engaging, and stimulating community that helps you meet all the deeply human reasons we seek one another out.
For the last several months, I have barely been able to get a Focused Moment written in time for the service at West Hill on Sunday. Sometimes, it’s been written late on Friday or early Saturday. But some days, I’ve penned it Sunday morning; once even on my phone on my way to the church (Scott driving!)! Seriously have to get my mojo back here!
This week, though, I triumphed and sent the Focused Moment to annie, our admin person, on Friday with enough time for her to get it printed and ready to hand out. But guess what? On Sunday, I skipped right over it, completely forgoting to read it during the service!
Which may be a good thing. I’d read the lectionary passages for the fourth Sunday of Lent, 2018, as part of my weekly preparation. Each week, I read the passages for the same week of the year in the next year’s lections so that I can create resources in advance for clergy and leaders hoping to include non-theistic elements in their services. Reading the passages, I decided to focus on the concept of blame, a pretty straightforward Lenten message.
As I did my preparation, though, I realized I had bitten off way more than I could chew in a single Sunday. So I’m extending the “Blame” program over the next week or two, focusing this week solely on the distinction between dispute and conflict. So I can use the blame Focused Moment for next week.
Which means, for the first time E.V.E.R., you’ve got the Focused Moment a week in advance!!
So who is it?
Am I to blame?
Some oversight, neglect, turning away of my head?
Or perhaps the turning away
was of my heart?
Was it some slight I do not remember perpetrating,
its details lost in the long-forgotten debris
of distasteful memory,
sealed far away from daily discourse or rumination?
Is it them?
The expectations and demands laid upon me as a child,
sewn into the garment of “Who I would become”
even as I was first becoming?
Did they slough off their own personal demons,
transferring the weight to my fragile frame,
watching the shadows work their way
into my being,
Is it us?
Are we complicit in the weaving of today
as we were yesterday?
Can our hands move away from the shuttles
that will weave all the tomorrows yet to come?
Is there any way to step aside,
refuse to play,
leave our sorrows and, yes, too, our joys
out of what will be
so it might emerge
unencumbered by who we are?
Or are we only and ever inextricably bound
to the blame
tomorrow will lay upon us
never freed from what will be?
We are well into our Inspired by Hollywood Series at West Hill. This week we looked at the intensely beautiful Moonlight, and the decidedly flattened spectrum of life its protagonist is forced to live. Previous Sundays have brought discussions of Arrival and Manchester by the Sea. One thing that is abundantly clear each and every year we look at movies nominated for Best Picture Oscars, there is never a clear winner. Each picture has strengths and nuances that bring its own unique power to bear in the heart and mind of the viewer and no picture leaves that viewer unchanged.
Clouds Forest Weird Moon Full Moon Night
As in previous years, my Focused Moments become “inspired” during the Academy award leadup. That is, they are inspired by the movie rather than a simply reflection on a theme. Moonlight, both the movie and the phenomenon, inspired this poem. None of us have grown up free of the textures of our childhoods. No child get to adulthood free to live the full spectrum of life into which they were born. Moonlight shared the implacability of circumstance on a young black child/teen/man who lives in the flattened blue hues of moonlight.
Under the circumstance of moonlight,
red disappears first.
Yellow is gone.
And green turns to shades of grey
or ripples into a black no conifer has ever been.
I know it’s green.
I know the birdhouse
swinging from its branch is red.
I know the finches gathered early at the feeder
dulled as they are in winter’s plumes.
As I gaze upon a changed
and blue-lit world,
I hold these truths within me.
So why is it I cannot hold to other truths
that time to time are hidden, too,
that cast them in this same and changing light,
flattening the spectrum
from multihued and wondrous
to a cold and hard insistent blue?
Why can I not see beauty still
in hearts grown cold,
or dreams that withered long ago?
Why am I so quick to see the depth of anger
in this circumstantial light
and not the love that spoke just yesterday
or the invitation that might take me back to wonder?
Why do I insist the moonlight prism,
that robs him and her and her and him
of the miracle of childish wonder,
of youth and hope and “wants-to-be”,
is the truth that stands before me?
We were all wonder once,
riding the chariots of our fathers’ arms by day;
braving the night,
safe ‘twixt the castles of our mothers’ breasts.
We cast the trees as our companions
and bade them witness our grandest schemes.
We yearned for affirmation.
It bent and teased our being toward its singular hue,
the kaleidoscopes that once defined us
‘til all is lit like moonlight,
and its cold, and hard insistent blue.
Members Who Become Ministers of Another Denomination or Faith Tradition
This section applies to members of the order of ministry who become ministers of another denomination or faith tradition. It does not apply to members who are serving as overseas personnel. The presbytery must make a recommendation to the Conference that the member’s name be placed on the Discontinued Service List (Voluntary). The Conference is responsible for making a decision on the recommendation.
While I would be honoured to serve as a minister in any denomination that would allow me the privilege to serve in in the manner that West Hill United Church has done, I have never been invited to or sought leadership anywhere else but the United Church. So the fine print won’t make things any easier as Todd has suggested it might.
Retired UCC Minister, the Rev. David Shearman.
Todd’s misinformation is comes from my retired colleague, the Rev. David Shearman. In his blog, Mr. Shearman equates my position as a Director for The Oasis Network, to the position of minister in another denomination or faith tradition. The Oasis Network is neither a denomination nor a faith tradition. And my role as a Director is not dissimilar to that of someone who serves on the Board or in leadership of any community, national, or international non-profit organization.
The Rev. Dr. Karen Hamilton
For example, the Rev. Dr. Karen Hamilton serves as the Executive Director of the Canadian Councilof Churches. While her role would be considered to involve far more ministry than my role at the Oasis would entail, I am certain her relationship with the CCC is considered a privilege and a benefit to the United Church, not an opportunity to discredit her relationship with her ordaining denomination.
I can only imagine Mr. Shearman’s dismay (he blogged “I hope I am not being too optimistic”) when he realizes that I am not leading the Toronto Oasis as its minister. At this point, I’m not even scheduled to speak in any of the first eight weeks of its operation.
Rick Miller, Actor, Playwright, Lead Singer in the band TrainWreck, Comedian, Dad, Activist and all around Amazing Guy
If you’re wanting to join us on the 12th, please register on our Eventbrite page and fire me an email through my contact page if you’d like to sign up for Toronto Oasis news or sign up on the TO website. The launch will take place at the beautiful Multifaith Centre (maybe that’s what confused Mr. Shearman!) at the University of Toronto, 569 Spadina Avenue. (Continued below …) We’re VERY excited about this launch, the latest in the new opportunities for engagement coming out of West Hill United. And while you don’t have to register to come, we’re thinking the place might fill up so do try to register so that we have a sense of numbers.
We’re not going to stop trying to make the world a better place. We hope you don’t either.
Pope Francis. A pope loved by the people. (ANDREAS SOLARO / AFP/GETTY IMAGES)
Christianity could address political chaos
It is a rare occasion that I agree with Michael Coren but I do think he is bang on in this Toronto Star article, Perfect time for the church to show leadership. In it, he argues that in the political chaos we see arising both south of us and across the Atlantic, might be addressed by a Christianity focused on social justice issues.
The liberal Christian church has focused on social and economic justice issues for decades, beginning with the social gospel movement at the turn of the last century. Those interests expanded over the decades to include race, gender, environmental, sexual, and gender identity justice issues as well. Indeed, my United Church of Canada has been a leader in every one of those areas and I’m proud of the work we’ve bravely undertaken over our history.
Christianity most certainly had a role to play in these debacles of democracy gone wrong but it will be scored on the wrong side of history’s ledger. At least I hope it will. After all, most history is written by the victors and, in the immediate future at least, I don’t think those Coren and I are rooting for are going to be doing much writing.
Interested in post-theistic resources but still using the Revised Common Lectionary?
I am looking for five to ten colleagues who may wish to work with post-theistic resources over the course of Year A. I began to create these resources at the beginning of Advent in 2014 using the next year’s texts, Year C of the Revised Common Lectionary, as my starting point. My review by the United Church, however, got in the way and I never completed the year. This past Advent, beginning in 2015, I started working on Year A. Again, the realities of my review have severely compromised my output but I do have enough to offer in exchange for some feedback.
The project includes the following post-theistic resources:
the lectionary passages for Year A, a few of them re-visioned for contemporary audiences
a secular theme which grows out of the lectionary passages for the week
alternate quotes related to the theme, a few with quote slides prepared for them
alternate readings related to the theme; these include an information section for the reader
a Focused Moment written to reflect the theme
links to external resources
song written to traditional hymn tunes – these are fewer than those for Year C
I had intended to write liturgical elements as well despite the fact that we do not use written prayers, versicles, or many of the traditional pieces found in worship services at West Hill. I hope to add these to the resources during the year. They will include words to introduce the readings, a call for the offering, and a short piece intended for use as a benediction or sending of the people out into the world.
For each Sunday I was at West Hill during the year, there are also audio files that you can listen to in order to make better sense out of what the sermon notes. I do not write my sermons but only use the notes that you’ll find here. Because of time constraints, regretably, I have not been able to modify them for clarity after each Sunday service.
Let me know if you’re interested and how you think you’ll use the resources. I will be working on Year B throughout this year and your input as to what you need, what you like and dislike, and information on how you use the resources will be very helpful. My intention is to eventually post the resources online for a small subscription or set fee. Those of you who sign up for this year’s resources will receive them all over the course of the next three years without cost; your feedback is more than adequate compensation and is much appreciated.
Events in the United States have triggered conversations here in Canada and will require responses on a growing number of fronts. I’m sharing a letter here that addresses two issues raised in the first couple of days after the election of Donald Trump: the possible overturning of President Obama’s refusal to continue with the Keystone pipeline project and the likelihood that Trump, as President of the United States, will reject the Paris Climate agreements.
I encourage all of my Canadian friends and followers to engage and remain engaged with your own political leaders so that we continue to reject actions and ideals that do not reflect our social democratic values. Copy this letter. Write your own. Stay informed and attentive. Donald Trump’s access to power in the United States cannot bleed into Canada through amendments and reconsidered pledges. We must not sell out to his vision of reality.
Dear Prime Minister Trudeau, Minister McKenna, and Minister Freeland,
I write to encourage you and your colleagues as Canada responds to and reframes its relationship with our southern sister, now preparing for the leadership of President-Elect Donald Trump. Be assured that Canada remains committed to the choices that have been made in the past both in relation to the Keystone Pipeline and Canada’s Carbon Tax.
President Obama’s rejection of Keystone was welcomed by many Canadians and many Americans. It demanded new thinking in the corridors of the oil industry. The decision challenged Canadians to look toward new ways of attending to our energy needs and continue to think through the dangerous extraction and transportation of bitumen. Our Indigenous People’s continue to speak directly to the issues related to transporting bitumen through pristine lands. President Obama recognized the diminished returns on this potential blight and ended it.
I ask you to challenge Canadian oil executives to continue their creative thinking. The package President-Elect Trump will accept will not be the financial boon they had hoped for. There are other opportunities, other more economically sound ways to pursue energy sources into the future. Challenge us to find them.
Yesterday I heard Rona Ambrose state that it would be insanity to impose a carbon tax if the United States backs out of its carbon commitments. It would be insanity to change our course and compromise our commitments.
Canadians will make their peace with this tax. We will recognize and understand the need for it. We will be with you as you enter these conversations. Inspire us to be better than whatever lowest common denominator presents itself. Inspire us to be Canadian, to care for our planet, for future generations, and for those in other countries who are far more vulnerable than are we to the vagaries of climate change. Remind us that it is the values of integrity, compassion, and a desire for the well-being of all that lift us up, not an economic privilege that will only compromise and denigrate us.
These are challenging days. We look to you for the creative, reflective, and brave leadership that is needed. And we are confident that your values will continue to hold you to those things that, when history judges us, will find us on the arc that bends toward justice.
All my best,
Minister, West Hill United Church
Author, With or Without God: Why the Way We Live is More Important than What We Believe
The night ended late. Scott and I stumbled to bed after too many hours of the American election and hearts that were heavy with the result. We weren’t shocked. Not as shocked as some. Perhaps watching it unfold from this northern vantage point had already scared us more than those steeped within the polls and election rhetoric. No, we weren’t shocked. But we were deeply, deeply saddened about the choice that has been made for what I can only imagine will be a meaner, uglier, more tightly wound spring of anger as Donald Trump takes the Office of the President and the House of Representatives wherever he wants.
OMGoodness. The Promises
Trump has a lot of promises to keep and every one of them a blow to those who don’t belong to the demographic that still has the numbers to defeat racial minorities, women, members of the lgbtq community, migrants who perform 6% of the country’s most servile jobs with no security or benefits. Perhaps Trump’s promises will so change the face of America that those numbers will never change. I do not know. But I lament the loss of dignity and rights, so many will experience in the coming years.
For you, my American friends
Today, preparing for Sunday’s service as I always do on Wednesdays, I wrote these words to the tune Trentham. It is best known as “Breathe on Me, Breath of God.” In “Keep Wide Your Heart”, I hope to encourage my American friends and those around the world who feel the blow of last night’s election. May we find ways to reach out to one another and built a wall of human resistance that will go down in history. No matter what. Know that I love your hurting hearts.
Keep Wide Your Heart
Tune: Trentham Traditional Hymn: Breathe on Me, Breath of God
Keep wide your heart to love,
all it might ever be.
Count not the cost love may impose;
to pay it, our deepest need.
Keep wide your mind to truth,
all it might ever mean.
All self-delusions, let them go
and truth, it will set you free.
Keep wide your life to dreams
easing the fear-filled night,
until each possibility
glows with a persistent light.
Keep wide the road to hope.
Clear off its weed-fill’d way,
that all might walk it, side by side,
toward a more perfect day.
My colleague, Beverley Burlock, a former classmate at Queen’s Theological College, has asked to be “defrocked”, removed from the roll of clergy of The United Church of Canada because of the manner in which it is reviewing my ministry under the auspices of my effectiveness. Beverley’s letter has saddened me and, I hope, has saddened others. But her convictions are strong as are those of the many United Church members and clergy who have written to share their support.
Here is Bev’s letter.
TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN:
I submit the following as an official request to have my name removed from every official list of United Church of Canada clergy, and to have my name placed on the Discontinued Service list.
This is partly because of what the church is currently doing to gretta vosper and her congregation, but even more broadly because that is a clear indication of an even larger problem. The United Church has lost its way. I am no longer proud to be associated with it, and have been more and more reluctant to identify myself as one of its ministers.
This is not the ambiance which attracted me in the first place and it certainly isn’t what I was ordained into. Never EVER was I subjected, in any of my pre-ordination interviews over the several years, to such an intensive and excessive interrogation as gretta faced before the subcommittee, which basically amounted to a heresy trial. (Since when was ‘right beliefs’, an ancient persecuted offense, a UCC priority?) I did not become a minister who had to swear I believed in a list of set vows that were unalterable and infallible, and sign to that.
Without growth there is stagnation. It seems the United Church itself is settling into that state. And any ministers who have not grown in their learning and thinking since their seminary days and ordination have not kept up with continuing education as most other professionals are required to, and have failed to be good leaders. “…by this time you ought to be teachers, (but) you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness” – doing what is right, justice, vs doing the opposite, wickedness) (Hebrews 5: 12-13)
There have been threats of splits in the church before – when we chose to ordain women, to support anti-apartheid in South Africa, to accept, ordain and marry gays. The church never gave in to those, some of which were more dire in their seriousness and severity. We were able to ‘accept’ the Renewal Fellowship and Community of Concern. Moderator Bill Phipps said Jesus wasn’t divine, causing a media uproar and frenzy (they do love the scent of a scandal), but he wasn’t subjected to an inquisition or defrocking.
Being of a legal bent, both the originator of the document, that resulted in this investigation of gretta, and the current General Secretary are thus focussing on the legal letter of the law, which is so NOT Jesus. In fact, gretta is being treated the same as the ‘religious authorities’ of his day treated Jesus, who called them out on putting law over compassion. In fact Jesus called them a brood of vipers, snakes and hypocrites for doing exactly that. Maybe it’s time to re-read Matthew chapter 23. And don’t forget, Jesus was right there is the midst of all those the rest of the world had rejected, abused, despised, exiled to the margins, embracing, respecting and including them. In his parables, Jesus even used some as good examples to follow.
Jesus didn’t insist on people ‘believing’ anything – in fact he told the rich young ruler who had kept ALL the laws to a T, that what he lacked was how he cared about and for others around him – go and sell all that you have and give it away to those in need. With the story of the sheep and the goats, it was also all about how vulnerable people were treated. The Hebrew scriptures repeatedly say the same thing – a nation (one could say denomination) will be judged on how it treats the “least of these”. Furthermore, Jeremiah talks about a time when teaching about God will no longer be required, because all God’s desires (& characteristics we claim God has) will be written on/in people’s hearts. The Bible is all about doing and living, not about ‘believing’. Even the understanding of that word’s meaning has become compromised and corrupted.
Ever since the later union with Evangelical United Brethren, it seems the United Church has been gradually slipping into a more conservative perspective. We are no longer the open and exploring, the inclusive and progressive denomination we once were, emphasizing social justice issues, which drew so many people, including me, to it. How many of the EUB clergy or those seeking admission from other denominations were extensively questioned as to their openness to what was then United Church policy? It was my experience that those I encountered still had their old theology. And now the United Church is willing to accept a request from anyone, even with no prior involvement with church, Christianity, let alone the United Church. No longer do they even need to be associated for a few years with a congregation, where they would have been exposed to United Church thinking, and be known by United Church members. Where is the accountability there? Where is the theological grilling and set requirements of ‘beliefs’?
Words are a serious concern in any communication. And communicating anything religious and spiritual in words is even more complicated. For one thing, the meaning of words changes – over time, with translation, from culture to culture. Definitions can even become corrupted, distorted. ANY word connected with “God” is both limited and limiting. Therefore, demanding there be only one single acceptable understanding is slipping into idolatry. The church has not taught well the concept of metaphor over literal.
As I have experienced within my own congregations and with others, many, if not most or even all, of our religious words come with so much baggage and both mis-information and mis-understanding, along with bad translations and interpretations, that they are obstacles, driving people away. Some people, like Spong and Borg, believe the words can be redeemed. But for many that has not worked at all. So now others are working at replacing new less-loaded words in an attempt to meet those many who are desperately seeking something with spiritual substance and meaning. If that meets their needs, resulting in them then living the kind of compassionate, caring, open, inclusive lives Jesus taught, is that not a good thing? Something to be applauded and encouraged, rather than attacked and deplored – exiled from our very midst? Are we not to be “known by our fruits”?
The United Church has supposedly grown, so we proclaim anyway, from union in 1925 along a continuum to a current concept of Holy Mystery. Surely gretta is within that Holy Mystery. Or should be included. She is not trying to convert anyone, nor insisting all follow or even agree with her. She is ‘breathing out goodness’ — even to, I might add, her accusers.
The UCC has missed out on an incredibly important and crucial teachable moment here. Instead of going against our own principles and attacking and excluding, the church should have taken the amazing opportunity to teach the general population and media, as well as its own members (many of whom apparently badly need it too), educating them that it is not just a choice only between God or no-God. That the word God is but a mere feeble attempt to ‘explain’ something beyond description. That God is broader than any word we can come up with and far broader than any concept we can conceive, thus there are many, many, many ways to think about God, some of which might even include not using the word God at all! That the word atheist also has other, broader and deeper understandings than merely no-God. What a tragic loss and waste of such an incredibly wide open opportunity.
While gretta might feel betrayed by her Church (as do I), she’s not the only one being hurt. You are insulting her whole congregation. As well as all those other clergy and congregations who have been quietly teaching and living the same things. You are also grossly insulting and turning away all those others with no current religious affiliation who are searching for a place where they can feel at home spiritually. No more is the United Church of Canada the place to go and be accepted. We used to talk about ‘living with the questions’, but now, no more questions, no more seeking, we too now act as if we have The Answer. This smacks of hubris and a serious lack of humility. The process itself, which was both exclusive and secretive, was a disgrace. No Biblical justice here, just law enforcement & punishment. No “ever-flowing stream” either (Amos 5:21-24).
I would remind you of what Gamaliel, a well respected religious authority of his time, said to the people out to get ‘the apostles’. (Acts 5: 34-35, 38-39) “Consider carefully what you propose to do to these people….I tell you, keep away from them and let them alone; because if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail (as he had mentioned others had). But if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them – in that case you may even be found fighting against God.” No matter what definition of God or whether that word is even used.
In Judaism (& Jesus was a Jew), teaching and learning thrived on controversy and debate (or dialogue as gretta keeps requesting). The sages taught that “every argument deserved a hearing, for one could never know whether future generations might not discover truth in the minority view, as well as the majority”.
When I was first at seminary, I remember thinking “I’m not the first person to be taught this stuff. Why have I NEVER heard even a vague hint of any of it from any of the ministers I have encountered, met or known?” Why indeed. I am beginning to think it was at least partly because of fear. Very sad, since by far the most common Biblical ‘commandment’ is “Fear not”.
Well, I am sick at heart and tired of being in a denomination that is ruled at least in part by fear, and being part of a clergy that keeps silent because of fear. Some years ago I decided I would never again read any scripture, say any creed or prayer, perform any ritual, preach or teach anything I could not do with integrity. I made no public announcement, and my congregations likely never realized the ‘radical’ changes. However, I received positive feed back and comments that they appreciated the honesty and openness, and at least some found it liberating, refreshing and soul-nourishing.
This then is my further act of integrity. I can no longer be silent and secretive. Especially when doing so leaves my colleague and classmate abandoned and hanging out to dry like some sacrificial lamb. When my denomination has betrayed its principles, thus also betraying me and negating my ‘calling’. Again the cry goes up “Let my people go”.
With deep regret I am telling you I am leaving. Remove my name from your rolls.
Beverley C Day Burlock (Rev) Ordained Bay of Quinte Conference May 27, 1990
Colin Perkel has written about Bev’s powerful action. You can read his article in Metro News.
Ten years ago this month Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion hit the world with force, its silvery cover inviting any who picked it up to see an image of a god creator peering back at the unwitting shopper. The thousands and thousands who read it in its first few weeks rode the first wave of the New Atheists and began a conversation that continues to sweep the planet.
Visiting with Raihan and his family in 2015.
For Raihan Abir, the movement started a few years earlier with the publication of the Bangla book, The Philosophy of Disbelief, in 2011. It was co-written by Raihan and his close friend Avijit Roy. Since then, much has changed. Raihan was forced to flee his homeland and now lives in Canada. He continues to lead Mukto-Mona, the secular humanist community in Bangladesh.
I asked Raihan, now a close friend, if he would write an article to acknowledge the tenth anniversary of Dawkins’ book. He did and I’m honoured to post it here as my first guest blog.
Ajoy Roy, father of murdered atheist writer Avijit Roy, a University professor and humanist, first started to translate The God Delusion in Bangla in 2009 knowing how important it was to deliver the book’s message of science and reason for a humanist, secular, rational society. The official Bangla translation of the book was later done by Kazi Mahboob Hassan. It was published in 2015 in the month long book fair in Dhaka celebrated each February by Bangladeshi intellectuals, writers, publishers, secular activists, and readers of all ages. The fair is organized to celebrate International Mother Language Day which remembers the contributions of Bangladeshi who died fighting for the rights of their countrymen to retain Bangla, their mother tongue, as the official language of then East Pakistan. sixty-three years before, on February 21, 1952.
The fight for a secular Bangladesh still continues. On the third week of the 2015 book fair, the Bangladesh government shut down the secular publication house Rodela for publishing a Bangla translation of a biography of the prophet Muhammad written by Iranian scholar Ali- Dashti. They argued that the publication hurt the feelings of Muslims. No wonder! Truth can be hurtful for those who trade in lies! At the same book fair, the Kazi Mahboob’s Bangla translation of Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion was also published. Fortunately it went unnoticed by the Islamic extremists and government.
The day Rodela was shut down, Avijit Roy, the founder of Mukto-Mona and most famous Bangladeshi science and atheist author, arrived in Dhaka from Atlanta to attend the book fair. He was celebrating the publication of two of his own new books, one exploring the relationship between Rabindranath Tagore and Argentinian writer and intellectual, Victoria Ocampo, and the other exploring the idea of the universe coming into existence from nothing. The latter was written together with late mathematician Mizan Rahman.
The first Bangla book inspired by The New Atheism movement was a collaboration between Avijit and me originally published in 2011. The Philosophy of Disbelief was scheduled to be released in an updated third edition in 2015 by Jagriti publishers. In the book, we argued that God, as defined by the major religions in the world, if examined logically and scientifically, could never exist. We showed that although religion naturally emerged as a result of our journey to find answers about our existence, as we developed rational and scientific methods to inquire about the universe and life within it, we exhausted its role. Our editor, Ananta Bijoy Das captured our motivation in writing the book. His comment on the inside cover reads,
The Philosophy of Disbelief written by Avijit Roy and Raihan Abir is a must read for Bengali speaking skeptics, agnostics, atheists, humanists and for all free thinkers. Filled with modern scientific discoveries and data, this book shows the hope of building a secular, humane Bangladesh free from blind faith, superstition, man made class, race and division.”
That February, I was with Avijit and his wife, Rafida Ahmed Bonya, at the book fair. Whenever he ran into someone he knew, he would greet them with delight and buy them a secular book. Almost every time he did so, Avijit’s choice was the Bangla translation of The God Delusion. I still remember taking him to that stall over and again from every corner of the fair.
But Avijit wasn’t able to take his Bangla copy of Dawkins’ book home. He and his wife, Bonya, were attacked from behind on 26th February by machete wielding Al-Queda assassins. He was murdered on the street and and Bonya was wounded. Bangladesh brutally lost one of its brightest minds. Since then the killing of secular writers, bloggers, and those who make their works available has become fashionable in Bangladesh; both our editor, Ananta Bijoy Das, and our publisher, Faisal Arefin Dipon, have been murdered in equally brutal attacks.
In Bangladesh, the government will prosecute you if your writing seems un-Islamic. But if they fail to catch you to put you in prison, you risk being tracked down, hunted, and killed by terrorists. You can only write about freedom of expression in Bangladesh if you are willing to give away all your freedom.
Muslim Umma – the Muslim community – once contributed much to science, medicine, astronomy, and mathematics. This was possible because of the flow of knowledge into Arabic from other civilizations and cultures. Now the dominate Sunni-Wahabi segments of the Muslim Umma refuse knowledge from anything other than one book. They have became ignorant, blinded by dogmatic faith & ideology. Their contribution to modern society is dominated by violence, death, and destruction.
It is, therefore, very important that those of us who live or have lived in a part of world where religion continues to dominate private and public life and society and where government bans or limits the transfer of knowledge, must keep translating books like The God Delusion and keep promoting the idea of The New Atheism by writing new books in our native language. We must do so in order that people are exposed to important and provocative ideas, learn to think independently, and ask questions, especially about religious “truths”. Once people are freed of the virus of faith, they can contribute more toward our real, earthly challenges: creating peace, inclusion, freedom, and the urgent work of building a human, secular world for our next generation.
It is my great pleasure to thank Richard Dawkins for his time and willingness to write The God Delusion. I congratulate him on a decade of promoting the light of science and reason through this book. I personally want to tell him, it changed my life and although it has cost me much-loved friends and my homeland, it has enlightened millions just in Bangladesh because The New Atheism works!
The 95%-of-United-Church-Clergy-believe-in-God Survey
The Rev. Richard Bott
Last Spring, Richard Bott, a United Church minister, decided he wanted to get to the bottom of the question about how many United Church clergy do or don’t believe in god. He was spurred on to the work of designing the God survey by an interview I had with Wendy Mesley of the CBC in which I had said that the Principal of Emmanuel College estimated that over half of UCC clergy had a non-theistic understanding of god. Mark Toulouse later told me that he meant non-traditional, not non-theistic. Here’s the confusion for which I take full responsibility: I don’t consider those two things to be different.
My understanding of non-theist comes into play the minute you step away from belief in a “being” called God, a theistic being, a deity with supernatural powers who is omnipotent (all-powerful), omniscient (all-knowing), and omnipresent (everywhere), and can intervene in the natural world from the supernatural realm in which s/he lives. It’s the god described in the Articles of Faith of the Basis of Union that casts the finally impenitent into eternal damnation, the god the World Council of Churches requires we confess is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Step away from that definition and you’re into non-theism, I’ve long thought. Many progressive Christian authors like Bishop John Shelby Spong use the term in that same manner as did I in my 2008 book, With or Without God.
To others, I now realize, the term theist is simply stretched to cover whatever it is you need to cover – supernatural or not, being or not, interventionist or not, triune or not; these can all remain safely under the heading “theistic” if you want them to. I know, it’s confusing. Suffice it to say, I’m not using any words that use theist as their root anymore. I’m only going to speak of non-traditional ideas of god and hope someone asks me what I mean.
However, last winter, when I spoke with Mesley, I hadn’t realized how important using the term non-traditional over non-theist was so, essentially, I broke my own rule: don’t use words that people don’t understand especially if those words are about god and especially-especially if there are going to be highly literate clergy listening, each of whom may have evolved their own interpretation of what the terms you use. If I didn’t understand the expanded way the word theist was being used, clearly, using the word non-theist to describe those who don’t believe in a traditional concept of god was going to be a problem. As it turned out, it was incendiary.
Still, claiming and reclaiming that I came up with that statistic on my own is misleading. Before we go any further, it’s important to note that both in my response to Wendy Mesley’s question about how many clergy in the UCC shared my beliefs and to Richard Bott’s question about how many atheist clergy there are in the church, I said I didn’t know (3:35). I don’t imagine there are many who believe exactly what I believe and fewer still who would call themselves atheists. My response to Richard’s question was “I have no idea how many clergy in the United Church are atheist …” Richard noted in an email to me that because I didn’t “comment on the number’s efficacy,” I was stating my own opinion even though I had just clearly said I didn’t know.
But Bott did the God survey and proved that more than half of United Church clergy don’t believe in a theistic god – according to my definition. And more than half of United Church clergy don’t believe in a traditional god – according to Mark Toulouse’s definition. We were both right but it’s a sad thing to only be right in one’s own mind so let’s take a closer look at the details.
The God survey results
The results triggered some sensational headlines, at least one of which was as accurate as the ones you read in the grocery store line-up. The United Church Observer, in its October issue, explored the survey’s significance. Researcher Jane Armstrong noted that the results could not be extrapolated to any generalizations because the sample had not been random. Bott had only sent it to his own Facebook friends and two Facebook groups to which he belonged, one of which is Cruxifusion, a group on the extreme right wing of the United Church. And people self-selected which further undermines the random nature of the survey. In a last ditch effort to dilute its bias, Bott sent the God survey out to all UCC presbyteries. Without the response time they needed to get approval to send it out, however, many didn’t forward it. Clergy who did receive it from their presbytery had little time to complete it before the survey closed. Still, Bott expressed his excitement about the findings and the Moderator, Jordan Cantwell, said she hopes it widens the dialogue.
Statistics, statistics, statistics
Looking at statistics can be an exercise in creativity. Look at any set of statistics every morning for a week and you’ll find something new almost every day. It was easy to look at the results of the God survey and come up with the headline that 95% of United Church clergy believe in God. But that’s not a very meaningful statistic. When each respondent may have a different idea of god, something the United Church has nurtured*, only the five percent who say they don’t believe in god at all are really telling you anything. I can legitimately say I believe in god because I, too, like so many other clergy have had to configure a definition I could live with that didn’t include “casting the finally impenitent into eternal damnation”** or dozens of other attributes or behaviours I could neither abide nor believe in.
I could say I’m a panentheist, an easy obfuscation for me because I still can’t tell you what that really means in terms of on-the-street-this-is-what-god-is-doing-for-me-personally-or-for-the-world:maybe-nothing-maybe-everything. God is the universe. God is beyond the universe. God interpenetrates the universe. Those who embrace panentheism are passionate about it. I’m not passionate about that definition so I’d best leave it be.
Perhaps I could say the god I believe in is supernatural because it can’t be weighed or drawn or even described using the blunt force trauma of the written or oral language tools we have at our disposal; but then, neither can “love”. Is love supernatural? It certainly seems to have healing and transformative powers. Perhaps that is a supernatural effect of a neurological function. I mean, love might transform but it might also fail. Having the neurological process unfold doesn’t mean the result will be healing. We just don’t know. So maybe there is something else to it. Some alchemy or other. But those prerequisite neurological synapses suggest natural … Best not go there, either.
When god is beyond anything we can pin down, explain, examine, or unleash, defintions of it become pretty vague. Yellow can be my favourite colour if I add a little blue and cross that fine line that takes it into green but I’d be damned if I could point to where that line actually lay. Similarly, my definition of god can be an iota different from someone else’s and completely different at the same time.
In fact, there are so many fine lines in the definition of god that whatever it once meant is totally obscured with the overlay of our legion definitions. Exploring the results of Bott’s survey may clear up where some of those lines lie. Because his intention was to prove something I said right or wrong, however, he neglected to include other very important characteristics of the god people do or don’t believe in such as where god resides or if one can have a personal relationship with god. Perhaps, in fact, he forgot to include the most important concern to people inside and outside the church: Does the god we call God do anything? Does it heal the sick? Does it answer some prayers and not others? Does it open a window when a door closes? Does it whip up the weather or cause drought? Does it punish us for not loving it or for any of the billions of transgressions we can wage against it, ourselves, our fellow humans or our planet? Does it treat some people well and others poorly for no particular reason other than the accident of their place of birth? Does it know the cure for cancer but just isn’t ready to share it yet? Does it do anything other than comfort us in our ignorance?
Bott forgot to ask that question. And so his results may be of interest to those in the church who are keen on drawing the you’re-in-you’re-out line, but it isn’t much help in clarifying what the god we do or don’t believe in is and whether we believe it has any way of helping us find our way to a future we’d be proud to hand future generations. If it is, great. If not, I say we get up off our knees and begin working. Now.
That said, I got ninety-eight percent in statistics in my undergrad so I can’t resist taking a read of Bott’s results. Here’s what I see.
Bott’s analysis jumped right in with what he seemed to most want to know: did people agree with Gretta Vosper or not. Indeed, the questions posed in the God survey were phrased in exactly that manner. I am not a professional researcher, but I’m fairly certain that your response to being asked if you agree with someone or not can be influenced by what you think of that person. By using my name in the introduction to the survey and then repeating it throughout, Bott, I believe, undermined the integrity of his own data. Would results have differed if my name hadn’t been used or if the statements had come from Bill Phipps in 2016 rather than in the late 90s? If they had simply asked the questions without referring to me? I don’t know. I’m simply saying that if you want true results in a survey, I would think it imprudent to start off by naming someone many in your demographic report to respond to with “visceral reactions” and others believe is “the devil incarnate”. (And yes, those are actual statements about me shared by people in the United Church.) When you do, you risk the possibility that some responses will more about a respondent’s feelings about the person named than they are about the actual data being collected.
Nevertheless, let’s carry on. Bott’s first result analysis shows that 20% of clergy do not believe in a theistic, supernatural god and that 80% believe in a god that is either theistic or supernatural. Because of the phrasing of the question – Would you include yourself in that 50% [of clergy who don’t believe in a supernatural, theistic god as stated by gretta vosper] – Bott really can’t say that the full 80% believe in a theistic, supernatural god. Some may have excluded themselves on the theistic side and others may have excluded themselves on the supernatural side bumping the number up. Indeed, this is immediately evident when the numbers are broken down. The results show that 30% of correspondents identified as not believing in a supernatural god. That drops the number who say they believe in a theistic, supernatural god to at best 70%. I was disappointed to see that The Observer didn’t note that distinction and printed the claim that 80% of clergy in the UCC believe in a theistic, supernatural god which is clearly inaccurate.
When looking at the definitions of god people chose to align themselves with, fifty-one percent claimed panentheism. It is not clear, however, whether a panentheistic god (I believe in the existence of god/God, and while God/god is greater than the universe, includes and interpenetrates it) is supernatural or not. Because it exists beyond the universe, one might expect that it is. If that were the case, however, the number of people who claim belief in a supernatural god should be over 85% since a clear 34% percent believe in a god charged with supernatural revelation (add that to the 51.3% percent who identified as panentheists to get the 85%). But only 70% claimed not to believe in a supernatural god. We can only assume that some who believe in a panentheistic god must believe that god to be supernatural while others must consider it a completely natural phenomenon. Things are getting fuzzier.
But who is suitable for ministry?
They get really fuzzy when you try to figure out who the United Church might now claim is suitable for ministry and who is not. Due to the ruling created by the United Church’s General Secretary, an unelected official, to address “concerns about a female minister in the United Church who calls herself an atheist”, clergy must now be in ongoing affirmation of the questions they answered at their ordination, commissioning, or admission service. That means that ministry personnel must be able to profess belief in a Trinitarian God in order to be suitable for ministry in the UCC. When we look at the statistics, those who are and those who aren’t isn’t immediately apparent but there are alarm bells that begin ringing – and loudly.
The Trinity, or as our Moderator has of late referred it in her recent pastoral letter, the Triune God, is a God who is at once Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Bott’s survey shows that only 1.5% of clergy polled went out of their way to state that they believe in “God as Trinity”. Yikes! That could mean that 98.5% of United Church clergy don’t meet the new theological standard set out by Toronto Conference Executive in its request to the General Secretary! But let’s not get hysterical; what of the other categories? Could those who expressed belief in other kinds of god not also be talking about the Trinity?
It would have been so easy to answer that question if Bott had framed the second category in the God survey in a more orthodox way using the phrases that mark the new orthodox position within the United Church. Instead of “I believe in one god/God as the creator and ruler of the universe, and further believe that God/god reveals godself/Godself through supernatural revelation” had he actually shortened it to “I believe in one God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit”, we’d have our answer. But he didn’t. Which is interesting in itself, don’t you think?
The Maginot Line
A church bent on drawing the Trinity as its Maginot Line should have inspired a question based on the position of that line if it was at all central to the theological discourse within the denomination. It should have been, because of the current review, of especial interest.
If you search the United Church website, however, you will find that none of its documents, including the letters and statements of our Moderator, use the phrase “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” except our statements of doctrine. Those statements must align themselves with the requirements of the World Council of Churches where the Trinity is the lowest common denominator holding churches together. The word “triune” only shows up in in the Moderator’s latest pastoral letter which broke her silence regarding the potential (pending) split in the church due to the drawing of the Trinitarian line. The word “Father”, which might be expected to be used in liturgies or social justice statements in a Trinity dominant church, outside those same doctrinal pieces, only appears once in reference the god called God, and that in the title of a hymn. Clearly, the main image of god in the United Church is not Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, despite what our statements of doctrine attest. Which is very likely why it didn’t occur to Bott to include it.
Still, it is important to explore the categories presented in the God survey and see if any of them might be construed in such away that the majority of United Church clergy could claim ground on Toronto Conference’s side of the UCC’s freshly painted line. The categories are panentheists, traditionalists, naturalists, metaphorical believers and a few others.
The Holy Trinity
Which categories could be assumed to belong with Toronto Conference or be identified as traditional, Trinitarian believers? Definitely the traditionalists and the 1.5% who identified as Trinitarians. That’s 35.6% of clergy polled.
After we have that nailed down, however, we have to make assumptions using logic, a challenging and slippery tool when in the hands of believers. Let’s assume that those in the God survey who identified as naturalists, who held metaphorical ideas, who doubt or deny God’s existence, or refuse to do either, are not traditionalists and would not embrace the idea of a Trinitarian God. I think that is pretty logical though if you’re in one of those categories and do embrace a Trinitarian God, please share what that means to you in the comments section, below. That takes us up to 6.3%.
Next, taking a look at those who identified as “other” and removing any that might fall down on the Father, Son, Holy Spirit side, we get up to 12.3% of clergy claiming a non-Trinitarian concept of god. A not insignificant number when you start holding reviews and finding people unsuitable. Somewhere close to two hundred and thirty clergy would not pass the General Secretary’s test for suitability. Whoops.
But it might be far worse than that. Back to the panentheists. Are they or aren’t they capable of answering “Yes” to the Trinitarian question? Would they be in literal agreement with the concept of the Trinity. Hard to tell. Perhaps, like the question of whether god is supernatural or not, some of them would and some of them wouldn’t. Maybe they just don’t know. Surely many would find it challenging, if not impossible, for a panentheistic god to be described using the terms Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In a recent chat on Facebook, I asked a colleague who identifies as a panentheist, if he could answer the question, “Do you believe in God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?” with a “Yes.” He didn’t answer me. I asked again. He still didn’t answer me. So, let’s suppose that whether panentheists identify as theists or supernaturalists, they are not Trinitarians or are very odd ones. Again, there are going to be people who get screaming mad about me “defining them” but I’m looking at every definition of panentheism I can find and not once have I seen Trinitarian or the words Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; more often than not, the writing clearly delineates the two as separate and different. If you’re an exception, please share your understanding of a Trinitarian panentheistic god called God below.
That creates a very different picture of the God survey than the one shared by Bott, The Observer, and various columnists. Yes, 95% of UCC clergy may claim belief in god, but up until now, we’ve been able, encouraged even, to define god as we have come to understand it. That 95% cuts a wide path down which vast numbers of definitions, mine included, meander. If we slide the panentheists – over 51% of UCC clergy according to Bott’s survey – over to the group that would notbe able to answer “Yes” to the first question asked of ministry candidates at their services or ordination, commissioning, or admission, we leave only that 35.6% of clergy who might honestly profess belief in the Trinity, a god who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit at once. Two-thirds of active United Church clergy, 63.4%, almost twelve hundred of our eighteen hundred active clergy could be found to be unsuitable under the new theological test set by the General Secretary. Whoops again.
United Church clergy do not want their ideas of god mandated; they cringe when someone tries to suggest what they do or don’t believe. Many have recognized that the review process created to address concerns about me creates a theological orthodoxy to which clergy will be called to adhere. Others think this is all about me and that once this review is over, the ruling will never again be used; they can ignore the current proceedings.
Most have no idea that the General Secretary’s ruling can also be used to sweep aside essential agreement, previously entrenched in the Basis of Union and only changeable by a vote of the church’s entire members. They have no idea that clergy who affirmed the ceremonial questions posed to them at their ordination, commissioning, or admission, who are called to meet those questions a second time in a review process, may be required to meet them literally. There will be no room for metaphor or stretchy theist definitions when the determination of suitability is based on a literal belief in the Trinity.
I will go through with a Formal Hearing unless the church clarifies its theological position for me prior to that process and proves it a waste of our time. The General Secretary, at the request of Toronto Conference, redrew the theological landscape upon which we have laboured and ministered for over ninety years. In doing so, she closed off access to that wide theological swath upon which we used to meander, exploring understandings of god, Christianity, and church. She has installed upon it a very narrow the gate through which we must all now squeeze. Biblical or not, I know many would rather the wide swath than the narrow gate and dialogue to doctrinal censure. And so I will attend the Formal Hearing and lay my credentials down in a bid to remove the blight of the General Secretary’s ruling from the United Church.
There are a lot of people who are arguing over whether or not I belong in the United Church. The real question with which you should concern yourself, however, is, “Do you?”
*From the preface to A Song of Faith: This is not a statement for all time but for our time. In as much as the Spirit keeps faith with us, we can express our understanding of the Holy with confidence. And in as much as the Spirit is vast and wild, we recognize that our understanding of the Holy is always partial and limited.
**Taken from the Nineteenth Article of Faith in the Basis of Union.
Last night, I celebrated with a family the first birthday of their beautiful, strong, one year old daughter. She was born here in Canada, far from her parents’ families and friends, the first Canadian in a refugee family. Her early birth, a year ago, brought them joy in a time of loss and sorrow when, because of anti-secular extremists, they had been forced to flee to Canada. Here, she will grow up in a secular society that respects her right to freedom from religion just as it respects the rights of others to freedom of religion.
This week, I was privileged to correspond with a supporter and clarify my movement beyond the use of the word “god” in the leadership of my congregation, West Hill United.
My understanding of god, one I began to develop many, many years ago under the tutelage of the United Church, simply could no longer bear the weight of theism, and certainly not of an interventionist supernatural realism. And I realized, about fifteen years ago, that it was the latter two things – the supernatural and interventionist aspects of god – that most of these last two (three?) generations have rejected. So I stopped using the word. My concept of god held neither and did not need the word god to be shared with others.
Twelve years after deciding that I could no longer compromise the reach of West Hill’s ministry by insisting on using a word in a manner whole generations do not understand, I identified as an atheist.
In 2013, I learned of a whole new layer of disdain being placed on the word “atheist” in areas of the world where religious extremism was on the rise. As the birthday girl’s daddy said last evening, the new atheism has been very effective – it has promoted a backlash of intolerance that is violent and deadly. (Thank you, Christopher HItchens, et al.) Four secular Bangladeshi authors had been arrested and were being threatened with execution because they were “atheists”, labelled so in order to incite hatred against them. And in Turkey, Fazil Say, a world-renowned pianist, had been sentenced to ten months in prison for actually identifying as an atheist on social media.
What??!!?? In 2013??!!?? In a secular country??!!??
I’d labelled myself before. In With or Without God, I identified as a non-theist. In Amen, I’d gone further in order to clarify my lack of belief in a supernatural realm or any such power active in this one; I’d identified as a “theological non-realist.” These labels have proven to be palatable within church circles. But they meant the same thing as the beliefs for which five men were being persecuted and for which secular blogger Rajib Haider had already died. I took the label.
In the last seventeen months, I have learned what the cost of the label atheist is, even here in Canada. My suitability as a minister was not questioned as long as the work I did fell into the realm of “sharing the good news” or preaching something most in liberal churches would call “the way of Jesus” – a work that focuses a community on the values of love, justice, compassion, and forgiveness. As a non-theist, I was no threat. As a theological non-realist, I was probably misunderstood. But as an atheist? How could that be tolerated?
I am aware that there are many who are angry because of what they suppose my purposes have been as I have attempted to make a conversation public. It wasn’t supposed to be a conversation about the fact that I’m an atheist (as well as a theological non-realist and a non-theist). It was supposed to be a conversation about prejudice, religious extremism, the need to struggle for the right to freedom from religion wherever religion was used to oppress, deny rights, incite hatred. It was supposed to invite The United Church of Canada, a tolerant, diverse, and inclusive denomination to join the struggle for the protection of individuals who were, as it turned out, soon to be targeted for assassination. In that, I’ve clearly failed.
But we had birthday cake last night and one little girl can grow up in a freedom that has fast deteriorated in her parents’ native Bangladesh. For her, I’d do it all over again. It is my hope that as she grows, churches here in Canada and nations around the world will slough off their fear and prejudice against the word “atheist” and recognize that it really isn’t doctrinal belief that matters at all; it’s the way we choose to live our lives.