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.
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.
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.
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.
This past Thursday, my lawyers, Julian Falconer and Akosua Matthews, the Chair of West Hill’s Board, Randy Bowes, and about fifty supporters from West Hill and the wider church accompanied me to a meeting of Toronto Conference’s sub-Executive Committee. West Hill and I had been invited to make presentations to the Committee in response to the recommendations made by the Interview Committee of Toronto Conference when it had acted as the Ministry Personnel Review Committee in the review of my effectiveness as a minister in The United Church of Canada. As everyone knows, that Committee found me to be unsuitable for ministry in the United Church and recommended a formal hearing be undertaken to place my name on the Discontinued Service List.
I lament that I have not made sure that everyone in the UCC knows what the ruling that allowed for my review looks like and how it can be applied. I should have shared my concerns about it a year ago. Trying to deal with a review of your ministry while remaining the sole ministry personnel in a vibrant congregation, however, is a challenge. So I apologize for not getting those concerns out to you in a more timely manner. Considering it was better late than never, however, I determined to write a series of blog posts to share the breadth of my concerns with you.
I had begun to share those concerns in Parts One and Two of Sea Change in The United Church of Canada. I had hoped that I would have an opportunity to blog a bit more about my concerns related to this review and the future of the United Church. But I was knocked off that intention when Toronto Conference, without my knowledge or permission, published the findings of the Review Committee and shared them with the media. Within a couple of hours of reading the report which described me as unsuitable for ministry, I saw the news tweeted out by Colin Perkel of the Canadian Press. David Allen, Executive Secretary of Toronto Conference, had shared it with him and other members of the press. Suddenly, Randy, annie, West Hill’s Administrator, and I were in a rush to try to get the news out to West Hill’s community before they learned of it from news sources. We managed to do that for most members. Some saw it on CP24. Others saw it first on Facebook. This wasn’t how we’d planned it to be. Rather, we had planned a “huddle” for last Sunday. By then, however, most people in the United Church knew I’d been deemed unsuitable.
We rolled with it. You get used to that when you’re under this kind of scrutiny.
With my legal team at Toronto Conference sub-Executive
Back to this past Thursday. The meeting was called to receive and consider the recommendations of the Review Committee. The finding is the finding: I’m unsuitable. The Conference can’t do anything about that. What they can do is try to work with the recommendations and decide whether to follow them or not. Personally, I’m not sure what room they have to work with when someone is found to be unsuitable, but I’ll let them struggle with that. I’ve still a whole congregation’s worth of ministry to attend to.
Because I do not speak from notes, my presentation was prepared but not written out. I chose to speak on the same topic I will speak on tomorrow at West Hill: generosity. And rather than come up with my personal list of things I love about the UCC, I went to Wikipedia and simply wrote down the list of firsts. Common knowledge. Nothing overdone. Simply the facts. So here’s my presentation augmented with some thoughts by Julian. You can listen to it or read the transcribed notes below.
Stole from the first service of ordination of Roman Catholic WomenPriests.
I wore a very special piece of silk around my waist as a cummerbund. It is a hand painted, multi-coloured stole given to me by Bishop Marie Bouclin on the occasion of her ordination. Marie was ordained at West Hill United in the first on-land service of ordination held by the Roman Catholic Womenpriests. The presiding bishop at that ordination service was Bishop Patricia Friesen. She had, in fact, given the stole to Marie; it had originally been worn by Bishop Friesen on the occasion of her own ordination, a service that took place on the Danube in 2002. That was the first ordination of women into and out of the Roman Catholic Church in its history. That its placement on Patricia’s shoulders that day both signified her ordination and her excommunication seemed to make the stole the perfect accessory for Thursday’s meeting.
Here are the transcribed notes of my and Julian’s presentations.
Thank you for gathering today to have this conversation. I think that it is important for us to reflect on the report that came out of the Interview Committee. When I went into that room to have that conversation, I went in with a spirit of collaboration. I did not go in expecting an interrogation and I’m … expecting that that will continue today. I am expecting that a collaborative approach and a dialogue approach will take place.
I wanted to speak a little bit about how we got into this room today, those of you who have come as spectators, those of you who are members of the sub-Executive, and those of you who have come to speak. We come from a variety of trajectories to this room.
Some of us have been life-long members of The United Church of Canada, born into a denomination that, itself, was born less than a century ago. But born into a progressive understanding of theology, of scholarship, of welcoming a diverse and eclectic group of people within its walls and under its roof so that it could be about the work of transforming society and making it a community of love, of justice and of compassion. So, many of us have come through that.
Some of us have joined the church from other Christian denominations. But there are many in this room who have come who had no denomination, no Christian relationship, no relationship with any faith tradition whatsoever, who’ve felt the need for a community that would call them to those things that the United Church speaks that it is about – to compassion, to justice, to living in right relationship. I welcome you to this space, to the court that is formed here today, those of you for whom this [kind of gathering] is yet a strange thing but who have come here through West Hill United Church and what it has offered to you.
Throughout the period of this review, it has been a challenge to remain effective as a minister while trying to respond to the many needs and concerns of the review itself. And so, on occasion I have conflated things that I have had to do in order that I’d only have to do them once. We have been, over the course of the last several weeks at West Hill, looking at the attitudes of mindfulness and walking our way through those attitudes. Ironically, last Sunday, the attitude we explore was Acceptance, had been laid out several weeks before and the readings chosen some time before but they fit the nature of what was happening that week. And so, because I don’t shoot birds and don’t advocate the shooting of birds, I will cast two seeds with one hand today and I will share with you my thoughts on this week’s attitude, this week’s mindfulness attitude and that is Generosity.
I do this because I believe that that is the tradition of The United Church of Canada and I call you to generosity.
I have with me the reading that will be shared with the church this Sunday, a reading that comes from a book by Rebecca Solnit called A Paradise Built in Hell. Rebecca studied disasters beginning with the earthquake and fire in San Francisco in 1906 and ending with Hurricane Katrina in 2006. She found that in every instance the first thing that people do is reach out to one another, to hold one another in care, to ignore whatever barriers may have existed between them, whether cultural, racial, or socio-economic, to just leave those behind and to just be with one another as individuals. And so her book is a profound contribution to who we can be as individuals in society.
This is actually quoted from Krista Tippett’s On Being, a conversation that Solnit had with Tippett on the radio about that book.
And I think of that as kind of this funny way the earthquake shakes you awake, and then that’s sort of the big spiritual question. How do you stay awake? How do you stay in that deeper consciousness of that present-mindedness, that sense of non-separation, and compassion, and engagement, and courage, which is also a big part of it, and generosity. People are not selfish and greedy. So … the other question is why has everything we’ve ever been told about human nature misled us about what happens in these moments? And what happens if we acknowledge, as I think people in the kind of work that neuropsychologists and the Dalai Lama’s research projects and economists are beginning to say, … what if … everything we’ve been told about human nature is wrong, and we’re actually very generous, communitarian, altruistic beings who are distorted by the system we’re in, but not made happy by it? What if we can actually be better people in a better world?
And so I am framing my words today in terms of earthquakes, the earthquakes that happened, that brought the United Church into being, that have taken place during the history of the United Church and recognize that the moment that we are in right now is a moment of an earthquake.
Perhaps the very first earthquake in The United Church of Canada came about before it was even formed. When the three denominations coming into union could not agree what would happen after union. What would happen with that statement of faith that had been written in 1908 and that was going to be embraced by the new denomination in 1925? What would happen to those who had made ordination vows, who had accepted statements of faith that were not reflected in that document? It was a quake of a serious sort and one that threatened to undermine the entire concept of union and not allow it to take place. And then one individuals from the Congregationalists, a denomination that had come into being from the Anglican Church, a dissenting denomination, had an idea and offered the idea of essential agreement to the church. [It] meant that all those clergy that had come in from denominations that were joining the union would have the privilege of carrying their own beliefs into union, seeing them recognized, perhaps not fully, but honoured the way they were brought in from their traditions. Essential agreement was born.
What happened with essential agreement was that it quickly allowed us to also ordain people who also could say “I hold to that, but there are some issues here.” Because already in 1925 those who founded the church knew that those statements of faith were already at question. There were already people who came into union who questioned the reality of a god with beingness and spoke of a god as metaphor. And so already, that conversation was beginning to rumble under the surface and continue. Because of that, the United Church could find, as we have on so many issues since, a common ground on how to be with one another, not necessarily what we believe, but how to be: to call ourselves to justice, tinged and woven together with love; to call ourselves to compassion; to call ourselves to a greater vision.
And so one of the first things that the United Church did, following on another denomination in the United States, was to ordain women. Did we really want women in leadership? Has it not just been downhill ever since? Richard Holloway put that question to the Church of Scotland because he saw that that was the stitch that, taken out of biblical inerrancy, if you take that stitch out and women are ordained, the whole piece starts to unravel, and so perhaps we, women, have been the beginning of that.
But we looked at that, and we looked at the challenges, and we looked at the losses, and the costs that would have to be paid, and we said, these are important costs for us to assume, for us to embrace, because it is right that women should be allowed to lead in this diverse and great church as we challenge the nation to embrace a new understanding of Christianity.
Shortly after that another earthquake hit in the form of the Second World War. Japanese Canadians were being lodged in internment camps and refused [permission] to move freely throughout community. The United Church recognized the earthquake, the shame inherent in that and it quickly spoke against that practice at that time.
Shortly after that, they took a step back and looked at the residential schools that they had inherited at union. In 1949, they began closing those schools, finally recognizing that the tragedy that they had been for First Nations and indigenous peoples and their heritage across the decades.
We stepped up and spoke loudly and clearly about universal health care in the 1950s, recognizing that it was a right that all Canadians should share. We weren’t popular about that, but we asked ourselves “What is generosity if not allowing other people health?” We stepped into that work and we did it proudly.
And then I was born. (laughter) It’s not funny. I was!
I was born in the year that a statement was agreed upon that would guide the creation of The New Curriculum. Ten years before John [A. T.] Robinson’s book [Honest to God] was published, a committee started to look at ways that we could bring contemporary Christian scholarship around the Bible, around Christology, around theology, could bring it to the people in the pews. Because we recognized that even in 1925 there was a gap between what academia talked about in terms of theology and what the people in the pews talked about, that gap was widening every day. And the UCC did not want that gap to be there. So in 1952 they began. In 1958 they set the parameters. In 1964 the first book was published, The Way and the Word, written by Donald Mathers, Principal of Queen’s Theological College at the time. I went to school with his sons and I knew how he was treated and the difficulty it was for him to absorb some of the vitriol that he received for being so involved in that work.
But his [Mathers’] work was illuminated by people like Harvey Cox whose work in The Secular City, noted that we couldn’t go forward with exclusively myth and symbol. We needed to build a tradition that taught the values that were inherent in our tradition and needed to be made available to all. That as long as we continued to truck in these fine-tuned and symbolic rituals and in the myths that were myths but not understood to be by the people, that we were sidelining ourselves from what full community could be.
And at the same time, John A. T. Robinson wrote his work, Honest To God, and talked about a non-theistic understanding of God, challenging the church around the world to stop using the word “god” for at least ten years (sic)* so that we could, if we were gong to reclaim it, by the time it was reintroduced it, it would have such a different meaning that people wouldn’t recognize it from before. That’s when I was born.
Shortly after that Canada was asked to welcome draft dodgers [fleeing the Vietnam draft] from the United States and its initial reaction was that it could not do that. But it quickly changed its opinion about draft dodgers and there are now, many of them, welcomed, contributing members of Canadian society.
And then the question, “Can a woman’s name really go on the ballot for the position of Moderator? Can we tolerate that? Will we survive that kind of change in the United Church? We ordained them but, seriously … ? Seriously …?” Yes! And Lois Wilson became the first female Moderator in The United Church of Canada.
Not long after that, “In God’s Image” was published. A study that looked at issues of sexuality. A study that looked at issues such as abortion and a woman’s right to decide what happens with her own body. It was so cutting edge that people who wrote that got vitriolic mail and were torn down and derided in Presbytery meetings and in public for having brought that work forward.
We found our way toward a First Nations’ Apology, the 30th anniversary of which we just celebrated.
And we worked shoulder to shoulder to dismantle apartheid in South Africa.
Every single time the idea of generosity could be lifted up out of a situation because we had put it there. We had challenged that generosity be part of the story, part of the reality.
The United Church of Canada, I often say when I am speaking around the world, I often describe the United Church of Canada as a table, a table that has a number of voices around it, diverse voices, diverse theologies, diverse social justice understandings, diverse perspectives on the environment, on the economy, on politics. But there is always one empty chair at that table. and the United Church, with courage, has invited the people from whom they least want to hear to sit down in that chair and they have emboldened themselves to listen to that person to the truth that that person has shared with them about sexuality, about indigenous rights about the economy about diverse issues, about gender identity. About … anything. Welcome. Sit down with us. Let us hear your story. Let our hearts be broken by what it is you have suffered and may we find our way to generosity.
And so we have continued to change.
The United Church, over the past 15 years has watched a transformation take place in a congregation. In 2001, when I preached that sermon totally deconstructing God, quite unsuspecting that I was going to do that, and I was embraced by my congregational members like never before (I’m sure they thought I was having a complete breakdown). But my board sat down with me to discuss our pastoral relationship – the bond that had brought us together – to determine together if that bond had been broken, whether I had compromised the strength of that bond. They boldly said, “Let’s go there. Let’s find what might be beyond the language that ties us to a theological perspective that is not shared with those out there.”
And why we did that was because The United Church of Canada had been, for generations, the voice that mitigated the struggle for the social fabric of community, the social fabric of a nation. The United Church is why Canada has the social democratic values that it does, because over and again it stepped in and spoke truth that needed to be heard by all Canadians.
We have abdicated our responsibility to Canadians by not standing strong in that argument for social mores, for the centre of our community. And we have done that because we have believed that belief was what brought us and held us together. That theological doctrine and dogma is what we can represent best in our Sunday gatherings and in our annual meetings. That if we tie ourselves to the archaic language of long ago, that that will help us retain our understanding of who we are.
We aren’t people of a theological pedigree. We are people of a pedigree of generosity. We have lived that out every single time an earthquake has hit us. Every single time we have had the opportunity to speak truth into a moment of fear and loss and uncertainty, we have spoken about generosity and we have been those people.
Early in this millennium, maybe about 2005, 2006, Reginald Bibby started looking [again] into what was happening to religion in Canada, what was happening specifically to Christianity in Canada. He is the “go to” sociologist who tells us what we look like. And he knew that religion was declining and he knew it was declining fast.
But his latest studies showed that we could build again, that there were religious groups that were going to grow. It was very clear that statistics showed that, just as it always had, it would continue into the future. The size of a Christian church was going to be proportional to those who were accepting those who were immigrants to Canada. In the 1950s and the 1960s that was white Christians who were coming from Europe and from Protestant countries. That has shifted and changed.
The United Church looked at that trajectory that Reginald Bibby identified and said, you know we need to go in a direction that would welcome immigrants. But you know, they made a mistake about that. They felt that that meant that we needed to move in a more conservative direction; we needed to embrace a more conservative theology.
I think that if they had flipped that graph [of decline] upside down they would have seen the truth of what was happening since the beginning of the millennium. They would have seen that although few people would acknowledge or admit that they didn’t have any belief in god or that they didn’t have a connection with a church, that though many people at the beginning of the century weren’t really open about sharing that, less so down south than up here, that curve was growing at an incredible rate.
What an opportunity the United Church might have had if had recognized that if we moved one quarter of a step from where we were and we focused ourselves and poured ourselves into generosity, which has been our code for everything we ever touched, if we moved one quarter of a step into generosity and we let go of some of that language that we used that keeps us apart from people, whether we are someone who believes strongly in god as a being who intervenes in the natural affairs and in our lives or whether we don’t, we could leave hold of that language. We could leave hold of that language and we could bring people into community that spoke about what, underneath, we shared – no matter what our beliefs were – that spoke about generosity and compassion and coming together to learn how to live in right relationship with oneself, first, and with others, and with this planet. And rather than continuing to hemorrhage the numbers we had in the UCC, we might have made a difference. We might have not lost that struggle for the centre of our communities which we have now left to religious fundamentalists and libertarian relativists, a mix that can only create confusion and disorientation and trauma.
I come here today because I love the United Church. I have loved what it has stood for. I have loved what it has been. I love the people around me who have been nourished by it who have been trained within it, who have found their way beyond the boxes that we now find ourselves moving into. So I come with love but I come with lament. Lament mostly because this is the first opportunity that I have been able to talk with you that wasn’t in response to a particular set of questions. Lament because you have never sat down and talked with these noble people who have carried this work no matter what the costs have been – and they have been great – and who have continued to move forward. I come with lament because the system, the process that has been created here allows for very little room.
And you need room. You need room for generosity. Not just in this room but in the church beyond us.
Chair, members of Conference Executive, my timer says 9 minutes left and that’s scary if you give a lawyer 9 minutes so I want you to know that I am extremely grateful for your patience in allowing me to supplement what Reve. Vosper’s said but I am aware of the fact that hearing from the lawyer’s isn’t really what this hearing is about. I’ll tryto be helpful rather than self-indulgent.
One of the documents that was made part of the record today came to you Rev. Allen last night at 6:47 p.m. and it is a email from Rev. Bill Wall, Retired Rev. Bill Wall. I asked Rev. Vosper this morning. I asked Gretta. I don’t know why we do this stuff, so I asked Gretta this morning, “Do you know him?” She doesn’t know him. She’s never corresponded with him.
I find that interesting because the words in this email are just so striking. He is the past executive secretary of Saskatchewan conference for 15 years from 1985 – 2000. As recently as last night, this is what he wrote, “After carefully reading …” And I’m picking pieces of this so please forgive me if it looks like I’m cherry picking but the gist of the entirety of this is part of the record and I encourage everyone to read the whole thing. “After carefully reading the report of the review committee, and other relevant materials, I’m convinced that the sub-executive is facing a decision that could substantially alter the future of the United Church of Canada. In addition to damaging the life of one of its more capable and committed ministers. Gretta has proved herself committed to principles the United Church has stood for over the course of its history.” And he lists those principles: “An educated ministry, freedom of thought, compassion for those who suffer, and social justice. Whatever Gretta has said about the person of Jesus, I suspect he would recognize her as a true follower and therefore deserving of the title Christian even if she doesn’t claim that title herself.”
Now, I am the least example of a religiously oriented and devoted person and so I don’t want to in any way pretend that I am or that I have knowledge that I don’t have. I want to be respectful of your devotion and the you have shown to your own church. I have had the honour of assisting the UC in a number of capacities over the years. I said this to the interview committee and I’m kind of honoured that they repeated the words several times. I’ve always been struck by the big tent that the United Church is. And I said that to the interview committee when I closed last time. But what struck me most was this letter because the way he puts it after describing Gretta as something that she doesn’t claim for herself. “The decision facing you is whether to facilitate an unprecedented step, that of putting one of our ministers on trial for pushing the boundaries of theological thought. I trust you will ponder deeply the consequences of your decision and ask yourself how many ministers in the United Church could honestly reaffirm their vows for ordination, commissioning, or admission without the benefit of the essential agreement provision, a provision that for 91 years has provided ministers with some leeway in theological interpretation and personal integrity. This destructive and unjust process could stop here if you are willing to do what is necessary to stop it and I respectfully ask you to do just that.”
Now, the recognition that Gretta Vosper has all of these things – an educated ministry, freedom of thought, compassion for those who suffer, and social justice – this sounds like the heart of your organization. As I said, I know very little and I mean to be respectful but I have to say this, you are a victim of your own essence, your openness, your fearlessness, your willingness to embrace critical debate is to be contrasted with the thought police of many religions. You’re a victim of that now because you’re engaged in it. I have to say that I worry, as an outsider, that I fear if you lose Gretta, I fear you will lose a piece of yourself far bigger than Gretta, far bigger than West Hill. I look at the report, a report where twenty percent of the members, where four of twenty-three, I’m not trying to make the numbers bigger, I’m not trying to do the lawyer thing, where four of twenty-three, twenty percent of that interview committee, saw what Gretta stood for, as they saw it, the same as many ministers and lay persons. Now you can agree or disagree with them but obviously this is a very principled debate for which there is no right or wrong answer.
Putting Gretta on trial isn’t a way to have a principled debate. It’s a way to ensure my kid goes to a college in the US, I suppose. It’s the worst thing you can do to yourselves. I am the carpenter who’s telling you, don’t hire the carpenter. I’m the plumber who’s telling you, don’t hire the plumber. Don’t reduce this to a piece of litigation. I have been in enough formal hearings. Some of the worst and most atrocious allegations. Some of the pettiest allegations. I have seen over the years a number of different matters tried by way of formal hearing. What is interesting about this one is it is one of the few times I will honestly tell you a hearing is a huge mistake. Dividing your church as you can see it doing it right now, isn’t healthy. A hearing that decided that Gretta should no longer be a minister will not end the matter. It will actually start a much bigger fissure in your church, in your community. For what end? She is obviously a healthy part of your process. She contributes. She makes you healthy by recognizing the importance of debate and dialogue. She makes the point that you have created safety for ministers and congregations alike. You have created that safe space. Don’t be afraid to embrace it now.
I’m not saying reject the Interview Committee outright if you feel that would go too far. Put it on hold. There’s no rush. Put it over for a year. Structure a debate. You have heard, you have heard from the dissenting members, you have heard from extremely credible individuals such as Rev. Wall, but there are many more. It is within your power to adjourn this for one year, that is entertaining the recommendation for a hearing while you structure the debate that needs to take place.
Dialogue not discipline, is really recognizing that there are more than Gretta Vosper at stake here. And I understand the theory that your membership is in decline but I can’t believe that a way to fix numbers is by becoming more closed, more dogmatic and less vital as a trade place for ideas. She represents ideas. She represents, actually, the essence what I thought the United Church was about. What interests me and I say this candidly, most of the cases I do, you will understand, the clients never help themselves. It’s probably not a great idea they talk. I’ve never seen many clients in the stand make their case better by the time they leave the stand. I say that with all due respect to all of the clients I deeply love. Gretta is an exception. When Gretta speaks, we all listen. There’s a reason for that. Rev. Wall said it best. A true follower, deserving of the title even if she doesn’t claim that for herself. Please don’t lose sight, please don’t lose sight of the opportunity here to embrace dialogue. This does not have to be a win/lose. This need not be a litigation paradigm. This needs to be a structured and open dialogue representative of who your church is. Thank you.
Audrey Brown, President, Toronto Conference
I do need to note that, as part of the United Church tradition we don’t, … we ask people to refrain from responding to speakers by clapping or by acting in any way. I appreciate your enthusiasm, but I did ask that you remain silent observers and would ask you to continue to do, or to begin to do that.
*John A. T. Robinson actually called for the word to be unused for a generation.
In the United Church, there are only two reasons a minister can be disciplined. One is for insubordination – pretty straightforward. The other is for effectiveness – maybe not so obvious. The processes for both are covered by the handbook, Pastoral Charge and Ministry Personnel Reviews. In Part One of this series, I discussed how a complaint against ministry personnel can be made and the difference between the then and the now with respect to that process. This post will take a look at the concept of effectiveness and its new definition.
I like to believe that the handbooks the United Church has published are helpful. I also like to believe they are used by the different levels of the church and their respective committees. Both of those things would make it easy to figure out how to go about a review of effectiveness. And, to a certain degree, they do.
The Ethical Standards and Standards of Practice for Ministry Personnel (ESSPMP) handbook is the go to guide for exploring what is and is not effective leadership in the United Church. A breach of any of the elements within it could, and very often should, trigger a conversation about a minister’s effectiveness. That conversation, whether it takes place with or without the individual concerned, may lead to a review of his or her effectiveness using the review process set out in the handbook mentioned above.
The Standards of Practice set out in ESSPMP outlines expectations in the areas of administration, community outreach and social justice, continuing education, participation in the denomination and its communities, faith formation and Christian education, leadership, pastoral care, self care, and worship. Each area identifies the basic requirements for effective leadership.
Ethical Standards set out in ESSPMP include appreciation of and commitment to excellence in areas of competence, the understanding of conflicts of interest, personal and professional relationships conduct, one’s relationship with the Law and with people served out of one’s role as minister. They also outline some of the responsibilities of the role with respect to the denomination’s governance and procedures, protecting the integrity of funds and property entrusted to them, self-awareness, and the maintenance of confidence.
It’s a long list and a good one. And, if I do say so myself, I’m pretty effective. Indeed, my congregation ensures that I am and they ought to know. They are the ones who work with me year in and year out. They’ve been doing it for almost twenty years. When there have been situations of conflict or concern, I’ve always pointed to the processes that are available for sorting them out. I imagine that some people who left West Hill during its transition probably wish they’d taken me up on it but the reality is that, according to the standards of practice and the ethical standards, there wouldn’t have been much to argue.
Until now, that is. Now, in order to be effective, you need to be suitable. And that’s a whole other ballgame.
Before you can really understand the difference between what was before the ruling which led to my review and what is now that the ruling is in place, you need to understand how people become leaders in the UCC. Understanding that process may still be rather misleading, though. Because what happened on the way to reviewing my effectiveness hasn’t changed the path toward ordination, commissioning, or admission; it has changed what comes after you’ve been welcomed into leadership. What used to be discerned in the process toward leadership can now be discerned afterward, too: your suitability for ministry.
Getting to lead in The United Church of Canada
Suitability is a big part of the process toward leadership in the UCC. Beginning with the individual’s congregation, he or she is interviewed by three different levels (courts) of the denomination before completing the process. And at each different level, suitability is discerned, the implication being that what one level considers suitable is further refined at the next. If a congregation believes that anyone with a heartbeat is suitable for ministry in the UCC, the Presbytery or Conference is going to demand evidence of a few more qualities and skills.
The United Church currently uses the document Entering the Ministry to help individuals understand the process toward leadership in the church more clearly. It sets out the process, shares what expectations are and what administrative processes must be completed.
It is also a helpful guide for interviewing committees and helps them focus on what they are looking for in a leader. In an Entering the Ministry appendix, “Discerning a Call”, the church clarifies what it is looking for, what manifests “suitability”. Although most references to “suitability” in The Manual refer to “personal character, motives, and faith,” it is clear that having the attributes share in “Discerning a Call” or the potential to develop them goes a long way toward being found suitable.
• Deep spiritual life: Ministry requires a profound sense and experience of the Spirit of
God within the individual, ongoing discernment of the Holy, and passion for being part
of God’s mission in the world.
• Integrity of self: Authentic ministry is grounded in the integration of the emotional and
spiritual self with acquired knowledge and abilities.
• Understanding of human behaviour: Pastoral ministry requires a well-developed capacity
for active listening. It also requires a psychological and sociological understanding of
human dynamics in individuals and groups.
• Scholarship: The ministry of leadership requires an ability to comprehend and teach
theological concepts, the traditions of the church, and biblical scholarship, as well as to
nurture the faith in others.
• Commitment to and longing for justice: The commitment to work prophetically for all is
the direct result of a robust faith.
• Capacity for critical reflection: The ability to be self-critical, to assess situations
appropriately, and to reflect on one’s actions and their effects on others is important.
• Capacity to be a lifelong learner: The openness to admit there is much to be learned
and a growing demonstration of the willingness to integrate new ideas, patterns of
behaviours, and skills are essential for ministry.
• Appreciation of administration: Ministry requires respect for, and knowledge of,
church polity and the ability to oversee the institutional health and well-being of a
congregation or community ministry. Does the individual understand administration to
be part of the call?
(Entering the Ministry, Appendix A, pg. 25)
As noted above, individuals interested in ministry in the UCC engage with three different levels of the church on the way toward achieving their goal. At every level, suitability is discerned. As stated in the Entering the Ministry handbook,
When the United Church makes a wrong decision and ordains, commissions, or recognizes a person who does not have the calling and gifts for ministry, the committees of the church do a disservice to the individual and to the whole church. The result may be future pain and conflict in a congregation, a large financial burden, and frustration and anger on the part of the individual. To “speak the truth in love” and be honest about perceptions and concerns early in the discernment process will help an individual to make a decision that, hopefully, will be the right one for both the church and the person. (Page 28)
We try to get it right before we ordain, commission, or admit someone to leadership in the United Church. Afterward, effectiveness is the test and it can be a difficult time for both the clergy person and the congregation served. So discerning suitability is way preferable to dealing with a review of effectiveness when the wheels fall off the bus.
The congregation discerns the suitability of lay members for leadership and identifies them as inquirers. It then works with the candidate and the presbytery to further discern what type of ministry the individual is suitable for. This could be ordered – ordained or diaconal – or lay. If the individual is found to be suitable for ordered ministry, the congregation recommends the inquirer to Presbytery to be received as a Candidate. (Note 1)
The Presbytery “enquires” into the “call to ministry, character, motives, academic record, doctrinal beliefs, and general fitness for ministry”. When educational requirements are successfully completed, it recommends the Candidate to Conference for ordination. (Note 2)
The handbook used for the discernment of a call to ministry and the assessment of suitability refers to “the inquirer’s call to ministry, personal character, motives, and faith.” Since “call to ministry” is distinguished from “suitability”, suitability refers to personal character, motives, and faith.
Queen’s Theological College Graduation, 1990. With the soon to be ordained Carolyn Woodall.
The Conference Education and Students committee does the final checking of those seeking leadership in the United Church. While the process will undoubtedly be in flux during the church’s transition into the Effective Leadership structure, candidates continue to be examined in accordance with previous guidelines.
In Toronto Conference, the process is outlined in a document prepared for its 2014-2015 Interview Committee. The exploration of suitability takes place in early interviews while the final interview ascertains “readiness” for ministry.
The General Secretary’s challenge
When asked by Toronto Conference to develop a process to deal with “a minister who describes herself as an atheist”, she didn’t have a lot of wiggle room. The Conference asked her “what process” they could use to deal with concerns they were hearing. The motion the Conference Executive passed specifically asked her to
outline a process for considering concerns that have been raised regarding the on-going status of an ordered minister, with a focus on continuing affirmation of the questions asked of all candidates at the time of ordination, commissioning or admission in Basis of Union 11.3
I know, it is a bit confusing. First the letter seems to ask the General Secretary to choose from the existing processes – they Executive notes that it was not sure “what process” to use which suggests they were considering existing processes. In their motion, however, they ask her to create an entirely new process.
A mixing of kinds
In order to overcome the apparent conflict within Toronto Conference’s Executive Committee’s request, the General Secretary was required to look at the existing processes while considering them in a new light. The existing processes were clearly not up to the task. Indeed, when David Allen met with Randy Bowes, Chair of West Hill United Church, and I to advise us of the request to the General Secretary, he made it very clear that there were no grounds for a review of my effectiveness and no situations of insubordination. Those processes simply wouldn’t work.
And so the General Secretary looked at those processes in a new light. With this new illumination and the new insights it provided, she ruled that a review of effectiveness could be used to discern “continuing affirmation of the questions of ordination, commissioning or admission found in Basis of Union 11.3.”
The questions of ordination, commissioning and admission
You probably don’t have a United Church Manual at hand so here are the questions of ordination, commissioning and admission as found in the Basis of Union section 11.3.
1.Do you believe in God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and do you
commit yourself anew to God?
2. (to each Candidate being ordained) Do you believe that God is calling you to the
ordained ministry of Word, Sacrament, and Pastoral Care, and do you accept this call?
(to each Candidate being commissioned) Do you believe that God is calling you to the
diaconal ministry of Education, Service, and Pastoral Care, and do you accept this call?
3. Are you willing to exercise your ministry in accordance with the
scriptures, in continuity with the faith of the Church, and subject to the oversight and
discipline of The United Church of Canada?”
As it turns out, I never answered those questions. I found the service bulletin of my ordination service while unpacking a box of papers in the basement a couple of months ago. I was ordained by Bay of Quinte Conference in 1993. For that service, the questions of ordination had been rewritten to reflect the well-loved liturgical piece known as The New Creed. The questions I answered had no traditional Trinitarian language in them. I did not say that I believed in God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Who knew?!
Technically, then, asking me the questions from the Basis of Union doesn’t actually confirm whether or not I am in continuing affirmation of the questions I answered affirmatively in Pembroke back in 1993 because they weren’t the questions I answered. But we’re quibbling….
Although Congregations, Presbyteries, and Conferences are on the front lines of the work of discerning suitability for ministry, closely matching what they’re looking for with the requirements for effectiveness, the General Secretary made the one dependent upon the other. From her letter to David Allen:
The questions set out in Basis 11.3 relate to belief in God, call to ministry, and the exercise of ministry within the faith of the Church. They go to the suitability of the person to serve in ministry in the United Church.
I know that the General Secretary has the right to interpret polity but I think that arguing that the questions asked at ordination address the question of the individual’s suitability for ministry is a stretch. Are they being posed in order to get the individual to affirm what has already been discerned by a Congregation, Presbytery, and Conference? Are they the ultimate test of suitability?
And what about all those other things that congregations, presbyteries, and conferences have been looking for, lo, these many years: the deep spiritual life, an integrity of self, an understanding of human behaviour, the willingness and aptitude for study and teaching, a commitment to and longing for justice, the capacity for critical reflection and the desire to be a lifelong learner, and, finally, an appreciation for the administrative tasks of ministry? I don’t find any of those attributes embedded explicitly or implicitly in the questions of ordination.
The General Secretary correctly identifies the questions as relating to belief in God, call to ministry, and the exercise of ministry within the faith of the church, but she’s wrong about them being the ultimate test of suitability. If she’s right, then why don’t we just ask people those questions at the outset and forget about the years of discernment each candidate undertakes with the many people who volunteer and work to support them? If an affirmative answer to those questions is all it takes to discern suitability, then ask them and get it over with.
I’m getting ahead of myself. The General Secretary’s response to Allen’s letter continues:
Within our Polity, the Conference Interview Board is the body that is charged with making the assessment of suitability. The mandate of the Conference Interview Board is set out on page 6 of the Conference Committees Resource  and includes:
(b) assisting presbyteries and other bodies in determining the suitability of people for functioning as ministry personnel in the United Church;
(c) reporting the results of the interview to the referring body and the person interviewed;
In fact, as The Manual notes in several places, it is not just the Conference Interview Board (read “Committee”) that makes the assessment of suitability. They may make the ultimate assessment but suitability has been discerned throughout the process by congregations and presbyteries, as the resource quoted notes.
Forging the final link
The final link that the General Secretary forges in order to introduce theological orthodoxy as the test of suitability is hammered out in her opinion.
In my opinion, a person who is not suitable for ministry in the United Church cannot be “effective” as United Church ministry personnel. Where a question has been raised about the minister’s suitability, the presbytery may consider that a question has been raised about “effectiveness” so as to initiate a review of the minister on that ground. The questions set out in Basis 11.3, which are asked at the time of ordering, are appropriate for assessing on-going suitability.
In order to be effective, one must be suitable. That makes sense. After all, congregations, presbyteries, and conferences across the country work hard to ensure that candidates for leadership in the United Church are suitable: before ordination, commissioning, or admission. Once you’re a member of the pension and benefits plan, it’s effectiveness that gets assessed. And we have guidelines for discerning effectiveness.
The General Secretary could not use those guidelines, however, because they make no assertions about theological orthodoxy. And there were no grounds within them to review me as no complaints had been raised about any of the issues covered in the Ethical Standards and Standards of Practice for Ministry Personnel.
It seems that, guided by the Conference Executive’s motion, the General Secretary situated the idea of suitability within the questions of ordination where they conveniently met the work of the Conference Interview Committee. Welding the questions together with the idea of suitability didn’t even really require that any new functions or committees be created. The Conference Interview Committee, already well schooled in discerning suitability, could easily take up the responsibility. And that is just what she ruled the process would be.
Based on the Polity set out above, I rule that the following process would be appropriate for responding to these kinds of concerns. I will refer to the Conference exercising oversight of ministry personnel rather than the presbytery since this ruling was requested by Toronto Conference.
• The Conference (through its Executive or Sub-Executive) orders a review of the
minister’s effectiveness under Section J.9.3(a) [page 194].
• The Conference may direct the Conference Interview Board to undertake this review,
interviewing the minister with a focus on continuing affirmation of the questions asked of all
candidates at the time of ordination, commissioning or admission in Basis of Union 11.3.
• The Conference Interview Board conducts the interview and reports to the Conference whether, in the Interview Board’s opinion, the minister is suitable to continue serving in ordered ministry in the United Church.
• The Conference receives the report from the Conference Interview Board and decides on
appropriate action in response to it. In making this decision, the Conference may take into
account the Basis 11.3 questions as well as the Ethical Standards and Standards of Practice.
• If the Conference Interview Board reports that the minister is suitable to continue in ordered
ministry, the Conference may decide to take no further action.
• If the Conference Interview Board reports that the minister is not suitable, the Conference may decide to take one or more of the actions contemplated in Section 9.4 [page 195],
• Upon the minister’s completion of the action, the Conference decides whether the minister may continue in paid accountable ministry in the United Church as set out in Section 9.8 [page 196].
If the Conference decides the minister is not ready to continue in paid accountable ministry, it
must recommend that the minister’s name be placed on the Discontinued Service List
What she has really done, then, in the weaving together of the questions of ordination and the concept of suitability is provide United Church conferences with the opportunity to review of ministry personnel on the basis of theological orthodoxy. Any ministry personnel.
That ruling is here to stay.
Basis of Union II. The Pastoral Charge. Section 5.10.2 (4) It shall also be [the Session’s] duty to recommend to Presbytery suitable inquirers to become Candidates.
Basis of Union III. The Presbytery. 6.4.5 It shall be the duty of the Presbytery to examine and where appropriate:
(1) to receive an Inquirer who has been recommended by a Session (or its equivalent) as a Candidate for the Order of Ministry; and
(2) to certify each Candidate to a United Church theological school;
6.4.6 to exercise faithful supervision of each Candidate; to enquire each year into the genuine call to ministry, personal character, motives, academic record, doctrinal beliefs, and general fitness for ministry of each Candidate; and to receive annual reports for each Candidate from the theological school;
6.4.7 to make a recommendation to the Conference regarding each Candidate for the Order of Ministry upon completion of the prescribed requirements for ordination or commissioning;
The process that led to the review of my effectiveness
Over the next few days, I’m going to be posting material pertinent to the United Church disciplinary process that has come to light because of the current review of my effectiveness. That may be of little interest to some of you, especially if you’re not clergy in the UCC. That said, if you know anyone who is ministry personnel within the UCC or who knows of one, I ask that you share it.
There has been a lot of media attention drawn to the review of my effectiveness as a minister in the UCC who identifies as an atheist. But what has not been explored is the incredible change this process has wrought on the United Church disciplinary process. That’s the church that raised me, trained me, and to which I have given the best years of my life. That my ministry has worked such drastic changes upon it is disturbing to me.
The changes in the United Church disciplinary process that are a result of Toronto Conference’s concerns about my leadership need to be understood. Those who know and love the once progressive United Church need to know exactly what the challenges now are.
I’ll begin by sharing a bit about the process that led to the review and my concerns related to it. Those concerns start with the new Effective Leadership and Healthy Pastoral Relationships project. Within that project, presbyteries transferred the oversight of clergy to conferences, a very important part of the new United Church disciplinary process. The effects of that transfer are yet to be completely understood. One of the most challenging problems has come to light because of my review. I’m sharing that with you in this blog.
The Effective Leadership Project
In 2012, the General Council of the UCC voted in favour of introducing the Effective Leadership Project which had been developed over a number of years. It was aimed at streamlining pastoral relations processes in the church. Conferences were invited to participate in pilot projects that would help introduce the project and feel for any challenges it might introduce. Toronto Conference, the one in which West Hill, the community I serve, is situated, engaged the project in this pilot phase.
Transfer of oversight
The pilot project required the freedom to act outside of the standard methods of practice in order to test the new methods out. In May, 2013, the General Council Executive made that move.
Motion: Bev Kostichuk/Florence Sanna 2013-05-16-081
The General Secretary of the General Council proposes that:
1. The following Conferences be authorized to engage in a process for testing the principles
of the Effective Leadership and Healthy Pastoral Relationships approved by the 41 st
b. Montreal and Ottawa
c. Bay of Quinte
h. Manitoba and North Western Ontario
j. British Columbia
k. All Native Circle
2. That the Conferences of Bay of Quinte, Toronto, Hamilton, London, Manitou, British Columbia be exempted from the polity and bylaws of the United Church Manual as detailed in the background section below for the duration of the testing period for the Effective Leadership and Healthy Pastoral Relationships proposal approved by the 41st General Council;
3. That, upon request, the General Secretary be authorized to grant further exemptions from polity and by-laws related to Conference or Presbytery responsibilities for pastoral relationships, needs assessments, and the oversight and discipline of ministry personnel in order to enable testing of the Effective Leadership and Healthy Pastoral Relationships proposal approved by the 41 st General Council.
Wait a minute! We can’t do that. Presbytery has to do it.
Included in the background document was a note that stated presbyteries were to ask their conference to take on the roles presbyteries normally held that were affected by the introduction of the pilot project. That the General Council Executive made the motion didn’t matter. The Basis of Union had granted the presbyteries powers that the General Council could not revoke. Therefore, the presbyteries needed to ask for the change. The oversight of Ministry Personnel was one of the areas transferred to the Conference.
Concerns regarding ministry personnel in the UCC
The section regarding the oversight of ministry personnel, formerly infamously known as “363”, was one of the sections covered in the backgrounder. Within the new section J9, The Manual is explicit about who can raise issues of concern regarding clergy. Presbyteries have to take concerns seriously. But those concerns can’t just come from anybody. The Manual provided for that and ensured that concerns could only come from someone who had first hand knowledge of the situation. If the presbytery was going to raise the concern itself, well, it had a direct relationship with every clergy person within it. All ministry personnel are members of presbytery and are supposed to be in regular attendance of its meetings.
In the United Church disciplinary process related to ministry personnel, the single common element shared by all parties that can raise a significant concern about a minister is that direct relationship had with the minister. The person(s) or court raising the concern know(s) the individual. In fact, they work with them either in the pastoral charge or in the presbytery of which the minister is a member.
9.2 Concerns about Ministry Personnel
The presbytery is responsible for the oversight of ministry personnel. It must take seriously any concerns that come to its attention about any ministry personnel. These concerns may be raised by
(a) the presbytery itself, including any member or committee of the presbytery;
(b) a ministry personnel settled in or appointed to the same pastoral charge;
(c) the pastoral charge supervisor;
(d) the governing body of the pastoral charge; or
(e) a proposal signed by 10 full members of the pastoral charge that the pastoral charge’s governing body has passed on to the presbytery.
And now we must think about the implications
When, in accordance with the direction of the General Council, presbyteries asked conferences to take over the presbyteries’ former oversight role, I wonder if they understood the implication of their request. I don’t think they had really thought through what it would mean for clergy when those raising concerns didn’t have to really know the individual. And I don’t think they really considered that they no longer had the right to raise concerns themselves. Transferring those rights to conferences removed the requirement of direct relationship and made clergy far more vulnerable. The conference, which can now raise a concern with or without the input of anyone who knows the clergy person, may or may not itself have a relationship direct enough to be able to discuss concerns about a minister. Indeed, they might end up going on hearsay and hunches, prejudices and opinions. Indeed, that’s just what happened at Toronto Conference in 2015.
Concerns raised about my beliefs….
It might seem easy to argue that everyone knows what the issue related to my review is: I’m an atheist, for goodness’ sake! But the process for reviewing my theological beliefs didn’t even exist when concerns were raised at a meeting of the Toronto Conference Executive Committee in April, 2015. The United Church disciplinary process was in flux and Toronto Conference was affected by the movement. At that meeting, David Allen, the Executive Secretary,
reported on concerns that have been raised regarding Rev. Gretta Vosper describing herself as an atheist. A letter from Metropolitan United Church was referenced as one of the responses. The Executive Secretary outlined various options to be considered. The Executive discussed what action it wished to take on this matter.
The letter from Metropolitan United Church was from the Chair of the Official Board, Vera Taylor. But if you read it closely, you’ll note that it doesn’t actually name me. Rather, it erroneously refers to West Hill as an atheist church in a letter that seems to be seeking clarity about the theology of the church in general. In a letter to the General Secretary, Allen notes that the letter from Metropolitan United raises concerns about West Hill United Church but he does not say anything about me. The oversight of congregations was not transferred to the Conference; it remained with presbytery. That being the case, and Allen’s original note to the General Secretary having acknowledged the letter was about West Hill, perhaps Toronto Conference should have forwarded the letter to Toronto Southeast Presbytery. That Allen raised it in a Conference Executive meeting and said that it was a response to my self-identification as an atheist, is confusing.
Who are these people?
I received copies of two other letters from conference shortly after the sub-Executive chose to initiate a review of my effectiveness based on the General Secretary’s subsequent ruling. (Look for Part Two, coming next). The conference hadn’t received either of them at the time of its April meeting. It took a year for me to receive them all. The emails and letters were sent to the General Council office or Toronto Conference following the publication of an article in the Toronto Star in March, 2016. That article was short, sassy, written by someone who knew little about religion and less about the United Church, and had at least one serious misquote in it. Which is inconsequential at this point. What matters is that I have no idea who any of these people are.
Whether you know the UCC or not, feel free to comment
Some of the writers, like Colleen who sent her missive through the General Council’s online contact form, are definitely not even related to the United Church. Her opinions, such as her intimation that we should all be Creationists, make it clear that she is not familiar with the United Church at all and was using the Star article to express her derision toward a liberal, mainline denomination in general. I just happened to be the focal point for that derision.
Others, like retired clergy James McKnight, are considerate and respectful. He comes from the position of one who has worked within the United Church all his life. But I have never, to my knowledge, met him. Nor, to my knowledge, has he visited West Hill United.
The handwritten letter from Elaine appears to be from someone who also knows the United Church. She may be a member of the denomination. Again, I do not know if we have ever met or if she has any first hand knowledge of West Hill.
The emails from JoAnne and Ann seem to be from individuals who are not members of the United Church. Ann appears to be aware that Ken Gallinger chose to remain in the pulpit until retirement, disclosing his atheism when he no longer needed to lead services. She has no problem with his choice to do so. Again, I have no idea if I have ever met these women or if they have ever stepped foot in West Hill’s building or attended a service there.
The last email, from Neil, is also, from someone who does not know the United Church from the inside. And, once again, I don’t think we have ever met. His note does remind us, however, of the literal manner in which the beliefs shared on the UCC website are understood and that we really don’t know what anyone means when they use the word “god”.
No more need for direct knowledge about a ministry personnel
So here’s the point of today’s post: Now that conferences have been given the right to raise concerns about ministry personnel, who is going to make sure that those concerns come from individuals who actually have direct experience of the clergy person in question?
Of the Conference Executive members gathered that April day in 2015, to my knowledge not one had ever been at West Hill for a service under my leadership, or engaged either me or West Hill about our work. Not one had ever asked me for clarification about anything I have written or said in public of that has been written about me. Not one had asked me about the significant error in the Star article, an error that raised my own eyebrows. Still, egged on by an outrageous talk radio show hosted by a belligerent, evangelical Christian, and the presentation of a letter that didn’t even name me, they engaged in a conversation about my ministry in the UCC. It was such a powerful conversation that they were sufficiently moved by it to invite the creation of an entirely new process to deal with my beliefs. That process would, from its development onward, require an unprecedented theological orthodoxy of United Church clergy.
Personally, I think that action needed more consideration. I think it warranted a conversation with me. Not a review. A conversation. And they could have easily arranged for such a conversation.
It is important to note that none of this negates the possibility that others, with direct experience of my ministry might have brought forward legitimate concerns within the United Church disciplinary process that should have been heard. My point is that concerns about your ministry no longer need to come from anyone who knows anything about it.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking this is all about me: it isn’t
Given that none of the correspondents and no one around the table that day was at all knowledgeable about the ministry they were discussing in even a rudimentary way, it seems the conference’s oversight of clergy under the Effective Leadership Project has some serious flaws. When its sub-Executive met to invoke the new ruling regarding theological orthodoxy, there was still no one in attendance who knew any more about me than those who had asked for the process. The United Church disciplinary process related to ministry personnel has changed and not for the better.
As a result of the Effective Leadership transfer of oversight of ministry personnel to conference, clergy are now unprotected by The Manual‘s previous requirement of intimate knowledge of their work in order for a review to be launched. And while it might seem obvious to many that, as far as “the atheist minister” was concerned, “something needed to be done”, Toronto Conference’s implementation of its newfound privileges falls far short of the previous care put to the United Church disciplinary process related to ministry personnel.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking that this is about me. This is about process. And the process is now far from safe for clergy. If you are clergy in the UCC, you should be concerned. If anyone, anywhere, member of the United Church or not, manages to get the attention of a conference executive that doesn’t know you and the conversation around the table gets, let’s say, “titillating”, the people around that table will feel justified that they are doing the right thing by initiating a review of your ministry. Even if they know nothing about you. If that doesn’t alarm you, you probably still think this is all about me. And if you do, you’re very badly mistaken.
It was indeed a sad day when presbyteries transferred their right to raise concerns about the ministry personnel in their midst but I don’t think even they knew what it would mean. Whether Toronto Conference Executive’s actions were, at best, the result of misunderstanding the implications of its actions or, at worst, a cavalier misuse of the privilege transferred to it by its presbyteries, the result is the exposure of a deep flaw in the Effective Leadership Project. One can only hope that, once identified, the problem might be corrected rather than embraced.
I met with the Toronto Conference Ministry Personnel Committee. Well, they were actually members of the Toronto Conference Interview Committee which normally interviews candidates for the ministry, but that committee had been seconded to act as the committee that would hear my beliefs and decide whether or not they constituted an affirmation of the questions asked of all candidates for ministry within The United Church of Canada. We met at the offices of Toronto Conference.
Actually, as it turns out, I wasn’t asked the questions asked of all candidates but was asked questions that reflected the church’s “New Creed” written in 1968 and amended since then to become gender inclusive and environmentally sensitive. I’ve posted those questions on my Facebook page if you’d like to see them.
Arriving at hearing with legal counsel Julian Falconer and Akosua Matthews.
It was such an honour to be welcomed to the offices by over thirty members of West Hill, all cheering and wearing their “My West Hill Includes West Hill” t-shirts with “My West Hill Includes gretta” buttons. Most of them stayed throughout the whole afternoon and were there to applaud and hurrah as we came out. I am so grateful for these people and the bonds they have built with one another and with me. Truly, this is what being a congregation is about.
My legal team was amazing. Akosua Matthews took notes throughout and Julian Falconer had his incredibly acute attention tuned to everything happening in the room, only interrupting the process when he believed a question was inappropriately phrased or impossible to answer. I was confident walking in because I knew he would be at my side.
Randy Bowes, the Chair of West Hill, was present as my support person but, despite the incredible support for his being able to speak on behalf of the congregation, he was required to remain a silent witness. His prepared statement remained in his folio. What was on the desk in front of him, however, was the signed petition and a printed copy of the electronic one with its almost three hundred comments. It was a visual symbol of your support. Thank you for signing it and for sharing such uplifting comments!
The panel was composed of four individuals who asked questions and twenty who lined two walls of the room in order to hear my answers. I am grateful for the time they took to be there and their willingness to wrestle with this enormously important task. The church is fortunate to have leaders – lay and ordered – who fill these crucial roles.
Additionally, two Conference Personnel ministers were present- one as my support and another as support to the committee – as well as a chaplain. We were well supported in that respect.
I am posting one of the documents that I wrote for the review. It is broken down into the separate segments of the questions of ordination as they appear in the Basis of Union. The interview was not organized along the same lines but I was able to read the whole of it during my time with the committee. (My SEO assistant is showing off the scale readability warnings! Be forewarned: I tend to prefer to spare ink by never using periods!)
What are the questions to which you’d be able to answer “yes” and what are the questions to which you’d be able to answer “no”? Please share them in the comments.
RESPONSE BY GRETTA VOSPER
to the Questions of Ordination
as presented in the Basis of Union of The United Church of Canada.
This response made to the Toronto Conference Ministry Personnel Review Committee investigating the effectiveness of
the Reverend Gretta Vosper
June 29, 2016
DO YOU BELIEVE IN GOD: FATHER, SON, AND HOLY SPIRIT:
IF by “God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” …
… you expressly mean the Trinitarian God, composed of three persons equal in essence, a being who presides over Earth from another realm, a supernatural one, from which it has the power to intervene in the natural world – capriciously or by design – by responding to our prayerful requests, or altering our minds and so, too, our actions, or intervening in the natural world with or without provocation or invitation in order to alter weather patterns, health, the accumulation or loss of wealth, the circumstances of birth including geography – a predictor of health and access to food and water – gender, sexuality, mental capacity, or beauty – all predictors of the power status and ease with which individuals will live their lives, then, no, I do not believe in that at all. Neither do I believe in a god of no substance who exists beyond the universe yet contains it, interpenetrating it in some incomprehensible way for some incomprehensible purpose.
I see no evidence of such gods. And so I see no reason to remain aligned with a doctrine which does not fit contemporary and ever-evolving scientific understandings of the universe or ethical perspectives on human dignity and rights. I see no reason why we should eschew the scholarship of the countless theologians who have argued for centuries, for almost two millennia, in fact, that the doctrine of the Trinity is unworthy of our intellectual consideration, let alone our allegiance. I see no reason to require of anyone who comes to us for service of any kind, including participation in the creation of vibrant, meaningful community, acknowledgement of or belief in Trinitarian or any other form of orthodoxy. I see no reason to demand of them a new lexicon of ecclesial language and the subsequent study and support they will require to move beyond traditionally held interpretations of that language with which they most likely arrive at our doors. To my mind, the only fathomable reason that we might consider holding to the doctrine of the Trinity and commencing an ongoing program of investigation of clergy that requires assent to that doctrine in order for their ministry to be considered effective is the maintenance of our membership in the World Council of Churches and I consider the work of ministry with individuals and communities of transformation more integral to the work of the church than I do membership in an organization.
Were I to be given incontrovertible proof that a god does or gods do exist, the evidence of the cruel and capricious realities of disparity, tragedy, illness, and anguish in the world, and the truth that our world and our experience of it is wrapped not only in beauty but also in excruciating pain, would prevent me from worshipping it or pledging my allegiance to it, no matter the cost.
WHAT I do believe …
… has come to me through a heritage that is rich in church and in the religious denomination into which I was born and raised. It is rooted in a family that, like many families, transmitted positive values to its children. These same positive values have also been projected by humanity, alongside other, more dangerous values, to become the attributes of the transcendent, divine, supernatural beings we have called gods. During times when social cohesion was crucial to the survival of small tribal communities, fear of those deities provided a powerful antidote to individual expression or actions that might threaten the community’s well-being – murder, theft, adultery, abortion, homosexual behaviours. These became offences against gods and came with god-sized punishments. Twinning social laws with supernatural beings may have been an evolutionary twist that provided for our survival.
It does not follow, however, that supernatural beings provided the moral codes or values by which we choose to live. And so, while the values instilled in me as a child were values reinforced by my church school and Christian upbringing, they are not values exclusive to that upbringing. And there are no moral codes that have been formed by the mind of a god. Rather, there is a morality that we have created and that transcends our personal circumstances. It is a morality that we have the responsibility to review and revise as we each see necessary for our personal wholeness and, I hope, social cohesion which is so integral to our well-being, our future as a species, and our impact on the future of all life on the planet.
It is in these non-doctrinal things, I have faith:
I believe in love and that it is the most sacred value. When I call something sacred, I mean that it is so crucial to our humanness, to our humanity, that we cannot risk its denigration, degradation, or destruction. To live without that sacred thing – in this case ‘love’ – would mean we had repudiated our evolved and critically negotiated humanity. Love is sacred; it is essential to our humanity.
Of course, I do not mean a simplistic, self-serving love. I mean a costly, challenging, transformative love that pulls us beyond the people we think we were, the people we may have been content to remain, in order that our humanity be more complete. It is a love that refuses to count its cost, seeking, rather, to disperse that cost into community, pulling us toward one another as it does so and beyond the divisions that otherwise might leave us in isolation.
There are religious texts and biblical stories, of course, that can be interpreted in the light of that kind of love, some of which may even seem to tell of the most complete embodiment of it that has ever walked the earth. These are questions of interpretation. Biblical examples are not integral to the understanding or the living out of love. Anyone, regardless of creed or ideology or even ignorant of any such things, may still live in accordance with a costly love. I believe the greater portion of humanity chooses to do so.
Our Christian forbears were seekers after truth. The Virginia School of Theology has carved alongside the doors of its library a partial quote of the words with which its mid 19th century Dean William Sparrow, is said to have closed his every lecture. “Seek the truth, cost what it will, come whence it may.” How much he must have held to the truths that we who studied theology dissected and hollowed out during our theological explorations, truths he encouraged his students to strive toward.
Or perhaps not. The last line of Dean Sparrow’s maxim is excluded from the library inscription. Perhaps it was considered reckless. The last thing Dean Sparrow said to his students every day just before they left class was, “Seek the truth, come whence it may, cost what it will, lead where it might.” Perhaps Sparrow was actually challenging them for a life in the ministry that would not be compromised by the quitting of intellectual integrity. Perhaps he was coaching them to hold to what they were learning and go out into ministry without forgetting to continue to learn. The quest for truth is never over. And so it must remain at the top of the list of those things which I believe. I believe in truth. I believe it is important to seek it, no matter where it comes from, no matter what we may lose in the process, no matter where we end up. Clearly, it is my commitment to truth – both seeking it and sharing it – which has brought us here today.
There are some who have argued courage is the greater virtue because it is required to live out any of the others but I believe love badgers courage into being. And when love fails to do so, I believe truth picks up the rant. Love and Truth can exist without Courage but almost as soon as one or the other emerges, courage is a must. It is a must if we are to do anything to protect those we love or to strive toward truth, no matter its cost or destination. Indeed, love without truth or truth without love can both deny wholeness.
Courage without either breeds an indifference and savage violence. Violence bred by love and justice, on the other hand, is tempered by the very root of its action which can only ever be to restore rights or to secure safety. It is in the interweaving of these three virtues that positive change happens, in our hearts, in our relationships, in our communities and in the world.
It is these virtues – Love, Truth, and Courage – that provide for all the rest upon which our work, my ministry, is built and which allow for the beauty of the human endeavour to shine forth.
As love and truth lead to courage, so courage leads to justice. John Dominic Crossan, notes that love without justice is banal and justice without love is brutal but I add to that: justice is not possible without courage. Compassion – one of our most prized virtues…
The most recently evolved part of our brain flips the sensory information we receive forward to our frontal lobes where we can consider the impact of an action on others – thus creating the possibility of a compassionate response – or backward, literally, toward the history of our self-preserving fight, flight, or freeze responses. Somewhere back along our lineage, our species thrived on the mutation that compassion once was.
And there are more. Many, many more.
All of these, of course, can be found explicitly or implicitly in the stories of the Bible. But they do not originate with it. To suggest that they did would be inconsistent with contemporary scholarship and dishonour the human story which both predated and ran parallel with its writing. To present them as having been created by a god and given to us is to refuse humanity credit for its most noble accomplishment. It also removes our right and inherent responsibility, as their creator and agent, to bring to the fore or limit certain of them as the needs of human community evolve.
There is, however, one virtue with which I often break faith and which I do not embrace in the same manner as my forbears. It is deeply rooted in our Christian heritage: Hope, as the promise of something we cannot assure. I choose instead to create, to accompany, to name, to comfort, to acknowledge, to embrace, to lament, to encourage, to convict, to trust again. I cannot bring about a peaceful death with only hope. I cannot mitigate the effects of corporatism, global climate change, or the TPP with only hope. I cannot end spousal, or elderly, or child abuse with only hope. I cannot redress our tragic history with indigenous peoples with only hope. I cannot address poverty, violence, xenophobia, arrogance, or illness with only hope. Only if I already have a hammer in my hand, only if action congruent with our responsibilities as human beings to alleviate suffering or redress abuse is in the offing or underway, will I offer the word ‘hope’. I will not offer hope to mollify or comfort when to do so does not alleviate pain or suffering, does not create right relationship, does not forestall death, but only pretends all these things might be achieved and so anesthetizes us to their reality with an illusion that comforts we who extend it more than those to whom we dispense it. I do not offer an empty hope and would not wish one offered me.
DO YOU … COMMIT YOURSELF ANEW TO GOD?
IF by ‘God’ …
… you expressly mean the Trinitarian God identified above, then, no, I do not.
WHAT I do wonder …
… is if the question may have served to direct our commitment to God because God transcended our own perspective, our own self-serving ideas. Already, when the questions of ordination were framed, very likely before 1908 – those who wrote them could not have been unaware of the effects of secularization on Christianity, particularly in the denominations coming into union. They could not have been unaware of the new interpretations of God that, Trinity or no, were non-traditional in nature. To commit ourselves to God meant we weren’t in this for ourselves; we were in it for a higher, nobler reason no matter what we meant when we used that word. The question challenged us to reach beyond ourselves because we were committing ourselves to something that radically transcended our own capacities.
Without God, that transcendent, nobler point of reference to which we have committed ourselves in the past, is it not possible that we might, then, commit ourselves to something mundane and self-serving, something that, in fact, arises out of our ego rather than out of concern for wholeness and social cohesion? Of course it is. Indeed, without an intention to broaden our awareness, make use of our evolved and empathy-producing anterior cingulate, that is exactly what we might very well do. To do so would be, in essence, a compromise of our humanity, and take us back to “the limited, and socially-tense, world of the chimpanzees.” (Loyal Rue)
What makes us different from chimpanzees is that we figured out a strategy for survival that is less taut with potential violence.
Our basic strategy could be phrased this way: “to achieve personal wholeness and social cohesion” (Philip Kitcher) at the same time, balancing them out to our best advantage and creating societies that manage the dramatic tension those two goals create. If we don’t achieve personal wholeness, comprised of a healthy balance of our spiritual, intellectual, physical, and emotional selves, we don’t thrive; we simply exist. If we cannot build social cohesion, we have no means through which we can achieve personal wholeness; lives are constantly under threat, something to which the current realities of refugee camps and the nations that spawn them attest. Humanity, if it is to survive and develop a robust reproductive strength – admittedly evolutionary terms – must develop healthy and autonomous personalities and do so within cooperative social groups. Belief systems – religions – have been a major tool in the facilitation and maintenance of a helpful balancing of self and community interests. At least, that’s one theory.
So, when the gods of our creation fall away, as I believe they have been forced to do by the rise of reason and the constant erosion of supernatural belief by science, we still need to find something, a belief system, that call us to that work – help us keep the equilibrium between personal self-interest and communal well-being. At West Hill, we believe the values of which I spoke present that challenge to us. Lifted before us, they keep our eyes, focused too easily on our own personal well-being, also set toward the panorama of a socially cohesive community. Our mission statement incorporates that challenge: “Moved by a reverence for life to pursue justice for all, we inspire one another to seek truth, live fully, care deeply and make a difference.”
It is to this work, I commit myself. To values which transcend our personal interests and needs and which help us envision a better world. This is the historic work of the United Church which drew me to leadership within it.
The work of living in right relationship with ourselves, with others, and with the planet is a very big work. At West Hill, the congregation has a document, with which you are familiar, which expresses the values to which it chooses to adhere. The document was first written in 2004 with a commitment to review it every five years. It was most recently presented to the congregation in a revised form in January, 2015. The last two times it has been reviewed and revised, I have not been involved.
I commit myself to the work of living toward the fulfillment of the challenges laid out to the congregation and to its members in VisionWorks and to supporting their work to do so as well.
DO YOU BELIEVE THAT GOD IS CALLING YOU TO THE ORDAINED MINISTRY OF WORD, SACRAMENT, AND PASTORAL CARE, AND DO YOU ACCEPT THIS CALL?
This question is answered in segments below.
DO YOU BELIEVE THAT GOD IS CALLING YOU ….
I DO NOT BELIEVE …
… in gods who can intervene in the natural world; therefore, I cannot believe that there is something we could define as a “call” from any god to us to direct us to act in any particular way.
I DO …
… understand the importance of conviction as a virtue in our lives, a deeply felt recognition that one is to follow a certain path or forge a new one. I believe such convictions can be inspired by personal experience – both known and unremembered; our relationships – both good and bad; and our contexts – both the personal and global. I believe our appreciation of life and our experience of wholeness results from how closely one is able to live according to one’s convictions. I believe the spiritual quest is the search for that point of resonance – that place of passion and conviction – where one’s own skills and abilities best meet the world’s greatest needs. I believe the spiritual task is the challenge of living in that place of conviction.
When I entered Theological College it was the result of years of struggling with a conviction that the most meaningful way in which I could be of influence in the world – the place where my skills and abilities could best meet the world’s needs – was through the work of inspiration and transformation, work I had witnessed in profound and moving ways by leaders in the United Church (Jock Davidson, Eldon Hay, Bill Hendry, Mary Smith). That conviction was further galvanized during my theological training, most particularly through the teaching and mentorship of Christopher Levan and Doug Paterson, and the exploration there of theologies of liberation (the people of El Salvador and Nicaragua, Phyllis Trible, Matthew Fox, Naomi Goldenberg), collaboration (Teilhard de Chardin, Douglas John Hall, Leonardo Boff), and radicalization (the Berrigan brothers, Gustavo Gutierrez, Dietrich Bonhoeffer). These theologies were further reinforced by United Church activists and theologians during my time there (Douglas John Hall, Pierre Goldberger, Faye Wakeling, Shelley Finson, Joan Kuyek, Pamela Dickey, Tim Stevenson) and further entrenched in the gospel stories about the man called Jesus. They also further reinforced my convictions that it was in ministry that my gifts could best be used to serve the world at one of its points of urgent need.
DO YOU BELIEVE GOD IS CALLING YOU TO THE MINISTRY OF THE WORD?
IF by the “Word” …
… you mean the Bible as the sole source or the primary source from which I am to draw wisdom for myself or those to and with whom I minister or that our ethical and moral choices must be grounded in its content, then no, I do not consider myself engaged in a ministry of the Word nor do I accept a call to that ministry.
I UNDERSTAND …
… my ministry to be built on the wisdom accumulated by and within humanity over the course of its history, including but not limited to the documents of our religious tradition and that the authority of a text lies in its message and not in its source or the source to which it is attributed. Many stories in the Bible would not meet West Hill’s standards of merit as they present depictions of relationships of power and privilege, many of which include violence, to which we do not ascribe or are set within a worldview we no longer accept. At West Hill, since 2004 our sources for wisdom have been identified in our congregational documents as ‘diverse’. I am challenged to source texts for our gatherings that meet our standards of love, justice, and compassion and that will inform, inspire, edify, or convict. These sources may be from ancient documents (the Bhagavadgita or the Leizi, for instance) or contemporary pop culture (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, World War Z, or Dr. Who) or from anything in between. They may be art, poetry, prose, literature, fiction, biography, screenplay or script, or any field of non-fiction. We are the creators and the holders of an infinite library of accumulated wisdom that is added to daily. It is my responsibility and pleasure to dip into that library in order to find material that addresses the concerns of the day and engages the congregation with them.
DO YOU BELIEVE GOD IS CALLING YOU TO THE MINISTRY OF THE SACRAMENT(S)
IF by the Sacraments …
… you mean liturgical devices through which I, as an ordained person, am able to change ordinary items into signs of God’s grace, requirements for full leadership, or acceptance to membership in community, then, no, I do not consider myself engaged in such a ministry, nor do I accept a call to that ministry.
I UNDERSTAND …
… my ministry to be to the calling of one another to witness the passage of one’s own life and of the lives of others and that there are moments along life’s trail when that is important and meaningful and best done in community. I understand my ministry invites me to lift up those moments for those with whom I minister and to invite them to stand witness to one another’s brokenness and wholeness and to commit to standing with, in love, no matter what. I believe the moments of dignity and memory that we so create can be powerful affirmations of life, being, and community.
I believe the symbolic ritual of marking a child with water is a parent’s opportunity to articulate the qualities of character they commit to instill in their child. It is the community’s opportunity to embrace and celebrate the possibilities inherent in each new life and to pledge themselves to the support of keeping those possibilities large.
I believe the symbolic ritual of breaking bread is a community’s opportunity to “re-member” (intentional hyphenation) itself and its commitments to one another.
I believe symbolic rituals for forgiveness, reconciliation, love, leave-taking, marriage, transformation, divorce, new commitments, death, and grief hold the space in which individuals are invited to move into, through, or beyond significant places on their life’s journey. Visual art that marks these moments has become significant for the congregation.
I believe it is my privilege to work with members of my community and beyond to create meaningful symbolic actions and rituals that allow that sacred space to emerge.
DO YOU BELIEVE GOD IS CALLING YOU TO THE MINISTRY OF PASTORAL CARE
IF by the ministry of pastoral care, …
… you mean the rendering of spiritual care, direction, and counselling to individuals, couples, families, groups, and a congregation that is undergirded by the Holy Spirit or that presumes to guide those under care toward greater discernment of God’s plan for their lives, whether through guided self-exploration or study of the Bible or devotional resources based on it, then no, I do not consider myself engaged in such a ministry nor do I accept a call to that ministry.
I UNDERSTAND …
… pastoral care to mean working with others in their pursuit of right relationship with self, others, and the planet either with a focus on long term goals or as needed in times of crisis. I do not believe that my position gives me the right to impose myself upon people at times of illness, bereavement, or crises but to make myself available as and when needed and to ensure that individuals, particularly those experiencing crises, know that I am available should they choose to avail themselves of my presence.
I am not a trained counsellor and do not enter into counselling relationships for which I am not qualified.
In times of crisis, Pastoral Care is the work of being present in situations of grief, loss, anger, and confusion in an empathic way, open to the needs of the other and responding as and how I am able sufficient to the validation of experience, the provision of support, and the witness of love and compassion. Pastoral Care is also the work of providing safe space to individuals, couples, or groups wherein individuals can build trust and speak openly and with respect while risking appropriately the work of growth and understanding. Creating such space requires an understanding of appropriate boundaries and the creation of them.
The long term work of Pastoral Care might be considered spiritual direction which I understand to be the work of accompanying an individual as they undertake a spiritual quest to find the place at which his or her gifts might best be offered to an urgent need in the world. Its purpose is to draw individuals toward a greater understanding of their potential, opportunities, unresolved grief, and unacknowledged strengths in order that they develop resilience in their personal lives, and within their relationships. It is to repair and recommit to right relationship with self, others, and the planet as is appropriate given the history and contextual realities of the individual(s) involved.
All these things I practice and provide in my ministry at West Hill.
DO YOU BELIEVE GOD IS CALLING YOU TO THE ORDAINED MINISTRY
IF by ordained …
you mean “set apart” by being provided extraordinary and spiritual gifts that allow for the discernment of a divine plan or message in an ancient text or the consecration of juice, bread, or water into sacred elements that have the power to transmit the grace of a supernatural god called God to humans otherwise mired in sin in order to mark them as recipients of that grace to whom I might then extend the comfort of that god, then, no, I do not feel conviction about that ministry.
I UNDERSTAND …
… my work as an undertaking that both awakens individuals to the importance of creating meaningful lives for themselves and contributing to the meaning-making work of others, and that supports them in that work. It is the work of challenging individuals and communities to reach toward both personal wholeness and social cohesion – the balance which, when achieved, leads to success in the human community. Philip Goldberg identifies five significant tasks of religion which I believe go toward creating that balance but recognize them as deeply human undertakings for which religion has been the purveyor. They may each be engaged and fulfilled without the need for religious language or doctrine. Goldberg’s five tasks are beautifully and simply portrayed by five words: transmission, translation, transaction, transformation, and transcendence.
• Transmission – of a sense of identity transmitted from one generation to the next through a variety of means – ritual, shared customs and stories, and historical continuity.
• Translation – of the events of life into a form that helps convey a sense of meaning and purpose and which helps individuals understand their relationship to the wider community or greater whole.
• Transaction – individuals and communities are better able to flourish when the transactions that take place between them are governed by formal or informal moral codes. These define what right relationship means within the community.
• Transformation – encourages the engagement of individuals and communities in ongoing maturation and growth in the pursuit of personal and social fulfillment.
• Transcendence – provides a reference point beyond the individual or community which challenges them to expand their understanding to experience themselves as integrated with a larger whole, the web of life. This can be understood as the realization of the impact one has on the vast expanse of life both during and beyond his or her lifetime and does not require belief in a supernatural realm.
ARE YOU WILLING TO EXERCISE YOUR MINISTRY IN ACCORDANCE WITH THE SCRIPTURES, IN CONTINUITY WITH THE FAITH OF THE CHURCH, AND SUBJECT TO THE OVERSIGHT AND DISCIPLINE OF THE UNITED CHURCH OF CANADA?”
Again, this question is broken down into segments below.
EXERCISING MINISTRY IN ACCORDANCE WITH THE SCRIPTURES
Within the context of a community that sets for itself the work of engaging in contemporary issues with courage, clarity, and compassion, most scripture is obscure at best, most often irrelevant, and at its worst, dangerously prone to misguiding those studying it.
Biblical scholarship has long required that we strain biblical texts through a variety of sieves in order to ensure they are presented appropriately for contemporary audiences and not vulnerable to our own circumscribed perspectives. These include but are not limited to setting the text in a historical, political, and social context; identifying the author and the community to which he wrote; examining the use of words and phrases in the text as they are used in the original languages elsewhere in the Bible to decipher the particular intention of the author; examining conflicting texts for the purposes of determining why conflict exists and assessing which version is closest to the truth; exploring contemporaneous texts not only for the validation of claims within the text but to examine existing arguments or positions against which the text was written; addressing any assumptions or privilege introduced into the text by its author; and finally, guessing at the meaning of the text or intentions of the author to the best of one’s abilities.
Given the challenges presented by a text that ranges in age from nineteen to twenty-eight centuries and the breadth of interpretation legitimated by a wide variety of theological and scholarly perspectives, I cannot say that I understand what exercising my ministry in accordance with the scriptures means.
EXERCISING MINISTRY IN CONTINUITY WITH THE FAITH OF THE CHURCH
In my submission, I spoke of the progress of my theological development from my youth through my theological training and on to the continuing education I undertake as an ordered minister within the United Church.
In that description, I presented my experience of and development within a denomination that, at much cost to itself, explored beyond the realms of belief that had been charted by previous generations. In that important and ground-breaking work, it was the first church to do many extraordinary things, always leading with an interpretation of the faith that called it and its members to greater love, compassion, and truth. It was able to do those things because it regularly and repeatedly held the Bible and the doctrines of the church subordinate to the principle of love and all that required of it and of us. Throughout, it has been an inspiration to other mainline Protestant denominations, to its leaders, and to its members.
The process of change within West Hill clearly consists of the evolution of a congregation of The United Church of Canada “within the faith of the church” insofar as “within” can be described as a reasonable application of scholarship, reason, the discernment of truth, and the subordination of doctrine to the principle of love.
West Hill United Church, about a decade ago, began referring to itself as a “spiritual community of faith growing out of the Christian tradition.” That language was prescient. While it ensured that we held to our roots, bringing much-loved traditions, hymn tunes, and symbols, values that it continues to share with the wider church, and a commitment to actions the United Church initiates or embraces, it also encouraged us to create space in our community for those who were uncomfortable with ecclesial language, who honoured the values and the work of the United Church but did not want to participate in doctrinally focused services of worship. That decision has allowed us to be present to many in our immediate community, and across the Greater Toronto Area. It has placed us as a leader in the evolution of church beyond the beliefs that divide. Our materials are used in schools and in churches around the world.
The evolution of the congregation has taken place over sixty-six years.
EXERCISING YOUR MINISTRY SUBJECT TO THE OVERSIGHT AND DISCIPLINE OF THE UNITED CHURCH OF CANADA
I have deep respect for the men and women who, over the decades, crafted and evolved an institutional structure that placed the ideals of ministry and its practice within the reach and engagement of generations of Canadians. They helped form this nation through the widespread influence of their vision and their labours.
I remain committed to working within that structure even as I invite those who love this church, as I do, to continue to evolve its practices and polity as new realities and challenges emerge.
And so it is that I respectfully submit the following concerns, grieved as I am that the interpretation and application of the church’s disciplinary processes that have led to this review, as they are currently being interpreted, have the capacity to place all clergy and the future of our denomination’s extraordinary and visionary leadership among religious institutions at risk. To such an egregious evolution and application of the oversight and disciplinary policies of The United Church of Canada, and with concern for my denomination’s future, I must, as a member of its order of ministry in good standing, object.
I have identified three causes of concern: the Effective Leadership Project; the ruling of the General Secretary; and Procedural Issues
THE EFFECTIVE LEADERSHIP PROJECT
I believe that the effect of changes to the oversight and discipline of clergy that resulted from the Effective Leadership Project and the transfer of oversight and discipline of clergy to Conferences from Presbyteries is only now being understood as those changes begin to be applied.
I believe that the transfer of the oversight of clergy from Presbytery to Conference during the Effective Leadership Pilot Project has severely interfered with the covenantal relationships that exist between congregations, the presbyteries to which they belong, and the ministry personnel who serve them both.
I believe that Presbyteries, as direct partners to the covenantal relationship with congregations and clergy, are the court best able to discern the legitimacy and merit of concerns raised about its member clergy.
I believe that Conference, with whom most clergy are not in direct relationship prior to disciplinary processes, are unable to adequately assess concerns raised about clergy within their boundaries because they are not within the covenantal relationship and often not in a geographic proximity to settled clergy sufficient to do so.
I believe the intention of those who clarified for us through The Manual those individuals and courts from whom legitimate concerns about clergy could be heard was to ensure that only those concerns raised by individuals or courts in a direct relationship with clergy had sufficient merit to be worthy of being heard.
I believe that the transfer of oversight and discipline processes from Presbytery to Conference did not intend or include transfer of responsibility for raising concerns from the Presbytery, the court to which clergy belong; the evidence for this is the absence of either a transfer of covenantal relationship or the establishment of a direct relationship with ministry personnel adequate to replace the Presbytery relationship.
I believe that a review of the effectiveness of any clergy person as the result of concerns raised by individuals not in the position to have any insight into the ministry of the clergy person, the health of the pastoral charge, or the covenant within which that ministry takes place is a miscarriage of justice regardless of the reasons for that review.
I believe that concerns expressed to the General Council by the church through the Effective Leadership consultation process regarding the centralization of power in an individual Conference staff position, were warranted and that the Presbytery’s retention of the right to raise legitimate concerns about their member clergy is required in order to mitigate those concerns; those rights should not be extended to Conference.
I believe Conference assumed the responsibility for raising concerns regarding clergy under the Effective Leadership transfer of oversight and discipline of clergy but that they did not have the explicit approval of the wider church to do so.
I believe concerns regarding ministry personnel should be forwarded to the Presbytery of which they are a member regardless of to which court or office the correspondence has been directed and that the Presbytery consider the nature and provenance of the concerns before raising those concerns with Conference, the court with oversight and disciplinary responsibilities.
THE GENERAL SECRETARY’S RULING OF MAY 5, 2015*
I believe that the changes to the oversight and discipline of clergy that resulted from the General Secretary’s ruling of May 5, 2015 must also be considered by the whole church following the result of this review.
I believe that the ruling of the General Secretary exceeded her authority and altered the nature of ministry in The United Church of Canada.
I believe that those who birthed The United Church of Canada into being had anticipated theological evolution and so declined to include a requirement for theological conformity or continuity among clergy; had they required them, ongoing affirmations of orthodoxy at set points in the ministry of clergy would have been included in the Basis of Union.
I believe that those who have provided for and supported the formation of leaders within the United Church have expected those leaders to continue learning long after departure from theological colleges and that they have encouraged those leaders to seek the truth, come whence it may, cost what it might, lead where it would.
I believe that the right of the ordaining conference to contribute to the theological diversity of The United Church of Canada has been undermined with this ruling and that we risk a flattening of that diversity with any application of the General Secretary’s ruling.
I believe it is contrary to the Basis of Union for a Conference of Settlement to review the theological beliefs of ministers ordained in another Conference.
I lament that the General Council Executive, being presented with a proposal sent to them as a result of concerns regarding the use of the questions of ordination to judge the effectiveness of ministry personnel and asking for a review of those questions, upon hearing that fifty-one percent of General Council 42 Commissioners did not wish to review those questions, chose to ignore the forty-six percent who sought the conversation. I believe that decision dramatically diverged from the courage the United Church has previously shown in the face of challenging social and theological issues of the day when, long before a majority of its membership invited exploration of an issue, the church engaged, witnessing integrity and courage, and modelling participatory and transformational dialogue.
I believe some of the challenges that have brought us here today and that risk the health and strength of our denomination and those who serve it are the result of a lack of due diligence and attention to our polity and concern for those it serves to both protect and oversee.
I believe those who struggled to bring The United Church of Canada into being were well aware of the implications of the term “essential agreement” when it came to questions of doctrine and intended or expected a breadth of theological perspective to grow and flourish within the church.
I believe those who wrote and have revised our Statements of Doctrine over the years did not intend that doctrinal examinations ever be undertaken which precluded the element of essential agreement, a Basis of Union provision which has allowed for a breadth of diversity in our denomination that is unparalleled in the world.
I believe the decision of Toronto Conference to undertake a review of a clergy person’s doctrinal beliefs in accordance with the ruling of the General Secretary but without the provision of essential agreement is a breach of the Basis of Union.**
I believe any review of the effectiveness of a clergy person, even and especially reviews on theological grounds, the responsibility for which lies with the Session of the Pastoral Charge, must allow for the full participation and input of the Pastoral Charge.
I believe any review of the effectiveness of ministry personnel, even and especially reviews on theological grounds, the responsibility for which lies with the Session of the Pastoral Charge, must allow for the full participation and input of the Presbytery responsible for the oversight of that Pastoral Charge.
I believe that the use of the Interview Committee as a Ministry Personnel Review Committee has led to procedural confusion and an inconsistent application of the procedures for the review of Ministry Personnel which have been set out to ensure transparency, accountability, and fairness.
We sit here today as a first instance of the application of two significant changes to the oversight and discipline of Ministry Personnel:
• the shift of the oversight and discipline of Ministry Personnel from the Presbytery to the Conference and
• the ruling of the General Secretary wherein she established the requirement of ongoing affirmation of ordination questions by all ministry personnel
Because this process and the changes upon which much of it is based raise serious concerns and fall short of our obligation to one another to engage in open and fair procedures as we have agreed to undertake them, I challenge us all to work together so that we might better understand their implications for Presbyteries, Pastoral Charges, and Clergy. Future processes will undoubtedly unfold and we have both the opportunity and the responsibility to ensure that they do so with transparency, accountability, and fairness.
Therefore, I respectfully invite you, as members of the Toronto Conference Ministry Personnel Review Committee to decline to participate in a process that has no grounding in United Church polity, no precedent in United Church history, and no merit based on the ongoing and unbroken nature of the covenant that exists between Toronto Southeast Presbytery, West Hill United Church and me. I respectfully encourage you, rather, to determine that the way forward is not through an aberrant disciplinary process, but through a collaborative effort to improve our United Church of Canada.
*The General Secretary, in response to Toronto Conference’s request for a process to deal with “a female minister who calls herself an atheist”, wrote a ruling that tied a minister’s effectiveness to suitability and suitability to ongoing affirmation of ordination questions. Our appeal of the ruling was denied on the basis that it had no ground. The following is the ruling made by Nora Sanders.
In my opinion, a person who is not suitable for ministry in the United Church cannot be “effective” as United Church ministry personnel. Where a question has been raised about the minister’s suitability, the presbytery may consider that a question has been raised about “effectiveness” so as to initiate a review of the minister on that ground. The questions set out in Basis 11.3, which are asked at the time of ordering, are appropriate for assessing on-going suitability. …
Based on the Polity set out above, I rule that the following process would be appropriate for responding to these kinds of concerns. I will refer to the Conference exercising oversight of ministry personnel rather than the presbytery since this ruling was requested by Toronto Conference.
• The Conference (through its Executive or Sub-Executive) orders a review of the minister’s effectiveness under Section J.9.3(a) [page 194].
• The Conference may direct the Conference Interview Board to undertake this review, interviewing the minister with a focus on continuing affirmation of the questions asked of all candidates at the time of ordination, commissioning or admission in Basis of Union 11.3.
• The Conference Interview Board conducts the interview and reports to the Conference whether, in the Interview Board’s opinion, the minister is suitable to continue serving in ordered ministry in the United Church.
• The Conference receives the report from the Conference Interview Board and decides on appropriate action in response to it. In making this decision, the Conference may take into account the Basis 11.3 questions as well as the Ethical Standards and Standards of Practice.
• If the Conference Interview Board reports that the minister is suitable to continue in ordered ministry, the Conference may decide to take no further action.
• If the Conference Interview Board reports that the minister is not suitable, the Conference may decide to take one or more of the actions contemplated in Section 9.4 [page 195],
• Upon the minister’s completion of the action, the Conference decides whether the minister may continue in paid accountable ministry in the United Church as set out in Section 9.8 [page 196].
If the Conference decides the minister is not ready to continue in paid accountable ministry, it must recommend that the minister’s name be placed on the Discontinued Service List (Disciplinary).
** Toronto Conference’s David Allen required that the reviewers could not use “essential agreement” as a way to determine affirmation of the questions of ordination.
West Hill was privileged to host a fundraiser this past weekend to raise money for Bangladeshi asylum seekers. The situation in Bangladesh is terrifying for secular authors and bloggers who each risk a brutal death whenever they are in public. Some have fled the country, others remain hidden. If you’d like to make a donation to this work, visit our CanadaHelps page, make a donation and add a note saying it is for Bangladeshi asylum seekers. West Hill has supported one small family. I’m hoping we’ll be able to do more.
Michael George, a longtime friend, came from Kingston to present a concert. His music has won many awards and he shared it with us despite a slow recovery from a cold.
We had used Michael’s beautiful song, Here’s to Love, for a promo for our event and he stayed overnight in order to sing it in our Sunday Gathering. Babette sang backup for him. It was brilliant and inspirational.
Michael’s father, Graham George, was a composer and professor of music at Queen’s University and the founder of the Kingston Symphony. He played the organ at my first wedding, a selection of mostly unknown but absolutely beautiful Christmas pieces.
One of the pieces Graham George wrote was published in the 1971 Hymn Book of the Anglican and United Churches in Canada as an alternate tune for Ride on! Ride on! In Majesty, normally sung to Winchester New. It is a challenging tune in classic Graham George style. For that reason, I don’t believe a lot of United Church members ever became familiar with The King’s Majesty, but it is one of the more powerful memories of my youth (that link shows the sheet music for those of you who can read it). For an impressive organ version, you can listen to it on YouTube as part of the Palm Sunday procession at St. Mary’s, Times Square.
As a token of our appreciation to Michael for coming to West Hill for our fundraiser, I wrote new words for his dad’s tune. The choir, none of whom knew it, practiced it the Thursday before and Scott and Babette taught it to the congregation before we sang it Sunday morning. It was a pleasure to offer the song back to Michael with new, secular lyrics that could take the tune beyond the walls of church so that it could be enjoyed anywhere. (Unfortunately, because I actually used all the beats in the first line for syllables, the song cannot be sung to Winchester New.)
My favourite YouTube version of The King’s Majesty has, unfortunately, been removed. So you’ll need to open one that has the original words and sing over them! Here’s a fantastic version. It has five verses, but you can sing the last one over again if you must.
Half the World
Tune: The King’s Majesty by Graham George
At any moment, half the world is night,
as darkness shrouds what once was light
And those who’ve toiled beneath the sun
repose for their long day is done.
For some, the darkness does not die with dawn
and yet they choose to carry on.
despite the cost, despite the pain,
that truth might triumph once again.
Within their burdened hearts, still beats the song
that calls us all to love made strong
through single acts of courage done,
the few inspiring everyone.
At any moment, half the world is light,
and sunshine chases out the night.
But light by day is not enough,
for we must light the world with love.
Every Sunday at West Hill, we explore something that might help us work on the relationships we have in our lives with a view to shifting them toward the good, working on them to make sure they are better, stronger, more honest, and more fulfilling. Sometimes we focus on our relationship with ourselves, sometimes on our relationships with others, and sometimes on our relationships with the world around us including Earth, and all the stuff we interact with on a daily basis. We strive toward wholeness, respect, and dignity.
photo by morguefile.com user krystia
Today, we’re looking at the great deluder: confirmation bias. If it seems it is getting easier and easier to find confirmation for our perspective, it’s because it is. The world offers it up to us on a platter and we dig, hungry to know we’re right.
This Focused Moment notes the struggle confirmation bias can be in our personal relationships, but it could be read to apply to almost anything.
The light is filtered,
shifting and moving,
searching out your face
through the shimmering leaves.
now ripples of change,
breezy nuances travelling over you,
creating pools of the you I recognize
and the one I might not know.
I search for what I recognize,
a fleeting response,
that you are who you are …
I am disinterested
in that other you,
known and celebrated
by your many friends,
the students who adore you,
the you who,
changes whole worlds
inside the lives of others.
Proud of you.
Sure of you.
But that is not the you I know and love.
The light is filtered
as is my image of you,
the you I recognize,
engage, embrace, enshrine
in an ambered understanding
Hard to hold.
Harder still to change.
It has been months since I wrote new words to a well-loved tune but yesterday morning, three hours before the service started at West Hill United, I felt inspired to do so. It is the first song I’ve been able to write since the review of my effectiveness was initiated by The United Church of Canada last May and it was a great feeling to be able to move past the block that process has been and create something new.
The song I rewrote, as it turns out, isn’t that old. It became a favourite of United Church congregation’s through its publication in Voices United, a hymn book that transformed the church’s singing in the early 1990s. Prior to that, the Hymn Book of the Anglican Church of Canada and the United Church of Canada, a bright red cloth book,* annoyed congregations in both denominations for over two decades. I wouldn’t doubt that it was the publication of the red Hymn Book that ground the amalgamation conversations between the two denominations – already years old – to a chilly halt. The Hymn Book was the first collaborative undertaking between the two denominations. It brought together the accessible words of contemporary songwriters like the late Fred Kaan, beloved by United Church members but scorned by Anglicans, and the complex tunes of contemporary composers which enthralled Anglicans but were reviled by UCC members. The result horrified everyone in the pews, ironically uniting them in their shared fear that church might end up looking like the ugly paste-up the book appeared to be thereby ensuring amalgamation would never take place.
Here I Am Lord was written by Daniel Schutte in 1981 and garnered an evocative response to God’s call in the last two decades of the twentieth century. While a contemporary piece of music, it was beautifully singable with a powerful chorus that spoke commitment to all who sang it.
As I began writing the piece, I was aiming for something that could welcome people in to the community, a song that would speak about who we are and encourage engagements. Here’s what happened on that quest.
Here All Belong
Truth be told, we’re not alone:
we have built ourselves a home;
built it large, and built it free –
love was our goal.
This, a home for anyone,
creed or custom, barring none.
This, a place where love can grow –
here all belong.
Refrain: May we find here, what we’re seeking. May we share the strength to carry on. May the love here do the healing, lift our hearts, and make us all as one.
Truth be told, we cannot be
whole without diversity.
many different voices raised
create the song.
Whether brown or black or white,
all together, we are light;
any-gendered, any-loved –
here all belong Refrain
Truth be told, when gathered here,
we can all our sorrows bear,
held in hearts made strong by love;
we shall not fail.
Aged wisdom, questing youth,
all connected, seeking truth,
altogether, each inspires –
here all belong. Refrain
*I remember purchasing a red Hymn Book for my mother when it first came out. I was disappointed that it didn’t come bound in leather like her old, well-loved hymnal which she, like so many others, carried to church with her each week.
For over a year now, I’ve been working on a project that has me reading the Bible on a weekly basis. I had to take a break for several months to deal with The United Church of Canada‘s review of my effectiveness simply because I could not write during the first many months of that gruelling process. But I have managed to get the project back on my desk and begin working on it again.
Clergy who continue to use the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) have a lot of material from which to source pre-written prayers, hymn suggestions, and sermon outlines, notes, and complete texts that are based on the biblical readings for the week. I know because I used to use them when putting together Sunday services. Of particular merit were resources coming out of Australia and the books of Maren Tirabassi and Ruth Duck. And there was always the Sermon and Lectionary Resources created right here in Canada which pointed to many sites that could offer resources for service prep.
Losing the Lectionary
As West Hill became more and more non-exclusive in relation to theism, the resources found on those sites were less and less helpful. At one point, I stopped using the RCL and lost the whole wealth of resources upon which I had grown to depend. It meant I had to write my own resources or source them from other places. When the Elements Committee at West Hill, the equivalent of the Worship Committee in other churches, decided to invite me not to use the Bible at all, finding appropriate readings for use in the service was not a sudden challenge; we’d been using a second reading for many years at that point. The criterion for selection is simple: the reading needs to be worthy of the people gathering in that space. Beyond that, it can be from anywhere. No text is privileged at West Hill.
I am painfully aware of how difficult the shift from traditional texts, lined up for each Sunday by the RCL team of ecumenical partners, to the work of choosing texts and developing liturgical resources to accompany them can be. But I also know how difficult it is to remain challenged by the RCL when you’re trying to move beyond the exclusive language of theism. So that’s the project: creating post-theistic resources for clergy who continue to use the RCL or don’t, each week’s theme chosen from the readings for that week but developed in post-theistic language. In other words, written in plain English.
Every week, I read the lections for the following year’s texts, develop a theme, choose readings and quotes to go with it, and write liturgical elements such as intros to the readings, requests for the offering, benedictions, etc, new words to old hymn tunes. As I said, the project got hijacked by the review, but I’m back on track though still not producing as much as I had been before that process started. I had been writing new words to an old hymn tune every week until the review hit. I have not yet been able to get back to that practice. (You can find my rewritten hymns here.)
A challenging text
Last week, the lectionary text I read was Deuteronomy 30:15-20. It used to be one of my favourite passages. Reading it last week was disturbing. I don’t think I had realized how brutal it really is. You can read the whole text here, but if you’re clergy, you’ll definitely know it by these words, “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live…” I used to love that phrase.
One of the things I sometimes do is rewrite the biblical text for a post-theistic audience, offering a different reading based on the day’s lections. So, because I loved this text so much, I decided I would revision it for a post-theistic audience. Here it is.
Set before you are these simple things: life and prosperity, death and adversity. Each of us chooses the former: life and prosperity. We set our eyes upon it. But truthfully, the way is not what you think. Neither is it what another might tell you. For the road unfolds before you, created every moment by the person you are, the choices you make, and the circumstances within which you make them. No one has ever created the path that will be yours and no one will ever walk that same path again. It is yours to create and yours to follow.
Owen Sound path
There is no “right” path. There is no “wrong” way. There is only the road you create and the choices out of which it appears. Stay your heart to those things that hold your dignity – compassion, love, courage, and strength. Walk with these surrounding you. They can neither change the course of history nor mask the tragedies that befall you, but they will cleave your heart to your right choosing that by every step, the roadway you create and upon which you travel will be fused of trust and forgiveness; trust in the inherent goodness within every heart you meet and forgiveness extended to all whose hearts are hardened against you, against humanity, against the future. May the vast heavens above us and the unending earth beneath our feet stand witness today to this truth: before us lies both life and death, joy and sorrow. May we ever choose what lies truest to our hearts and in so doing, make manifest a path of beauty upon which we walk our lives.
Do or did you have a favourite scripture passage or text from your tradition that is a challenge to you now? Have you tried rewriting it to appeal to a new audience? I’d love to hear about it.