Members Who Become Ministers of Another Denomination or Faith Tradition
This section applies to members of the order of ministry who become ministers of another denomination or faith tradition. It does not apply to members who are serving as overseas personnel. The presbytery must make a recommendation to the Conference that the member’s name be placed on the Discontinued Service List (Voluntary). The Conference is responsible for making a decision on the recommendation.
While I would be honoured to serve as a minister in any denomination that would allow me the privilege to serve in in the manner that West Hill United Church has done, I have never been invited to or sought leadership anywhere else but the United Church. So the fine print won’t make things any easier as Todd has suggested it might.
Retired UCC Minister, the Rev. David Shearman.
Todd’s misinformation is comes from my retired colleague, the Rev. David Shearman. In his blog, Mr. Shearman equates my position as a Director for The Oasis Network, to the position of minister in another denomination or faith tradition. The Oasis Network is neither a denomination nor a faith tradition. And my role as a Director is not dissimilar to that of someone who serves on the Board or in leadership of any community, national, or international non-profit organization.
The Rev. Dr. Karen Hamilton
For example, the Rev. Dr. Karen Hamilton serves as the Executive Director of the Canadian Councilof Churches. While her role would be considered to involve far more ministry than my role at the Oasis would entail, I am certain her relationship with the CCC is considered a privilege and a benefit to the United Church, not an opportunity to discredit her relationship with her ordaining denomination.
I can only imagine Mr. Shearman’s dismay (he blogged “I hope I am not being too optimistic”) when he realizes that I am not leading the Toronto Oasis as its minister. At this point, I’m not even scheduled to speak in any of the first eight weeks of its operation.
Rick Miller, Actor, Playwright, Lead Singer in the band TrainWreck, Comedian, Dad, Activist and all around Amazing Guy
If you’re wanting to join us on the 12th, please register on our Eventbrite page and fire me an email through my contact page if you’d like to sign up for Toronto Oasis news or sign up on the TO website. The launch will take place at the beautiful Multifaith Centre (maybe that’s what confused Mr. Shearman!) at the University of Toronto, 569 Spadina Avenue. (Continued below …) We’re VERY excited about this launch, the latest in the new opportunities for engagement coming out of West Hill United. And while you don’t have to register to come, we’re thinking the place might fill up so do try to register so that we have a sense of numbers.
We’re not going to stop trying to make the world a better place. We hope you don’t either.
Interested in post-theistic resources but still using the Revised Common Lectionary?
I am looking for five to ten colleagues who may wish to work with post-theistic resources over the course of Year A. I began to create these resources at the beginning of Advent in 2014 using the next year’s texts, Year C of the Revised Common Lectionary, as my starting point. My review by the United Church, however, got in the way and I never completed the year. This past Advent, beginning in 2015, I started working on Year A. Again, the realities of my review have severely compromised my output but I do have enough to offer in exchange for some feedback.
The project includes the following post-theistic resources:
the lectionary passages for Year A, a few of them re-visioned for contemporary audiences
a secular theme which grows out of the lectionary passages for the week
alternate quotes related to the theme, a few with quote slides prepared for them
alternate readings related to the theme; these include an information section for the reader
a Focused Moment written to reflect the theme
links to external resources
song written to traditional hymn tunes – these are fewer than those for Year C
I had intended to write liturgical elements as well despite the fact that we do not use written prayers, versicles, or many of the traditional pieces found in worship services at West Hill. I hope to add these to the resources during the year. They will include words to introduce the readings, a call for the offering, and a short piece intended for use as a benediction or sending of the people out into the world.
For each Sunday I was at West Hill during the year, there are also audio files that you can listen to in order to make better sense out of what the sermon notes. I do not write my sermons but only use the notes that you’ll find here. Because of time constraints, regretably, I have not been able to modify them for clarity after each Sunday service.
Let me know if you’re interested and how you think you’ll use the resources. I will be working on Year B throughout this year and your input as to what you need, what you like and dislike, and information on how you use the resources will be very helpful. My intention is to eventually post the resources online for a small subscription or set fee. Those of you who sign up for this year’s resources will receive them all over the course of the next three years without cost; your feedback is more than adequate compensation and is much appreciated.
Events in the United States have triggered conversations here in Canada and will require responses on a growing number of fronts. I’m sharing a letter here that addresses two issues raised in the first couple of days after the election of Donald Trump: the possible overturning of President Obama’s refusal to continue with the Keystone pipeline project and the likelihood that Trump, as President of the United States, will reject the Paris Climate agreements.
I encourage all of my Canadian friends and followers to engage and remain engaged with your own political leaders so that we continue to reject actions and ideals that do not reflect our social democratic values. Copy this letter. Write your own. Stay informed and attentive. Donald Trump’s access to power in the United States cannot bleed into Canada through amendments and reconsidered pledges. We must not sell out to his vision of reality.
Dear Prime Minister Trudeau, Minister McKenna, and Minister Freeland,
I write to encourage you and your colleagues as Canada responds to and reframes its relationship with our southern sister, now preparing for the leadership of President-Elect Donald Trump. Be assured that Canada remains committed to the choices that have been made in the past both in relation to the Keystone Pipeline and Canada’s Carbon Tax.
President Obama’s rejection of Keystone was welcomed by many Canadians and many Americans. It demanded new thinking in the corridors of the oil industry. The decision challenged Canadians to look toward new ways of attending to our energy needs and continue to think through the dangerous extraction and transportation of bitumen. Our Indigenous People’s continue to speak directly to the issues related to transporting bitumen through pristine lands. President Obama recognized the diminished returns on this potential blight and ended it.
I ask you to challenge Canadian oil executives to continue their creative thinking. The package President-Elect Trump will accept will not be the financial boon they had hoped for. There are other opportunities, other more economically sound ways to pursue energy sources into the future. Challenge us to find them.
Yesterday I heard Rona Ambrose state that it would be insanity to impose a carbon tax if the United States backs out of its carbon commitments. It would be insanity to change our course and compromise our commitments.
Canadians will make their peace with this tax. We will recognize and understand the need for it. We will be with you as you enter these conversations. Inspire us to be better than whatever lowest common denominator presents itself. Inspire us to be Canadian, to care for our planet, for future generations, and for those in other countries who are far more vulnerable than are we to the vagaries of climate change. Remind us that it is the values of integrity, compassion, and a desire for the well-being of all that lift us up, not an economic privilege that will only compromise and denigrate us.
These are challenging days. We look to you for the creative, reflective, and brave leadership that is needed. And we are confident that your values will continue to hold you to those things that, when history judges us, will find us on the arc that bends toward justice.
All my best,
Minister, West Hill United Church
Author, With or Without God: Why the Way We Live is More Important than What We Believe
My colleague, Beverley Burlock, a former classmate at Queen’s Theological College, has asked to be “defrocked”, removed from the roll of clergy of The United Church of Canada because of the manner in which it is reviewing my ministry under the auspices of my effectiveness. Beverley’s letter has saddened me and, I hope, has saddened others. But her convictions are strong as are those of the many United Church members and clergy who have written to share their support.
Here is Bev’s letter.
TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN:
I submit the following as an official request to have my name removed from every official list of United Church of Canada clergy, and to have my name placed on the Discontinued Service list.
This is partly because of what the church is currently doing to gretta vosper and her congregation, but even more broadly because that is a clear indication of an even larger problem. The United Church has lost its way. I am no longer proud to be associated with it, and have been more and more reluctant to identify myself as one of its ministers.
This is not the ambiance which attracted me in the first place and it certainly isn’t what I was ordained into. Never EVER was I subjected, in any of my pre-ordination interviews over the several years, to such an intensive and excessive interrogation as gretta faced before the subcommittee, which basically amounted to a heresy trial. (Since when was ‘right beliefs’, an ancient persecuted offense, a UCC priority?) I did not become a minister who had to swear I believed in a list of set vows that were unalterable and infallible, and sign to that.
Without growth there is stagnation. It seems the United Church itself is settling into that state. And any ministers who have not grown in their learning and thinking since their seminary days and ordination have not kept up with continuing education as most other professionals are required to, and have failed to be good leaders. “…by this time you ought to be teachers, (but) you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness” – doing what is right, justice, vs doing the opposite, wickedness) (Hebrews 5: 12-13)
There have been threats of splits in the church before – when we chose to ordain women, to support anti-apartheid in South Africa, to accept, ordain and marry gays. The church never gave in to those, some of which were more dire in their seriousness and severity. We were able to ‘accept’ the Renewal Fellowship and Community of Concern. Moderator Bill Phipps said Jesus wasn’t divine, causing a media uproar and frenzy (they do love the scent of a scandal), but he wasn’t subjected to an inquisition or defrocking.
Being of a legal bent, both the originator of the document, that resulted in this investigation of gretta, and the current General Secretary are thus focussing on the legal letter of the law, which is so NOT Jesus. In fact, gretta is being treated the same as the ‘religious authorities’ of his day treated Jesus, who called them out on putting law over compassion. In fact Jesus called them a brood of vipers, snakes and hypocrites for doing exactly that. Maybe it’s time to re-read Matthew chapter 23. And don’t forget, Jesus was right there is the midst of all those the rest of the world had rejected, abused, despised, exiled to the margins, embracing, respecting and including them. In his parables, Jesus even used some as good examples to follow.
Jesus didn’t insist on people ‘believing’ anything – in fact he told the rich young ruler who had kept ALL the laws to a T, that what he lacked was how he cared about and for others around him – go and sell all that you have and give it away to those in need. With the story of the sheep and the goats, it was also all about how vulnerable people were treated. The Hebrew scriptures repeatedly say the same thing – a nation (one could say denomination) will be judged on how it treats the “least of these”. Furthermore, Jeremiah talks about a time when teaching about God will no longer be required, because all God’s desires (& characteristics we claim God has) will be written on/in people’s hearts. The Bible is all about doing and living, not about ‘believing’. Even the understanding of that word’s meaning has become compromised and corrupted.
Ever since the later union with Evangelical United Brethren, it seems the United Church has been gradually slipping into a more conservative perspective. We are no longer the open and exploring, the inclusive and progressive denomination we once were, emphasizing social justice issues, which drew so many people, including me, to it. How many of the EUB clergy or those seeking admission from other denominations were extensively questioned as to their openness to what was then United Church policy? It was my experience that those I encountered still had their old theology. And now the United Church is willing to accept a request from anyone, even with no prior involvement with church, Christianity, let alone the United Church. No longer do they even need to be associated for a few years with a congregation, where they would have been exposed to United Church thinking, and be known by United Church members. Where is the accountability there? Where is the theological grilling and set requirements of ‘beliefs’?
Words are a serious concern in any communication. And communicating anything religious and spiritual in words is even more complicated. For one thing, the meaning of words changes – over time, with translation, from culture to culture. Definitions can even become corrupted, distorted. ANY word connected with “God” is both limited and limiting. Therefore, demanding there be only one single acceptable understanding is slipping into idolatry. The church has not taught well the concept of metaphor over literal.
As I have experienced within my own congregations and with others, many, if not most or even all, of our religious words come with so much baggage and both mis-information and mis-understanding, along with bad translations and interpretations, that they are obstacles, driving people away. Some people, like Spong and Borg, believe the words can be redeemed. But for many that has not worked at all. So now others are working at replacing new less-loaded words in an attempt to meet those many who are desperately seeking something with spiritual substance and meaning. If that meets their needs, resulting in them then living the kind of compassionate, caring, open, inclusive lives Jesus taught, is that not a good thing? Something to be applauded and encouraged, rather than attacked and deplored – exiled from our very midst? Are we not to be “known by our fruits”?
The United Church has supposedly grown, so we proclaim anyway, from union in 1925 along a continuum to a current concept of Holy Mystery. Surely gretta is within that Holy Mystery. Or should be included. She is not trying to convert anyone, nor insisting all follow or even agree with her. She is ‘breathing out goodness’ — even to, I might add, her accusers.
The UCC has missed out on an incredibly important and crucial teachable moment here. Instead of going against our own principles and attacking and excluding, the church should have taken the amazing opportunity to teach the general population and media, as well as its own members (many of whom apparently badly need it too), educating them that it is not just a choice only between God or no-God. That the word God is but a mere feeble attempt to ‘explain’ something beyond description. That God is broader than any word we can come up with and far broader than any concept we can conceive, thus there are many, many, many ways to think about God, some of which might even include not using the word God at all! That the word atheist also has other, broader and deeper understandings than merely no-God. What a tragic loss and waste of such an incredibly wide open opportunity.
While gretta might feel betrayed by her Church (as do I), she’s not the only one being hurt. You are insulting her whole congregation. As well as all those other clergy and congregations who have been quietly teaching and living the same things. You are also grossly insulting and turning away all those others with no current religious affiliation who are searching for a place where they can feel at home spiritually. No more is the United Church of Canada the place to go and be accepted. We used to talk about ‘living with the questions’, but now, no more questions, no more seeking, we too now act as if we have The Answer. This smacks of hubris and a serious lack of humility. The process itself, which was both exclusive and secretive, was a disgrace. No Biblical justice here, just law enforcement & punishment. No “ever-flowing stream” either (Amos 5:21-24).
I would remind you of what Gamaliel, a well respected religious authority of his time, said to the people out to get ‘the apostles’. (Acts 5: 34-35, 38-39) “Consider carefully what you propose to do to these people….I tell you, keep away from them and let them alone; because if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail (as he had mentioned others had). But if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them – in that case you may even be found fighting against God.” No matter what definition of God or whether that word is even used.
In Judaism (& Jesus was a Jew), teaching and learning thrived on controversy and debate (or dialogue as gretta keeps requesting). The sages taught that “every argument deserved a hearing, for one could never know whether future generations might not discover truth in the minority view, as well as the majority”.
When I was first at seminary, I remember thinking “I’m not the first person to be taught this stuff. Why have I NEVER heard even a vague hint of any of it from any of the ministers I have encountered, met or known?” Why indeed. I am beginning to think it was at least partly because of fear. Very sad, since by far the most common Biblical ‘commandment’ is “Fear not”.
Well, I am sick at heart and tired of being in a denomination that is ruled at least in part by fear, and being part of a clergy that keeps silent because of fear. Some years ago I decided I would never again read any scripture, say any creed or prayer, perform any ritual, preach or teach anything I could not do with integrity. I made no public announcement, and my congregations likely never realized the ‘radical’ changes. However, I received positive feed back and comments that they appreciated the honesty and openness, and at least some found it liberating, refreshing and soul-nourishing.
This then is my further act of integrity. I can no longer be silent and secretive. Especially when doing so leaves my colleague and classmate abandoned and hanging out to dry like some sacrificial lamb. When my denomination has betrayed its principles, thus also betraying me and negating my ‘calling’. Again the cry goes up “Let my people go”.
With deep regret I am telling you I am leaving. Remove my name from your rolls.
Beverley C Day Burlock (Rev) Ordained Bay of Quinte Conference May 27, 1990
Colin Perkel has written about Bev’s powerful action. You can read his article in Metro News.
It is no secret that I first identified as an atheist in 2013 because of the arrest and threatened execution of four Bangladeshi bloggers following the brutal murder of Rajib Haider that February. My theological beliefs had long since morphed my understanding of God from a supernatural being who could intervene in the natural world into an understanding of god as the beauty we create between one another that sustains us through the joys and sorrows of life. So it was not difficult for me to sympathize with those four bloggers and Fazil Say, the Turkish pianist who had been sentenced to ten months in prison for identifying as an atheist. I, too, was an atheist in my beliefs. It was time to name that reality and stand in solidarity with these men I would never meet.
It has been an unexpected delight to come to know Raihan Abir, his wife Samia, and his daughter Sophie, all three of whom have embedded themselves into my life and into the hearts of everyone at West Hill United. Raihan, co-author of the Bengali book The Philosophy of Atheism came to Canada after the public murders of his co-author Avijit Roy and his editor, Ananta Bijoy Das. But he left many friends behind and the killings have continued, including the murder of his publisher Faisal Arefin Dipon. Even before leaving Bangladesh, Raihan bravely stepped into Avijit’s footsteps and now runs Mukto-Mona, the Bangladesh Secular Humanist organization from his home in Canada. He remains on a published list of secular humanists who have left Bangladesh. The list identifies the countries in which they live and invites any who find them to murder them on the spot.
We do not understand these tragedies. So long have we been able to speak our truths, raise our voices in dissent, urge our governments, our communities, and our faith groups to see the change that needed to be. Barring the egregious actions of the police during the G20 in Toronto in 2010, for the most part we have done it without threat of sanction or imprisonment. We have certainly done it without threat of death. And were one of us to be killed for speaking about freedoms all should enjoy, our government would condemn the murderer, not the murdered as the Bangladeshi government has done.
And so it was only right that I should join my voice to those who have raised theirs in condemnation of the Bangladeshi government’s continued neglect of justice and the shocking blame they have laid upon those who have been murdered on its streets. In fact, it is a privilege to be able to do so.
Every day that you enjoy the freedom to speak your mind is another day that our sisters and brothers in Bangladesh live in fear. The least we can do is be in solidarity with them and urge our governments, our faith communities, our families, and our neighbours to pay attention and find ways to be supportive.
Walrus Talks Spirituality was co-sponsored by The United Church Observer. David Wilson, the Observer’s Editor and Publisher, had approached The Walrus about featuring spirituality in their Walrus Talks series and they had jumped at the opportunity. Since 2012, The Walrus has held almost fifty Talks across the country. The Talks centre on a different topic every time, gathering together seven speakers with insights into subject matter. Each speaker is responsible for a seven minute speech. The Observer has posted all the talks on its website.
It’s important to note that The Observer is not a magazine of The United Church of Canada (UCC). It operates independently of the denomination and only a small fraction of its budget comes from the UCC. When members of the United Church learned that I had been invited to speak, some of them were not happy. They wrote to the Observer demanding to know why I had been chosen to represent the church. Wilson, in his editorial that month, advised readers that I had neither been chosen by the Observer – it had been The Walrus who’d invited me, and I was not representing the United Church.
Here’s my seven minute speech, “Beyond the Beliefs that Divide.”
At the end, I speak about empact, the empathic impact we can each have on the world. That’s what I think spirituality can lead us toward, with or without a religious system supporting it.
I have so needed to do this and for so long! Finally, I managed to finish the job today and now have a single page with links to media sources listed on it! Yay! Say hello to my new Media Page! (You’ll need to click that link to get to it!)
There are a number of links on the page which take you to various media sources. I’ve only included items posted or recorded since March of 2015. These include the two media items which may have instigated the United Church review of my effectiveness and much that has happened since. I’ll add to the list and update it as items become available. (Hot tip: Look for an interview with Wendy Mesley on The National on Good Friday.)
I am grateful to everyone who has engaged in this conversation whether you agree with what I’m doing or not. The conversation is critical to our future and I mean humanity, not the church. I’m convinced of that.
We must find a way to engage in the pursuit of a sustainable future. I can’t see that conversation going well as long as we live in a world divided by religion. Those of us who lead within religious institutions and who have been educated by those institutions about the human construction of both religion and the sources that inspire it are responsible for bringing that conversation to the fore.
Those who argue with us are important; they challenge us to consider the cost of the loss of religious belief, and that cost is great. Together, however, we must find ways to shoulder those costs on behalf of the future generations who are counting on us to preserve for them a world in which they, too, might flourish.
But this time, I am much further down the road of the work in which I engage to be able to slip comfortably into the exclusive Christian language and theology with which the “letter” is written. Having listened to the presentation of a paper that argued King’s theology had potentially evolved from a decidedly less theistic Unitarian understanding to a more personal Baptist understanding for political rather than belief-based reasons,* I read it a second time pretending that King had presented his concerns from a non- or post-theist perspective. The letter came alive.
The idea formed that such a letter could be written for every decade and every place with a new perspective woven into King’s words, a new weft interposed where patches had become threadbare from the passage of time, or the demise of theism. And so, using King’s letter, I wrote a new one; one that might speak to Canadians in 2016. From an entirely different person, but one who might have shared the same sentiments. A letter from Socrates. I read it at West Hill on Sunday.
As you read, please note that the italics do not denote emphasis; they indicate places in the text where I have changed the words. Regular text is original to King. If you notice anything I’ve failed to mark in italics (the repetitive nature of “accept, italicize, accept, accept” can be hypnotic and I may have accepted a few revisions without italicizing them), please let me know. And please also note that I have deleted text from King’s letter and have not noted that in this letter. You can read the original online.
A letter from Socrates, 2016
I would like to share with you an imaginary letter from the pen of Socrates. The postmark reveals that it comes from the city of Athens. After opening the letter I discovered that it was written in Greek rather than English. At the top of the first page was this request: “Please read to your congregation as soon as possible, and then pass on to the other churches.”
For several weeks I have worked assiduously with the translation. It’s been a long time since I took Greek. At times it has been difficult, but now I think I have deciphered its true meaning. May I hasten to say that if in presenting this letter the contents sound strangely Vosper-ish instead of Socratic, attribute it to my lack of complete objectivity rather than Socrates’ lack of clarity.
It is a stretch of the imagination, of course, to consider that the Socrates should be writing a letter to you and to me nearly 2500 years after his last words were uttered at this death. Indeed, stranger still since we have no original documents ever written by him but know of his work only through the pens of those who knew of him and his words. How this is possible is something of an enigma wrapped in mystery. The important thing, however, is that I can imagine Socrates writing a letter to us in 2016 C.E. And here is the letter as it stands before me.
Dear Seekers after Truth,
I, a disciple of wisdom, to you who live in the twenty-first century, Grace be unto you, and peace.
For many years I have longed to be able to come to see you. I have heard so much of you and of what you are doing. I have heard of the fascinating and astounding advances that you have made in the scientific realm. I have heard of your dashing subways and flashing airplanes. Through your scientific genius you have been able to dwarf distance and place time in chains. You have been able to carve highways through the stratosphere and beyond, pressing your presence far beyond the imagined distances of my time. So in your world you have made it possible to eat breakfast in New York City and dinner in Paris and to send sisters and brothers to look down upon you from your moon and further. I have also heard of your skyscraping buildings with their prodigious towers steeping heavenward. I have heard of your great medical advances, which have resulted in the curing of many dread plagues and diseases, and thereby prolonged your lives and made for greater security and physical well-being. All of that is marvelous. You can do so many things in your day that I could not do in the Greco-Roman world of my day. In your age you can travel distances in one day that took me three months to travel. That is wonderful. You have made tremendous strides in the area of scientific and technological development.
But, my friends, as I look at you from afar, I wonder whether your moral and spiritual progress has been commensurate with your scientific progress. It seems to me that your moral progress lags behind your scientific progress. The poet Thoreau used to talk about “improved means to an unimproved end.” How often this is true. You have allowed the material means by which you live to outdistance the spiritual ends for which you live. You have allowed your mentality to outrun your morality. You have allowed your civilization to outdistance your culture. Through your scientific genius you have made of the world a neighborhood, but through your moral and spiritual genius you have failed to make of it a brotherhood. So, my friends, I would urge you to keep your moral advances abreast with your scientific advances.
I am impelled to write you concerning the responsibilities laid upon you to live as people ever seeking truth in the midst of a deceitful world. That is what I had to do. That is what everyone has to do. But I understand that there are many among you who give their ultimate allegiance to systems and customs of privilege, sectarianism, and self-centred absorption. They are afraid to be different. Their great concern is to be accepted socially. They live by some such principle as this: “everybody is doing it, so it must be alright.” For so many of you Morality is merely group consensus. In your modern sociological lingo, the mores are accepted as the right ways. You have unconsciously come to believe that right is discovered by taking a sort of Gallup poll of the majority opinion. How many are giving their ultimate allegiance to this way.
But you who seek truth, I must say to you as was said to forbears of one of your great religious traditions years ago, “Be not conformed to this world, but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind.” Or, as was also said, “Ye are a colony of heaven.” I have always understood heaven as that eternal realm of pure ideas comingled with beauty and the best of human impulses. So this means that although you live in the colony of time, your ultimate allegiance is to the empire of eternity. You have a dual citizenry. You live both in time and eternity; both in the realm of ever-evolving ideas – of truth, goodness, and beauty – and here on earth. Therefore, your ultimate allegiance is not to the government, not to the state, not to nation, not to any humanly-constructed system or institution. The seeker after these ephemeral ideals owes his ultimate allegiance to truth, goodness, and beauty, and if any earthly institution conflicts with these, it is your duty to take a stand against it. You must never allow the transitory evanescent demands of our systems and institutions to take precedence over the eternal demands of goodness, beauty, and truth.
I understand that you have an economic system that has functioned for many generations that is known as Capitalism. Through this economic system you have been able to do wonders. You have become one of the richest nations in the world and you have built up one of the greatest system of production that history has ever known. All of this is marvelous. But my friends, there is the danger that you are blind to the misuses of Capitalism. I agree with the mind that noted money can be the root of all evil. It can cause one to live a life of gross materialism. I am afraid that many among you are more concerned about making a living than making a life. You are prone to judge the success of your profession by the index of your salary and the size of the wheel base on your automobile, rather than the quality of your service to humanity.
The misuse of Capitalism can also lead to tragic exploitation. This has so often happened in your world, especially as the global economy has developed and trade agreements impinge on individual human rights. They tell me that one percent of the world’s population controls forty-eight percent of the wealth. Most of the information to which you pay attention about the One Percent soothes you because you like to think of yourselves as part of the 99% which, in the United States of America, you very probably would be. You’d have to make over $400,000 USD a year to get into the American One Percent club. But you are citizens of the world and the worldwide club has a much lower membership fee. You only need to make about $40,000 each year (adjusted for the lagging loonie) to be in the 99th percentile, making more money that 99 percent of the people on this planet. My oh my, how often have you taken necessities from the masses to give luxuries to the classes. If you are to be committed to that eternal pursuit of goodness, beauty, and truth, you must both acknowledge and work to solve this problem. You cannot solve the problem by embracing a postmodern indifference, for systems that draw their nourishment from an ethical relativism – beyond the moral absolutes once identified by religion, a belief that one thing is no more bad than another – will dull, diminish and destroy some of the most exquisite elements of human creativity and potential. You can work within the framework of democracy to bring about a better distribution of wealth. You can use your powerful economic resources to wipe poverty from the face of the earth. No single group of people can be content to live in superfluous inordinate wealth, while others live in abject deadening poverty; it is your responsibility to expand upon that idea. If human dignity is to be preserved, all humans must have the basic necessities of life even and especially if our luxuries must be compromised to ensure they do. So I call upon you to bridge the gulf between abject poverty and superfluous wealth; you have the wisdom and the ability to devise ways to bring this about the world over.
I would that I could be with you in person, so that I could say to you face to face what I am forced to say to you in writing. Oh, how I long to share your fellowship.
Let me rush on to say something about religion. Truth-seekers, I must remind you, as I have said to so many others, that religion is fundamentally a moral pursuit. So when religions clash, it is the study of morality that might bring them together. But I am disturbed about the ongoing refusal to do that. I cannot be blamed for believing, twenty-five hundred years ago, that gods existed. But I argued that they contradicted each other as the stories of their actions certainly exposed. My life became devoted to finding within each human being the moral impetus, identified by their choices, honed by their own exploration of those choices, and ultimately reflecting on the moral nature of humanity itself. How many thousands of religions are there now, each proclaiming a moral authority they argue is true? How can it possibly be that so many versions of what is right can be right? The tragedy brought about by this is not in the many ways in which humans seek to explore goodness, beauty, and truth – ephemeral elements, the engagement of which I call spiritual – but that most of them are warring against each other with a claim to absolute truth. This narrow sectarianism is destroying the unity of the human family. You must come to see that truth is neither Christian Baptist nor Theravada Buddhist; it is neither Baha’i nor Muslim; it cannot be pursued if the human mind is locked up in a fundamentalist doctrinal perspective of any kind. Truth is bigger than all of our attempts to capture it within a religious tradition. If you are to be true witnesses for truth, you must come to see the ways in which it is compromised by traditions you too often hold dear.
But I must not stop with a criticism of religion. I am disturbed, too, about this new thing – corporatism. Corporations, defended as having the same rights as people, stand before the world with their pomp and power, insisting that they possess the only means to a profitable future. They exude an arrogance that becomes a dangerous spiritual arrogance as their promises are gathered, absorbed, and translated by a frightened populace. They have gained power around the world and shadow the promise that once was the United Nations. I am disturbed about a “person” not being a real person but using a person’s privileges to amass ludicrous wealth by destroying and poisoning the earth for generations, perhaps even thousands of years to come. I am disturbed about any corporation that refuses to cooperate with governments or world leaders under the pretense that economic growth is the only option, the only goal. I am disturbed that corporations keep you convinced that limited liability is somehow a sacred element of their functioning that must be protected at all costs when more often than not, all it protects is a corporation’s right to plunder, deceive, and desecrate. Must I emphasize the fact that truth is often not what is posted on a billboard or represented in moving images on the side of your Facebook page (amazing though they are)? You know this to be true but seem to be fooled by it at the same time! When we know what the truth is, how is it that we continue to protect corporations from truth’s sweeping indictments? Corporations must do a great deal to mend their ways and heal the planet they have ravaged.
There is another thing that disturbs me to no end about the dissonance between what you know to be true and the slow change in your behaviours as time unfolds itself beyond that coming of age. You have said again and again that you understand how dreadful colonialism was and how deep its devastations. You teach such truths to your children in school. Yet even those once devastated by colonialism have converted to its powerful and ongoing presence. Privilege, once embraced, is hard to give up. The First Nations people of these lands, lands you still so often speak of as your own, await reconciliation. Paper promises have yet to be realized. Empty space exists between you and your First Nations peoples, space where relationship might flourish. You yearn to be loving people but over and over again fail to live into the so many stories that invite you to weave your future with those of your aboriginal sisters and brother. How chilling that awareness should be to you and yet perhaps its cold has not yet reached your marrow; perhaps fear has yet to be conquered by knowledge. Indeed, the fear that rages in your land about the arrival of new immigrants, refugees from war, violence, and death suppresses the larger truths that discomfort you. I had so hoped that my death had not been in vain.
So I must urge you to get rid of everything that suppresses the full and unpleasant truth about your long relationship with First Nations and apply what you have learned to your embrace of refugee peoples from all lands. The broad universalism standing at the center of truth makes both the theory and practice of privilege morally unjustifiable; you know this, now live it. Privilege too often substitutes an “I-it” relationship for the “I-thou” relationship we must pursue. No matter where our roots may interlace the face of this Earth, if we neglect to dismantle long-standing systems of injustice and to create relationships of trust and forgiveness, we undermine our humanity. That is a simple truth. Relegating First Peoples or our most recent immigrants to the status of second-class citizens is no different than calling them things. Refusing to honour their status as persons – whole and beautiful and worthy – fractures humanity and demeans the dignity of us all. The quest for goodness, beauty, and truth is diametrically opposed to the underlying philosophy of privilege, and all the arguments about protecting what is ours or what we deserve, all the complicated logic in the world, erudite though its scholars might be, cannot make privilege and what is right lie down together. Decide, as you have before, to commit to live into what is good. Only in living out that decision can you nurture beauty in your lives, in the lives of your First Nations peoples, and in the most humbled of the world’s people who now stand on your doorstep.
I praise your new government for committing to both attend to the recommendations of your nation’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the urgent needs of refugees around the world. I am happy to know that so many persons of goodwill have accepted these decisions as a great victory in our effort to overcome fear. But I understand that there are some among you who have risen up in open defiance. I hear that they organize and lobby and work relentlessly to build fear up again amongst you, stronger even than before. They have lost the true meaning of democracy and decency. So I would urge each of you to plead patiently with your sisters and brothers, and tell them that this isn’t the way. With understanding and goodwill, you are obligated to seek to change their attitudes. Let them know that in standing against the dismantling of privilege, they are not only standing against the noble precepts of your democracy, but also walking a road that forks toward the wrong side of history. Yes, my friends, there is still the need for prophets who will cry out to their nations: “Let judgement roll down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream.”
May I say just a word to those of you who are struggling against these challenging and angry people. Always be sure that you struggle with methods and weapons that bring honour to humanity. Never succumb to the temptation of becoming bitter. As you press on for justice, be sure to move with dignity and discipline, using only the weapon of love. Let no one pull you so low as to hate him. Always avoid violence. If you succumb to the temptation of using violence in your struggle, unborn generations will be the recipients of a long and desolate night of bitterness, and your chief legacy to the future will be an endless reign of meaningless chaos.
In your struggle for justice, let your opponents know that you are not attempting to defeat or humiliate them, or even to pay them back for injustices that they have heaped upon you, as a people or personally. Let them know that you are merely seeking justice for them as well as yourself. Let them know that the festering sore of privilege debilitates not only those who are disenfranchised by it, but all of us. With this attitude you will be able to keep your struggle on high moral standards.
Many persons will realize the urgency of seeking to eradicate the errors of privilege. There will be many who will devote their lives to the cause of equity and human dignity. There will be many persons of goodwill and strong moral sensitivity who will dare to take a stand for justice. Honesty impels me to admit that such a stand will require willingness to suffer and sacrifice. So don’t despair if you are condemned and persecuted for righteousness’ sake. Whenever you take a stand for truth and justice, you are liable to scorn. Often you will be called an impractical idealist or a dangerous radical. Sometimes it might mean going to jail. If such is the case, you must honorably grace the jail with your presence. It might even mean physical death. But if physical death is the price that some must pay to free future generations from a permanent life of psychological death, then nothing could be more true. Don’t worry about persecution, my friends; you are going to have that if you stand up for a great principle. I still believe that standing up for the truth is the greatest thing in the world. This is the end of life. The end of life is not to be happy. The end of life is not to achieve pleasure and avoid pain. The end of life is to have uplifted truth and, in doing so, laid the foundation for a better future, come what may.
I must bring my writing to a close now. The courier is waiting to deliver this letter, and I must take leave for another event. But just before leaving, I must say to you, as I said to others as well, that I still believe that love is the most durable power in the world. Over the centuries many have sought to discover the highest good. This has been the chief quest of ethical philosophy. This was one of the big questions of Greek philosophy in which I revelled. The Epicureans and the Stoics sought to answer it; Plato and Aristotle sought to answer it. What is the summon bonum of life? I think I have an answer and wish I had written it down sooner so I might have been credited with the idea. I think I have discovered the highest good. It is love. This principle stands at the center of the cosmos. One who loves is a participant in the eternal nature of goodness, beauty and truth. One who hates cannot share in the wonder of these things.
So, my friends, allow me to paraphrase words penned by a man some five hundred or so years after my death. You may recognize them but I ask you to do more; I ask you to hear them. Let them speak to you today, in the early years of your life or in the closing out of your time on this earth:
Seekers after truth, you may master the intricacies of the English language. You may possess all of the eloquence of articulate speech. But even if you speak with the tongues of earthlings and of angels, and have not love, you are become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.
You may have the gift of prophecy and understanding of all mysteries. You may be able to break into the storehouse of nature and bring out many insights that I, privileged as I was to live in a one of the richest intellectual epochs of history, could never have dreamed were there. You may ascend to the heights of academic achievement, so that you will have all knowledge. You may boast of your great institutions of learning and the boundless extent of your degrees. But all of this amounts to absolutely nothing devoid of love.
But even more, my friends, you may give your goods to feed the poor. You may give great gifts to charity. You may tower high in philanthropy. But if you have not love, you are still alone. You may even give your body to be burned, and die the death of a martyr. Your spilt blood may be a symbol of honor for generations yet unborn, and thousands may praise you as history’s supreme hero. But even so, if you have not love your blood will have been spilt at the end of an empty life. You must come to see that it is possible for someone to be self-centered in their self-denial and self-righteous in their self-sacrifice. They may be generous in order to feed their ego and pious in order to feed their pride. We have the tragic capacity to relegate a heightening virtue to a tragic vice. Without love benevolence becomes egotism, and martyrdom becomes spiritual pride. Without love, you are alone.
So the greatest of all virtues is love. It is here that we find the true meaning of life, or, because love cannot exist without us, it is the love we create that ultimately creates along with it, the meaning of our lives. Love is a telescope through which we look out upon the long vista of eternity and interpret the things that have gone before. Was this moment one of love? Or was this of selfish pride and privilege? What about this one? Was it of love? Ultimately, we judge ourselves by our choices and we triumph when our choice is love. Love is the most durable power in the world; it is at its most basic, the heartbeat of the moral cosmos. Only through achieving love – creating, receiving, giving its tremendous power – can you expect to become part of the unfolding of beauty into eternity.
I must say goodbye now. I hope this letter will find you strong and growing in love. It is probable that I will not get to see you even through the use of such time-spanning implements as this letter, but I am confident that our hearts pursue the same things. May you ever seek to keep one another from falling, and lift each other from the fatigue of despair to the buoyancy of action, from the midnight of desperation to the daybreak of joy.
May love abound Soc.
*I cannot recall the name of the scholar who gave the paper despite searching for it on the internet. There are, however, documents of King’s that show his progressive perspective toward things like the virgin birth and the divinity of Jesus and that he referred to the Bible as “metaphorical“.
Hi there and welcome to my website. Many of you have been here for awhile but there are others for whom this is your first visit. I hope this short post helps you find what you need and encourages you to engage.
I know it sounds crazy to many people to think an atheist filling the role of minister in a Christian denomination. And, if she realizes she is and atheist, why wouldn’t she leave? Valid questions. I hope I’m able to clarify some of it for you.
You are the light of the world. Longest Night candles. Photo, Lian Chan
Following Gord Westmacott‘s recent documentary, A Matter of Faith, aired on CBC Radio’s The Current, a former classmate from my theological college – Queen’s University, a college that is now closed – contacted me. She was supportive. It was great to hear from her. When I responded, I described my theological education in the following way (with a few typos corrected!):
I can characterize my theological education in no other way than that we explored the concept of God rather than learned about the being, God; we examined the Bible using critical tools that very much assumed its human origin; and we dove into the stories of Jesus with exactly the same critical perspective, recognizing that not one of the interpretations could be hailed as truth beyond all truths, most especially the arguments for his divinity. So I don’t feel that I am all that far from my education, even if I now use different language to reflect upon it.
That pretty much says it. Theological education in liberal, mainline denominations has, for a very long time, explored far beyond traditional doctrinal understandings. My class in the late 1980s certainly wasn’t the first; that kind of exploration had been happening for decades. In fact, even when The United Church of Canada was formed in 1925, theological conversations dug into the challenges erupting from liberal scholarly studies that threatened the pastoral peace of church members. That challenge has continued throughout our history.
But it has been hidden from most people. A correspondent today who shared with me that it was hard for her to remain respectful, disclosed that she does not consider herself religious though she was raised in the United Church and married there. But she was pretty confident that
Father, Son and Holy Spirit – absolutely need to be accepted if you choose to participate in this church!
It is easy for me to understand her vigorous, though misled, response to the documentary. The United Church of Canada has been encouraging the critical examination of every element of Christianity in its theological colleges for decades but it has failed to let the general public know and it has kept it very well hidden by using exactly the same language to describe an infinite array of understandings of the concept of god, the Bible, and the man called Jesus as is used by fundamentalist believers. My correspondent, even if she did go to church regularly, could not be blamed for completely missing the fact that her denomination grew out of and beyond traditional ideas about Christian doctrine a long, long time ago.
Given that bit of history, I hope your exploration of this site helps make sense of an the “atheist minister” oxymoron. You can find a piece about why I use the word atheist to describe myself, a piece on why I consider myself to be in essential agreement (the term used to determine if someone can be ordained) with the Church’s doctrinal statements, and a whole lot of poetry and rewritten hymn texts that you are welcome to use wherever you’d like (just credit me and, if you’re willing, add a link to the page. Much appreciated!). And don’t forget to check out West Hill United’s website, especially taking time to read our VisionWorks document. If you believe in goodness, I doubt you’ll find much you disagree with. If you believe in fundamentalist Christianity, I still doubt you’ll find much you disagree with although there will be much that you might like to see there that isn’t. We work hard to live up to the values we have identified as important. What someone believes doctrinally is less important to us so you’ll find traditional believers, secular humanists, atheists, and a whole bunch of people who don’t want to be defined by a label in our gatherings.
Of course, we’d love you to join us one Sunday no matter what you believe whether in Scarborough where we meet each week or in Mississauga where we meet on the third Sunday of each month! For more information about those gatherings, contact annie at the office.
If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to email me. I’m happy to respond and appreciate your patience. Sometimes there’s a lot in my inbox!
I recall the longest night as one of almost utter darkness when, in my early twenties, I lived north of the Arctic Circle for three years. The sun set over the white landscape surrounding Inuvik on the sixth of December. It didn’t rise above the horizon again until the sixth of January; a month of semi- and complete darkness which took its toll on those who made their way through the frozen night.
Living in southern Ontario, the longest night seems short in comparison. But still, the metaphor of darkness has much to offer us for consideration. In so many areas of our lives, there are challenges, overshadowed with broken relationships – with ourselves, others, and Earth, our home. Much of the time, we ignore the places that hurt; it is easier to be busy, to keep moving, to put on our happy face and project the illusion of a perfect life.
But we don’t have perfect lives and the longest night provides us with an opportunity to approach, under cover of darkness, the truths we often hide. We can hear them, approach them, almost touch them, imagining that when we can’t really see them, it is easier to get close enough to deal with them, if only for a brief time. Lament. Let go. And then, call back the light.
As we gathered together to engage in this struggle, we centred ourselves with these words. May they call you to a place of light in this season of darkness.
It has been imperceptible, really,
this falling away of the light –
summer’s shimmering sunlight a distant memory;
the barrenness of winter
stealthily sealing life beneath the hardened earth.
We felt it coming,
marked the signs –
twilight come an hour early,
coats heavy, heavy on our shoulders –
and still, we could not name the hour
when light succumbed
and darkness nudged its way
over our days, our world, our hearts.
Or has the falling away not been our own?
The light – constant, strong, attending –
but not for us.
Its presence stretched to the thinnest line –
a faint, remembered glow along the far horizon –
seems further yet
as we trudge our way toward the night,
in a pattern of emptiness, isolation, loss
drawn inexorably on,
unable to free ourselves from its hold
or our own ambition.
We have pressed ourselves
beyond its reach
and into darkness, fallen.
In this darkest night,
may we find and shelter the light within
and call ourselves back
from the precipice of oblivion
and into the welcome embrace
Like David, I, too, was highly influenced by Fowler as was the late Marcus Borg who focused the attention of liberal Christians on three of Fowler’s mid-stages, renaming them “Pre-critical Naivete, Critical Thinking, and Post-Critical Naivete. Borg’s interpretation of Fowler’s Stages of Faith picked Fowler’s work up from the theological college or university, dusted it clean of its academic, empirical language, and shared it with the people in the pews. That work has been central to the progressive Christian undertaking.
Unlike Marcus Borg, however, I don’t think that Post-Critical Naivete, or as Fowler originally named it, the Conjunctive Stage, is a helpful place for people to remain. It’s much, much better than sitting in the confusion and anger that the Individuative Reflexive Stage offers with its “Why didn’t you tell me?” lament. But there has to be something between there and the grand, expansive altruism of Fowler’s Universalizing Stage. Doesn’t there?
The more I have thought about it over the years, the more I have wrestled with the limitation of Fowler’s stages. There is an edge to the Conjunctive Stage that allows us to let go of the mythic language and stories of our faith traditions and move into a place that is purely focused on values. It pulls us past a space inhabited with tradition and all the barriers and divisiveness that tradition, particularly religious tradition, can impose on the human family.
But does it drop us into the emptiness where another stage that Fowler didn’t articulate exists or does it press us into Fowler’s Universalizing category? Is it a seamless transition, no air between the two, or is there a gap? Wouldn’t it be presumptuous or arrogant for those who position themselves beyond Borg to identify as being in Stage Six? Are those who no longer carry the heavy burden of archaic language and tradition suddenly as selfless and pure as Fowler has described there?
I need to go back and re-read what I haven’t steeped myself in since I completed writing Amen: What Prayer Can Be in a World Beyond Belief. Revisiting Fowler’s work will be my little tribute to him. In Amen, I argued that using stages to affirm shifts and changes in belief were positive despite the clamour that suggests doing so is offensive to those who are not in one of the more enlightened stages. I also argued that Fowler’s Stages could and perhaps should be applied to religious institutions that, once in Stage Six where I believe they belong, they would work to thrust us forward and toward one another instead of away and apart.
I will be looking for the edges of the Conjunctive Stage that hold us within it or the markers that lie within the Universalizing Stage that permit us entrance without our having to be Mahatmas, Great Souls considered so because of the unrestrained availability of their compassion. If they aren’t there, more work needs to be done to acknowledge that there is a stage beyond divisive language and religious tradition that allows for the nurture of humanitarian values, the acknowledgement of our alone-ness in a seemingly indifferent universe, the recognition of our extraordinary beauty, and a desire to create meaning and live into that work. A spiritual stage that is equally one of faith.
Perhaps identifying how far we have come will allow us to pledge ourselves to a common future path. Perhaps it will help us engage our denominations and religious institutions to see with the eyes of a universalizing faith, one in which we place our trust, our fidelity, not in the supernatural deity we left back in Stage Three, but in one another. No matter what stage that project might land itself in, it is the one to which we must put our shoulders. And I believe it is the work Dr. Fowler would have encouraged us to do.
An open letter to the Moderator of the United Church
from Bishop John Shelby Spong
Dear Moderator Cantwell,
I write with some alarm at what is happening in the United Church of Canada, a church that I have long admired. I recall your history. Your church decided that women were not to be excluded from ordination long before the first woman ever applied. In 1988 your church proclaimed that homosexual people were not ineligible for ordination. That stand resulted in a loss of members, but your church responded to that loss with a campaign slogan that rang throughout Canada: “Proud to be United.” The rest of the Christian world rejoiced to witness your passion for truth. I have come to Canada under the auspices of the United Church of Canada to lecture more times than I can count. These events have been in every province of your nation from the Maritimes to British Columbia, from Nova Scotia to the islands off Vancouver. I have led conferences in each of your UCC conference centers. I have written articles in praise of the United Church of Canada. It was the one Christian body in the world that seemed free of the need to be tied to the past, but was rather courageously open to the future.
Now to my dismay, a segment of the United Church of Canada has decided that it is no longer secure enough or open enough to contain one of its most creative, future-oriented pastors. I refer to the Rev. Gretta Vosper of the West Hill United Church in Toronto.
I have known Gretta for years. I was present when she was installed to head The Progressive Christian Movement in Canada; a movement I helped to found in the United States and that now has chapters in most of the other countries in the English-speaking world. I have encouraged her in her writing career. I wrote the foreword to her first book, With or Without God, and I pushed her to write her book on prayer entitled Amen.
I have admired her as she sought to move Christianity into the future, not in some ivy- towered part of academia, where things that she says are so well accepted as not to be controversial, but in a congregation of real people, who are trying to make sense out of their Christian faith without twisting their 21st century minds into 1st century pretzels. For engaging in this creative effort, which the whole church will sooner or later be required to do, some elements of the United Church of Canada now want to banish her from the ministry of your church. I presume that they want to be allowed to remain comfortably in their pre-modern mentalities. If the United Church of Canada is not broad enough to embrace this creative and unique pastor then this church that I once admired so much has sounded its own death knell. Gretta’s “sin,” if one can use that word, is that she has dared to share with her congregation the scholarship available in the great academic centers of Christian learning throughout the world.
We Christians are living today on the other side of Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo. We understand such things as the vastness of space and the generally accepted 13.8 billion year age of this universe. In such a worldview, there is clearly no theistic God hovering above the sky of a three-tiered universe, ready to intervene in supernatural ways. Does that mean there is no God? Of course not! It does mean, however, that God can no longer be conceived of as a being, supernatural in power, dwelling externally to our world, who is standing by ready to invade human history to answer our prayers or to impose the divine will. It means that our traditional pre-Copernican God language is simply no longer a language we can use. Rethinking God in non-theistic terms is one of the great concerns of contemporary Christian theology. The primary theologian under whom I trained, Paul Tillich, a Reformed theologian out of Germany, made this so clear. Please note that Dr. Tillich was probably the best read Christian theologian in the 20th century. He died in 1965. His ideas hardly represent new thinking. This means that those who want to banish Gretta are simply not aware of where Christian theology is today. They do not comprehend the wide gap that exists today between the Christian academy and the Christian pew. Gretta is one of the few pastors willing to live and work on the front lines and she dares to do so while leading a real congregation in which she is both loved and admired. She and her congregation are making an attempt to bridge this gap and to bring relevance to 21st century Christianity. Instead of trying to silence her, your church should be celebrating the fact that you have produced an incredible star.
Gretta has called herself “an atheist minister.” While that language is startling to some, the Christian academy knows exactly what she is saying. To refer to oneself as an “atheist” does not mean that one is asserting that there is no God; it means that the “theistic” definition of God is no longer operative or believable. It has not been operative in intellectual circles since the 17th century. Perhaps if Gretta had called herself a “non-theistic” pastor, people would not respond with the negativity that is born out of such incredible and profound theological ignorance. Gretta’s style, however, is to shock people into opening their minds to new possibilities and thus to call them into a new understanding of God. Under the impact of her ministry one cannot hide in the time-worn platitudes of our religious past. That is exactly what the Christian Church of today needs to hear and the issue with which it needs to wrestle. An “in your face” style is not for everyone, but it is a necessary aspect of ministry that can help awaken an irrelevant and dying church. I assume she must have believed that the United Church of Canada had within its leadership sufficient theological learning that her words would be properly understood. The leaders of this church need to assert loudly that they do, or the Christian world will be left to draw the conclusion that your church is no longer capable of living in the modern world.
The vast numbers of former Christians, who have dropped out of organized religion, have done so as a direct response to the small minds saying unbelievable things that they confront inside so many traditional churches. They are bored by what they experience. Institutional Christianity will die of boredom long before it dies of controversy. Controversy is indeed a sign of life.
Gretta uses language that will cause secular people to turn their heads, to say:” Did I hear that right? Surely a Christian pastor cannot be saying what I just heard. Is there something about Christianity that I have missed, something about which I have never thought before? Should I perhaps re-enter church life to listen anew?” Surely you do not want to penalize a pastor whose style has gotten the attention of the audience that now listens to Gretta across not only Canada, but throughout the rest of the Christian world. Those are exactly the people that Christianity must attract if it wishes to avoid its almost relentless journey into medieval irrelevance.
Gretta is also quite correct in calling for the church to abandon its victimizing forms of Christianity. There is no such thing as “original sin” into which we have fallen and from which we have to be saved. That idea is nothing more than a hangover from such 4th century thinkers as Augustine, the Bishop of Hippo in North Africa. The concept of “original sin” assumed that there was an original perfection from which we have fallen. It assumes a passive human helplessness from which divine rescue is essential. It assumes that God does not know how to forgive and so God requires a human sacrifice and a blood offering before both divine forgiveness and divine love are possible. It assumes that salvation is achievable only through the invasion of our world by a theistic deity. This is the portrait of the God who decided to punish Jesus for our sins. It is this dated theology that permeates the Christian Church today and it is this theology that Gretta Vosper is challenging. Out of this theology we Christians continue to say strange things like: “Jesus died for my sins.” This theology turns God into a monster who requires a human sacrifice and a blood offering; it turns Jesus into a victim and it turns human beings into guilt-filled creatures, groveling before God and begging for mercy! Besides all of these liabilities we also now know that this theology is simply wrong.
Those of us who live in the 21st century are inevitably post-Darwinian people. We know that there never was an original perfection from which we have fallen. Darwin taught us that at the beginning there was only a slow evolution over billions of years as we journeyed from single cells of life into the status of self-conscious complexity that marks human life today.
If there was no original perfection, then there could not have been a fall from perfection. One cannot fall from that which never existed. If there was no fall then there is no such thing as original sin from which we need to be saved. One cannot be saved from what never was nor can one be “restored” to a status one never possessed. Finally there is no need for a deity, defined theistically, who mounts the rescue operation. So the whole way we tell the Jesus story has got to be rethought and reformulated. To say that publicly, as Gretta does, is not to be a threat to the church, it is to be the hope of the church.
These are the things that the United Church of Canada needs to hear if any part of it wants to remove Gretta Vosper from her ministry. Such a church will look “heroic”, only to an increasingly neurotic band of “true believers,” who think they can protect God from knowledge and it will become the laughing stock of the members of our increasingly secular society, who are quite sure they want nothing to do with the kind of Christianity that you will then represent.
I grieve over the direction in which at least some parts of the United Church of Canada are now walking. I urge you, as the leader of that church, to call your church back from this precipice.
Munroe is a friend who visits West Hill regularly. Over the past couple of years, he’s been working on a play created almost entirely from the words of the great orator, Robert Ingersoll. It is an honour for him to have written this wonderful letter. I’ve written to CBC Archives to see if we might be able to get a copy of Reddick. Munroe blogs at Return to Paradox.
To: Rev Jordan Cantwell (Moderator UCC)
Ms Nora Sanders (Gen. Secretary UCC)
Mr. David Allen (Exec.Sect‛y Toronto Conference)
Re: The UCC review of Rev.Gretta Vosper‛s “effectiveness”
I am writing this as a layman with no claim to theological training but who as a freelance author and filmwriter has been privileged to apply significant parts of my career to fulfilling assignments for the UCC. I am also a lifelong member of the UCC as well as a son of the manse and a grandson of the parsonage. Although technically I belong to a UCC congregation in another city it is to Gretta‛s West Hill church that I go whenever the opportunity presents itself. The simple explanation for this is that at the age of 88, and having travelled much of the globe visiting UCC co-operative mission fields from Africa to the Caribbean to Canada and numerous parts of Asia, I find that Gretta and her congregation are striving to keep the UCC relevant in an oh so rapidly changing world.
The idea that the UCC bureaucracy should be planning on a legalistic review of Gretta‛s beliefs and ministry is, quite frankly, extremely disturbing. Science, and particularly physics, has moved us into a realm of knowledge where for many of us the concept of an interventionist God is untenable and to proclaim a belief in such a God would be intellectually dishonest. The UCC has, in the past, considered such matters to be wide open for discussion rather than subject to legalistic review.
Let me illustrate with a personal perspective from the past..
Away back in 1970 I wrote a 90 minute play for CBC TV called Reddick, in which a young inner city clergyman (played by the late Don Harron) was put on trial by his church basement youth group. The charge was that Rev. Reddick preached what he didn‛t believe – in other words, he was accused of intellectual dishonesty. In the course of the “trial” he finally denied a literal belief in virtually the whole of the Apostle‛s Creed. But the real message of that production lay elsewhere.
Churches learned of the upcoming TV production and some of their communication people asked for and were permitted to see the script (no editorial input whatsoever). The upshot was that the UCC, the Anglican Church, and the Catholic Church all promoted CBC TV‛s Reddick. Study guides were voluntarily created, TVs were put into church basements, and lay people were encouraged to watch and discuss. Afterwards, an overview was written by the UCC‛s Rev. Robert “Bob” Reid.
Now, alas, in the case of the Rev. Gretta, the UCC instead of entering into open and stimulating discussion of the inherent dilemmas of contemporary belief has descended into a legalistic review of dogma. This is not the UCC that I have known.
It may be relevant to point out that I wrote Reddick because I had recently researched and written (for Berkeley Studio of the UCC) a film called Inner City, concerning the woes of old inner city congregations in changing times. While doing research for that film I became aware of the angst that afflicted many UCC ministers when faced with the conflict between archaic Biblical verbiage and concepts and their own evolving beliefs. It was that awareness that propelled me into writing Reddick. In those days the questioning of dogma must have been of widespread interest because not only did the CBC produce the script but their production was picked up by both PBS and the BBC. The following year CBC not only repeated the original but followed with a 90 minute sequel.
What is truly remarkable about Gretta is that she has gone beyond discussion and actually tried to adapt her ministry and its message to make it honest and thereby relevant in this truly awesome world that we are only beginning to understand. I think of Gretta and her West Hill family as UCC explorers scouting into uncharted spaces, remaining loyal to the ideals of the mother institution while navigating with the astrolabe of freethought and scholarship. The “effectiveness” of their voyage may indeed be assessed by some future generation but a rush to judgement now may impede and even destroy.
Author: McCLure: The China Years (Canec/Penguin) McClure: Years of Challenge (Canec/ Penguin) African Manhunt: (United Church of Canada/United Church of Christ, USA)
Filmwriter: I‛ll Sing, not Cry: (Berkeley Studio – Blue Ribbon at New York Film Festival) Inner City: (Berkeley Studio – Blue ribbon at the New York Film Festival) On the Rim of Tomorrow: (Berkeley Studio) Faith in Revolution: (Berkeley Studio – for the Nat‛l Council of Churches, NY.)
Playwright: McClure: (Theatre Aquarius, published Simon & Pierre) Reddick, Pts 1&2: (CBC TV)
Both Toronto Conference and Hamilton Conference had voted by large majorities at their annual meetings this spring to ask the General Council to have its Theology, Inter-Church and Inter-Faith Committee (TICIFC) review the questions of ordination. Nora Sanders, the General Secretary of the UCC, and its highest administrative officer, had ruled that clergy needed to be in continuing affirmation of those questions throughout their ministry in order to be considered suitable. Any clergy person deemed unsuitable if they could not answer those questions affirmatively, could be deemed to be ineffective, one of only two reasons a clergy person can be disciplined by the denomination. By asking that those questions be reviewed, Toronto and Hamilton conference members were acknowledging that the language in them supposes a theological construct, the trinity, and a supernatural divine being that is not the concept of god held by many clergy. Today, the General Council refused to act upon their requests.
I am deeply disappointed that the UCC General Council sent proposals from Toronto and Hamilton Conference requesting a review of ordination questions to a Commission rather than having the whole court deal with them; my understanding of the categorization of proposals for the 42nd General Council, based on a document sent to commissioners by Fred Monteith, Business Chair for the meeting, was that any proposal that anticipated a change in the Basis of Union, would be dealt with by the full court – all the commissioners. Only those “calling the church to take a time-bound stand on national or global issues and/or on an issue for which the church does not have an existing policy or statement” or “contemplate changes to existing General Council policies and procedures,” or “which more properly fall within the purview of another court of the church” were eligible to be sent to a Commission. The rules, whether they were set up especially for this General Council or are existing policy related to proposals, seem to have been changed for these two proposals. (If anyone understands Monteith’s document better than I, please share your understanding in the comments below. It may be that, since the request was to have a committee review the questions and that any impact on the Basis of Union would come to a subsequent General Council and not this one, that it was eligible to be sent to a Commission but that understanding, as far as I can tell, is not represented in Monteith’s preparatory document.) The Commission voted not to act on the Toronto proposal and referred the Hamilton one to the General Council Executive, again, something I didn’t think was procedurally possible when the impact was on the Basis of Union.
The vote was 51% not to act (that is, not to ask the TICIFC to review the questions), 45% to act, and the rest abstaining.
The results are disturbing but not because they went against the review of the questions, despite how critical and timely I think that conversation is. I would be disturbed if the results had been reversed with these same percentages. They are disturbing because they indicate, to me, a deeply divided church. Half of those who voted want the questions of ordination reviewed with a view to making them consistent with contemporary theological understandings. Half believe they should be preserved as they are, reinforcing theological concepts that have been crumbling under critical inquiry for at least a century and very likely much longer. Fifty fifty splits are rancorous. They harm. They reject dialogue and entrench positions. They are not the way that we find a common, sustainable future.
I recall a conversation in my first year of theological study at Queen’s Theological College, now known as Theology at Queen’s School of Religion (and no longer taking new students). It was 1988. General Council was going to be meeting that summer and we knew that the issue of the ordination of gays and lesbians was on the table for discussion. The issue had rocked the church for several years and those individuals who had been proactive in getting it to Council had been treated dismally by members of the church and the general public. It, too, was a fractious time. Our professor asked us whether we should wait until we had the numbers, until we knew we would win, or if we thought we should throw caution to the wind and set the issue before the court, confident that what was right would come about, that those who spoke positively about embracing that change and the justice issues it would champion would be heard. I can’t remember how the class came down on that, but I remember thinking we should just take a stand[ that justice couldn’t wait[ that he church, my church, needed to risk finding its way toward truth; that the Bible, no matter how you parsed it, should never stand in the way of justice.
The decision to embrace the leadership of individuals who put themselves forward for ordination based on their suitability for ministry and not on their sexuality almost split the church. Many congregations lost members. Some whole congregations left. But The United Church of Canada identified itself as the first Christian denomination that embraced the leadership gifts of gays and lesbians (and now all sexualities and genders across the spectrum of diversity). It was a defining moment. We didn’t know, going in, what the numbers were. It wasn’t like a last minute negotiation on The West Wing, with Josh running around trying to get the numbers to make the vote, the triumphant moment unfolding seconds before the vote was called. We took a leap of faith and we landed, bruised and sore but confident that we had made the right choice. History has affirmed our choice.
We didn’t walk into the vote on ordination and sexuality unprepared, even if we didn’t have the numbers all figured out when General Council gathered in 1988. But we had created opportunities for dialogue, for discussion, for learning, for exploration, and we had engaged the wider church in conversation. We had worked at building relationships and articulating values. We had exemplified good process and then, when we needed to, after all that process had unfolded, we stepped out into the unknown, confident that we had done what we could and that justice could wait no longer.
Dialogue is the United Church’s modus operandi. It’s what we do and it’s how we do things. We were born of dialogue and discussion, of compromise and the exploration of unknown territories. We’ve been at it for ninety years, longer if you count the two decades of discussion out of which we were finally born in 1925.
But here’s the thing. Not one official from any court of the church has ever come to speak with me, with West Hill United, the congregation I serve, or with us together about the work we do and why we believe it is the United Church’s work, too. There has been no dialogue. Nothing but silence. Until, after fifteen years of being totally accessible to them and willing to engage, West Hill’s unique stance is challenged by a disciplinary review of its minister, me. Toronto Conference’s Executive Committee, decided against the United Church’s historical nature and ordered a disciplinary review as a way to explore what it is we do. And dialogue continues to be suppressed in relation to this issue; a request for conversation with the General Secretary’s office or the Judicial Committee my review, an attempt to seek an alternate resolution to the concerns raised, was rejected in favour of the disciplinary process.
I am saddened that Toronto Conference’s Executive committee, in stark contrast to the proposal passed by its full court a few short weeks later, rejected the UCC’s time-tested tradition of dialogue, requesting instead a new disciplinary process be created based on the questions of ordination and a minister’s ongoing affirmation of them. Today, the results of the conversation that took place in the Commission reviewing Toronto Conference’s proposal, has proven their decision to be as divisive as it could possibly be. It has led my denomination from the positive outcomes inherent in dialogue to the fractious and dangerous outcomes of divisive debate.
Clair undertook to write a response to his granddaughter’s request for a brief outline of Christianity that she could share in her pluralistic school. It took him two years to write it. And he was already well down the road in his understanding of contemporary, critical scholarship before he even started.
My description of Christianity needed to honour the fact that we human beings live on one globe and are increasingly interconnected — issues teens take for granted. That meant being positive about other cultures and honouring the insights of other faiths.
Distilling the salient points out of a religious tradition can be tricky work. Particularly if you are embedded within that tradition. Being there limits your perspective somewhat, requiring that you dig away at assumptions you may not even recognize as assumptions. Remember how long it took to acknowledge that the world is round, not flat? That, too, was a perspective issue. And there are perspective issues in every discipline we engage that will get in our way if we really want to figure out what is fact and what is fiction.
The ultimate in digging through assumptions needn’t be that hard, however, if you are mining your tradition for what is worthy of carrying forward, fact or otherwise.
… I had to ask myself what in Christianity was really essential for me. This meant putting aside the baggage that Christianity had accumulated through the years and identifying what is really important for me as I live my day-to-day life.
Clair’s litmus test is the key to examining our religious heritage. That doesn’t mean we’ll find the answer to all things religious if we use it. Our contexts are as fluid as were those of our forebears. Future generations will test and test again. But if we use a lens that has meaning to us, that boils it down to what is critical in this day and age not only for ourselves but for the realization of a sustainable future, we have all we need to review our religious heritage for the here and now. What will help us build that future? For me, that lens filters everything using this question, “Is this text, symbol, person, ritual, or tradition going to help us in the important work of building right relationships with ourselves, one another, the planet, and the seventh generation?” If it’s not, it isn’t worthy of being brought into the place where I pave the road toward my tomorrows, my heart and my church home.
Religious stories have always been about helping us find our way in the world and we have used them to do so, sometimes badly, sometimes with great dignity. When they are hardened into literal truths, they get in the way of their original purposes, or, because I’m not an anthropologist, what I believe were their original purposes. Getting back to using religious story as a way of edifying our efforts to build meaning into ours and others’ lives and convicting us when we fail to choose to dignify all life, now and that which will unfold in the future, is an ongoing task. So, too, are finding new stories that will continue to inspire us.
Clair has published his book, A New Take on an Ancient Story. You can email him if you would like to purchase a copy. Perhaps for your own grandchildren!
I have long argued that my evangelical colleagues often appear to have more integrity than colleagues within my own liberal tradition. Rick Warren and Bill Hybels, (mentioned in With or Without God) have been hanging out since forever on the wrong side of the fence, in my opinion, but they have done it because the things they believe are on that same side of the fence. They haven’t talked as though they believe one thing – the Bible is The Authoritative Word of God for All Time (TAWOGFAT) – and then acted in ways that would suggest otherwise. They have preached what they have preached because they have truly believed it. Clergy in liberal traditions may be preaching what they believe, too, but they use language that obfuscates and hides their true beliefs about the god called God, about the divinity of Jesus, about what the Trinity really means, etc., to the point that no one even questions that they believe the same things that Rick and Bill believe albeit with a slightly softer edge.
One side of the fence conservative evangelicals share is the side that condemns homosexuality. Conservative evangelicals preach against homosexuality because their text tells them that homosexuality is wrong. I argue with them about that, not because their interpretation of the text was wrong – as many of my liberal colleagues are wont to do – but because the text is not TAWOGFAT and shouldn’t hold sway in twenty-first century contexts. We should not be using documents written in completely different cultural settings and times to condemn whole segments of society. Even though I disagreed with them, I had more respect for their argument than I did for liberal apologists who argue the human construction of the Bible but then refer to it to prove their side of the argument.
Now, I’m doubly impressed. On a blog posted today, Tony Campolo has come out as a supporter of same-sex marriage. He has risked being maligned by all of his peers in order to stand in solidarity with some of the most maligned people in the Christian tradition. And it isn’t because he has had a scriptural revelation, or accepted the interpretations of liberal, critical scholarship. No. It is because he has recognized that, along with so many other issues about which the church finally shifted its opinion, discrimination based on sexuality is wrong. That’s it. And that’s everything.
“It has taken countless hours of prayer, study, conversation and emotional turmoil to bring me to the place where I am finally ready to call for the full acceptance of Christian gay couples into the Church.”
When the church assesses its choices based on what is right given the accumulated wisdom of the ages and is ready to revise its stated positions even to the point of going against previous interpretations of biblical injunctions, it is often too little and too late. I hope that this very public statement will encourage others in the evangelical world to do what we must always do, bring the best of our own clarity of thinking to whatever document we may consider authoritative, take what is worth keeping, and place the rest, very publicly, in the archival record.
This past week, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission recognized the end of its work with a ceremony in Ottawa. For six years, its commissioners, the Honourable Justice Murray Sinclair, Dr. Marie Wilson, and Chief Wilton Littlechild, met with, listened, and recorded the narratives of those who had been affected by Canada’s Residential Schools. The recorded narrative accounts, ranging in length from ten minutes to five hours and which, together, would take over two years to watch or listen to, will form a permanent record of this most challenging chapter in Canadian history.
I lived in Inuvik, NWT, for three years in my early twenties. Another three years was spent in Rankin Inlet, now in Nunavut. During those six years, I built some relationships with aboriginal friends but for the most part, I remained woefully ignorant of the Residential School travesty. Stringer Hall, the residence run in Inuvik by the Anglican Church, had closed four years before I arrived there. Grollier Hall, the home run by the Roman Catholic Church, remained open until 1996, years after I left. I was never inside either of them. Many of us, despite our close proximity to the truths, remained ignorant of the realities faced by First Nations people.
We can no longer claim to be.
End the Disparity Caravan arrives in Ottawa with petition.
West Hill’s First Nations Study Group has been sharing the truths of our First Nations brothers and sisters for some years now. In the fall of 2013, they created a petition challenging the federal government to represent us fairly in our treaty relationships with First Nations peoples. It collected three thousand signatures and was read in the House of Commons. Ruth Gill, coordinator of the Study Group, spent this week in Ottawa at the TRC’s closing ceremonies.
The table at West Hill adorned with the KI flag and objects from the ceremony.
This morning at West Hill, we participated in a new ritual created for the purpose of moving us through our own experiences of guilt. The closing of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was a perfect opportunity to embark upon it and I hope we will use regularly in coming years. It was based on the writing of author Carol Berg, a fantasy writer, and inspired by the Ritual of Purification found in Soul Weaver the third book of the Bridge of D’Arnathseries. Scott reads to me each night before we go to sleep and fantasy series are often on the list. Berg, who holds degrees in mathematics and computer science, writes with insight into many of our human challenges, playing them out in fantastical worlds.
To augment the ritual’s significance for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, I worked with the sixteenth century French folk tune “Une Jeune Pucelle” best known as the music to which Jean Brebeuf wrote “The Huron Carol” in 1642. “Twas in the Moon of Wintertime” was originally written in the Wynadot language and has become a well-loved Christian Christmas carol despite criticism of what some call its racist roots and the rebuke of Native faith and traditions contained in the original words, translated to English in 1926. (Continues below photo)
photo by morguefile user mantasmagorical
“As One” picks up on our common truths: we came from the same evolutionary history and we are all first nurtured in the womb of a woman. “Out of one sea we came, into one world.” We have so many things that mark us as one, as sisters and brothers. So many things that can pull us together. Scarred and wounded by our history, and strengthened by the courageous acknowledgement and shared truth of its tragedy, may we dream our way toward a better future. Together.
Before we came into the world
before our lungs drew air,
around us wrapped the sea of life,
its waters everywhere.
Before we ever knew “apart”
we heard the beating of one heart.
Out of one sea we came into one world.
May we ever be as one.
Through all the world we have dispersed,
to every island come.
We’ve built our lives and families
on land we now call home.
Yet we forget there are no walls
upon a planet loved by all.
Out of one sea we came into one world
May we ever live as one.
Tomorrow does not build itself;
it, by our hands, is made.
Through care and justice might we all
its great foundations lay.
We’ll set aside the tools of yore
And build with love forevermore
Out of one sea we came into one world
May we ever dream as one.
Sometimes, people who are evangelical, express their sadness that we who have left literal beliefs behind or who never had them, do not experience the dramatic movement of what they would call the Holy Spirit, or the presence of the Lord. Especially the way that Spirit or Lord moves in large gatherings of Christians all believing and singing and sharing at the same time. The story of hemera, the fiftieth day after Easter, which is known as Pentecost, speaks of the coming of the spirit in tongues of flame and a driving wind and settling upon the gathered people It has much to do with the roots of the experience.
I never had an experience of the Lord or the Holy Spirit in the dramatic ways that are described. I come from a liberal Christian home; we were cerebral, not emotional. But I know power. I know the feeling of it. And I experience it – sometimes on a huge scale, and sometimes when it comes to me through a single email, its sender far, far away. That power is the power of the human heart* to express commitment, love, engagement, kindness, concern, empathy, humility, wonder. There is no lack of it in this place beyond the emotional space of conservative belief and fundamentalist interpretation. In fact, I think there’s more.
It was the craziest feeling.
one minute we’re just a bunch of people
pushing and shoving to get through the gate
and the next,
we’re this giant, breathing, moving body of oneness,
singing and holding our phones up,
light shining out,
not just from our phones,
but from our eyes.
If I believed in mass hypnosis,
I would have said it had happened –
But I don’t,
and it hadn’t.
It was bigger than that.
It was knowing that there is nothing bigger than us.
Knowing that together,
we are bigger than the wind.
Knowing that without one another
we are too small for anything.
Knowing that the most important thing
we could ever do
was turn to the person beside us
and start a conversation.
It was the biggest feeling I’ve ever had
the greatest commitment I could ever make,
the most extraordinary realization
I’ve ever witnessed.
And it was the most ordinary thing
we could ever, ever do.
Tell me about yourself.
* “human heart” is used metaphorically – let’s be clear; the experiences we are speaking about, no matter what we call it, are much more likely neurological
The song Nearer My God, to Thee is a classic. Often claimed to be the last song played by the band on the deck of the Titanic as it sank, it clings to the idea that we come closer to God through death, particularly if we’ve suffered a tragic one. Many a time, just as I’ve arrived to do a funeral or memorial service, asked specifically not to include anything “religious”, a piece of paper has been pressed into my hand with words that claim those who die young are favoured by God, that God only takes the most beautiful, or that God needed help in heaven so has taken the child or loved one to be an angel. I read it because I’ve been asked to, but I am always saddened by the idea that we should find solace through belief in what, if we really thought about it, could only be a jealous and cruel deity.
So I have never been much attached to the lyrics to Nearer, My God, to Thee. Even when I used the word “god”, it would never have been in this manner. But there are things that I wish we could draw closer to, that we are always seeking, and so, as I wrote these lyrics, I had a vision of those things in mind.
Back in December 2013, John and I had engaged in a conversation on his regular podcast, Religion for Life. Before opening the conversation, John was clear that he did not believe in a theistic god. The rest of the conversation covered a lot of terrain. John recently sent me the link to that podcast. I hope you enjoy it.