Today, at its meeting in Cornerbrook, NL, the General Council of The United Church of Canada (UCC) sent two petitions to a Commission rather than dealing with them with all its Commissioners in attendance. The two proposals had been triggered by both the review of my effectiveness ordered by Toronto Conference’s sub-Executive Committee and the sending of forms to the Rev. Bob Ripley by London Conference‘s Executive Secretary, Cheryl-Ann Stadelbauer-Sampa, that when completed, would remove him from the Order of Ministry in the United Church. She sent them to him when she read a newspaper article stating that he was an atheist. It was published three years after his retirement.
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.