Dividing the United Church

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.

UCC Moderator, Gary Paterson at GC42

UCC Moderator, Gary Paterson at GC42

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.

24 thoughts on “Dividing the United Church

  1. Rob Wells

    Take comfort in the words of MacEwan’s Creed. It makes more sense than the 1700 year old Nicene Creed. MacEwan was the Lieutenant Governor of Alberta. He wrote:……..”I believe it is an offence against the God of Nature for me to accept any hand-me-down, man-defined religion or creed without the test of reason. I believe no man dead or alive knows more about God than I can know by searching”…..Dr. J.W. Grant MacEwan, 1969 ….. GRETTA .. LET’S TRAVEL THIS SEARCHING JOURNEY TOGETHER!

  2. Jayne Little

    Gretta, I don’t see this is a split in the same way that you do; although, I do see a split. I see it more around what should be at the full court, what shoudl be at commissions and what belongs more within the conference or committee level.

    I am disappointed by the lack of visitation per your comments above.
    i have asked Metropolitan United Church for a copy of the letter, and any minutes showing the actions that led up to the letter, as I am interested in the process. It is summer, so I will give them time to respond. If you happen to have a copy of the letter or these minutes, I would be quite interested in them.

    I am continuing to read material and try to understand the depths of the questions; however, I wanted to at least acknowledge the hurt and frustration that must be felt in your congregation, and it’s staff/ministry, as well as those who self-identify as progressie christians in the united church of canada.

    peace to you this day.

  3. jean and brian kirkham

    Grete –know that we are holding you in our hearts and send you peace and joy–with fondest and best regards, jean and brian

  4. Marilyn Blackall

    Gretta, you are a visionary and I am so grateful for all that you have done with your books, speaking engagements, work with CCPC — all within the United Church of Canada. The work needs to continue whether or not our UC agrees.

  5. Tom Plaunt

    Thank you, Gretta, for this post, and all of your work to date. Hearts are sore, not only for you, but also for the UCC, which seems to topple towards oblivion despite its forward social initiatives (which give the UCC a sense of eternal credibility for many members).

    But also essential is an equal openness and inclusiveness in its theology / philosophy and sense of history, past, present, future.

    Strange (or not?) that this aspect encounters so much conservative backlash and, I think, stubborn unthinking pride in a mythical past. We seem not so united after all. Sad but true?

    Meanwhile, Corraggio to you and yours, and warmest supporting thoughts from Montreal et al. Tom

  6. Dan Williams


    You have a great grasp of media manipulation and you play the game well. The reality my dear is that being a minister in the United Church of Canada has certain requirements. The key one being an expressed belief in God. You know longer hold this view , and that is absolutely cool. It does however mean you must go play somewhere else as you are no longer suitable for the defined role. Them’s the facts darlin’

    1. Rev. Fran Ota

      I find this comment to Gretta short-sighted and not well thought through. Gretta’s stance as I understand it is that she doesn’t believe in the god we call God. Neither do I. Where Gretta chooses not to use the word God, but explores other ways of defining the nature of ‘god’, I choose to unpack the incredible baggage which people drag with that word, and include all possible ways of looking at it. From my perspective, my aims and Gretta’s are close, even if done differently. If Gretta is not suitable nor effective in ministry, then neither are a bunch of the rest of us – and the church has a bunch of reviews on its hands. My ‘God’ is not ‘ immortal, invisible, hid from our eyes’, nor capricious about who lives and who dies – in a car accident or a plane crash. When someone says “God needed another angel in heaven”, that’s not my God. In this whole article Gretta has talked about dialogue and discussion – which we sorely need in the church, particularly around our antiquated vows of ordination. You have the opportunity for discussion, and you have decided not to enter into that opportunity. Gretta notes that not once has anyone come to the church nor tried to talk with her – so how can they review her ‘effectiveness’ if they have no contact with her or the congregation. I’d add that question includes the congregation which raised this complaint – colleagues who I would have expected to behave with more respect. My church has decided to avoid the issues and avoid the discussion – when dealing directly with the issues of faith and its articulation would be the most productive thing. In the process, two Conferences’ petitions have been dismissed as not worth considering. Hence the wisdom of the Conferences is being questioned as well. Those who are not willing to engage Gretta in conversation are simply afraid and the poorer for it.

  7. Stephen Booth

    I still can’t figure out when she had her moment when she decided she doesn’t/can’t Believe ,if I’m not mistaken, one place she wrote it occurred at her school before she graduated , in another when she was with the congregation of west hill? Am I mistaken on that gretta?

    anyway…. talk is cheap and IMO its near valueless in some uccan related circles.

    mouthing things may make for a good show.

  8. Stephen Booth

    the reality is Belief is relavent in Christianity and the Gospel message of it is probably lost on many at the uccan , likely perpetuated by the false notion that choosing action over belief is necessary or beneficial as if they dont go hand in hand. Jesus also teaches of justification by our words….example : I believe that Jeus is the one and only Son of God, the Messiah…….another example ‘ yes I will help you’

    25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; 26 and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

    27 “Yes, Lord,” she replied, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.”(from John 11)

    24 “Very truly I tell you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be judged but has crossed over from death to life.(from John 5)

    48 There is a judge for the one who rejects me and does not accept my words; the very words I have spoken will condemn them at the last day. 49 For I did not speak on my own, but the Father who sent me commanded me to say all that I have spoken. 50 I know that his command leads to eternal life. So whatever I say is just what the Father has told me to say.”(from John 12)

  9. Bette McCracken

    Those are the “facts” as you see them “darlin Dan”. (BTW, have you got any sense of how inherently disrespectful and misogynist your tone comes across?)

    Others see more subtle truths. Linking with this actions of London Conference, it seems to me that it is at the Conference level that procedure seems to be very muddy. I would like to see more clarity from GC as to where it sees progressive Christianity in its theological range, as espoused by the Song of Faith. I want to know where/if I fit here, too, and I’m sure there are members in pews at West HIll and across the United Church who would like to know the same.

  10. Rev Terry Pickersgill

    2 Timothy 4 says “3 For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own likings, 4 and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander into myths.” Maybe it’s coming sooner than we think.

  11. Bette McCracken

    An observation for those who find quoting random, out of context verses from a 2000 year old book in their defense: for EVERY position you support, I can support the equal and opposite position with a quote from the same book.

  12. S Booth

    When we walk in the Spirit our words and actions are guided by Spirit , as I noted , there is no need to create a false choice between Faith and action.
    The Christian Church is one that is of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and putting Love for God first is our greatest commandment , to belittle the Gospel message is to belittle our Faith.

    Truth (Love rejoices with the Truth) is divisive by its nature as it separates itself from falsehoods. The Gospel message is not one of indifference and the context of aspects of its message is for the Believer.

  13. Gordon J MacWillie

    One (and that includes biblical writers) can only speak of God in metaphors. When one speaks of God as Father, Son, or Spirit we are using metaphoric figurative language not language about objective observable phenomena.

  14. S Booth

    i found this interesting , I didn’t write it (I did edit it) and it can give some insights into realities of some ‘socialist endevours’ and how they are ran, which would also further concern where value of Faith and Truth is belittled.

    Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton were walking down the street when they came to a homeless person.
    Trump gave the homeless person his business card and told him to come to his office for a job.
    He then took $20 out of his pocket and gave it to the homeless person.

    Hillary was very impressed, so when they came to another homeless person, she decided to help.
    She walked over to the homeless person and gave him directions to the welfare office.
    She then reached into Trump’s pocket and got out $20,then went to the local business and got a donation of grapes and old bruised apples.
    She likes grapes so she ate then .She kept $20 for her administration fees and gave the homeless man a old apple. Continuing down the street Hillary boasted of her deeds and solicited more cash that was kept for administration fees and her property assets.

    Now, do you understand the difference between a Conservative and a Liberal progressive?

  15. S Booth

    with all that said , I dont think the answer is to fire gretta , I dont think her representing the Christian Church and purposefully belittling it is a answer either.

    thats my two cents.

  16. Gary

    Is a 50-50 split good or bad? It depends on your perspective.

    Transforming a 2000 yrs old institution is no small task, especially when you are taking away its most valuable product “ever-lasting life”. This UCC review is a battle among many. Take a war perspective then the result of this battle will be less discouraging.

    50-50 maybe a split and but is also a huge win if it was 40-60, 30-70 before it. Be happy that the trend is your friend.

    Einstein couldn’t achieve what he did without standing on shoulders of the likes of Newton before him. Some work requires multiple giants over many years. Be happy that you are a member of this relay.

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  18. Rev. Fran Ota

    I have found it fascinating, in reading some of the comments – that those people who try to cherry-pick scriptures are actually NOT engaging in dialogue. Is it fear of discussing, fear of thinking, or perhaps inability to think theologically without the cherry-picking, which really proves nothing. Is it possible, you who cherry-pick, to have a conversation without quoting the Bible?

    1. Jim Smith

      While pontificating on the finer points of your intellectual capacity, those less privileged that are in desperate need of hope in our world, are being left behind by your sublime arrogance,. With leaders like you and Ms Vosper, the devil sits on his hands and laughs hysterically. But then you don’t recognize such beings. Be honest, you’re in it for the money , comfy lifestyle and adoration of a tragically betrayed congregation

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  20. S Booth

    Hi fran , I’m available to discuss the issue , what I wrote or the Scriptures. I could discuss your post which seems to make some very insulting speculation of others.

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