Tag Archives: atheist minister

Colleague asks to be defrocked

Queen's Theological Hall

Queen’s Theological Hall

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.

 

The reason I’m an atheist …

… in case you missed it.

The birthday girl’s party place!

Last night, I celebrated with a family the first birthday of their beautiful, strong, one year old daughter. She was born here in Canada, far from her parents’ families and friends, the first Canadian in a refugee family. Her early birth, a year ago, brought them joy in a time of loss and sorrow when, because of anti-secular extremists, they had been forced to flee to Canada. Here, she will grow up in a secular society that respects her right to freedom from religion just as it respects the rights of others to freedom of religion.

This week, I was privileged to correspond with a supporter and clarify my movement beyond the use of the word “god” in the leadership of my congregation, West Hill United.

My understanding of god, one I began to develop many, many years ago under the tutelage of the United Church, simply could no longer bear the weight of theism, and certainly not of an interventionist supernatural realism. And I realized, about fifteen years ago, that it was the latter two things – the supernatural and interventionist aspects of god – that most of these last two (three?) generations have rejected. So I stopped using the word. My concept of god held neither and did not need the word god to be shared with others.

Twelve years after deciding that I could no longer compromise the reach of West Hill’s ministry by insisting on using a word in a manner whole generations do not understand, I identified as an atheist.

In 2013, I learned of a whole new layer of disdain being placed on the word “atheist” in areas of the world where religious extremism was on the rise. As the birthday girl’s daddy said last evening, the new atheism has been very effective – it has promoted a backlash of intolerance that is violent and deadly. (Thank you, Christopher HItchenset al.) Four secular Bangladeshi authors had been arrested and were being threatened with execution because they were “atheists”, labelled so in order to incite hatred against them. And in Turkey, Fazil Say, a world-renowned pianist, had been sentenced to ten months in prison for actually identifying as an atheist on social media.

What??!!?? In 2013??!!?? In a secular country??!!??

I’d labelled myself before. In With or Without God, I identified as a non-theist. In Amen, I’d gone further in order to clarify my lack of belief in a supernatural realm or any such power active in this one; I’d identified as a “theological non-realist.” These labels have proven to be palatable within church circles. But they meant the same thing as the beliefs for which five men were being persecuted and for which secular blogger Rajib Haider had already died. I took the label.

In the last seventeen months, I have learned what the cost of the label atheist is, even here in Canada. My suitability as a minister was not questioned as long as the work I did fell into the realm of “sharing the good news” or preaching something most in liberal churches would call “the way of Jesus” – a work that focuses a community on the values of love, justice, compassion, and forgiveness. As a non-theist, I was no threat. As a theological non-realist, I was probably misunderstood. But as an atheist? How could that be tolerated?

I am aware that there are many who are angry because of what they suppose my purposes have been as I have attempted to make a conversation public. It wasn’t supposed to be a conversation about the fact that I’m an atheist (as well as a theological non-realist and a non-theist). It was supposed to be a conversation about prejudice, religious extremism, the need to struggle for the right to freedom from religion wherever religion was used to oppress, deny rights, incite hatred. It was supposed to invite The United Church of Canada, a tolerant, diverse, and inclusive denomination to join the struggle for the protection of individuals who were, as it turned out, soon to be targeted for assassination. In that, I’ve clearly failed.

But we had birthday cake last night and one little girl can grow up in a freedom that has fast deteriorated in her parents’ native Bangladesh. For her, I’d do it all over again. It is my hope that as she grows, churches here in Canada and nations around the world will slough off their fear and prejudice against the word “atheist” and recognize that it really isn’t doctrinal belief that matters at all; it’s the way we choose to live our lives.

 

An intimate evening offered by the Halton-Peel Humanist Community

A First Public Glance at the Future the United Church is Choosing

Engaging the Halton-Peel Humanist Community from the perspective of a radically – like, really radically – religious calling, this intimate evening will be my first opportunity to engage with the public following the United Church‘s report on its findings regarding my suitability for ministry within it. After a year and a half, those recommendations will change both the course of my professional life and the course of the United Church’s future.

It is my pleasure to be able to engage in this intimate setting within a week of learning what the United Church officially thinks about my being an atheist and leading one of their congregations. Join me for what promises to be an engaging evening conversation about the past, the present, and where I think all this needs to go.

My Response To Being Found To Be Unsuitable

This past Thursday, my lawyers, Julian Falconer and Akosua Matthews, the Chair of West Hill’s Board, Randy Bowes, and about fifty supporters from West Hill and the wider church accompanied me to a meeting of Toronto Conference’s sub-Executive Committee. West Hill and I had been invited to make presentations to the Committee in response to the recommendations made by the Interview Committee of Toronto Conference when it had acted as the Ministry Personnel Review Committee in the review of my effectiveness as a minister in The United Church of Canada. As everyone knows, that Committee found me to be unsuitable for ministry in the United Church and recommended a formal hearing be undertaken to place my name on the Discontinued Service List.

I lament that I have not made sure that everyone in the UCC knows what the ruling that allowed for my review looks like and how it can be applied. I should have shared my concerns about it a year ago. Trying to deal with a review of your ministry while remaining the sole ministry personnel in a vibrant congregation, however, is a challenge. So I apologize for not getting those concerns out to you in a more timely manner. Considering it was better late than never, however, I determined to write a series of blog posts to share the breadth of my concerns with you.

I had begun to share those concerns in Parts One and Two of Sea Change in The United Church of Canada. I had hoped that I would have an opportunity to blog a bit more about my concerns related to this review and the future of the United Church. But I was knocked off that intention when Toronto Conference, without my knowledge or permission, published the findings of the Review Committee and shared them with the media. Within a couple of hours of reading the report which described me as unsuitable for ministry, I saw the news tweeted out by Colin Perkel of the Canadian Press. David Allen, Executive Secretary of Toronto Conference, had shared it with him and other members of the press. Suddenly, Randy, annie, West Hill’s Administrator, and I were in a rush to try to get the news out to West Hill’s community before they learned of it from news sources. We managed to do that for most members. Some saw it on CP24. Others saw it first on Facebook. This wasn’t how we’d planned it to be. Rather, we had planned a “huddle” for last Sunday. By then, however, most people in the United Church knew I’d been deemed unsuitable.

We rolled with it. You get used to that when you’re under this kind of scrutiny.

With my legal team at Toronto Conference sub-Executive

With my legal team at Toronto Conference sub-Executive

Back to this past Thursday. The meeting was called to receive and consider the recommendations of the Review Committee. The finding is the finding: I’m unsuitable. The Conference can’t do anything about that. What they can do is try to work with the recommendations and decide whether to follow them or not. Personally, I’m not sure what room they have to work with when someone is found to be unsuitable, but I’ll let them struggle with that. I’ve still a whole congregation’s worth of ministry to attend to.

Because I do not speak from notes, my presentation was prepared but not written out. I chose to speak on the same topic I will speak on tomorrow at West Hill: generosity. And rather than come up with my personal list of things I love about the UCC, I went to Wikipedia and simply wrote down the list of firsts. Common knowledge. Nothing overdone. Simply the facts. So here’s my presentation augmented with some thoughts by Julian. You can listen to it or read the transcribed notes below.

 

Stole from the first service of ordination of Roman Catholic WomenPriests.

Stole from the first service of ordination of Roman Catholic WomenPriests.

I wore a very special piece of silk around my waist as a cummerbund. It is a hand painted, multi-coloured stole given to me by Bishop Marie Bouclin on the occasion of her ordination. Marie was ordained at West Hill United in the first on-land service of ordination held by the Roman Catholic Womenpriests. The presiding bishop at that ordination service was Bishop Patricia Friesen. She had, in fact, given the stole to Marie; it had originally been worn by Bishop Friesen on the occasion of her own ordination, a service that took place on the Danube in 2002. That was the first ordination of women into and out of the Roman Catholic Church in its history. That its placement on Patricia’s shoulders that day both signified her ordination and her excommunication seemed to make the stole the perfect accessory for Thursday’s meeting.

Here are the transcribed notes of my and Julian’s presentations.

Gretta Vosper
Thank you for gathering today to have this conversation. I think that it is important for us to reflect on the report that came out of the Interview Committee. When I went into that room to have that conversation, I went in with a spirit of collaboration. I did not go in expecting an interrogation and I’m … expecting that that will continue today. I am expecting that a collaborative approach and a dialogue approach will take place.

I wanted to speak a little bit about how we got into this room today, those of you who have come as spectators, those of you who are members of the sub-Executive, and those of you who have come to speak. We come from a variety of trajectories to this room.
Some of us have been life-long members of The United Church of Canada, born into a denomination that, itself, was born less than a century ago. But born into a progressive understanding of theology, of scholarship, of welcoming a diverse and eclectic group of people within its walls and under its roof so that it could be about the work of transforming society and making it a community of love, of justice and of compassion. So, many of us have come through that.

Some of us have joined the church from other Christian denominations. But there are many in this room who have come who had no denomination, no Christian relationship, no relationship with any faith tradition whatsoever, who’ve felt the need for a community that would call them to those things that the United Church speaks that it is about – to compassion, to justice, to living in right relationship. I welcome you to this space, to the court that is formed here today, those of you for whom this [kind of gathering] is yet a strange thing but who have come here through West Hill United Church and what it has offered to you.

Throughout the period of this review, it has been a challenge to remain effective as a minister while trying to respond to the many needs and concerns of the review itself. And so, on occasion I have conflated things that I have had to do in order that I’d only have to do them once. We have been, over the course of the last several weeks at West Hill, looking at the attitudes of mindfulness and walking our way through those attitudes. Ironically, last Sunday, the attitude we explore was Acceptance, had been laid out several weeks before and the readings chosen some time before but they fit the nature of what was happening that week. And so, because I don’t shoot birds and don’t advocate the shooting of birds, I will cast two seeds with one hand today and I will share with you my thoughts on this week’s attitude, this week’s mindfulness attitude and that is Generosity.

I do this because I believe that that is the tradition of The United Church of Canada and I call you to generosity.

I have with me the reading that will be shared with the church this Sunday, a reading that comes from a book by Rebecca Solnit called A Paradise Built in Hell. Rebecca studied disasters beginning with the earthquake and fire in San Francisco in 1906 and ending with Hurricane Katrina in 2006. She found that in every instance the first thing that people do is reach out to one another, to hold one another in care, to ignore whatever barriers may have existed between them, whether cultural, racial, or socio-economic, to just leave those behind and to just be with one another as individuals. And so her book is a profound contribution to who we can be as individuals in society.

This is actually quoted from Krista Tippett’s On Being, a conversation that Solnit had with Tippett on the radio about that book.

And I think of that as kind of this funny way the earthquake shakes you awake, and then that’s sort of the big spiritual question. How do you stay awake? How do you stay in that deeper consciousness of that present-mindedness, that sense of non-separation, and compassion, and engagement, and courage, which is also a big part of it, and generosity. People are not selfish and greedy. So … the other question is why has everything we’ve ever been told about human nature misled us about what happens in these moments? And what happens if we acknowledge, as I think people in the kind of work that neuropsychologists and the Dalai Lama’s research projects and economists are beginning to say, … what if … everything we’ve been told about human nature is wrong, and we’re actually very generous, communitarian, altruistic beings who are distorted by the system we’re in, but not made happy by it? What if we can actually be better people in a better world?

And so I am framing my words today in terms of earthquakes, the earthquakes that happened, that brought the United Church into being, that have taken place during the history of the United Church and recognize that the moment that we are in right now is a moment of an earthquake.

Perhaps the very first earthquake in The United Church of Canada came about before it was even formed. When the three denominations coming into union could not agree what would happen after union. What would happen with that statement of faith that had been written in 1908 and that was going to be embraced by the new denomination in 1925? What would happen to those who had made ordination vows, who had accepted statements of faith that were not reflected in that document? It was a quake of a serious sort and one that threatened to undermine the entire concept of union and not allow it to take place. And then one individuals from the Congregationalists, a denomination that had come into being from the Anglican Church, a dissenting denomination, had an idea and offered the idea of essential agreement to the church. [It] meant that all those clergy that had come in from denominations that were joining the union would have the privilege of carrying their own beliefs into union, seeing them recognized, perhaps not fully, but honoured the way they were brought in from their traditions. Essential agreement was born.

What happened with essential agreement was that it quickly allowed us to also ordain people who also could say “I hold to that, but there are some issues here.” Because already in 1925 those who founded the church knew that those statements of faith were already at question. There were already people who came into union who questioned the reality of a god with beingness and spoke of a god as metaphor. And so already, that conversation was beginning to rumble under the surface and continue. Because of that, the United Church could find, as we have on so many issues since, a common ground on how to be with one another, not necessarily what we believe, but how to be: to call ourselves to justice, tinged and woven together with love; to call ourselves to compassion; to call ourselves to a greater vision.

And so one of the first things that the United Church did, following on another denomination in the United States, was to ordain women. Did we really want women in leadership? Has it not just been downhill ever since? Richard Holloway put that question to the Church of Scotland because he saw that that was the stitch that, taken out of biblical inerrancy, if you take that stitch out and women are ordained, the whole piece starts to unravel, and so perhaps we, women, have been the beginning of that.

But we looked at that, and we looked at the challenges, and we looked at the losses, and the costs that would have to be paid, and we said, these are important costs for us to assume, for us to embrace, because it is right that women should be allowed to lead in this diverse and great church as we challenge the nation to embrace a new understanding of Christianity.

Shortly after that another earthquake hit in the form of the Second World War. Japanese Canadians were being lodged in internment camps and refused [permission] to move freely throughout community. The United Church recognized the earthquake, the shame inherent in that and it quickly spoke against that practice at that time.

Shortly after that, they took a step back and looked at the residential schools that they had inherited at union. In 1949, they began closing those schools, finally recognizing that the tragedy that they had been for First Nations and indigenous peoples and their heritage across the decades.

We stepped up and spoke loudly and clearly about universal health care in the 1950s, recognizing that it was a right that all Canadians should share. We weren’t popular about that, but we asked ourselves “What is generosity if not allowing other people health?” We stepped into that work and we did it proudly.

And then I was born. (laughter) It’s not funny. I was!

I was born in the year that a statement was agreed upon that would guide the creation of The New Curriculum. Ten years before John [A. T.] Robinson’s book [Honest to God] was published, a committee started to look at ways that we could bring contemporary Christian scholarship around the Bible, around Christology, around theology, could bring it to the people in the pews. Because we recognized that even in 1925 there was a gap between what academia talked about in terms of theology and what the people in the pews talked about, that gap was widening every day. And the UCC did not want that gap to be there. So in 1952 they began. In 1958 they set the parameters. In 1964 the first book was published, The Way and the Word, written by Donald Mathers, Principal of Queen’s Theological College at the time. I went to school with his sons and I knew how he was treated and the difficulty it was for him to absorb some of the vitriol that he received for being so involved in that work.

But his [Mathers’] work was illuminated by people like Harvey Cox whose work in The Secular City, noted that we couldn’t go forward with exclusively myth and symbol. We needed to build a tradition that taught the values that were inherent in our tradition and needed to be made available to all. That as long as we continued to truck in these fine-tuned and symbolic rituals and in the myths that were myths but not understood to be by the people, that we were sidelining ourselves from what full community could be.

And at the same time, John A. T. Robinson wrote his work, Honest To God, and talked about a non-theistic understanding of God, challenging the church around the world to stop using the word “god” for at least ten years (sic)* so that we could, if we were gong to reclaim it, by the time it was reintroduced it, it would have such a different meaning that people wouldn’t recognize it from before. That’s when I was born.

Shortly after that Canada was asked to welcome draft dodgers [fleeing the Vietnam draft] from the United States and its initial reaction was that it could not do that. But it quickly changed its opinion about draft dodgers and there are now, many of them, welcomed, contributing members of Canadian society.

And then the question, “Can a woman’s name really go on the ballot for the position of Moderator? Can we tolerate that? Will we survive that kind of change in the United Church? We ordained them but, seriously … ? Seriously …?” Yes! And Lois Wilson became the first female Moderator in The United Church of Canada.

Not long after that, “In God’s Image” was published. A study that looked at issues of sexuality. A study that looked at issues such as abortion and a woman’s right to decide what happens with her own body. It was so cutting edge that people who wrote that got vitriolic mail and were torn down and derided in Presbytery meetings and in public for having brought that work forward.

We found our way toward a First Nations’ Apology, the 30th anniversary of which we just celebrated.

And we worked shoulder to shoulder to dismantle apartheid in South Africa.

Every single time the idea of generosity could be lifted up out of a situation because we had put it there. We had challenged that generosity be part of the story, part of the reality.

The United Church of Canada, I often say when I am speaking around the world, I often describe the United Church of Canada as a table, a table that has a number of voices around it, diverse voices, diverse theologies, diverse social justice understandings, diverse perspectives on the environment, on the economy, on politics. But there is always one empty chair at that table. and the United Church, with courage, has invited the people from whom they least want to hear to sit down in that chair and they have emboldened themselves to listen to that person to the truth that that person has shared with them about sexuality, about indigenous rights about the economy about diverse issues, about gender identity. About … anything. Welcome. Sit down with us. Let us hear your story. Let our hearts be broken by what it is you have suffered and may we find our way to generosity.

And so we have continued to change.

The United Church, over the past 15 years has watched a transformation take place in a congregation. In 2001, when I preached that sermon totally deconstructing God, quite unsuspecting that I was going to do that, and I was embraced by my congregational members like never before (I’m sure they thought I was having a complete breakdown). But my board sat down with me to discuss our pastoral relationship – the bond that had brought us together – to determine together if that bond had been broken, whether I had compromised the strength of that bond. They boldly said, “Let’s go there. Let’s find what might be beyond the language that ties us to a theological perspective that is not shared with those out there.”

And why we did that was because The United Church of Canada had been, for generations, the voice that mitigated the struggle for the social fabric of community, the social fabric of a nation. The United Church is why Canada has the social democratic values that it does, because over and again it stepped in and spoke truth that needed to be heard by all Canadians.

We have abdicated our responsibility to Canadians by not standing strong in that argument for social mores, for the centre of our community. And we have done that because we have believed that belief was what brought us and held us together. That theological doctrine and dogma is what we can represent best in our Sunday gatherings and in our annual meetings. That if we tie ourselves to the archaic language of long ago, that that will help us retain our understanding of who we are.

But we are mistaken. That is not who we are.

We aren’t people of a theological pedigree. We are people of a pedigree of generosity. We have lived that out every single time an earthquake has hit us. Every single time we have had the opportunity to speak truth into a moment of fear and loss and uncertainty, we have spoken about generosity and we have been those people.

Early in this millennium, maybe about 2005, 2006, Reginald Bibby started looking [again] into what was happening to religion in Canada, what was happening specifically to Christianity in Canada. He is the “go to” sociologist who tells us what we look like. And he knew that religion was declining and he knew it was declining fast.

But his latest studies showed that we could build again, that there were religious groups that were going to grow. It was very clear that statistics showed that, just as it always had, it would continue into the future. The size of a Christian church was going to be proportional to those who were accepting those who were immigrants to Canada. In the 1950s and the 1960s that was white Christians who were coming from Europe and from Protestant countries. That has shifted and changed.

The United Church looked at that trajectory that Reginald Bibby identified and said, you know we need to go in a direction that would welcome immigrants. But you know, they made a mistake about that. They felt that that meant that we needed to move in a more conservative direction; we needed to embrace a more conservative theology.

I think that if they had flipped that graph [of decline] upside down they would have seen the truth of what was happening since the beginning of the millennium. They would have seen that although few people would acknowledge or admit that they didn’t have any belief in god or that they didn’t have a connection with a church, that though many people at the beginning of the century weren’t really open about sharing that, less so down south than up here, that curve was growing at an incredible rate.

What an opportunity the United Church might have had if had recognized that if we moved one quarter of a step from where we were and we focused ourselves and poured ourselves into generosity, which has been our code for everything we ever touched, if we moved one quarter of a step into generosity and we let go of some of that language that we used that keeps us apart from people, whether we are someone who believes strongly in god as a being who intervenes in the natural affairs and in our lives or whether we don’t, we could leave hold of that language. We could leave hold of that language and we could bring people into community that spoke about what, underneath, we shared – no matter what our beliefs were – that spoke about generosity and compassion and coming together to learn how to live in right relationship with oneself, first, and with others, and with this planet. And rather than continuing to hemorrhage the numbers we had in the UCC, we might have made a difference. We might have not lost that struggle for the centre of our communities which we have now left to religious fundamentalists and libertarian relativists, a mix that can only create confusion and disorientation and trauma.

I come here today because I love the United Church. I have loved what it has stood for. I have loved what it has been. I love the people around me who have been nourished by it who have been trained within it, who have found their way beyond the boxes that we now find ourselves moving into. So I come with love but I come with lament. Lament mostly because this is the first opportunity that I have been able to talk with you that wasn’t in response to a particular set of questions. Lament because you have never sat down and talked with these noble people who have carried this work no matter what the costs have been – and they have been great – and who have continued to move forward. I come with lament because the system, the process that has been created here allows for very little room.

And you need room. You need room for generosity. Not just in this room but in the church beyond us.

Julian Falconer
Chair, members of Conference Executive, my timer says 9 minutes left and that’s scary if you give a lawyer 9 minutes so I want you to know that I am extremely grateful for your patience in allowing me to supplement what Reve. Vosper’s said but I am aware of the fact that hearing from the lawyer’s isn’t really what this hearing is about. I’ll tryto be helpful rather than self-indulgent.

One of the documents that was made part of the record today came to you Rev. Allen last night at 6:47 p.m. and it is a email from Rev. Bill Wall, Retired Rev. Bill Wall. I asked Rev. Vosper this morning. I asked Gretta. I don’t know why we do this stuff, so I asked Gretta this morning, “Do you know him?” She doesn’t know him. She’s never corresponded with him.

I find that interesting because the words in this email are just so striking. He is the past executive secretary of Saskatchewan conference for 15 years from 1985 – 2000. As recently as last night, this is what he wrote, “After carefully reading …” And I’m picking pieces of this so please forgive me if it looks like I’m cherry picking but the gist of the entirety of this is part of the record and I encourage everyone to read the whole thing. “After carefully reading the report of the review committee, and other relevant materials, I’m convinced that the sub-executive is facing a decision that could substantially alter the future of the United Church of Canada. In addition to damaging the life of one of its more capable and committed ministers. Gretta has proved herself committed to principles the United Church has stood for over the course of its history.” And he lists those principles: “An educated ministry, freedom of thought, compassion for those who suffer, and social justice. Whatever Gretta has said about the person of Jesus, I suspect he would recognize her as a true follower and therefore deserving of the title Christian even if she doesn’t claim that title herself.”

Now, I am the least example of a religiously oriented and devoted person and so I don’t want to in any way pretend that I am or that I have knowledge that I don’t have. I want to be respectful of your devotion and the you have shown to your own church. I have had the honour of assisting the UC in a number of capacities over the years. I said this to the interview committee and I’m kind of honoured that they repeated the words several times. I’ve always been struck by the big tent that the United Church is. And I said that to the interview committee when I closed last time. But what struck me most was this letter because the way he puts it after describing Gretta as something that she doesn’t claim for herself. “The decision facing you is whether to facilitate an unprecedented step, that of putting one of our ministers on trial for pushing the boundaries of theological thought. I trust you will ponder deeply the consequences of your decision and ask yourself how many ministers in the United Church could honestly reaffirm their vows for ordination, commissioning, or admission without the benefit of the essential agreement provision, a provision that for 91 years has provided ministers with some leeway in theological interpretation and personal integrity. This destructive and unjust process could stop here if you are willing to do what is necessary to stop it and I respectfully ask you to do just that.”

Now, the recognition that Gretta Vosper has all of these things – an educated ministry, freedom of thought, compassion for those who suffer, and social justice – this sounds like the heart of your organization. As I said, I know very little and I mean to be respectful but I have to say this, you are a victim of your own essence, your openness, your fearlessness, your willingness to embrace critical debate is to be contrasted with the thought police of many religions. You’re a victim of that now because you’re engaged in it. I have to say that I worry, as an outsider, that I fear if you lose Gretta, I fear you will lose a piece of yourself far bigger than Gretta, far bigger than West Hill. I look at the report, a report where twenty percent of the members, where four of twenty-three, I’m not trying to make the numbers bigger, I’m not trying to do the lawyer thing, where four of twenty-three, twenty percent of that interview committee, saw what Gretta stood for, as they saw it, the same as many ministers and lay persons. Now you can agree or disagree with them but obviously this is a very principled debate for which there is no right or wrong answer.

Putting Gretta on trial isn’t a way to have a principled debate. It’s a way to ensure my kid goes to a college in the US, I suppose. It’s the worst thing you can do to yourselves. I am the carpenter who’s telling you, don’t hire the carpenter. I’m the plumber who’s telling you, don’t hire the plumber. Don’t reduce this to a piece of litigation. I have been in enough formal hearings. Some of the worst and most atrocious allegations. Some of the pettiest allegations. I have seen over the years a number of different matters tried by way of formal hearing. What is interesting about this one is it is one of the few times I will honestly tell you a hearing is a huge mistake. Dividing your church as you can see it doing it right now, isn’t healthy. A hearing that decided that Gretta should no longer be a minister will not end the matter. It will actually start a much bigger fissure in your church, in your community. For what end? She is obviously a healthy part of your process. She contributes. She makes you healthy by recognizing the importance of debate and dialogue. She makes the point that you have created safety for ministers and congregations alike. You have created that safe space. Don’t be afraid to embrace it now.

I’m not saying reject the Interview Committee outright if you feel that would go too far. Put it on hold. There’s no rush. Put it over for a year. Structure a debate. You have heard, you have heard from the dissenting members, you have heard from extremely credible individuals such as Rev. Wall, but there are many more. It is within your power to adjourn this for one year, that is entertaining the recommendation for a hearing while you structure the debate that needs to take place.

Dialogue not discipline, is really recognizing that there are more than Gretta Vosper at stake here. And I understand the theory that your membership is in decline but I can’t believe that a way to fix numbers is by becoming more closed, more dogmatic and less vital as a trade place for ideas. She represents ideas. She represents, actually, the essence what I thought the United Church was about. What interests me and I say this candidly, most of the cases I do, you will understand, the clients never help themselves. It’s probably not a great idea they talk. I’ve never seen many clients in the stand make their case better by the time they leave the stand. I say that with all due respect to all of the clients I deeply love. Gretta is an exception. When Gretta speaks, we all listen. There’s a reason for that. Rev. Wall said it best. A true follower, deserving of the title even if she doesn’t claim that for herself. Please don’t lose sight, please don’t lose sight of the opportunity here to embrace dialogue. This does not have to be a win/lose. This need not be a litigation paradigm. This needs to be a structured and open dialogue representative of who your church is. Thank you.

Audrey Brown, President, Toronto Conference
I do need to note that, as part of the United Church tradition we don’t, … we ask people to refrain from responding to speakers by clapping or by acting in any way. I appreciate your enthusiasm, but I did ask that you remain silent observers and would ask you to continue to do, or to begin to do that.

*John A. T. Robinson actually called for the word to be unused for a generation.

 

 

Sea Change in the United Church: Part Two

The Definition of Effectiveness

Reviews of Ministry Personnel

In the United Church, there are only two reasons a minister can be disciplined. One is for insubordination – pretty straightforward. The other is for effectiveness – maybe not so obvious. The processes for both are covered by the handbook, Pastoral Charge and Ministry Personnel Reviews. In Part One of this series, I discussed how a complaint against ministry personnel can be made and the difference between the then and the now with respect to that process. This post will take a look at the concept of effectiveness and its new definition.

Determining effectiveness

I like to believe that the handbooks the United Church has published are helpful. I also like to believe they are used by the different levels of the church and their respective committees. Both of those things would make it easy to figure out how to go about a review of effectiveness. And, to a certain degree, they do.

The Ethical Standards and Standards of Practice for Ministry Personnel (ESSPMP) handbook is the go to guide for exploring what is and is not effective leadership in the United Church. A breach of any of the elements within it could, and very often should, trigger a conversation about a minister’s effectiveness. That conversation, whether it takes place with or without the individual concerned, may lead to a review of his or her effectiveness using the review process set out in the handbook mentioned above.

The Standards of Practice set out in ESSPMP outlines expectations in the areas of administration, community outreach and social justice, continuing education, participation in the denomination and its communities, faith formation and Christian education, leadership, pastoral care, self care, and worship. Each area identifies the basic requirements for effective leadership.

Ethical Standards set out in ESSPMP include appreciation of and commitment to excellence in areas of competence, the understanding of conflicts of interest, personal and professional relationships conduct, one’s relationship with the Law and with people served out of one’s role as minister. They also outline some of the responsibilities of the role with respect to the denomination’s governance and procedures, protecting the integrity of funds and property entrusted to them, self-awareness, and the maintenance of confidence.

It’s a long list and a good one. And, if I do say so myself, I’m pretty effective. Indeed, my congregation ensures that I am and they ought to know. They are the ones who work with me year in and year out. They’ve been doing it for almost twenty years. When there have been situations of conflict or concern, I’ve always pointed to the processes that are available for sorting them out. I imagine that some people who left West Hill during its transition probably wish they’d taken me up on it but the reality is that, according to the standards of practice and the ethical standards, there wouldn’t have been much to argue.

Until now, that is. Now, in order to be effective, you need to be suitable. And that’s a whole other ballgame.

Suitability

Before you can really understand the difference between what was before the ruling which led to my review and what is now that the ruling is in place, you need to understand how people become leaders in the UCC. Understanding that process may still be rather misleading, though. Because what happened on the way to reviewing my effectiveness hasn’t changed the path toward ordination, commissioning, or admission; it has changed what comes after you’ve been welcomed into leadership. What used to be discerned in the process toward leadership can now be discerned afterward, too: your suitability for ministry.

Getting to lead in The United Church of Canada

Suitability is a big part of the process toward leadership in the UCC. Beginning with the individual’s congregation, he or she is interviewed by three different levels (courts) of the denomination before completing the process. And at each different level, suitability is discerned, the implication being that what one level considers suitable is further refined at the next. If a congregation believes that anyone with a heartbeat is suitable for ministry in the UCC, the Presbytery or Conference is going to demand evidence of a few more qualities and skills.

Helpful materials

The United Church currently uses the document Entering the Ministry to help individuals understand the process toward leadership in the church more clearly. It sets out the process, shares what expectations are and what administrative processes must be completed.

It is also a helpful guide for interviewing committees and helps them focus on what they are looking for in a leader. In an Entering the Ministry appendix, “Discerning a Call”, the church clarifies what it is looking for, what manifests “suitability”. Although most references to “suitability” in The Manual refer to “personal character, motives, and faith,” it is clear that having the attributes share in “Discerning a Call” or the potential to develop them goes a long way toward being found suitable.

Deep spiritual life: Ministry requires a profound sense and experience of the Spirit of
God within the individual, ongoing discernment of the Holy, and passion for being part
of God’s mission in the world.
Integrity of self: Authentic ministry is grounded in the integration of the emotional and
spiritual self with acquired knowledge and abilities.
Understanding of human behaviour: Pastoral ministry requires a well-developed capacity
for active listening. It also requires a psychological and sociological understanding of
human dynamics in individuals and groups.
Scholarship: The ministry of leadership requires an ability to comprehend and teach
theological concepts, the traditions of the church, and biblical scholarship, as well as to
nurture the faith in others.
Commitment to and longing for justice: The commitment to work prophetically for all is
the direct result of a robust faith.
Capacity for critical reflection: The ability to be self-critical, to assess situations
appropriately, and to reflect on one’s actions and their effects on others is important.
Capacity to be a lifelong learner: The openness to admit there is much to be learned
and a growing demonstration of the willingness to integrate new ideas, patterns of
behaviours, and skills are essential for ministry.
Appreciation of administration: Ministry requires respect for, and knowledge of,
church polity and the ability to oversee the institutional health and well-being of a
congregation or community ministry. Does the individual understand administration to
be part of the call?
(Entering the Ministry, Appendix A, pg. 25)

Indeed, these attributes remain before candidates once they are ordained. They all appear in the Ethical Standards and Standards of Practice for Ministry Personnel handbook, embedded and expected in ongoing ministry.

The Process

As noted above, individuals interested in ministry in the UCC engage with three different levels of the church on the way toward achieving their goal. At every level, suitability is discerned. As stated in the Entering the Ministry handbook,

When the United Church makes a wrong decision and ordains, commissions, or recognizes a person who does not have the calling and gifts for ministry, the committees of the church do a disservice to the individual and to the whole church. The result may be future pain and conflict in a congregation, a large financial burden, and frustration and anger on the part of the individual. To “speak the truth in love” and be honest about perceptions and concerns early in the discernment process will help an individual to make a decision that, hopefully, will be the right one for both the church and the person. (Page 28)

We try to get it right before we ordain, commission, or admit someone to leadership in the United Church. Afterward, effectiveness is the test and it can be a difficult time for both the clergy person and the congregation served. So discerning suitability is way preferable to dealing with a review of effectiveness when the wheels fall off the bus.

The Congregation

The congregation discerns the suitability of lay members for leadership and identifies them as inquirers. It then works with the candidate and the presbytery to further discern what type of ministry the individual is suitable for. This could be ordered – ordained or diaconal – or lay.  If the individual is found to be suitable for ordered ministry, the congregation recommends the inquirer to Presbytery to be received as a Candidate. (Note 1)

The Presbytery

The Presbytery “enquires” into the “call to ministry, character, motives, academic record, doctrinal beliefs, and general fitness for ministry”. When educational requirements are successfully completed, it recommends the Candidate to Conference for ordination. (Note 2)

The handbook used for the discernment of a call to ministry and the assessment of suitability refers to “the inquirer’s call to ministry, personal character, motives, and faith.” Since “call to ministry” is distinguished from “suitability”, suitability refers to personal character, motives, and faith.

The Conference
Queen's Theological College Graduation, 1990. With Carolyn Woodall

Queen’s Theological College Graduation, 1990. With the soon to be ordained Carolyn Woodall.

The Conference Education and Students committee does the final checking of those seeking leadership in the United Church. While the process will undoubtedly be in flux during the church’s transition into the Effective Leadership structure, candidates continue to be examined in accordance with previous guidelines.

In Toronto Conference, the process is outlined in a document prepared for its 2014-2015 Interview  Committee. The exploration of suitability takes place in early interviews while the final interview ascertains “readiness” for ministry.

The General Secretary’s challenge

When asked by Toronto Conference to develop a process to deal with “a minister who describes herself as an atheist”, she didn’t have a lot of wiggle room. The Conference asked her “what process” they could use to deal with concerns they were hearing. The motion the Conference Executive passed specifically asked her to

outline a process for considering concerns that have been raised regarding the on-going status of an ordered minister, with a focus on continuing affirmation of the questions asked of all candidates at the time of ordination, commissioning or admission in Basis of Union 11.3

I know, it is a bit confusing. First the letter seems to ask the General Secretary to choose from the existing processes – they Executive notes that it was not sure “what process” to use which suggests they were considering existing processes. In their motion, however, they ask her to create an entirely new process.

A mixing of kinds

In order to overcome the apparent conflict within Toronto Conference’s Executive Committee’s request, the General Secretary was required to look at the existing processes while considering them in a new light. The existing processes were clearly not up to the task. Indeed, when David Allen met with Randy Bowes, Chair of West Hill United Church, and I to advise us of the request to the General Secretary, he made it very clear that there were no grounds for a review of my effectiveness and no situations of insubordination. Those processes simply wouldn’t work.

And so the General Secretary looked at those processes in a new light. With this new illumination and the new insights it provided, she ruled that a review of effectiveness could be used to discern “continuing affirmation of the questions of ordination, commissioning or admission found in Basis of Union 11.3.”

The questions of ordination, commissioning and admission

You probably don’t have a United Church Manual at hand so here are the questions of ordination, commissioning and admission as found in the Basis of Union section 11.3.

1.Do you believe in God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and do you
commit yourself anew to God?
2. (to each Candidate being ordained) Do you believe that God is calling you to the
ordained ministry of Word, Sacrament, and Pastoral Care, and do you accept this call?
(to each Candidate being commissioned) Do you believe that God is calling you to the
diaconal ministry of Education, Service, and Pastoral Care, and do you accept this call?
3.  Are you willing to exercise your ministry in accordance with the
scriptures, in continuity with the faith of the Church, and subject to the oversight and
discipline of The United Church of Canada?”

As it turns out, I never answered those questions. I found the service bulletin of my ordination service while unpacking a box of papers in the basement a couple of months ago.  I was ordained by Bay of Quinte Conference in 1993. For that service, the questions of ordination had been rewritten to reflect the well-loved liturgical piece known as The New Creed. The questions I answered had no traditional Trinitarian language in them. I did not say that I believed in God: Father, Son, and Holy  Spirit. Who knew?!

Technically, then, asking me the questions from the Basis of Union doesn’t actually confirm whether or not I am in continuing affirmation of the questions I answered affirmatively in Pembroke back in 1993 because they weren’t the questions I answered. But we’re quibbling….

Suitability redefined

Although Congregations, Presbyteries, and Conferences are on the front lines of the work of discerning suitability for ministry, closely matching what they’re looking for with the requirements for effectiveness, the General Secretary made the one dependent upon the other. From her letter to David Allen:

The questions set out in Basis 11.3 relate to belief in God, call to ministry, and the exercise of ministry within the faith of the Church. They go to the suitability of the person to serve in ministry in the United Church.

I know that the General Secretary has the right to interpret polity but I think that arguing that the questions asked at ordination address the question of the individual’s suitability for ministry is a stretch. Are they being posed in order to get the individual to affirm what has already been discerned by a Congregation, Presbytery, and Conference? Are they the ultimate test of suitability?

And what about all those other things that congregations, presbyteries, and conferences have been looking for, lo, these many years:  the deep spiritual life, an integrity of self, an understanding of human behaviour, the willingness and aptitude for study and teaching, a commitment to and longing for justice, the capacity for critical reflection and the desire to be a lifelong learner, and, finally, an appreciation for the administrative tasks of ministry? I don’t find any of those attributes embedded explicitly or implicitly in the questions of ordination.

The General Secretary correctly identifies the questions as relating to belief in God, call to ministry, and the exercise of ministry within the faith of the church, but she’s wrong about them being the ultimate test of suitability. If she’s right, then why don’t we just ask people those questions at the outset and forget about the years of discernment each candidate undertakes with the many people who volunteer and work to support them? If an affirmative answer to those questions is all it takes to discern suitability, then ask them and get it over with.

I’m getting ahead of myself. The General Secretary’s response to Allen’s letter continues:

Within our Polity, the Conference Interview Board is the body that is charged with making the assessment of suitability. The mandate of the Conference Interview Board is set out on page 6 of the Conference Committees Resource [2013] and includes:

(b) assisting presbyteries and other bodies in determining the suitability of people for functioning as ministry personnel in the United Church;
(c) reporting the results of the interview to the referring body and the person interviewed;

In fact, as The Manual notes in several places, it is not just the Conference Interview Board (read “Committee”) that makes the assessment of suitability. They may make the ultimate assessment but suitability has been discerned throughout the process by congregations and presbyteries, as the resource quoted notes.

Forging the final link

The final link that the General Secretary forges in order to introduce theological orthodoxy as the test of suitability is hammered out in her opinion.

In my opinion, a person who is not suitable for ministry in the United Church cannot be “effective” as United Church ministry personnel. Where a question has been raised about the minister’s suitability, the presbytery may consider that a question has been raised about “effectiveness” so as to initiate a review of the minister on that ground. The questions set out in Basis 11.3, which are asked at the time of ordering, are appropriate for assessing on-going suitability.

In order to be effective, one must be suitable. That makes sense. After all, congregations, presbyteries, and conferences across the country work hard to ensure that candidates for leadership in the United Church are suitable: before ordination, commissioning, or admission. Once you’re a member of the pension and benefits plan, it’s effectiveness that gets assessed. And we have guidelines for discerning effectiveness.

The General Secretary could not use those guidelines, however, because they make no assertions about theological orthodoxy. And there were no grounds within them to review me as no complaints had been raised about any of the issues covered in the Ethical Standards and Standards of Practice for Ministry Personnel.

It seems that, guided by the Conference Executive’s motion, the General Secretary situated the idea of suitability within the questions of ordination where they conveniently met the work of the Conference Interview Committee. Welding the questions together with the idea of suitability didn’t even really require that any new functions or committees be created. The Conference Interview Committee, already well schooled in discerning suitability, could easily take up the responsibility. And that is just what she ruled the process would be.

Based on the Polity set out above, I rule that the following process would be appropriate for responding to these kinds of concerns. I will refer to the Conference exercising oversight of ministry personnel rather than the presbytery since this ruling was requested by Toronto Conference.
• The Conference (through its Executive or Sub-Executive) orders a review of the
minister’s effectiveness under Section J.9.3(a) [page 194].
• The Conference may direct the Conference Interview Board to undertake this review,
interviewing the minister with a focus on continuing affirmation of the questions asked of all
candidates at the time of ordination, commissioning or admission in Basis of Union 11.3.
• The Conference Interview Board conducts the interview and reports to the Conference whether, in the Interview Board’s opinion, the minister is suitable to continue serving in ordered ministry in the United Church.
• The Conference receives the report from the Conference Interview Board and decides on
appropriate action in response to it. In making this decision, the Conference may take into
account the Basis 11.3 questions as well as the Ethical Standards and Standards of Practice.
• If the Conference Interview Board reports that the minister is suitable to continue in ordered
ministry, the Conference may decide to take no further action.
• If the Conference Interview Board reports that the minister is not suitable, the Conference may decide to take one or more of the actions contemplated in Section 9.4 [page 195],
• Upon the minister’s completion of the action, the Conference decides whether the minister may continue in paid accountable ministry in the United Church as set out in Section 9.8 [page 196].
If the Conference decides the minister is not ready to continue in paid accountable ministry, it
must recommend that the minister’s name be placed on the Discontinued Service List
(Disciplinary).

What she has really done, then, in the weaving together of the questions of ordination and the concept of suitability is provide United Church conferences with the opportunity to review of ministry personnel on the basis of theological orthodoxy. Any ministry personnel.

That ruling is here to stay.

Notes

  1. Basis of Union II. The Pastoral Charge. Section 5.10.2 (4) It shall also be [the Session’s] duty to recommend to Presbytery suitable inquirers to become Candidates.

  2. Basis of Union III. The Presbytery. 6.4.5 It shall be the duty of the Presbytery to examine and where appropriate:
    (1) to receive an Inquirer who has been recommended by a Session (or its equivalent) as a         Candidate for the Order of Ministry; and
    (2) to certify each Candidate to a United Church theological school;
    6.4.6 to exercise faithful supervision of each Candidate; to enquire each year into the genuine call to ministry, personal character, motives, academic record, doctrinal beliefs, and general fitness for ministry of each Candidate; and to receive annual reports for each Candidate from the theological school;
    6.4.7 to make a recommendation to the Conference regarding each Candidate for the Order of Ministry upon completion of the prescribed requirements for ordination or commissioning;

 

My Answers to the Questions of Ordination

Yesterday was a big day.

I met with the Toronto Conference Ministry Personnel Committee. Well, they were actually members of the Toronto Conference Interview Committee which normally interviews candidates for the ministry, but that committee had been seconded to act as the committee that would hear my beliefs and decide whether or not they constituted an affirmation of the questions asked of all candidates for ministry within The United Church of Canada. We met at the offices of Toronto Conference.

Actually, as it turns out, I wasn’t asked the questions asked of all candidates but was asked questions that reflected the church’s “New Creed” written in 1968 and amended since then to become gender inclusive and environmentally sensitive.  I’ve posted those questions on my Facebook page if you’d like to see them.

Arriving at hearing with legal counsel Julian Falconer and Akosua Matthews. Photo: Lynne Hollingshead

Arriving at hearing with legal counsel Julian Falconer and Akosua Matthews.

It was such an honour to be welcomed to the offices by over thirty members of West Hill, all cheering and wearing their “My West Hill Includes West Hill” t-shirts with “My West Hill Includes gretta” buttons. Most of them stayed throughout the whole afternoon and were there to applaud and hurrah as we came out. I am so grateful for these people and the bonds they have built with one another and with me. Truly, this is what being a congregation is about.

My legal team was amazing. Akosua Matthews took notes throughout and Julian Falconer had his incredibly acute attention tuned to everything happening in the room, only interrupting the process when he believed a question was inappropriately phrased or impossible to answer. I was confident walking in because I knew he would be at my side.

Randy Bowes, the Chair of West Hill, was present as my support person but, despite the incredible support for his being able to speak on behalf of the congregation, he was required to remain a silent witness. His prepared statement remained in his folio. What was on the desk in front of him, however, was the signed petition and a printed copy of the electronic one with its almost three hundred comments. It was a visual symbol of your support. Thank you for signing it and for sharing such uplifting comments!

A few weeks prior to the hearing, West Hill did submit a document. You can read it here.

The panel was composed of four individuals who asked questions and twenty who lined two walls of the room in order to hear my answers. I am grateful for the time they took to be there and their willingness to wrestle with this enormously important task. The church is fortunate to have leaders – lay and ordered – who fill these crucial roles.

Additionally, two Conference Personnel ministers were present- one as my support and another as support to the committee – as well as a chaplain. We were well supported in that respect.

I am posting one of the documents that I wrote for the review. It is broken down into the separate segments of the questions of ordination as they appear in the Basis of Union. The interview was not organized along the same lines but I was able to read the whole of it during my time with the committee. (My SEO assistant is showing off the scale readability warnings! Be forewarned: I tend to prefer to spare ink by never using periods!)

What are the questions to which you’d be able to answer “yes” and what are the questions to which you’d be able to answer “no”? Please share them in the comments.

RESPONSE BY GRETTA VOSPER
to the Questions of Ordination

as presented in the Basis of Union of The United Church of Canada.
This response made to the Toronto Conference Ministry Personnel Review Committee investigating the effectiveness of
the Reverend Gretta Vosper
June 29, 2016

DO YOU BELIEVE IN GOD: FATHER, SON, AND HOLY SPIRIT:

IF by “God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” …

… you expressly mean the Trinitarian God, composed of three persons equal in essence, a being who presides over Earth from another realm, a supernatural one, from which it has the power to intervene in the natural world – capriciously or by design – by responding to our prayerful requests, or altering our minds and so, too, our actions, or intervening in the natural world with or without provocation or invitation in order to alter weather patterns, health, the accumulation or loss of wealth, the circumstances of birth including geography – a predictor of health and access to food and water – gender, sexuality, mental capacity, or beauty – all predictors of the power status and ease with which individuals will live their lives, then, no, I do not believe in that at all. Neither do I believe in a god of no substance who exists beyond the universe yet contains it, interpenetrating it in some incomprehensible way for some incomprehensible purpose.

I see no evidence of such gods. And so I see no reason to remain aligned with a doctrine which does not fit contemporary and ever-evolving scientific understandings of the universe or ethical perspectives on human dignity and rights. I see no reason why we should eschew the scholarship of the countless theologians who have argued for centuries, for almost two millennia, in fact, that the doctrine of the Trinity is unworthy of our intellectual consideration, let alone our allegiance. I see no reason to require of anyone who comes to us for service of any kind, including participation in the creation of vibrant, meaningful community, acknowledgement of or belief in Trinitarian or any other form of orthodoxy. I see no reason to demand of them a new lexicon of ecclesial language and the subsequent study and support they will require to move beyond traditionally held interpretations of that language with which they most likely arrive at our doors. To my mind, the only fathomable reason that we might consider holding to the doctrine of the Trinity and commencing an ongoing program of investigation of clergy that requires assent to that doctrine in order for their ministry to be considered effective is the maintenance of our membership in the World Council of Churches and I consider the work of ministry with individuals and communities of transformation more integral to the work of the church than I do membership in an organization.

Were I to be given incontrovertible proof that a god does or gods do exist, the evidence of the cruel and capricious realities of disparity, tragedy, illness, and anguish in the world, and the truth that our world and our experience of it is wrapped not only in beauty but also in excruciating pain, would prevent me from worshipping it or pledging my allegiance to it, no matter the cost.

WHAT I do believe …

… has come to me through a heritage that is rich in church and in the religious denomination into which I was born and raised. It is rooted in a family that, like many families, transmitted positive values to its children. These same positive values have also been projected by humanity, alongside other, more dangerous values, to become the attributes of the transcendent, divine, supernatural beings we have called gods. During times when social cohesion was crucial to the survival of small tribal communities, fear of those deities provided a powerful antidote to individual expression or actions that might threaten the community’s well-being – murder, theft, adultery, abortion, homosexual behaviours. These became offences against gods and came with god-sized punishments. Twinning social laws with supernatural beings may have been an evolutionary twist that provided for our survival.

It does not follow, however, that supernatural beings provided the moral codes or values by which we choose to live. And so, while the values instilled in me as a child were values reinforced by my church school and Christian upbringing, they are not values exclusive to that upbringing. And there are no moral codes that have been formed by the mind of a god. Rather, there is a morality that we have created and that transcends our personal circumstances. It is a morality that we have the responsibility to review and revise as we each see necessary for our personal wholeness and, I hope, social cohesion which is so integral to our well-being, our future as a species, and our impact on the future of all life on the planet.

It is in these non-doctrinal things, I have faith:

Love
I believe in love and that it is the most sacred value. When I call something sacred, I mean that it is so crucial to our humanness, to our humanity, that we cannot risk its denigration, degradation, or destruction. To live without that sacred thing – in this case ‘love’ – would mean we had repudiated our evolved and critically negotiated humanity. Love is sacred; it is essential to our humanity.

Of course, I do not mean a simplistic, self-serving love. I mean a costly, challenging, transformative love that pulls us beyond the people we think we were, the people we may have been content to remain, in order that our humanity be more complete. It is a love that refuses to count its cost, seeking, rather, to disperse that cost into community, pulling us toward one another as it does so and beyond the divisions that otherwise might leave us in isolation.

There are religious texts and biblical stories, of course, that can be interpreted in the light of that kind of love, some of which may even seem to tell of the most complete embodiment of it that has ever walked the earth. These are questions of interpretation. Biblical examples are not integral to the understanding or the living out of love. Anyone, regardless of creed or ideology or even ignorant of any such things, may still live in accordance with a costly love. I believe the greater portion of humanity chooses to do so.

Truth
Our Christian forbears were seekers after truth. The Virginia School of Theology has carved alongside the doors of its library a partial quote of the words with which its mid 19th century Dean William Sparrow, is said to have closed his every lecture. “Seek the truth, cost what it will, come whence it may.” How much he must have held to the truths that we who studied theology dissected and hollowed out during our theological explorations, truths he encouraged his students to strive toward.

Or perhaps not. The last line of Dean Sparrow’s maxim is excluded from the library inscription. Perhaps it was considered reckless. The last thing Dean Sparrow said to his students every day just before they left class was, “Seek the truth, come whence it may, cost what it will, lead where it might.” Perhaps Sparrow was actually challenging them for a life in the ministry that would not be compromised by the quitting of intellectual integrity. Perhaps he was coaching them to hold to what they were learning and go out into ministry without forgetting to continue to learn. The quest for truth is never over. And so it must remain at the top of the list of those things which I believe. I believe in truth. I believe it is important to seek it, no matter where it comes from, no matter what we may lose in the process, no matter where we end up. Clearly, it is my commitment to truth – both seeking it and sharing it – which has brought us here today.

Courage
There are some who have argued courage is the greater virtue because it is required to live out any of the others but I believe love badgers courage into being. And when love fails to do so, I believe truth picks up the rant. Love and Truth can exist without Courage but almost as soon as one or the other emerges, courage is a must. It is a must if we are to do anything to protect those we love or to strive toward truth, no matter its cost or destination. Indeed, love without truth or truth without love can both deny wholeness.

Courage without either breeds an indifference and savage violence. Violence bred by love and justice, on the other hand, is tempered by the very root of its action which can only ever be to restore rights or to secure safety. It is in the interweaving of these three virtues that positive change happens, in our hearts, in our relationships, in our communities and in the world.

It is these virtues – Love, Truth, and Courage – that provide for all the rest upon which our work, my ministry, is built and which allow for the beauty of the human endeavour to shine forth.

Justice
As love and truth lead to courage, so courage leads to justice. John Dominic Crossan, notes that love without justice is banal and justice without love is brutal but I add to that: justice is not possible without courage.
Compassion – one of our most prized virtues…
The most recently evolved part of our brain flips the sensory information we receive forward to our frontal lobes where we can consider the impact of an action on others – thus creating the possibility of a compassionate response – or backward, literally, toward the history of our self-preserving fight, flight, or freeze responses. Somewhere back along our lineage, our species thrived on the mutation that compassion once was.
And there are more. Many, many more.
Wisdom
Prudence
Awe
Cooperation
Delight
Conviction
Trust
Forgiveness
Encouragement
Loyalty

All of these, of course, can be found explicitly or implicitly in the stories of the Bible. But they do not originate with it. To suggest that they did would be inconsistent with contemporary scholarship and dishonour the human story which both predated and ran parallel with its writing. To present them as having been created by a god and given to us is to refuse humanity credit for its most noble accomplishment. It also removes our right and inherent responsibility, as their creator and agent, to bring to the fore or limit certain of them as the needs of human community evolve.

There is, however, one virtue with which I often break faith and which I do not embrace in the same manner as my forbears. It is deeply rooted in our Christian heritage: Hope, as the promise of something we cannot assure. I choose instead to create, to accompany, to name, to comfort, to acknowledge, to embrace, to lament, to encourage, to convict, to trust again. I cannot bring about a peaceful death with only hope. I cannot mitigate the effects of corporatism, global climate change, or the TPP with only hope. I cannot end spousal, or elderly, or child abuse with only hope. I cannot redress our tragic history with indigenous peoples with only hope. I cannot address poverty, violence, xenophobia, arrogance, or illness with only hope. Only if I already have a hammer in my hand, only if action congruent with our responsibilities as human beings to alleviate suffering or redress abuse is in the offing or underway, will I offer the word ‘hope’. I will not offer hope to mollify or comfort when to do so does not alleviate pain or suffering, does not create right relationship, does not forestall death, but only pretends all these things might be achieved and so anesthetizes us to their reality with an illusion that comforts we who extend it more than those to whom we dispense it. I do not offer an empty hope and would not wish one offered me.

DO YOU … COMMIT YOURSELF ANEW TO GOD?

IF by ‘God’ …

… you expressly mean the Trinitarian God identified above, then, no, I do not.

WHAT I do wonder …

… is if the question may have served to direct our commitment to God because God transcended our own perspective, our own self-serving ideas. Already, when the questions of ordination were framed, very likely before 1908 – those who wrote them could not have been unaware of the effects of secularization on Christianity, particularly in the denominations coming into union. They could not have been unaware of the new interpretations of God that, Trinity or no, were non-traditional in nature. To commit ourselves to God meant we weren’t in this for ourselves; we were in it for a higher, nobler reason no matter what we meant when we used that word. The question challenged us to reach beyond ourselves because we were committing ourselves to something that radically transcended our own capacities.

Without God, that transcendent, nobler point of reference to which we have committed ourselves in the past, is it not possible that we might, then, commit ourselves to something mundane and self-serving, something that, in fact, arises out of our ego rather than out of concern for wholeness and social cohesion? Of course it is. Indeed, without an intention to broaden our awareness, make use of our evolved and empathy-producing anterior cingulate, that is exactly what we might very well do. To do so would be, in essence, a compromise of our humanity, and take us back to “the limited, and socially-tense, world of the chimpanzees.” (Loyal Rue)

What makes us different from chimpanzees is that we figured out a strategy for survival that is less taut with potential violence.

Our basic strategy could be phrased this way: “to achieve personal wholeness and social cohesion” (Philip Kitcher) at the same time, balancing them out to our best advantage and creating societies that manage the dramatic tension those two goals create. If we don’t achieve personal wholeness, comprised of a healthy balance of our spiritual, intellectual, physical, and emotional selves, we don’t thrive; we simply exist. If we cannot build social cohesion, we have no means through which we can achieve personal wholeness; lives are constantly under threat, something to which the current realities of refugee camps and the nations that spawn them attest. Humanity, if it is to survive and develop a robust reproductive strength – admittedly evolutionary terms – must develop healthy and autonomous personalities and do so within cooperative social groups. Belief systems – religions – have been a major tool in the facilitation and maintenance of a helpful balancing of self and community interests. At least, that’s one theory.

So, when the gods of our creation fall away, as I believe they have been forced to do by the rise of reason and the constant erosion of supernatural belief by science, we still need to find something, a belief system, that call us to that work – help us keep the equilibrium between personal self-interest and communal well-being. At West Hill, we believe the values of which I spoke present that challenge to us. Lifted before us, they keep our eyes, focused too easily on our own personal well-being, also set toward the panorama of a socially cohesive community. Our mission statement incorporates that challenge: “Moved by a reverence for life to pursue justice for all, we inspire one another to seek truth, live fully, care deeply and make a difference.”

It is to this work, I commit myself. To values which transcend our personal interests and needs and which help us envision a better world. This is the historic work of the United Church which drew me to leadership within it.

The work of living in right relationship with ourselves, with others, and with the planet is a very big work. At West Hill, the congregation has a document, with which you are familiar, which expresses the values to which it chooses to adhere. The document was first written in 2004 with a commitment to review it every five years. It was most recently presented to the congregation in a revised form in January, 2015. The last two times it has been reviewed and revised, I have not been involved.

I commit myself to the work of living toward the fulfillment of the challenges laid out to the congregation and to its members in VisionWorks and to supporting their work to do so as well.

DO YOU BELIEVE THAT GOD IS CALLING YOU TO THE ORDAINED MINISTRY OF WORD, SACRAMENT, AND PASTORAL CARE, AND DO YOU ACCEPT THIS CALL?

This question is answered in segments below.

DO YOU BELIEVE THAT GOD IS CALLING YOU ….

I DO NOT BELIEVE …

… in gods who can intervene in the natural world; therefore, I cannot believe that there is something we could define as a “call” from any god to us to direct us to act in any particular way.

I DO …

… understand the importance of conviction as a virtue in our lives, a deeply felt recognition that one is to follow a certain path or forge a new one. I believe such convictions can be inspired by personal experience – both known and unremembered; our relationships – both good and bad; and our contexts – both the personal and global. I believe our appreciation of life and our experience of wholeness results from how closely one is able to live according to one’s convictions. I believe the spiritual quest is the search for that point of resonance – that place of passion and conviction – where one’s own skills and abilities best meet the world’s greatest needs. I believe the spiritual task is the challenge of living in that place of conviction.

When I entered Theological College it was the result of years of struggling with a conviction that the most meaningful way in which I could be of influence in the world – the place where my skills and abilities could best meet the world’s needs – was through the work of inspiration and transformation, work I had witnessed in profound and moving ways by leaders in the United Church (Jock Davidson, Eldon Hay, Bill Hendry, Mary Smith). That conviction was further galvanized during my theological training, most particularly through the teaching and mentorship of Christopher Levan and Doug Paterson, and the exploration there of theologies of liberation (the people of El Salvador and Nicaragua, Phyllis Trible, Matthew Fox, Naomi Goldenberg), collaboration (Teilhard de Chardin, Douglas John Hall, Leonardo Boff), and radicalization (the Berrigan brothers, Gustavo Gutierrez, Dietrich Bonhoeffer). These theologies were further reinforced by United Church activists and theologians during my time there (Douglas John Hall, Pierre Goldberger, Faye Wakeling, Shelley Finson, Joan Kuyek, Pamela Dickey, Tim Stevenson) and further entrenched in the gospel stories about the man called Jesus. They also further reinforced my convictions that it was in ministry that my gifts could best be used to serve the world at one of its points of urgent need.

DO YOU BELIEVE GOD IS CALLING YOU TO THE MINISTRY OF THE WORD?

IF by the “Word” …

… you mean the Bible as the sole source or the primary source from which I am to draw wisdom for myself or those to and with whom I minister or that our ethical and moral choices must be grounded in its content, then no, I do not consider myself engaged in a ministry of the Word nor do I accept a call to that ministry.

I UNDERSTAND …

… my ministry to be built on the wisdom accumulated by and within humanity over the course of its history, including but not limited to the documents of our religious tradition and that the authority of a text lies in its message and not in its source or the source to which it is attributed. Many stories in the Bible would not meet West Hill’s standards of merit as they present depictions of relationships of power and privilege, many of which include violence, to which we do not ascribe or are set within a worldview we no longer accept. At West Hill, since 2004 our sources for wisdom have been identified in our congregational documents as ‘diverse’. I am challenged to source texts for our gatherings that meet our standards of love, justice, and compassion and that will inform, inspire, edify, or convict. These sources may be from ancient documents (the Bhagavadgita or the Leizi, for instance) or contemporary pop culture (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, World War Z, or Dr. Who) or from anything in between. They may be art, poetry, prose, literature, fiction, biography, screenplay or script, or any field of non-fiction. We are the creators and the holders of an infinite library of accumulated wisdom that is added to daily. It is my responsibility and pleasure to dip into that library in order to find material that addresses the concerns of the day and engages the congregation with them.

DO YOU BELIEVE GOD IS CALLING YOU TO THE MINISTRY OF THE SACRAMENT(S)

IF by the Sacraments …

… you mean liturgical devices through which I, as an ordained person, am able to change ordinary items into signs of God’s grace, requirements for full leadership, or acceptance to membership in community, then, no, I do not consider myself engaged in such a ministry, nor do I accept a call to that ministry.

I UNDERSTAND …

… my ministry to be to the calling of one another to witness the passage of one’s own life and of the lives of others and that there are moments along life’s trail when that is important and meaningful and best done in community. I understand my ministry invites me to lift up those moments for those with whom I minister and to invite them to stand witness to one another’s brokenness and wholeness and to commit to standing with, in love, no matter what. I believe the moments of dignity and memory that we so create can be powerful affirmations of life, being, and community.

I believe the symbolic ritual of marking a child with water is a parent’s opportunity to articulate the qualities of character they commit to instill in their child. It is the community’s opportunity to embrace and celebrate the possibilities inherent in each new life and to pledge themselves to the support of keeping those possibilities large.

I believe the symbolic ritual of breaking bread is a community’s opportunity to “re-member” (intentional hyphenation) itself and its commitments to one another.
I believe symbolic rituals for forgiveness, reconciliation, love, leave-taking, marriage, transformation, divorce, new commitments, death, and grief hold the space in which individuals are invited to move into, through, or beyond significant places on their life’s journey. Visual art that marks these moments has become significant for the congregation.
I believe it is my privilege to work with members of my community and beyond to create meaningful symbolic actions and rituals that allow that sacred space to emerge.

DO YOU BELIEVE GOD IS CALLING YOU TO THE MINISTRY OF PASTORAL CARE

IF by the ministry of pastoral care, …

… you mean the rendering of spiritual care, direction, and counselling to individuals, couples, families, groups, and a congregation that is undergirded by the Holy Spirit or that presumes to guide those under care toward greater discernment of God’s plan for their lives, whether through guided self-exploration or study of the Bible or devotional resources based on it, then no, I do not consider myself engaged in such a ministry nor do I accept a call to that ministry.

I UNDERSTAND …

… pastoral care to mean working with others in their pursuit of right relationship with self, others, and the planet either with a focus on long term goals or as needed in times of crisis. I do not believe that my position gives me the right to impose myself upon people at times of illness, bereavement, or crises but to make myself available as and when needed and to ensure that individuals, particularly those experiencing crises, know that I am available should they choose to avail themselves of my presence.

I am not a trained counsellor and do not enter into counselling relationships for which I am not qualified.

In times of crisis, Pastoral Care is the work of being present in situations of grief, loss, anger, and confusion in an empathic way, open to the needs of the other and responding as and how I am able sufficient to the validation of experience, the provision of support, and the witness of love and compassion. Pastoral Care is also the work of providing safe space to individuals, couples, or groups wherein individuals can build trust and speak openly and with respect while risking appropriately the work of growth and understanding. Creating such space requires an understanding of appropriate boundaries and the creation of them.

The long term work of Pastoral Care might be considered spiritual direction which I understand to be the work of accompanying an individual as they undertake a spiritual quest to find the place at which his or her gifts might best be offered to an urgent need in the world. Its purpose is to draw individuals toward a greater understanding of their potential, opportunities, unresolved grief, and unacknowledged strengths in order that they develop resilience in their personal lives, and within their relationships. It is to repair and recommit to right relationship with self, others, and the planet as is appropriate given the history and contextual realities of the individual(s) involved.

All these things I practice and provide in my ministry at West Hill.

DO YOU BELIEVE GOD IS CALLING YOU TO THE ORDAINED MINISTRY

IF by ordained …

you mean “set apart” by being provided extraordinary and spiritual gifts that allow for the discernment of a divine plan or message in an ancient text or the consecration of juice, bread, or water into sacred elements that have the power to transmit the grace of a supernatural god called God to humans otherwise mired in sin in order to mark them as recipients of that grace to whom I might then extend the comfort of that god, then, no, I do not feel conviction about that ministry.

I UNDERSTAND …

… my work as an undertaking that both awakens individuals to the importance of creating meaningful lives for themselves and contributing to the meaning-making work of others, and that supports them in that work. It is the work of challenging individuals and communities to reach toward both personal wholeness and social cohesion – the balance which, when achieved, leads to success in the human community. Philip Goldberg identifies five significant tasks of religion which I believe go toward creating that balance but recognize them as deeply human undertakings for which religion has been the purveyor. They may each be engaged and fulfilled without the need for religious language or doctrine. Goldberg’s five tasks are beautifully and simply portrayed by five words: transmission, translation, transaction, transformation, and transcendence.
Transmission – of a sense of identity transmitted from one generation to the next through a variety of means – ritual, shared customs and stories, and historical continuity.
Translation – of the events of life into a form that helps convey a sense of meaning and purpose and which helps individuals understand their relationship to the wider community or greater whole.
Transaction – individuals and communities are better able to flourish when the transactions that take place between them are governed by formal or informal moral codes. These define what right relationship means within the community.
Transformation – encourages the engagement of individuals and communities in ongoing maturation and growth in the pursuit of personal and social fulfillment.
Transcendence – provides a reference point beyond the individual or community which challenges them to expand their understanding to experience themselves as integrated with a larger whole, the web of life. This can be understood as the realization of the impact one has on the vast expanse of life both during and beyond his or her lifetime and does not require belief in a supernatural realm.

ARE YOU WILLING TO EXERCISE YOUR MINISTRY IN ACCORDANCE WITH THE SCRIPTURES, IN CONTINUITY WITH THE FAITH OF THE CHURCH, AND SUBJECT TO THE OVERSIGHT AND DISCIPLINE OF THE UNITED CHURCH OF CANADA?”

Again, this question is broken down into segments below.

EXERCISING MINISTRY IN ACCORDANCE WITH THE SCRIPTURES

Within the context of a community that sets for itself the work of engaging in contemporary issues with courage, clarity, and compassion, most scripture is obscure at best, most often irrelevant, and at its worst, dangerously prone to misguiding those studying it.

Biblical scholarship has long required that we strain biblical texts through a variety of sieves in order to ensure they are presented appropriately for contemporary audiences and not vulnerable to our own circumscribed perspectives. These include but are not limited to setting the text in a historical, political, and social context; identifying the author and the community to which he wrote; examining the use of words and phrases in the text as they are used in the original languages elsewhere in the Bible to decipher the particular intention of the author; examining conflicting texts for the purposes of determining why conflict exists and assessing which version is closest to the truth; exploring contemporaneous texts not only for the validation of claims within the text but to examine existing arguments or positions against which the text was written; addressing any assumptions or privilege introduced into the text by its author; and finally, guessing at the meaning of the text or intentions of the author to the best of one’s abilities.

Given the challenges presented by a text that ranges in age from nineteen to twenty-eight centuries and the breadth of interpretation legitimated by a wide variety of theological and scholarly perspectives, I cannot say that I understand what exercising my ministry in accordance with the scriptures means.

EXERCISING MINISTRY IN CONTINUITY WITH THE FAITH OF THE CHURCH

In my submission, I spoke of the progress of my theological development from my youth through my theological training and on to the continuing education I undertake as an ordered minister within the United Church.

In that description, I presented my experience of and development within a denomination that, at much cost to itself, explored beyond the realms of belief that had been charted by previous generations. In that important and ground-breaking work, it was the first church to do many extraordinary things, always leading with an interpretation of the faith that called it and its members to greater love, compassion, and truth. It was able to do those things because it regularly and repeatedly held the Bible and the doctrines of the church subordinate to the principle of love and all that required of it and of us. Throughout, it has been an inspiration to other mainline Protestant denominations, to its leaders, and to its members.

The process of change within West Hill clearly consists of the evolution of a congregation of The United Church of Canada “within the faith of the church” insofar as “within” can be described as a reasonable application of scholarship, reason, the discernment of truth, and the subordination of doctrine to the principle of love.

West Hill United Church, about a decade ago, began referring to itself as a “spiritual community of faith growing out of the Christian tradition.” That language was prescient. While it ensured that we held to our roots, bringing much-loved traditions, hymn tunes, and symbols, values that it continues to share with the wider church, and a commitment to actions the United Church initiates or embraces, it also encouraged us to create space in our community for those who were uncomfortable with ecclesial language, who honoured the values and the work of the United Church but did not want to participate in doctrinally focused services of worship. That decision has allowed us to be present to many in our immediate community, and across the Greater Toronto Area. It has placed us as a leader in the evolution of church beyond the beliefs that divide. Our materials are used in schools and in churches around the world.

The evolution of the congregation has taken place over sixty-six years.

EXERCISING YOUR MINISTRY SUBJECT TO THE OVERSIGHT AND DISCIPLINE OF THE UNITED CHURCH OF CANADA

I have deep respect for the men and women who, over the decades, crafted and evolved an institutional structure that placed the ideals of ministry and its practice within the reach and engagement of generations of Canadians. They helped form this nation through the widespread influence of their vision and their labours.

I remain committed to working within that structure even as I invite those who love this church, as I do, to continue to evolve its practices and polity as new realities and challenges emerge.

And so it is that I respectfully submit the following concerns, grieved as I am that the interpretation and application of the church’s disciplinary processes that have led to this review, as they are currently being interpreted, have the capacity to place all clergy and the future of our denomination’s extraordinary and visionary leadership among religious institutions at risk. To such an egregious evolution and application of the oversight and disciplinary policies of The United Church of Canada, and with concern for my denomination’s future, I must, as a member of its order of ministry in good standing, object.

I have identified three causes of concern: the Effective Leadership Project; the ruling of the General Secretary; and Procedural Issues

THE EFFECTIVE LEADERSHIP PROJECT
I believe that the effect of changes to the oversight and discipline of clergy that resulted from the Effective Leadership Project and the transfer of oversight and discipline of clergy to Conferences from Presbyteries is only now being understood as those changes begin to be applied.

I believe that the transfer of the oversight of clergy from Presbytery to Conference during the Effective Leadership Pilot Project has severely interfered with the covenantal relationships that exist between congregations, the presbyteries to which they belong, and the ministry personnel who serve them both.

I believe that Presbyteries, as direct partners to the covenantal relationship with congregations and clergy, are the court best able to discern the legitimacy and merit of concerns raised about its member clergy.

I believe that Conference, with whom most clergy are not in direct relationship prior to disciplinary processes, are unable to adequately assess concerns raised about clergy within their boundaries because they are not within the covenantal relationship and often not in a geographic proximity to settled clergy sufficient to do so.

I believe the intention of those who clarified for us through The Manual those individuals and courts from whom legitimate concerns about clergy could be heard was to ensure that only those concerns raised by individuals or courts in a direct relationship with clergy had sufficient merit to be worthy of being heard.

I believe that the transfer of oversight and discipline processes from Presbytery to Conference did not intend or include transfer of responsibility for raising concerns from the Presbytery, the court to which clergy belong; the evidence for this is the absence of either a transfer of covenantal relationship or the establishment of a direct relationship with ministry personnel adequate to replace the Presbytery relationship.

I believe that a review of the effectiveness of any clergy person as the result of concerns raised by individuals not in the position to have any insight into the ministry of the clergy person, the health of the pastoral charge, or the covenant within which that ministry takes place is a miscarriage of justice regardless of the reasons for that review.

I believe that concerns expressed to the General Council by the church through the Effective Leadership consultation process regarding the centralization of power in an individual Conference staff position, were warranted and that the Presbytery’s retention of the right to raise legitimate concerns about their member clergy is required in order to mitigate those concerns; those rights should not be extended to Conference.

I believe Conference assumed the responsibility for raising concerns regarding clergy under the Effective Leadership transfer of oversight and discipline of clergy but that they did not have the explicit approval of the wider church to do so.

I believe concerns regarding ministry personnel should be forwarded to the Presbytery of which they are a member regardless of to which court or office the correspondence has been directed and that the Presbytery consider the nature and provenance of the concerns before raising those concerns with Conference, the court with oversight and disciplinary responsibilities.

THE GENERAL SECRETARY’S RULING OF MAY 5, 2015*

I believe that the changes to the oversight and discipline of clergy that resulted from the General Secretary’s ruling of May 5, 2015 must also be considered by the whole church following the result of this review.

I believe that the ruling of the General Secretary exceeded her authority and altered the nature of ministry in The United Church of Canada.

I believe that those who birthed The United Church of Canada into being had anticipated theological evolution and so declined to include a requirement for theological conformity or continuity among clergy; had they required them, ongoing affirmations of orthodoxy at set points in the ministry of clergy would have been included in the Basis of Union.

I believe that those who have provided for and supported the formation of leaders within the United Church have expected those leaders to continue learning long after departure from theological colleges and that they have encouraged those leaders to seek the truth, come whence it may, cost what it might, lead where it would.

I believe that the right of the ordaining conference to contribute to the theological diversity of The United Church of Canada has been undermined with this ruling and that we risk a flattening of that diversity with any application of the General Secretary’s ruling.
I believe it is contrary to the Basis of Union for a Conference of Settlement to review the theological beliefs of ministers ordained in another Conference.

I lament that the General Council Executive, being presented with a proposal sent to them as a result of concerns regarding the use of the questions of ordination to judge the effectiveness of ministry personnel and asking for a review of those questions, upon hearing that fifty-one percent of General Council 42 Commissioners did not wish to review those questions, chose to ignore the forty-six percent who sought the conversation. I believe that decision dramatically diverged from the courage the United Church has previously shown in the face of challenging social and theological issues of the day when, long before a majority of its membership invited exploration of an issue, the church engaged, witnessing integrity and courage, and modelling participatory and transformational dialogue.

PROCEDURAL ISSUES

I believe some of the challenges that have brought us here today and that risk the health and strength of our denomination and those who serve it are the result of a lack of due diligence and attention to our polity and concern for those it serves to both protect and oversee.

I believe those who struggled to bring The United Church of Canada into being were well aware of the implications of the term “essential agreement” when it came to questions of doctrine and intended or expected a breadth of theological perspective to grow and flourish within the church.

I believe those who wrote and have revised our Statements of Doctrine over the years did not intend that doctrinal examinations ever be undertaken which precluded the element of essential agreement, a Basis of Union provision which has allowed for a breadth of diversity in our denomination that is unparalleled in the world.

I believe the decision of Toronto Conference to undertake a review of a clergy person’s doctrinal beliefs in accordance with the ruling of the General Secretary but without the provision of essential agreement is a breach of the Basis of Union.**

I believe any review of the effectiveness of a clergy person, even and especially reviews on theological grounds, the responsibility for which lies with the Session of the Pastoral Charge, must allow for the full participation and input of the Pastoral Charge.

I believe any review of the effectiveness of ministry personnel, even and especially reviews on theological grounds, the responsibility for which lies with the Session of the Pastoral Charge, must allow for the full participation and input of the Presbytery responsible for the oversight of that Pastoral Charge.

I believe that the use of the Interview Committee as a Ministry Personnel Review Committee has led to procedural confusion and an inconsistent application of the procedures for the review of Ministry Personnel which have been set out to ensure transparency, accountability, and fairness.

CONCLUSION

We sit here today as a first instance of the application of two significant changes to the oversight and discipline of Ministry Personnel:
• the shift of the oversight and discipline of Ministry Personnel from the Presbytery to the Conference and
• the ruling of the General Secretary wherein she established the requirement of ongoing affirmation of ordination questions by all ministry personnel

Because this process and the changes upon which much of it is based raise serious concerns and fall short of our obligation to one another to engage in open and fair procedures as we have agreed to undertake them, I challenge us all to work together so that we might better understand their implications for Presbyteries, Pastoral Charges, and Clergy. Future processes will undoubtedly unfold and we have both the opportunity and the responsibility to ensure that they do so with transparency, accountability, and fairness.

Therefore, I respectfully invite you, as members of the Toronto Conference Ministry Personnel Review Committee to decline to participate in a process that has no grounding in United Church polity, no precedent in United Church history, and no merit based on the ongoing and unbroken nature of the covenant that exists between Toronto Southeast Presbytery, West Hill United Church and me. I respectfully encourage you, rather, to determine that the way forward is not through an aberrant disciplinary process, but through a collaborative effort to improve our United Church of Canada.

____________________________________________________________________________________________

*The General Secretary, in response to Toronto Conference’s request for a process to deal with “a female minister who calls herself an atheist”, wrote a ruling that tied a minister’s effectiveness to suitability and suitability to ongoing affirmation of ordination questions. Our appeal of the ruling was denied on the basis that it had no ground. The following is the ruling made by Nora Sanders.

In my opinion, a person who is not suitable for ministry in the United Church cannot be “effective” as United Church ministry personnel. Where a question has been raised about the minister’s suitability, the presbytery may consider that a question has been raised about “effectiveness” so as to initiate a review of the minister on that ground. The questions set out in Basis 11.3, which are asked at the time of ordering, are appropriate for assessing on-going suitability. …

Based on the Polity set out above, I rule that the following process would be appropriate for responding to these kinds of concerns. I will refer to the Conference exercising oversight of ministry personnel rather than the presbytery since this ruling was requested by Toronto Conference.
• The Conference (through its Executive or Sub-Executive) orders a review of the minister’s effectiveness under Section J.9.3(a) [page 194].
• The Conference may direct the Conference Interview Board to undertake this review, interviewing the minister with a focus on continuing affirmation of the questions asked of all candidates at the time of ordination, commissioning or admission in Basis of Union 11.3.
• The Conference Interview Board conducts the interview and reports to the Conference whether, in the Interview Board’s opinion, the minister is suitable to continue serving in ordered ministry in the United Church.
• The Conference receives the report from the Conference Interview Board and decides on appropriate action in response to it. In making this decision, the Conference may take into account the Basis 11.3 questions as well as the Ethical Standards and Standards of Practice.
• If the Conference Interview Board reports that the minister is suitable to continue in ordered ministry, the Conference may decide to take no further action.
• If the Conference Interview Board reports that the minister is not suitable, the Conference may decide to take one or more of the actions contemplated in Section 9.4 [page 195],
• Upon the minister’s completion of the action, the Conference decides whether the minister may continue in paid accountable ministry in the United Church as set out in Section 9.8 [page 196].
If the Conference decides the minister is not ready to continue in paid accountable ministry, it must recommend that the minister’s name be placed on the Discontinued Service List (Disciplinary).

** Toronto Conference’s David Allen required that the reviewers could not use “essential agreement” as a way to determine affirmation of the questions of ordination.

Visionary Support …

… and how you can get involved

It has been a challenging few months since Toronto Conference of the United Church ordered that I be reviewed due to concerns over the effectiveness of my ministry. But I have been uplifted by the wonderful support I’ve received and I wanted to share some of that with you and offer you some ways that you can also add your support to this incredible work we are engaged in.

Media interest and support

Colin Perkel kicked off the media attention with the article he filed with the Canadian Press. It was picked up by media outlets across North America and in Europe. This is the Globe and Mail publication of it.  He also followed up with a conversation with church leaders as they headed into their triennial General Council meeting. Unfortunately, they diverted attention from the national issues related to my review, the two proposals that were sent to General Council from Hamilton and Toronto Conferences and made it seem as though it was a local issue of no national import.

Rachel Browne of VICE news was attentive in her exploration of the issues, including an interview with Terry Plank, President of The Clergy Project. VICE has an audience that would be the envy of most churches; their age demographic, 18-35, is exactly the one missing from most liberal, mainline denominations.

David Hayward, aka, the Naked Pastor, wrote a supportive blog entitled “Gretta Vosper and the Right to Believe What You Want,” accompanying it with one of his original cartoons.

Junaid Jahangir published a piece in The Huffington Post. “Why I Support This ‘Atheist’ Minister” received tons of interest. It was so encouraging to get the support of someone from another faith tradition, Islam.

John Shuck has recorded an interview for his Religion for Life podcast. It should be up next week. Ryan Bell of Year without God is calling to have a conversation tomorrow.

And friends have come forward to make sure that the ups and downs of media attention and the sometimes horrible things people say don’t leave me mired in angst.

These and so many more have engaged in the conversation and are making it take place in the public forum where it needs to be.

What you can do

Antique Typewriter

Photo by morguefile.com user Ladyheart

A few members of my congregation went even further to make it possible for those who wish to be supportive to offer themselves to a few different projects.

  • One is the ever-helpful letter writing campaign. Postal and electronic addresses for the main characters to whom letters might be helpful can be found here.
  • Creating conversations and contributing to them on social media is another excellent idea. Ideas for how you can get those conversations going and why they are important can be found here.
  • The group also created an association to help raise funds for legal fees, an incredibly thoughtful and helpful show of support. Information about the Friends of Gretta Vosper Association can be found here on West Hill’s website or here on Facebook or you can go directly to their fundraising page. Don’t forget to “like” and share that page if you visit it.
  • And finally, if you would like to support West Hill in its ongoing ministry, you can find out how to do that here.

Thank you to all of you who click on one of those links; even if you can’t do anything right now, raising your own awareness helps keep the momentum up. The effort required to bring about change in an institution that is two thousand years old is daunting. Right now, though, we’re working on an institution that is only 90 years old – The United Church of Canada. Together, our efforts will bring the most important questions and conversations to light.  Thank you for imagining that possibility with me and working toward making it a reality.

I am SO sure that this is the right time, the right church, and the right thing to do. Thank you for being part of it and for your visionary support!

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.

Confronting the Unbelievers

The United Church Observer, a magazine that explores issues relevant to The United Church of Canada (UCC) and its members from an arm’s length position, has drop-kicked the conversation on whether clergy who no longer believe have a place in the UCC’s pulpits. Confronting the Unbelievers was published in its May issue.*

It is a conversation that is way overdue. When I took my ordination vows, it was the responsibility of Bay of Quinte Conference to determine whether or not I was in essential agreement with the 20 Articles of Faith found in the 1925 Basis of Union which brought together the Methodists, Congregationalists, and half the Presbyterians in the country. Even then, I found the biblical Article XIX, Of the Resurrection, the Last Judgment, and the Future Life, a little harsh. (Heck, my staunchly middle of the road former husband – ordained from the same college as I – even thought that one was a bit over the line.)

We believe that there shall be a resurrection of the dead, both of the just and of the unjust, through the power of the Son of God, who shall come to judge the living and the dead; that the finally impenitent shall go away into eternal punishment and the righteous into life eternal.

Youch! Oh, and in my case, yikes!

Ordination questionsNevertheless, the Conference determined that, with the beliefs I shared with them through a series of conversations and interviews, I would be able to comfortably say that I believed in “God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” It was a stretch even then, but for many reasons. The church had been struggling through the challenging conversation about gender inclusive language** and saying I believed in “The Father,” went against the grain for me and most of my fellow classmates. Still, my conference was convinced and, as history will confirm, I was ordained in 1992 in Pembroke, Ontario.

But the conversation is not about verbal calisthenics. It is about the integrity of the UCC pulpit and whether those in it have the permission to really share with their congregations what they mean when they say the word “god.” Whether they can share, boldly and beautifully, what our theological colleges and conference Interview Boards teach and celebrate as evolving understandings of that concept, one we have, for a very long time, hidden behind that too easily misunderstood label, “god.” If they can share fully how their beliefs – with or without a traditional understanding of that word – shape their ministry, their lives, and their worldview, how those beliefs call them to be in the world and how they feel called by those beliefs to inspire others to do the same. Too often, I think that permission is not there. It is not forthcoming from the pews and it is not promoted from those courts to whom we are accountable. In an institution in decline (that link to my theological college will tell you it is closing for an indeterminate time), fear can get the better of us. It is courage we need right now. The courage to have these difficult conversations.

Some time ago, in conversation with a friend, I learned of the highly sexualized culture of her workplace. It was rampant. From the topmost executives, to the lowest wage earners. There were no overt gropes or inappropriate come-ons. It took the form of explicit jokes being shared by email so that she didn’t know what to expect when she opened something from her colleagues or her boss. It took the form of explicit sexual comments in meetings and raucous laughter whenever someone struck a position or made a gesture that could be remotely misinterpreted as sexual. It took the form of little birthday presents or cards that always had a sexual theme to them. It was never-ending. Even in the presence of new recruits. And she felt powerless to do or say anything about it.

When everyone is using the same language, living within and supporting the same culture, it is very difficult to change that language, to confront it and open up the conversation. If someone does it, they are at risk of losing their jobs, being ignored for promotion or frozen out at the proverbial water-cooler. To raise one’s voice in opposition to a cultural norm is to risk being bullied and shamed by one’s peers and coworkers.

The United Church can do better than this. It must. The conversation is crucial and while not as sexy a topic as a sexualized office environment, the fear of retribution for sharing one’s deep convictions about the evolution of his or her faith is just the same and just as dangerous. It is the responsibility of those in the highest positions of authority in our church to create safe space for these discussions to happen. To date, that conversation has not taken place.

And so I thank you, David Wilson, editor of The United Church Observer, for placing this conversation in the pews of our church. And you, Mike Milne, for making it an engaging kick-off.

—–

* There is one factual error in the article. I am not a positive atheist, which means that I do not deny the existence of the god called God or any gods, for that matter. I couldn’t possibly know that. I’m an agnostic when it comes to the nature of reality. I am a negative atheist which means I see no proof for the god called God or any other gods. And were I to see reproducible proof as differentiated from the interpretation of someone’s experience, I would recant and believe in whatever god produced it.  I appreciate this quote by a former clergy colleague, Jerry DeWitt: “Skepticism is my nature. Free Thought is my methodology. Agnosticism is my conclusion. Atheism is my opinion. Humanitarianism is my motivation.”

**The whole gender-inclusive language debate proved a bit of a debacle, at least in my eyes. Those of us who chose to “include” feminine language for god, quickly learned that it was simply another version of exclusive language; it, too, raised hackles. What worked, and what has ultimately proven to be the key element regarding the best way to deal with the multiplicities of understandings of god, was removing gender specific language entirely.

 

to the glory of good

On Sunday, March 15th, Eric Andrew-Gee of the Toronto Star joined us in our weekly gathering. It was a busy morning. We’d removed half the pews that Saturday in one of our first efforts at continuing our work toward creating a barrier-free community, this time focused on the challenges that traditional forms of gathering as church pose to those not familiar comfortable with them. The one side of the Gathering Hall was filled with an assortment of chairs gathered from different parts of the church or donated or on loan from congregational members. As the day’s reader noted, they perfectly reflected the diversity of the community. Much to my surprise, it was the chairs that filled up first; latecomers were forced into the not-so-comfy mid-century pews on the other side of the room.

West Hill United ScarboroughEric hadn’t been sure when he arrived that he had actually found the church he was looking for. The building doesn’t look much like a church at all. The only colored glass, v-shaped windows on the original roof, is covered with large rectangular windows set into the reshaped structure when it was renovated in the late 1980s. There is no steeple but a large steel cross on the north side of the building’s front entrance is now stunningly visible from Kingston Road; the tree that once obscured it from view was blown down in a wind storm a few years ago. You can’t see the cross from the normal entrance to the church from the parking lot, though, so Eric, who has no previous or ongoing experience of church or congregational life, had to run up the stairs to inquire whether he was in the right place.

It was the third Sunday of the month. On that weekend each month, our leadership team – Scott, me, and our choral director, Babette – head over to Mississauga to lead our satellite community, West West Hill. Without the history of a traditional congregation, that community gathers around a meal and an activity or discussion rather than the format usually experienced in our Scarborough setting. So we’ve been using that particular week of the month to do something a bit different at our home base and the new chair set-up was perfect for it. Having gleaned words and phrases from West Hill’s newly embraced version of VisionWorks, our guiding document, we explored our relationship to our values and what happens in us when others deride them or uplift them with us.

Eric said he’d never experienced church like that. But then, he doesn’t have a lot of experience in church.

Photo credit Eric Andrew-Gee, Toronto Star

Photo credit Eric Andrew-Gee, Toronto Star

The article, “Atheist Minister Praises the Glory of Good,” appeared in the Monday edition of the Toronto Star. As with most newspaper articles, it made me nod and made me wince. Nothing is ever perfectly portrayed by the media. My comment about Jesus, for instance, was one in a somewhat longish exchange about the problematic sources, dubious historicity, and contradictory stories about him. Eric’s blackberry skills may have captured all of it but his journalistic skills pointed him toward the most controversial lines. I get it and I’m okay with it. I just wish it provoked conversation instead of the black and white comments and responses of either derision or accolade. Interesting that we had been exploring that very thing in our service that morning.

And I wish the remarks about Scott, an integral and incredibly important leader at West Hill (to say nothing of the breadth of wisdom and depth of encouragement he offers with me personally) hadn’t been so petty. Scott is far more than a sidekick when it comes to West Hill. What he shared with Eric in conversation was brilliant but, unfortunately, nothing of it was included in the piece.

Here is the article. The comments there and on the United Church Facebook page suggest that tonight’s presbytery meeting will be interesting. It is the first time I’ve been able to attend a meeting this year and the first time I’ve driven home from a meeting without being able to talk it over with my mom, laughing or crying or both. Whatever happens, I’ll be missing her more this evening than anything else.