Last night, I celebrated with a family the first birthday of their beautiful, strong, one year old daughter. She was born here in Canada, far from her parents’ families and friends, the first Canadian in a refugee family. Her early birth, a year ago, brought them joy in a time of loss and sorrow when, because of anti-secular extremists, they had been forced to flee to Canada. Here, she will grow up in a secular society that respects her right to freedom from religion just as it respects the rights of others to freedom of religion.
This week, I was privileged to correspond with a supporter and clarify my movement beyond the use of the word “god” in the leadership of my congregation, West Hill United.
My understanding of god, one I began to develop many, many years ago under the tutelage of the United Church, simply could no longer bear the weight of theism, and certainly not of an interventionist supernatural realism. And I realized, about fifteen years ago, that it was the latter two things – the supernatural and interventionist aspects of god – that most of these last two (three?) generations have rejected. So I stopped using the word. My concept of god held neither and did not need the word god to be shared with others.
Twelve years after deciding that I could no longer compromise the reach of West Hill’s ministry by insisting on using a word in a manner whole generations do not understand, I identified as an atheist.
In 2013, I learned of a whole new layer of disdain being placed on the word “atheist” in areas of the world where religious extremism was on the rise. As the birthday girl’s daddy said last evening, the new atheism has been very effective – it has promoted a backlash of intolerance that is violent and deadly. (Thank you, Christopher HItchens, et al.) Four secular Bangladeshi authors had been arrested and were being threatened with execution because they were “atheists”, labelled so in order to incite hatred against them. And in Turkey, Fazil Say, a world-renowned pianist, had been sentenced to ten months in prison for actually identifying as an atheist on social media.
What??!!?? In 2013??!!?? In a secular country??!!??
I’d labelled myself before. In With or Without God, I identified as a non-theist. In Amen, I’d gone further in order to clarify my lack of belief in a supernatural realm or any such power active in this one; I’d identified as a “theological non-realist.” These labels have proven to be palatable within church circles. But they meant the same thing as the beliefs for which five men were being persecuted and for which secular blogger Rajib Haider had already died. I took the label.
In the last seventeen months, I have learned what the cost of the label atheist is, even here in Canada. My suitability as a minister was not questioned as long as the work I did fell into the realm of “sharing the good news” or preaching something most in liberal churches would call “the way of Jesus” – a work that focuses a community on the values of love, justice, compassion, and forgiveness. As a non-theist, I was no threat. As a theological non-realist, I was probably misunderstood. But as an atheist? How could that be tolerated?
I am aware that there are many who are angry because of what they suppose my purposes have been as I have attempted to make a conversation public. It wasn’t supposed to be a conversation about the fact that I’m an atheist (as well as a theological non-realist and a non-theist). It was supposed to be a conversation about prejudice, religious extremism, the need to struggle for the right to freedom from religion wherever religion was used to oppress, deny rights, incite hatred. It was supposed to invite The United Church of Canada, a tolerant, diverse, and inclusive denomination to join the struggle for the protection of individuals who were, as it turned out, soon to be targeted for assassination. In that, I’ve clearly failed.
But we had birthday cake last night and one little girl can grow up in a freedom that has fast deteriorated in her parents’ native Bangladesh. For her, I’d do it all over again. It is my hope that as she grows, churches here in Canada and nations around the world will slough off their fear and prejudice against the word “atheist” and recognize that it really isn’t doctrinal belief that matters at all; it’s the way we choose to live our lives.
The process that led to the review of my effectiveness
Over the next few days, I’m going to be posting material pertinent to the United Church disciplinary process that has come to light because of the current review of my effectiveness. That may be of little interest to some of you, especially if you’re not clergy in the UCC. That said, if you know anyone who is ministry personnel within the UCC or who knows of one, I ask that you share it.
There has been a lot of media attention drawn to the review of my effectiveness as a minister in the UCC who identifies as an atheist. But what has not been explored is the incredible change this process has wrought on the United Church disciplinary process. That’s the church that raised me, trained me, and to which I have given the best years of my life. That my ministry has worked such drastic changes upon it is disturbing to me.
The changes in the United Church disciplinary process that are a result of Toronto Conference’s concerns about my leadership need to be understood. Those who know and love the once progressive United Church need to know exactly what the challenges now are.
I’ll begin by sharing a bit about the process that led to the review and my concerns related to it. Those concerns start with the new Effective Leadership and Healthy Pastoral Relationships project. Within that project, presbyteries transferred the oversight of clergy to conferences, a very important part of the new United Church disciplinary process. The effects of that transfer are yet to be completely understood. One of the most challenging problems has come to light because of my review. I’m sharing that with you in this blog.
The Effective Leadership Project
In 2012, the General Council of the UCC voted in favour of introducing the Effective Leadership Project which had been developed over a number of years. It was aimed at streamlining pastoral relations processes in the church. Conferences were invited to participate in pilot projects that would help introduce the project and feel for any challenges it might introduce. Toronto Conference, the one in which West Hill, the community I serve, is situated, engaged the project in this pilot phase.
Transfer of oversight
The pilot project required the freedom to act outside of the standard methods of practice in order to test the new methods out. In May, 2013, the General Council Executive made that move.
Motion: Bev Kostichuk/Florence Sanna 2013-05-16-081
The General Secretary of the General Council proposes that:
1. The following Conferences be authorized to engage in a process for testing the principles
of the Effective Leadership and Healthy Pastoral Relationships approved by the 41 st
b. Montreal and Ottawa
c. Bay of Quinte
h. Manitoba and North Western Ontario
j. British Columbia
k. All Native Circle
2. That the Conferences of Bay of Quinte, Toronto, Hamilton, London, Manitou, British Columbia be exempted from the polity and bylaws of the United Church Manual as detailed in the background section below for the duration of the testing period for the Effective Leadership and Healthy Pastoral Relationships proposal approved by the 41st General Council;
3. That, upon request, the General Secretary be authorized to grant further exemptions from polity and by-laws related to Conference or Presbytery responsibilities for pastoral relationships, needs assessments, and the oversight and discipline of ministry personnel in order to enable testing of the Effective Leadership and Healthy Pastoral Relationships proposal approved by the 41 st General Council.
Wait a minute! We can’t do that. Presbytery has to do it.
Included in the background document was a note that stated presbyteries were to ask their conference to take on the roles presbyteries normally held that were affected by the introduction of the pilot project. That the General Council Executive made the motion didn’t matter. The Basis of Union had granted the presbyteries powers that the General Council could not revoke. Therefore, the presbyteries needed to ask for the change. The oversight of Ministry Personnel was one of the areas transferred to the Conference.
Concerns regarding ministry personnel in the UCC
The section regarding the oversight of ministry personnel, formerly infamously known as “363”, was one of the sections covered in the backgrounder. Within the new section J9, The Manual is explicit about who can raise issues of concern regarding clergy. Presbyteries have to take concerns seriously. But those concerns can’t just come from anybody. The Manual provided for that and ensured that concerns could only come from someone who had first hand knowledge of the situation. If the presbytery was going to raise the concern itself, well, it had a direct relationship with every clergy person within it. All ministry personnel are members of presbytery and are supposed to be in regular attendance of its meetings.
In the United Church disciplinary process related to ministry personnel, the single common element shared by all parties that can raise a significant concern about a minister is that direct relationship had with the minister. The person(s) or court raising the concern know(s) the individual. In fact, they work with them either in the pastoral charge or in the presbytery of which the minister is a member.
9.2 Concerns about Ministry Personnel
The presbytery is responsible for the oversight of ministry personnel. It must take seriously any concerns that come to its attention about any ministry personnel. These concerns may be raised by
(a) the presbytery itself, including any member or committee of the presbytery;
(b) a ministry personnel settled in or appointed to the same pastoral charge;
(c) the pastoral charge supervisor;
(d) the governing body of the pastoral charge; or
(e) a proposal signed by 10 full members of the pastoral charge that the pastoral charge’s governing body has passed on to the presbytery.
And now we must think about the implications
When, in accordance with the direction of the General Council, presbyteries asked conferences to take over the presbyteries’ former oversight role, I wonder if they understood the implication of their request. I don’t think they had really thought through what it would mean for clergy when those raising concerns didn’t have to really know the individual. And I don’t think they really considered that they no longer had the right to raise concerns themselves. Transferring those rights to conferences removed the requirement of direct relationship and made clergy far more vulnerable. The conference, which can now raise a concern with or without the input of anyone who knows the clergy person, may or may not itself have a relationship direct enough to be able to discuss concerns about a minister. Indeed, they might end up going on hearsay and hunches, prejudices and opinions. Indeed, that’s just what happened at Toronto Conference in 2015.
Concerns raised about my beliefs….
It might seem easy to argue that everyone knows what the issue related to my review is: I’m an atheist, for goodness’ sake! But the process for reviewing my theological beliefs didn’t even exist when concerns were raised at a meeting of the Toronto Conference Executive Committee in April, 2015. The United Church disciplinary process was in flux and Toronto Conference was affected by the movement. At that meeting, David Allen, the Executive Secretary,
reported on concerns that have been raised regarding Rev. Gretta Vosper describing herself as an atheist. A letter from Metropolitan United Church was referenced as one of the responses. The Executive Secretary outlined various options to be considered. The Executive discussed what action it wished to take on this matter.
The letter from Metropolitan United Church was from the Chair of the Official Board, Vera Taylor. But if you read it closely, you’ll note that it doesn’t actually name me. Rather, it erroneously refers to West Hill as an atheist church in a letter that seems to be seeking clarity about the theology of the church in general. In a letter to the General Secretary, Allen notes that the letter from Metropolitan United raises concerns about West Hill United Church but he does not say anything about me. The oversight of congregations was not transferred to the Conference; it remained with presbytery. That being the case, and Allen’s original note to the General Secretary having acknowledged the letter was about West Hill, perhaps Toronto Conference should have forwarded the letter to Toronto Southeast Presbytery. That Allen raised it in a Conference Executive meeting and said that it was a response to my self-identification as an atheist, is confusing.
Who are these people?
I received copies of two other letters from conference shortly after the sub-Executive chose to initiate a review of my effectiveness based on the General Secretary’s subsequent ruling. (Look for Part Two, coming next). The conference hadn’t received either of them at the time of its April meeting. It took a year for me to receive them all. The emails and letters were sent to the General Council office or Toronto Conference following the publication of an article in the Toronto Star in March, 2016. That article was short, sassy, written by someone who knew little about religion and less about the United Church, and had at least one serious misquote in it. Which is inconsequential at this point. What matters is that I have no idea who any of these people are.
Whether you know the UCC or not, feel free to comment
Some of the writers, like Colleen who sent her missive through the General Council’s online contact form, are definitely not even related to the United Church. Her opinions, such as her intimation that we should all be Creationists, make it clear that she is not familiar with the United Church at all and was using the Star article to express her derision toward a liberal, mainline denomination in general. I just happened to be the focal point for that derision.
Others, like retired clergy James McKnight, are considerate and respectful. He comes from the position of one who has worked within the United Church all his life. But I have never, to my knowledge, met him. Nor, to my knowledge, has he visited West Hill United.
The handwritten letter from Elaine appears to be from someone who also knows the United Church. She may be a member of the denomination. Again, I do not know if we have ever met or if she has any first hand knowledge of West Hill.
The emails from JoAnne and Ann seem to be from individuals who are not members of the United Church. Ann appears to be aware that Ken Gallinger chose to remain in the pulpit until retirement, disclosing his atheism when he no longer needed to lead services. She has no problem with his choice to do so. Again, I have no idea if I have ever met these women or if they have ever stepped foot in West Hill’s building or attended a service there.
The last email, from Neil, is also, from someone who does not know the United Church from the inside. And, once again, I don’t think we have ever met. His note does remind us, however, of the literal manner in which the beliefs shared on the UCC website are understood and that we really don’t know what anyone means when they use the word “god”.
No more need for direct knowledge about a ministry personnel
So here’s the point of today’s post: Now that conferences have been given the right to raise concerns about ministry personnel, who is going to make sure that those concerns come from individuals who actually have direct experience of the clergy person in question?
Of the Conference Executive members gathered that April day in 2015, to my knowledge not one had ever been at West Hill for a service under my leadership, or engaged either me or West Hill about our work. Not one had ever asked me for clarification about anything I have written or said in public of that has been written about me. Not one had asked me about the significant error in the Star article, an error that raised my own eyebrows. Still, egged on by an outrageous talk radio show hosted by a belligerent, evangelical Christian, and the presentation of a letter that didn’t even name me, they engaged in a conversation about my ministry in the UCC. It was such a powerful conversation that they were sufficiently moved by it to invite the creation of an entirely new process to deal with my beliefs. That process would, from its development onward, require an unprecedented theological orthodoxy of United Church clergy.
Personally, I think that action needed more consideration. I think it warranted a conversation with me. Not a review. A conversation. And they could have easily arranged for such a conversation.
It is important to note that none of this negates the possibility that others, with direct experience of my ministry might have brought forward legitimate concerns within the United Church disciplinary process that should have been heard. My point is that concerns about your ministry no longer need to come from anyone who knows anything about it.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking this is all about me: it isn’t
Given that none of the correspondents and no one around the table that day was at all knowledgeable about the ministry they were discussing in even a rudimentary way, it seems the conference’s oversight of clergy under the Effective Leadership Project has some serious flaws. When its sub-Executive met to invoke the new ruling regarding theological orthodoxy, there was still no one in attendance who knew any more about me than those who had asked for the process. The United Church disciplinary process related to ministry personnel has changed and not for the better.
As a result of the Effective Leadership transfer of oversight of ministry personnel to conference, clergy are now unprotected by The Manual‘s previous requirement of intimate knowledge of their work in order for a review to be launched. And while it might seem obvious to many that, as far as “the atheist minister” was concerned, “something needed to be done”, Toronto Conference’s implementation of its newfound privileges falls far short of the previous care put to the United Church disciplinary process related to ministry personnel.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking that this is about me. This is about process. And the process is now far from safe for clergy. If you are clergy in the UCC, you should be concerned. If anyone, anywhere, member of the United Church or not, manages to get the attention of a conference executive that doesn’t know you and the conversation around the table gets, let’s say, “titillating”, the people around that table will feel justified that they are doing the right thing by initiating a review of your ministry. Even if they know nothing about you. If that doesn’t alarm you, you probably still think this is all about me. And if you do, you’re very badly mistaken.
It was indeed a sad day when presbyteries transferred their right to raise concerns about the ministry personnel in their midst but I don’t think even they knew what it would mean. Whether Toronto Conference Executive’s actions were, at best, the result of misunderstanding the implications of its actions or, at worst, a cavalier misuse of the privilege transferred to it by its presbyteries, the result is the exposure of a deep flaw in the Effective Leadership Project. One can only hope that, once identified, the problem might be corrected rather than embraced.
I met with the Toronto Conference Ministry Personnel Committee. Well, they were actually members of the Toronto Conference Interview Committee which normally interviews candidates for the ministry, but that committee had been seconded to act as the committee that would hear my beliefs and decide whether or not they constituted an affirmation of the questions asked of all candidates for ministry within The United Church of Canada. We met at the offices of Toronto Conference.
Actually, as it turns out, I wasn’t asked the questions asked of all candidates but was asked questions that reflected the church’s “New Creed” written in 1968 and amended since then to become gender inclusive and environmentally sensitive. I’ve posted those questions on my Facebook page if you’d like to see them.
Arriving at hearing with legal counsel Julian Falconer and Akosua Matthews.
It was such an honour to be welcomed to the offices by over thirty members of West Hill, all cheering and wearing their “My West Hill Includes West Hill” t-shirts with “My West Hill Includes gretta” buttons. Most of them stayed throughout the whole afternoon and were there to applaud and hurrah as we came out. I am so grateful for these people and the bonds they have built with one another and with me. Truly, this is what being a congregation is about.
My legal team was amazing. Akosua Matthews took notes throughout and Julian Falconer had his incredibly acute attention tuned to everything happening in the room, only interrupting the process when he believed a question was inappropriately phrased or impossible to answer. I was confident walking in because I knew he would be at my side.
Randy Bowes, the Chair of West Hill, was present as my support person but, despite the incredible support for his being able to speak on behalf of the congregation, he was required to remain a silent witness. His prepared statement remained in his folio. What was on the desk in front of him, however, was the signed petition and a printed copy of the electronic one with its almost three hundred comments. It was a visual symbol of your support. Thank you for signing it and for sharing such uplifting comments!
The panel was composed of four individuals who asked questions and twenty who lined two walls of the room in order to hear my answers. I am grateful for the time they took to be there and their willingness to wrestle with this enormously important task. The church is fortunate to have leaders – lay and ordered – who fill these crucial roles.
Additionally, two Conference Personnel ministers were present- one as my support and another as support to the committee – as well as a chaplain. We were well supported in that respect.
I am posting one of the documents that I wrote for the review. It is broken down into the separate segments of the questions of ordination as they appear in the Basis of Union. The interview was not organized along the same lines but I was able to read the whole of it during my time with the committee. (My SEO assistant is showing off the scale readability warnings! Be forewarned: I tend to prefer to spare ink by never using periods!)
What are the questions to which you’d be able to answer “yes” and what are the questions to which you’d be able to answer “no”? Please share them in the comments.
RESPONSE BY GRETTA VOSPER
to the Questions of Ordination
as presented in the Basis of Union of The United Church of Canada.
This response made to the Toronto Conference Ministry Personnel Review Committee investigating the effectiveness of
the Reverend Gretta Vosper
June 29, 2016
DO YOU BELIEVE IN GOD: FATHER, SON, AND HOLY SPIRIT:
IF by “God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” …
… you expressly mean the Trinitarian God, composed of three persons equal in essence, a being who presides over Earth from another realm, a supernatural one, from which it has the power to intervene in the natural world – capriciously or by design – by responding to our prayerful requests, or altering our minds and so, too, our actions, or intervening in the natural world with or without provocation or invitation in order to alter weather patterns, health, the accumulation or loss of wealth, the circumstances of birth including geography – a predictor of health and access to food and water – gender, sexuality, mental capacity, or beauty – all predictors of the power status and ease with which individuals will live their lives, then, no, I do not believe in that at all. Neither do I believe in a god of no substance who exists beyond the universe yet contains it, interpenetrating it in some incomprehensible way for some incomprehensible purpose.
I see no evidence of such gods. And so I see no reason to remain aligned with a doctrine which does not fit contemporary and ever-evolving scientific understandings of the universe or ethical perspectives on human dignity and rights. I see no reason why we should eschew the scholarship of the countless theologians who have argued for centuries, for almost two millennia, in fact, that the doctrine of the Trinity is unworthy of our intellectual consideration, let alone our allegiance. I see no reason to require of anyone who comes to us for service of any kind, including participation in the creation of vibrant, meaningful community, acknowledgement of or belief in Trinitarian or any other form of orthodoxy. I see no reason to demand of them a new lexicon of ecclesial language and the subsequent study and support they will require to move beyond traditionally held interpretations of that language with which they most likely arrive at our doors. To my mind, the only fathomable reason that we might consider holding to the doctrine of the Trinity and commencing an ongoing program of investigation of clergy that requires assent to that doctrine in order for their ministry to be considered effective is the maintenance of our membership in the World Council of Churches and I consider the work of ministry with individuals and communities of transformation more integral to the work of the church than I do membership in an organization.
Were I to be given incontrovertible proof that a god does or gods do exist, the evidence of the cruel and capricious realities of disparity, tragedy, illness, and anguish in the world, and the truth that our world and our experience of it is wrapped not only in beauty but also in excruciating pain, would prevent me from worshipping it or pledging my allegiance to it, no matter the cost.
WHAT I do believe …
… has come to me through a heritage that is rich in church and in the religious denomination into which I was born and raised. It is rooted in a family that, like many families, transmitted positive values to its children. These same positive values have also been projected by humanity, alongside other, more dangerous values, to become the attributes of the transcendent, divine, supernatural beings we have called gods. During times when social cohesion was crucial to the survival of small tribal communities, fear of those deities provided a powerful antidote to individual expression or actions that might threaten the community’s well-being – murder, theft, adultery, abortion, homosexual behaviours. These became offences against gods and came with god-sized punishments. Twinning social laws with supernatural beings may have been an evolutionary twist that provided for our survival.
It does not follow, however, that supernatural beings provided the moral codes or values by which we choose to live. And so, while the values instilled in me as a child were values reinforced by my church school and Christian upbringing, they are not values exclusive to that upbringing. And there are no moral codes that have been formed by the mind of a god. Rather, there is a morality that we have created and that transcends our personal circumstances. It is a morality that we have the responsibility to review and revise as we each see necessary for our personal wholeness and, I hope, social cohesion which is so integral to our well-being, our future as a species, and our impact on the future of all life on the planet.
It is in these non-doctrinal things, I have faith:
I believe in love and that it is the most sacred value. When I call something sacred, I mean that it is so crucial to our humanness, to our humanity, that we cannot risk its denigration, degradation, or destruction. To live without that sacred thing – in this case ‘love’ – would mean we had repudiated our evolved and critically negotiated humanity. Love is sacred; it is essential to our humanity.
Of course, I do not mean a simplistic, self-serving love. I mean a costly, challenging, transformative love that pulls us beyond the people we think we were, the people we may have been content to remain, in order that our humanity be more complete. It is a love that refuses to count its cost, seeking, rather, to disperse that cost into community, pulling us toward one another as it does so and beyond the divisions that otherwise might leave us in isolation.
There are religious texts and biblical stories, of course, that can be interpreted in the light of that kind of love, some of which may even seem to tell of the most complete embodiment of it that has ever walked the earth. These are questions of interpretation. Biblical examples are not integral to the understanding or the living out of love. Anyone, regardless of creed or ideology or even ignorant of any such things, may still live in accordance with a costly love. I believe the greater portion of humanity chooses to do so.
Our Christian forbears were seekers after truth. The Virginia School of Theology has carved alongside the doors of its library a partial quote of the words with which its mid 19th century Dean William Sparrow, is said to have closed his every lecture. “Seek the truth, cost what it will, come whence it may.” How much he must have held to the truths that we who studied theology dissected and hollowed out during our theological explorations, truths he encouraged his students to strive toward.
Or perhaps not. The last line of Dean Sparrow’s maxim is excluded from the library inscription. Perhaps it was considered reckless. The last thing Dean Sparrow said to his students every day just before they left class was, “Seek the truth, come whence it may, cost what it will, lead where it might.” Perhaps Sparrow was actually challenging them for a life in the ministry that would not be compromised by the quitting of intellectual integrity. Perhaps he was coaching them to hold to what they were learning and go out into ministry without forgetting to continue to learn. The quest for truth is never over. And so it must remain at the top of the list of those things which I believe. I believe in truth. I believe it is important to seek it, no matter where it comes from, no matter what we may lose in the process, no matter where we end up. Clearly, it is my commitment to truth – both seeking it and sharing it – which has brought us here today.
There are some who have argued courage is the greater virtue because it is required to live out any of the others but I believe love badgers courage into being. And when love fails to do so, I believe truth picks up the rant. Love and Truth can exist without Courage but almost as soon as one or the other emerges, courage is a must. It is a must if we are to do anything to protect those we love or to strive toward truth, no matter its cost or destination. Indeed, love without truth or truth without love can both deny wholeness.
Courage without either breeds an indifference and savage violence. Violence bred by love and justice, on the other hand, is tempered by the very root of its action which can only ever be to restore rights or to secure safety. It is in the interweaving of these three virtues that positive change happens, in our hearts, in our relationships, in our communities and in the world.
It is these virtues – Love, Truth, and Courage – that provide for all the rest upon which our work, my ministry, is built and which allow for the beauty of the human endeavour to shine forth.
As love and truth lead to courage, so courage leads to justice. John Dominic Crossan, notes that love without justice is banal and justice without love is brutal but I add to that: justice is not possible without courage. Compassion – one of our most prized virtues…
The most recently evolved part of our brain flips the sensory information we receive forward to our frontal lobes where we can consider the impact of an action on others – thus creating the possibility of a compassionate response – or backward, literally, toward the history of our self-preserving fight, flight, or freeze responses. Somewhere back along our lineage, our species thrived on the mutation that compassion once was.
And there are more. Many, many more.
All of these, of course, can be found explicitly or implicitly in the stories of the Bible. But they do not originate with it. To suggest that they did would be inconsistent with contemporary scholarship and dishonour the human story which both predated and ran parallel with its writing. To present them as having been created by a god and given to us is to refuse humanity credit for its most noble accomplishment. It also removes our right and inherent responsibility, as their creator and agent, to bring to the fore or limit certain of them as the needs of human community evolve.
There is, however, one virtue with which I often break faith and which I do not embrace in the same manner as my forbears. It is deeply rooted in our Christian heritage: Hope, as the promise of something we cannot assure. I choose instead to create, to accompany, to name, to comfort, to acknowledge, to embrace, to lament, to encourage, to convict, to trust again. I cannot bring about a peaceful death with only hope. I cannot mitigate the effects of corporatism, global climate change, or the TPP with only hope. I cannot end spousal, or elderly, or child abuse with only hope. I cannot redress our tragic history with indigenous peoples with only hope. I cannot address poverty, violence, xenophobia, arrogance, or illness with only hope. Only if I already have a hammer in my hand, only if action congruent with our responsibilities as human beings to alleviate suffering or redress abuse is in the offing or underway, will I offer the word ‘hope’. I will not offer hope to mollify or comfort when to do so does not alleviate pain or suffering, does not create right relationship, does not forestall death, but only pretends all these things might be achieved and so anesthetizes us to their reality with an illusion that comforts we who extend it more than those to whom we dispense it. I do not offer an empty hope and would not wish one offered me.
DO YOU … COMMIT YOURSELF ANEW TO GOD?
IF by ‘God’ …
… you expressly mean the Trinitarian God identified above, then, no, I do not.
WHAT I do wonder …
… is if the question may have served to direct our commitment to God because God transcended our own perspective, our own self-serving ideas. Already, when the questions of ordination were framed, very likely before 1908 – those who wrote them could not have been unaware of the effects of secularization on Christianity, particularly in the denominations coming into union. They could not have been unaware of the new interpretations of God that, Trinity or no, were non-traditional in nature. To commit ourselves to God meant we weren’t in this for ourselves; we were in it for a higher, nobler reason no matter what we meant when we used that word. The question challenged us to reach beyond ourselves because we were committing ourselves to something that radically transcended our own capacities.
Without God, that transcendent, nobler point of reference to which we have committed ourselves in the past, is it not possible that we might, then, commit ourselves to something mundane and self-serving, something that, in fact, arises out of our ego rather than out of concern for wholeness and social cohesion? Of course it is. Indeed, without an intention to broaden our awareness, make use of our evolved and empathy-producing anterior cingulate, that is exactly what we might very well do. To do so would be, in essence, a compromise of our humanity, and take us back to “the limited, and socially-tense, world of the chimpanzees.” (Loyal Rue)
What makes us different from chimpanzees is that we figured out a strategy for survival that is less taut with potential violence.
Our basic strategy could be phrased this way: “to achieve personal wholeness and social cohesion” (Philip Kitcher) at the same time, balancing them out to our best advantage and creating societies that manage the dramatic tension those two goals create. If we don’t achieve personal wholeness, comprised of a healthy balance of our spiritual, intellectual, physical, and emotional selves, we don’t thrive; we simply exist. If we cannot build social cohesion, we have no means through which we can achieve personal wholeness; lives are constantly under threat, something to which the current realities of refugee camps and the nations that spawn them attest. Humanity, if it is to survive and develop a robust reproductive strength – admittedly evolutionary terms – must develop healthy and autonomous personalities and do so within cooperative social groups. Belief systems – religions – have been a major tool in the facilitation and maintenance of a helpful balancing of self and community interests. At least, that’s one theory.
So, when the gods of our creation fall away, as I believe they have been forced to do by the rise of reason and the constant erosion of supernatural belief by science, we still need to find something, a belief system, that call us to that work – help us keep the equilibrium between personal self-interest and communal well-being. At West Hill, we believe the values of which I spoke present that challenge to us. Lifted before us, they keep our eyes, focused too easily on our own personal well-being, also set toward the panorama of a socially cohesive community. Our mission statement incorporates that challenge: “Moved by a reverence for life to pursue justice for all, we inspire one another to seek truth, live fully, care deeply and make a difference.”
It is to this work, I commit myself. To values which transcend our personal interests and needs and which help us envision a better world. This is the historic work of the United Church which drew me to leadership within it.
The work of living in right relationship with ourselves, with others, and with the planet is a very big work. At West Hill, the congregation has a document, with which you are familiar, which expresses the values to which it chooses to adhere. The document was first written in 2004 with a commitment to review it every five years. It was most recently presented to the congregation in a revised form in January, 2015. The last two times it has been reviewed and revised, I have not been involved.
I commit myself to the work of living toward the fulfillment of the challenges laid out to the congregation and to its members in VisionWorks and to supporting their work to do so as well.
DO YOU BELIEVE THAT GOD IS CALLING YOU TO THE ORDAINED MINISTRY OF WORD, SACRAMENT, AND PASTORAL CARE, AND DO YOU ACCEPT THIS CALL?
This question is answered in segments below.
DO YOU BELIEVE THAT GOD IS CALLING YOU ….
I DO NOT BELIEVE …
… in gods who can intervene in the natural world; therefore, I cannot believe that there is something we could define as a “call” from any god to us to direct us to act in any particular way.
I DO …
… understand the importance of conviction as a virtue in our lives, a deeply felt recognition that one is to follow a certain path or forge a new one. I believe such convictions can be inspired by personal experience – both known and unremembered; our relationships – both good and bad; and our contexts – both the personal and global. I believe our appreciation of life and our experience of wholeness results from how closely one is able to live according to one’s convictions. I believe the spiritual quest is the search for that point of resonance – that place of passion and conviction – where one’s own skills and abilities best meet the world’s greatest needs. I believe the spiritual task is the challenge of living in that place of conviction.
When I entered Theological College it was the result of years of struggling with a conviction that the most meaningful way in which I could be of influence in the world – the place where my skills and abilities could best meet the world’s needs – was through the work of inspiration and transformation, work I had witnessed in profound and moving ways by leaders in the United Church (Jock Davidson, Eldon Hay, Bill Hendry, Mary Smith). That conviction was further galvanized during my theological training, most particularly through the teaching and mentorship of Christopher Levan and Doug Paterson, and the exploration there of theologies of liberation (the people of El Salvador and Nicaragua, Phyllis Trible, Matthew Fox, Naomi Goldenberg), collaboration (Teilhard de Chardin, Douglas John Hall, Leonardo Boff), and radicalization (the Berrigan brothers, Gustavo Gutierrez, Dietrich Bonhoeffer). These theologies were further reinforced by United Church activists and theologians during my time there (Douglas John Hall, Pierre Goldberger, Faye Wakeling, Shelley Finson, Joan Kuyek, Pamela Dickey, Tim Stevenson) and further entrenched in the gospel stories about the man called Jesus. They also further reinforced my convictions that it was in ministry that my gifts could best be used to serve the world at one of its points of urgent need.
DO YOU BELIEVE GOD IS CALLING YOU TO THE MINISTRY OF THE WORD?
IF by the “Word” …
… you mean the Bible as the sole source or the primary source from which I am to draw wisdom for myself or those to and with whom I minister or that our ethical and moral choices must be grounded in its content, then no, I do not consider myself engaged in a ministry of the Word nor do I accept a call to that ministry.
I UNDERSTAND …
… my ministry to be built on the wisdom accumulated by and within humanity over the course of its history, including but not limited to the documents of our religious tradition and that the authority of a text lies in its message and not in its source or the source to which it is attributed. Many stories in the Bible would not meet West Hill’s standards of merit as they present depictions of relationships of power and privilege, many of which include violence, to which we do not ascribe or are set within a worldview we no longer accept. At West Hill, since 2004 our sources for wisdom have been identified in our congregational documents as ‘diverse’. I am challenged to source texts for our gatherings that meet our standards of love, justice, and compassion and that will inform, inspire, edify, or convict. These sources may be from ancient documents (the Bhagavadgita or the Leizi, for instance) or contemporary pop culture (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, World War Z, or Dr. Who) or from anything in between. They may be art, poetry, prose, literature, fiction, biography, screenplay or script, or any field of non-fiction. We are the creators and the holders of an infinite library of accumulated wisdom that is added to daily. It is my responsibility and pleasure to dip into that library in order to find material that addresses the concerns of the day and engages the congregation with them.
DO YOU BELIEVE GOD IS CALLING YOU TO THE MINISTRY OF THE SACRAMENT(S)
IF by the Sacraments …
… you mean liturgical devices through which I, as an ordained person, am able to change ordinary items into signs of God’s grace, requirements for full leadership, or acceptance to membership in community, then, no, I do not consider myself engaged in such a ministry, nor do I accept a call to that ministry.
I UNDERSTAND …
… my ministry to be to the calling of one another to witness the passage of one’s own life and of the lives of others and that there are moments along life’s trail when that is important and meaningful and best done in community. I understand my ministry invites me to lift up those moments for those with whom I minister and to invite them to stand witness to one another’s brokenness and wholeness and to commit to standing with, in love, no matter what. I believe the moments of dignity and memory that we so create can be powerful affirmations of life, being, and community.
I believe the symbolic ritual of marking a child with water is a parent’s opportunity to articulate the qualities of character they commit to instill in their child. It is the community’s opportunity to embrace and celebrate the possibilities inherent in each new life and to pledge themselves to the support of keeping those possibilities large.
I believe the symbolic ritual of breaking bread is a community’s opportunity to “re-member” (intentional hyphenation) itself and its commitments to one another.
I believe symbolic rituals for forgiveness, reconciliation, love, leave-taking, marriage, transformation, divorce, new commitments, death, and grief hold the space in which individuals are invited to move into, through, or beyond significant places on their life’s journey. Visual art that marks these moments has become significant for the congregation.
I believe it is my privilege to work with members of my community and beyond to create meaningful symbolic actions and rituals that allow that sacred space to emerge.
DO YOU BELIEVE GOD IS CALLING YOU TO THE MINISTRY OF PASTORAL CARE
IF by the ministry of pastoral care, …
… you mean the rendering of spiritual care, direction, and counselling to individuals, couples, families, groups, and a congregation that is undergirded by the Holy Spirit or that presumes to guide those under care toward greater discernment of God’s plan for their lives, whether through guided self-exploration or study of the Bible or devotional resources based on it, then no, I do not consider myself engaged in such a ministry nor do I accept a call to that ministry.
I UNDERSTAND …
… pastoral care to mean working with others in their pursuit of right relationship with self, others, and the planet either with a focus on long term goals or as needed in times of crisis. I do not believe that my position gives me the right to impose myself upon people at times of illness, bereavement, or crises but to make myself available as and when needed and to ensure that individuals, particularly those experiencing crises, know that I am available should they choose to avail themselves of my presence.
I am not a trained counsellor and do not enter into counselling relationships for which I am not qualified.
In times of crisis, Pastoral Care is the work of being present in situations of grief, loss, anger, and confusion in an empathic way, open to the needs of the other and responding as and how I am able sufficient to the validation of experience, the provision of support, and the witness of love and compassion. Pastoral Care is also the work of providing safe space to individuals, couples, or groups wherein individuals can build trust and speak openly and with respect while risking appropriately the work of growth and understanding. Creating such space requires an understanding of appropriate boundaries and the creation of them.
The long term work of Pastoral Care might be considered spiritual direction which I understand to be the work of accompanying an individual as they undertake a spiritual quest to find the place at which his or her gifts might best be offered to an urgent need in the world. Its purpose is to draw individuals toward a greater understanding of their potential, opportunities, unresolved grief, and unacknowledged strengths in order that they develop resilience in their personal lives, and within their relationships. It is to repair and recommit to right relationship with self, others, and the planet as is appropriate given the history and contextual realities of the individual(s) involved.
All these things I practice and provide in my ministry at West Hill.
DO YOU BELIEVE GOD IS CALLING YOU TO THE ORDAINED MINISTRY
IF by ordained …
you mean “set apart” by being provided extraordinary and spiritual gifts that allow for the discernment of a divine plan or message in an ancient text or the consecration of juice, bread, or water into sacred elements that have the power to transmit the grace of a supernatural god called God to humans otherwise mired in sin in order to mark them as recipients of that grace to whom I might then extend the comfort of that god, then, no, I do not feel conviction about that ministry.
I UNDERSTAND …
… my work as an undertaking that both awakens individuals to the importance of creating meaningful lives for themselves and contributing to the meaning-making work of others, and that supports them in that work. It is the work of challenging individuals and communities to reach toward both personal wholeness and social cohesion – the balance which, when achieved, leads to success in the human community. Philip Goldberg identifies five significant tasks of religion which I believe go toward creating that balance but recognize them as deeply human undertakings for which religion has been the purveyor. They may each be engaged and fulfilled without the need for religious language or doctrine. Goldberg’s five tasks are beautifully and simply portrayed by five words: transmission, translation, transaction, transformation, and transcendence.
• Transmission – of a sense of identity transmitted from one generation to the next through a variety of means – ritual, shared customs and stories, and historical continuity.
• Translation – of the events of life into a form that helps convey a sense of meaning and purpose and which helps individuals understand their relationship to the wider community or greater whole.
• Transaction – individuals and communities are better able to flourish when the transactions that take place between them are governed by formal or informal moral codes. These define what right relationship means within the community.
• Transformation – encourages the engagement of individuals and communities in ongoing maturation and growth in the pursuit of personal and social fulfillment.
• Transcendence – provides a reference point beyond the individual or community which challenges them to expand their understanding to experience themselves as integrated with a larger whole, the web of life. This can be understood as the realization of the impact one has on the vast expanse of life both during and beyond his or her lifetime and does not require belief in a supernatural realm.
ARE YOU WILLING TO EXERCISE YOUR MINISTRY IN ACCORDANCE WITH THE SCRIPTURES, IN CONTINUITY WITH THE FAITH OF THE CHURCH, AND SUBJECT TO THE OVERSIGHT AND DISCIPLINE OF THE UNITED CHURCH OF CANADA?”
Again, this question is broken down into segments below.
EXERCISING MINISTRY IN ACCORDANCE WITH THE SCRIPTURES
Within the context of a community that sets for itself the work of engaging in contemporary issues with courage, clarity, and compassion, most scripture is obscure at best, most often irrelevant, and at its worst, dangerously prone to misguiding those studying it.
Biblical scholarship has long required that we strain biblical texts through a variety of sieves in order to ensure they are presented appropriately for contemporary audiences and not vulnerable to our own circumscribed perspectives. These include but are not limited to setting the text in a historical, political, and social context; identifying the author and the community to which he wrote; examining the use of words and phrases in the text as they are used in the original languages elsewhere in the Bible to decipher the particular intention of the author; examining conflicting texts for the purposes of determining why conflict exists and assessing which version is closest to the truth; exploring contemporaneous texts not only for the validation of claims within the text but to examine existing arguments or positions against which the text was written; addressing any assumptions or privilege introduced into the text by its author; and finally, guessing at the meaning of the text or intentions of the author to the best of one’s abilities.
Given the challenges presented by a text that ranges in age from nineteen to twenty-eight centuries and the breadth of interpretation legitimated by a wide variety of theological and scholarly perspectives, I cannot say that I understand what exercising my ministry in accordance with the scriptures means.
EXERCISING MINISTRY IN CONTINUITY WITH THE FAITH OF THE CHURCH
In my submission, I spoke of the progress of my theological development from my youth through my theological training and on to the continuing education I undertake as an ordered minister within the United Church.
In that description, I presented my experience of and development within a denomination that, at much cost to itself, explored beyond the realms of belief that had been charted by previous generations. In that important and ground-breaking work, it was the first church to do many extraordinary things, always leading with an interpretation of the faith that called it and its members to greater love, compassion, and truth. It was able to do those things because it regularly and repeatedly held the Bible and the doctrines of the church subordinate to the principle of love and all that required of it and of us. Throughout, it has been an inspiration to other mainline Protestant denominations, to its leaders, and to its members.
The process of change within West Hill clearly consists of the evolution of a congregation of The United Church of Canada “within the faith of the church” insofar as “within” can be described as a reasonable application of scholarship, reason, the discernment of truth, and the subordination of doctrine to the principle of love.
West Hill United Church, about a decade ago, began referring to itself as a “spiritual community of faith growing out of the Christian tradition.” That language was prescient. While it ensured that we held to our roots, bringing much-loved traditions, hymn tunes, and symbols, values that it continues to share with the wider church, and a commitment to actions the United Church initiates or embraces, it also encouraged us to create space in our community for those who were uncomfortable with ecclesial language, who honoured the values and the work of the United Church but did not want to participate in doctrinally focused services of worship. That decision has allowed us to be present to many in our immediate community, and across the Greater Toronto Area. It has placed us as a leader in the evolution of church beyond the beliefs that divide. Our materials are used in schools and in churches around the world.
The evolution of the congregation has taken place over sixty-six years.
EXERCISING YOUR MINISTRY SUBJECT TO THE OVERSIGHT AND DISCIPLINE OF THE UNITED CHURCH OF CANADA
I have deep respect for the men and women who, over the decades, crafted and evolved an institutional structure that placed the ideals of ministry and its practice within the reach and engagement of generations of Canadians. They helped form this nation through the widespread influence of their vision and their labours.
I remain committed to working within that structure even as I invite those who love this church, as I do, to continue to evolve its practices and polity as new realities and challenges emerge.
And so it is that I respectfully submit the following concerns, grieved as I am that the interpretation and application of the church’s disciplinary processes that have led to this review, as they are currently being interpreted, have the capacity to place all clergy and the future of our denomination’s extraordinary and visionary leadership among religious institutions at risk. To such an egregious evolution and application of the oversight and disciplinary policies of The United Church of Canada, and with concern for my denomination’s future, I must, as a member of its order of ministry in good standing, object.
I have identified three causes of concern: the Effective Leadership Project; the ruling of the General Secretary; and Procedural Issues
THE EFFECTIVE LEADERSHIP PROJECT
I believe that the effect of changes to the oversight and discipline of clergy that resulted from the Effective Leadership Project and the transfer of oversight and discipline of clergy to Conferences from Presbyteries is only now being understood as those changes begin to be applied.
I believe that the transfer of the oversight of clergy from Presbytery to Conference during the Effective Leadership Pilot Project has severely interfered with the covenantal relationships that exist between congregations, the presbyteries to which they belong, and the ministry personnel who serve them both.
I believe that Presbyteries, as direct partners to the covenantal relationship with congregations and clergy, are the court best able to discern the legitimacy and merit of concerns raised about its member clergy.
I believe that Conference, with whom most clergy are not in direct relationship prior to disciplinary processes, are unable to adequately assess concerns raised about clergy within their boundaries because they are not within the covenantal relationship and often not in a geographic proximity to settled clergy sufficient to do so.
I believe the intention of those who clarified for us through The Manual those individuals and courts from whom legitimate concerns about clergy could be heard was to ensure that only those concerns raised by individuals or courts in a direct relationship with clergy had sufficient merit to be worthy of being heard.
I believe that the transfer of oversight and discipline processes from Presbytery to Conference did not intend or include transfer of responsibility for raising concerns from the Presbytery, the court to which clergy belong; the evidence for this is the absence of either a transfer of covenantal relationship or the establishment of a direct relationship with ministry personnel adequate to replace the Presbytery relationship.
I believe that a review of the effectiveness of any clergy person as the result of concerns raised by individuals not in the position to have any insight into the ministry of the clergy person, the health of the pastoral charge, or the covenant within which that ministry takes place is a miscarriage of justice regardless of the reasons for that review.
I believe that concerns expressed to the General Council by the church through the Effective Leadership consultation process regarding the centralization of power in an individual Conference staff position, were warranted and that the Presbytery’s retention of the right to raise legitimate concerns about their member clergy is required in order to mitigate those concerns; those rights should not be extended to Conference.
I believe Conference assumed the responsibility for raising concerns regarding clergy under the Effective Leadership transfer of oversight and discipline of clergy but that they did not have the explicit approval of the wider church to do so.
I believe concerns regarding ministry personnel should be forwarded to the Presbytery of which they are a member regardless of to which court or office the correspondence has been directed and that the Presbytery consider the nature and provenance of the concerns before raising those concerns with Conference, the court with oversight and disciplinary responsibilities.
THE GENERAL SECRETARY’S RULING OF MAY 5, 2015*
I believe that the changes to the oversight and discipline of clergy that resulted from the General Secretary’s ruling of May 5, 2015 must also be considered by the whole church following the result of this review.
I believe that the ruling of the General Secretary exceeded her authority and altered the nature of ministry in The United Church of Canada.
I believe that those who birthed The United Church of Canada into being had anticipated theological evolution and so declined to include a requirement for theological conformity or continuity among clergy; had they required them, ongoing affirmations of orthodoxy at set points in the ministry of clergy would have been included in the Basis of Union.
I believe that those who have provided for and supported the formation of leaders within the United Church have expected those leaders to continue learning long after departure from theological colleges and that they have encouraged those leaders to seek the truth, come whence it may, cost what it might, lead where it would.
I believe that the right of the ordaining conference to contribute to the theological diversity of The United Church of Canada has been undermined with this ruling and that we risk a flattening of that diversity with any application of the General Secretary’s ruling.
I believe it is contrary to the Basis of Union for a Conference of Settlement to review the theological beliefs of ministers ordained in another Conference.
I lament that the General Council Executive, being presented with a proposal sent to them as a result of concerns regarding the use of the questions of ordination to judge the effectiveness of ministry personnel and asking for a review of those questions, upon hearing that fifty-one percent of General Council 42 Commissioners did not wish to review those questions, chose to ignore the forty-six percent who sought the conversation. I believe that decision dramatically diverged from the courage the United Church has previously shown in the face of challenging social and theological issues of the day when, long before a majority of its membership invited exploration of an issue, the church engaged, witnessing integrity and courage, and modelling participatory and transformational dialogue.
I believe some of the challenges that have brought us here today and that risk the health and strength of our denomination and those who serve it are the result of a lack of due diligence and attention to our polity and concern for those it serves to both protect and oversee.
I believe those who struggled to bring The United Church of Canada into being were well aware of the implications of the term “essential agreement” when it came to questions of doctrine and intended or expected a breadth of theological perspective to grow and flourish within the church.
I believe those who wrote and have revised our Statements of Doctrine over the years did not intend that doctrinal examinations ever be undertaken which precluded the element of essential agreement, a Basis of Union provision which has allowed for a breadth of diversity in our denomination that is unparalleled in the world.
I believe the decision of Toronto Conference to undertake a review of a clergy person’s doctrinal beliefs in accordance with the ruling of the General Secretary but without the provision of essential agreement is a breach of the Basis of Union.**
I believe any review of the effectiveness of a clergy person, even and especially reviews on theological grounds, the responsibility for which lies with the Session of the Pastoral Charge, must allow for the full participation and input of the Pastoral Charge.
I believe any review of the effectiveness of ministry personnel, even and especially reviews on theological grounds, the responsibility for which lies with the Session of the Pastoral Charge, must allow for the full participation and input of the Presbytery responsible for the oversight of that Pastoral Charge.
I believe that the use of the Interview Committee as a Ministry Personnel Review Committee has led to procedural confusion and an inconsistent application of the procedures for the review of Ministry Personnel which have been set out to ensure transparency, accountability, and fairness.
We sit here today as a first instance of the application of two significant changes to the oversight and discipline of Ministry Personnel:
• the shift of the oversight and discipline of Ministry Personnel from the Presbytery to the Conference and
• the ruling of the General Secretary wherein she established the requirement of ongoing affirmation of ordination questions by all ministry personnel
Because this process and the changes upon which much of it is based raise serious concerns and fall short of our obligation to one another to engage in open and fair procedures as we have agreed to undertake them, I challenge us all to work together so that we might better understand their implications for Presbyteries, Pastoral Charges, and Clergy. Future processes will undoubtedly unfold and we have both the opportunity and the responsibility to ensure that they do so with transparency, accountability, and fairness.
Therefore, I respectfully invite you, as members of the Toronto Conference Ministry Personnel Review Committee to decline to participate in a process that has no grounding in United Church polity, no precedent in United Church history, and no merit based on the ongoing and unbroken nature of the covenant that exists between Toronto Southeast Presbytery, West Hill United Church and me. I respectfully encourage you, rather, to determine that the way forward is not through an aberrant disciplinary process, but through a collaborative effort to improve our United Church of Canada.
*The General Secretary, in response to Toronto Conference’s request for a process to deal with “a female minister who calls herself an atheist”, wrote a ruling that tied a minister’s effectiveness to suitability and suitability to ongoing affirmation of ordination questions. Our appeal of the ruling was denied on the basis that it had no ground. The following is the ruling made by Nora Sanders.
In my opinion, a person who is not suitable for ministry in the United Church cannot be “effective” as United Church ministry personnel. Where a question has been raised about the minister’s suitability, the presbytery may consider that a question has been raised about “effectiveness” so as to initiate a review of the minister on that ground. The questions set out in Basis 11.3, which are asked at the time of ordering, are appropriate for assessing on-going suitability. …
Based on the Polity set out above, I rule that the following process would be appropriate for responding to these kinds of concerns. I will refer to the Conference exercising oversight of ministry personnel rather than the presbytery since this ruling was requested by Toronto Conference.
• The Conference (through its Executive or Sub-Executive) orders a review of the minister’s effectiveness under Section J.9.3(a) [page 194].
• The Conference may direct the Conference Interview Board to undertake this review, interviewing the minister with a focus on continuing affirmation of the questions asked of all candidates at the time of ordination, commissioning or admission in Basis of Union 11.3.
• The Conference Interview Board conducts the interview and reports to the Conference whether, in the Interview Board’s opinion, the minister is suitable to continue serving in ordered ministry in the United Church.
• The Conference receives the report from the Conference Interview Board and decides on appropriate action in response to it. In making this decision, the Conference may take into account the Basis 11.3 questions as well as the Ethical Standards and Standards of Practice.
• If the Conference Interview Board reports that the minister is suitable to continue in ordered ministry, the Conference may decide to take no further action.
• If the Conference Interview Board reports that the minister is not suitable, the Conference may decide to take one or more of the actions contemplated in Section 9.4 [page 195],
• Upon the minister’s completion of the action, the Conference decides whether the minister may continue in paid accountable ministry in the United Church as set out in Section 9.8 [page 196].
If the Conference decides the minister is not ready to continue in paid accountable ministry, it must recommend that the minister’s name be placed on the Discontinued Service List (Disciplinary).
** Toronto Conference’s David Allen required that the reviewers could not use “essential agreement” as a way to determine affirmation of the questions of ordination.
It is no secret that I first identified as an atheist in 2013 because of the arrest and threatened execution of four Bangladeshi bloggers following the brutal murder of Rajib Haider that February. My theological beliefs had long since morphed my understanding of God from a supernatural being who could intervene in the natural world into an understanding of god as the beauty we create between one another that sustains us through the joys and sorrows of life. So it was not difficult for me to sympathize with those four bloggers and Fazil Say, the Turkish pianist who had been sentenced to ten months in prison for identifying as an atheist. I, too, was an atheist in my beliefs. It was time to name that reality and stand in solidarity with these men I would never meet.
It has been an unexpected delight to come to know Raihan Abir, his wife Samia, and his daughter Sophie, all three of whom have embedded themselves into my life and into the hearts of everyone at West Hill United. Raihan, co-author of the Bengali book The Philosophy of Atheism came to Canada after the public murders of his co-author Avijit Roy and his editor, Ananta Bijoy Das. But he left many friends behind and the killings have continued, including the murder of his publisher Faisal Arefin Dipon. Even before leaving Bangladesh, Raihan bravely stepped into Avijit’s footsteps and now runs Mukto-Mona, the Bangladesh Secular Humanist organization from his home in Canada. He remains on a published list of secular humanists who have left Bangladesh. The list identifies the countries in which they live and invites any who find them to murder them on the spot.
We do not understand these tragedies. So long have we been able to speak our truths, raise our voices in dissent, urge our governments, our communities, and our faith groups to see the change that needed to be. Barring the egregious actions of the police during the G20 in Toronto in 2010, for the most part we have done it without threat of sanction or imprisonment. We have certainly done it without threat of death. And were one of us to be killed for speaking about freedoms all should enjoy, our government would condemn the murderer, not the murdered as the Bangladeshi government has done.
And so it was only right that I should join my voice to those who have raised theirs in condemnation of the Bangladeshi government’s continued neglect of justice and the shocking blame they have laid upon those who have been murdered on its streets. In fact, it is a privilege to be able to do so.
Every day that you enjoy the freedom to speak your mind is another day that our sisters and brothers in Bangladesh live in fear. The least we can do is be in solidarity with them and urge our governments, our faith communities, our families, and our neighbours to pay attention and find ways to be supportive.
For many, something other than religion meets the definition of religion
It’s true. Fewer and fewer people in North America are heading to church on Sunday morning. Religion, well, its Christian iteration, is on the wane. But for hundreds of thousands of those who avoid church, alternate sources of inspiration, engagement, community, and well-being exist. We just don’t normally think of them as religion.
CrossFit members hang out with one another.
Take Crossfit, explored in the New York Times last week in the article, “When Some Turn to Church, Others Go to CrossFit“, by Mark Oppenheimer. He notes that the benefits people experience when they are deeply engaged in the lifestyle that CrossFit engenders are similar to those we like to think are the exclusive purview of religion.
The same is true of some 12-step program members, and devoted college-football fans. In an increasingly secular America, all sorts of activities and subcultures provide the meaning that in the past, at least as we imagine it, religious communities did.
So what are the characteristics of a religion? According to Joseph Price of Whittier University in California, something constitutes a religion if it establishes a worldview. It isn’t just how regularly someone engages, it’s what is taken away by that person and whether the activity really leads to the reconfiguration or cementing of a way of life.
Using this logic, one can see how “Star Trek” fans, with their deep interest in science and cosmology, might qualify as religious. But members of a men’s breakfast club who meet weekly at a diner, by contrast, while they might derive great joy and comfort from their ritual, would not, by virtue of it, be religious.
As the review of my effectiveness for ministry in the United Church of Canada has been unfolding, many people query whether it is appropriate for an atheist to be a minister in a UCC congregation. I’ve given my reasons for why I believe my leadership at West Hill United is totally consistent with the United Church’s perspective. These may seem contradictory to the remarks I made in conversation with Mary Hines of CBC’s Tapestry when I mused about the eradication of religion. But beyond that striking comment lies the reality that organizations like CrossFit are claiming. All the previously divisive elements of belief within religions have created barriers we can no longer withstand as a species. Doctrinal worldviews collide. So let’s follow CrossFit’s lead and build worldviews that inspire, engage, uplift, and turn people toward one another instead of away from one another. Hey! We can even do this in church!
I am honoured to be a panelist on this special forum hosted by CBC’s Michael Enright of The Sunday Edition. The Public God, will take place on the evening of Tuesday, April 8 at The Rotman School at University of Toronto to look at the role that religion, and expressions of religion, play in public life. The discussion will be drawing from a number of issues and controversies from recent months that have arisen from the intersection of religion and public life, such as the Quebec Charter of Values and the York University controversy over a student who wished to be excluded from a classroom with female students. And it will explore the apparent paradox in which polling shows fewer and fewer people in North American society to have any serious religious faith, and yet there seems to be increasing contentiousness and anxiety over the presence of religion in the public sphere.
Join me and five other panel guests as Michael engages us in an important conversation. The venue is the Fleck Atrium at the Rotman School of Management, 105 St. George Street. Starting at 7:00 the doors will open at 6:30. It is a first come, first seated and there is no cost to be an audience member.
Michael Enright, Host, CBC’s Sunday Edition
Sheema Khan, Globe and Mail Columnist
Moustafa Bayoumi, Author, How Does It Feel to Be a Problem: Being Young and Arab in America
Fr. Raymond De Souza, Chaplain, Queen’s University, National Post Columnist
Janet Epp-Buckingham, Author, Fighting over God: History of Religious Freedom in Canada.
John Moscowitz, Senior Rabbi, Holly Blossom Temple
Usually, though, the reason is very clear to me. We’re killing each other and we’re killing our planet. Whether it is by slowly poisoning ourselves with chemicals or shooting one other, whether it is by extracting carbon from the earth and spewing it into the atmosphere or spilling millions of miniscule plastic balls into our waters because we like the feel of facial scrub, whether it is by creating such a gap between the rich and the poor that they begin to see one another as different species, we’re at a critical place in our history. Making it out alive is not yet guaranteed.
Religion has a lot to do with how we see the earth and each other. We need to pay attention to that and, if at all possible, alter the worldviews that let us do this to each other, to our planet, and to ourselves.
For centuries, religion has been fragmenting humanity by teaching and preaching what are presented as absolute truths, those of each religion imbued, for the most part, with a divine authority. We have done it to create and preserve for ourselves the semblance of safety in a chaotic world we cannot control. By handing that control to an otherworldly supernatural deity, we’ve been able to console ourselves about our and the world’s pain, assuring ourselves that divine justice, in whatever form the particular religion presents it, will even what, in life, is only ever a very lumpy playing field.
Within Christianity, my own faith tradition, our understanding of that otherworldly, divine authority, has been slipping for a very long time as we have examined sacred texts and institutions we once thought infallible and found, all too clearly, the imprint of human hands – and not very clean hands, at that. Recognizing, as many of us do, that the good the church has the capacity to do–strengthening community, deepening commitment to the life-enhancing values of compassion, justice, and love, sharing a message of the sanctity of all life–is not dependent upon the authority of a divine figure, I believe the church should do everything it can to ensure that it will be able to do everything that it can. Continuing to present the image of a divine being who intervenes or doesn’t in the affairs of a humanity it identifies as broken and sinful is simply not only no longer enough, it is detrimental to the welfare of life on this planet. It is time we move past the tribal divisions religion has riven deep into the web of life and work toward honouring all that is holy and sacred to us–not some supernatural realm or deity, but each other, our own selves, and the exquisite beauty of our very fragile planet.
The following is an excerpt from a speech I gave at the Renewing Faith, Renewing Congregations conference in Peterborough, Ontario in November of 2005. Parts of it were adapted for a chapter in my book With or Without God. It was originally written in defense of the integrity of the ministry we are creating at West Hill United Church. Although the document that represents West Hill’s values and principles was intentionally written without the word “believe” in it, this document reclaims the word and proves that progressive Christians do believe in much, very much.
We believe in the sanctity of life that is often experienced in ways that cannot be measured and that far outstrip what we can see and taste and touch. We believe that there is much in this world that challenges the sanctity of life and that it must be defied. We believe that to be very hard work and that it takes all the shoulders in a community to bear the burden of the responsibility. We believe our experience of the deep sacredness of life is dynamic and cannot be named.
We believe that the Bible is a human construction and it is, therefore, full of both human promise and human error. We believe that no humanly constructed book can be the authoritative word of God and that we, who recognize this, are responsible to challenge such claims and behaviour that suggests such claims, particularly where we find it in our own church. We believe that some of the stories of the activity of the divine in the world that are collected in the Bible are rich with metaphor and meaning and can enrich our understanding of ourselves, each other and creation. And we believe that much of what is described in the Bible as the activity of God is destructive of relationship and equality, that it is tribal and divisive, that, despite the best attempts that the authors were making to describe their experience of the divine, they have created a legacy of judgment, horror and despair and we no longer choose to burden ourselves with that legacy. We believe it is wrong to call such words holy or sacred.
We believe that some of the words attributed to a man called Jesus, myth or reality, are words that can challenge us to seek alternate ways to live together and break down humanly-constructed barriers. And we believe that some of the words attributed to that man are words that can divide and destroy relationship, not just by the way they are used, but by how they are recorded. We believe that they describe a concept of hell that was very real to that man but is no longer relevant to us. And we believe that, too often, his words have been used to imprison people in that hell, a place only the Bible and other religious texts continue to describe and make real in this world. We believe that we have the right and responsibility to free ourselves of those concepts that are no longer meaningful and relevant for us because we do not believe that he was speaking as the only begotten Son of God, but as one who sought, as we do, to understand the sacred reality that he embraced and we call life.
We believe that all that is constructed upon the church’s claim that the Bible is the authoritative word of God must be questioned because of the error of that claim. We believe that the church’s creeds, doctrine, liturgy, ecclesiology, sacraments, hymns and theology are based on that claim. We believe they should be assessed for their ability to support our attempts to live in right relationship with ourselves, each other and the earth, honouring the sanctity of life as we each experience it. We believe that, though there are costs associated with such work and that much we have loved will be lost, that we must accept those costs, grieve openly, and, with love, caring and supporting one another, leave behind that which would encumber our work. We believe we are gifted to create new understandings, that they can be rich and meaningful. And we believe and these new understandings, too, must be questioned as time and experience lay hold of them.
We believe that there are many who have spoken of or through their sacred realities in ways that open us to our tasks of building right relationship and loving from the core of our being. We believe it is right and proper to nurture ourselves with their words, with our own words, with the ways that we and others see and know and celebrate the divine in our own lives.
We believe that we are light to the world, to ourselves, to each other and that the world and all its inhabitants can be light to us. We believe that our values will guide our choices and that our choices are the incarnation of our beliefs. We believe that because this is so, it is more important for us to struggle to develop solid values for ourselves and society in order that we can strengthen the reality of love in the world than it is for us to be conversant in ancient theological terms.
We believe that our experience of the sanctity of life is best expressed as and in love.