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.
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.
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!
As the world’s anger rages in response to the senseless (and illegal) killing of Cecil the Lion in Zimbabwe by American dentist Walter James Palmer, an avid trophy hunter, Denmark takes a provocative step toward limiting religious freedoms and preventing what it terms animal cruelty.
Jewish and Muslim leaders have responded swiftly to the prohibition of the practice of ritual slaughter in the manner in which it is required under religious laws. That is, animals must be killed with a single blade slice through the throat. Denmark considers the method a practice that is cruel to animals and has banned it.
But the stage is set for the larger question. Is it right for humans to slaughter animals in any way? While outraged that Cecil was shot with a crossbow and tracked for forty hours before being killed by a gunshot, many in the world – at least those in so-called developed countries – list meat as a staple in their diets. And many, if not most of those people, remain adamantly ignorant of the conditions under which their meat has been raised. The Guardian’s Andrew Brown considers the ban an act of hypocrisy on the part of the Danish government, noting that it has been a decade since any animals in Denmark were killed without the use of a stun gun. And animal rights activists argue that stunning the animals before slaughtering them, considered a more humane way to kill them, is simply not consideration enough, especially when stunning fails and animals remain alive while further “processing” takes place.
Religious believers often argue that the world was created by their god in order that humanity be provided its every need. Even at our most recent meeting of Toronto Conference of the United Church, a delegate rose and reiterated that dated interpretation in opposition to a proposal that the UCC divest of fossil fuels. One would think that images of the earth as a tiny dot against the rings of Saturn and the recent photographic images of Pluto from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft would eradicate such thinking. It seems too convenient to privilege the archaic, religiously-based perspective, and through it, protect our voracious lifestyle. Perhaps what we should consider banning is not only the behaviour – slaughtering animals for ritual, trophy, or food – but the primitive religious beliefs that are too easily used to justify egregious acts against our only home, its vulnerable resources, and its exquisite inhabitants.
We thought it would be hard not to become immobilized by fear as the acts of terror associated with religious extremism spurred on by anti-imperialist sentiment began to scroll through our Twitter and Facebook feeds and captivate our shuddering attention with alarming regularity. And yet, for many of us, as the news of beheadings slips closer and closer to becoming routine, we, too, slip right along with it toward a state of benign indifference.
It is a simple, humiliating truth. Too many homeless people and we simply avert our eyes. Too many excuses for the bruises on a colleague’s arms and we no longer ask questions. Too many cars at the drive-through window and we are no longer disgusted. Too much garbage on the street and we stop stooping to pick it up. Too many beheadings and we change the channel, scroll to the next item in our news feed. We become inured to reality no matter how disturbing it is; it is how we protect ourselves.
But this morning, as I read of these latest beheadings in Syria, the first to involve women, the words “witchcraft and sorcery” brought reality crashing home to me, again, in all its bloody fury. Home to the tragic violence within my own faith tradition and the tens of thousands of (mostly) women who were burned, hanged, drowned, and flogged to death. Home to the horrific truths that lie buried in the too easy stories of a loving god called God. Home to the reality that this work of freeing ourselves from the fears grounded in superstition is not over. Not until we release ourselves from the bloody future for which belief in religious stories are the foundation. Not until we declare clearly and regularly that religion is a product of human evolution and that books that have told its stories are human constructions, too. Not until we free humanity from religion’s strident hatreds. Not until religion’s stories are proclaimed as myths and only ever shared as such. Only the eradication of supernatural beliefs, especially those associated with religion will free humanity from its most lasting threat.
We all feel helpless. We would feel much better if we could just look away. Look away. Look away. But we must not. Especially if we are liberal clergy who have struggled with the disintegration of literal truths and grappled with the implications of their riven remains in our hands. We must eschew the magical thinking with which we, intentionally or otherwise, sew the remains of our religious ideologies together, hoping for something that will keep us safe. It will not hold. Indeed, it may only serve to cover up our complicity in the other iterations of religion from whose aggressions we like to think ourselves distant – the “Islamists,” or “fundamentalists,” or “militants” – whomever but ourselves we choose to blame. If we dress ourselves up in such a garment, we perpetuate belief in what we know is not real. We perpetuate fear even if we do not speak it ourselves. We perpetuate the violence even if it is not our knives that draw the blood.
Before you get all excited about the Pew Research results and begin thinking that the rising number of those who report no religious affiliation means a more rational approach to all things religious, think again. Yesterday’s release of research by the Public Religion Research Institute shows that fifty-two percent of the American population (52%) believe that to be “truly American” it was very important that you believe in God. A further seventeen percent (17%) thought it was important. That is a whopping sixty-nine percent (69%) of Americans who think that if you don’t believe in God, you’re not truly American. Furthermore, fifty-three percent (53%) of Americans believe it is important or very important that the god you believe in is Christian.
Here’s the graphic:
When speaking in Miami last February, one of the gentlemen in the audience had a conversation with my partner, Scott, at the end of the program. He shared with Scott that he had been concerned about the church inviting me to speak there, noting that for many people, being an atheist was the equivalent of being a satanic worshipper. Then, after some consideration he said, “Worse! It’s, well, it’s un-American!” Evidently, he was right on the button.
Add to these statistics the theory that the number of people who actually go to a religious service weekly is significantly lower than reported, perhaps fewer than twenty percent actually attend (over-reporting on religious attendance is called the “halo” effect) and you have a fairly high chance that the beliefs held by those who would argue that not believing in the god called God is un-American do not reflect contemporary scholarship. Like the Hungarian 1950’s immigrant who still uses colloquialisms that are decades old, those whose theological beliefs have been handed down from previous generations are mostly unaware of any advances that have taken place in belief. I differentiate those in the pews from clergy because the knowledge shared from the pulpit is often limited for pastoral reasons. Which adds to the problem. Those who were in the pews a couple of generations ago and who have handed down their beliefs were very likely already several generations of thinking behind their clergy. When the good American people read “In God We Trust” on their dollar bills, they are talking about a god many in mainline denominations would not recognize: a judgmental, all-knowing, all-powerful, theistic being who is going to guide and protect those who act in accordance with his revealed truths.
Sometimes I am alarmed at my naiveté, my belief that everyone will find a way to create a sustainable future for all, that the world is populated by people who care deeply about one another and who would step up to lend a helping hand, no matter what. I know that many, many people use their belief in the god called God to make the world a more beautiful place, doing exactly the kinds of things I believe must be done to ensure that we are working toward a world where all might live with dignity. And there are many, many people in many, many faiths who do that important work.
But to be able to so clearly draw a line between those who believe as you do and those who do not and to think that those on the other side of that line aren’t “truly” your fellow citizens, moots the argument that those who would do so are also using their belief in the god called God to build well-being into others’ lives or to honour and respect them. It gives permission to remove or deny rights, to query loyalty to the state and, in times of social and political unrest, to restrict mobility or imprison. It represents a level of potential hostility that would not split the country down the middle, but would allow the majority to disown a minority in the pursuit of that majority’s own freedoms.
There are some who would try to appease my concern by noting that the up and coming generation is far more likely to accept those who do not believe in the god called God as being as truly American as are they. I’m not soothed by that statistic. Not yet. As long as those who hold the keys to the offices of power, corporately, judicially, and politically continue to be of the generation that discriminates in a country that continues to export its beliefs and the judgmental attitudes inscribed within them. I’ll continue to be concerned.
A few days before Mother’s Day, I headed to Denver for the 74th Annual Conference of the American Humanist Association’s Annual Conference. I, along with three other Directors of The Clergy Project (TCP), were sharing the work of TCP, each of us introducing a different aspect of the many realities faced by clergy caught in the pulpit long after their beliefs no longer hold.
TCP panel members AHA 2015
Michael Thomas Tower spoke of the challenge of being gay while going through the process of deconversion, John Compere addressed realities facing married clergy whose spouses have not deconverted, and Terry Plank, President of TCP, gave an overview of what the organization does and who it represents. I spoke on the value of remaining in the pulpit as your beliefs change and bringing your congregation along with you by speaking a language that those on both sides of the god debate would be able to understand.
with Neil Carter, Godless in Dixie, AHA 2015
During the weekend, I had the opportunity to hear and engage with some amazing speakers and authors. Neil Carter, a TCP member who blogs as “Godless in Dixie” on Patheos, has inspired me for some time with his close range combat around the issues of deconversion in a Bible Belt setting. Bob Faw, who actually started the blog “Sustainable Flourishing” while we were at the conference, introduced me to the word “thrivocracy”. I liked the feel of that immediately. Kelly Carlin, moved the audience to tears in her exploration of life as the daughter of the notorious unbelieving comic, George Carlin. It was full and very filling.
One speaker, however, would have brought me to my feet with applause in the middle of her speech had I not thought I might get mobbed by doing so. Sikivu Hutchinson was a panelist speaking on “Humanism and Race”. She is the kind of speaker that mesmerizes you with the depth of her knowledge of the topic and the breadth of experience she brings to it. Working in Los Angeles, she is engaged on a daily basis with issues of systemic everything – poverty, race, gender inequity, access to education. Her experience had brought so many disparate words together into graphic compound words or hyphenated combinations of reality that created exquisitely detailed images in my mind as she spoke. One after another after another.
But the one that really stuck for me was the word “monomaniacal.”
Sikivu Hutchinson at AHA 2015
It means obsessed. Obsessed to the point that other things are ignored or forgotten about. Which sounds like an addiction to me – the super-focused attention on one issue or thing that overcomes your life and makes it impossible for you to see or maintain anything else well. You become oblivious to relationships. To opportunities (unless they provide an opportunity to showcase your obsession). To the creation of meaning that isn’t poisoned by your obsession. Of the big words Sikivu used, monomaniacal was probably one of the smaller ones.
Still, it spoke to what was, for me, one of the biggest issues at the conference that wasn’t being addressed. Here’s how she used it:
Whoa! That cut to the heart of almost everyone in the room. Over and over, throughout the weekend, I heard derisive jokes about religion and those for whom a faith tradition is important. I heard applause at the use of derogatory language, laughter at mockery, guffaws of affirmation when a particular heinous story was told about a religious background or former beliefs. It permeated the conference. At one point, the President Rebecca Hale was referred to as their “Lord and Saviour” and grown men did obeisance, touching their foreheads to the ground in devotion before her. All in good fun. (continued below…)
Sikivu’s words reminded everyone there that the “monomaniacal obsession with the pitfalls of religion” threatens to drain the soul out of the humanist movement. With so many crucially important things to be done, getting beyond the equivalent of James Fowler’s fourth stage of spiritual development, the crashing, crushing realization that all the stories you’ve been told are not true, is an imperative. There, only anger toward religion exists and those who carry it around, burning themselves up from the inside out, cannot see beyond the deeply tragic and troubling realities of fundamentalist religion to the deeply human needs that created religion. Understanding these needs, exploring new ways to address them, and engaging in conversation with others who seek to do so, even and especially those who remain within religious institutions, is crucial to the human experiment.
While much needs to be torn down to create a sustainable future for all, getting stuck in its wreckage helps no one. It leaves us mocking and angry, feeling superior to those whose lives were spent creating what we’ve just undone, and stamping our feet in the dust of our destruction while others pick their way out of the debris in order to build something of worth.
I want to spend the rest of my life creating, not simply tearing down. Beyond the beliefs that divide us, there is a world filled with possibility. We must reach into those future possibilities and pick for ourselves, others, the planet, and distant future generations the best, most beautiful, and life-honoring. And then we need to work to make them manifest in our lifetime or build the foundations upon which they can be built for our children’s children. The creative work of imagining a sustainable future will not be done with anger. It can only be done with love.
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!
Nevertheless, 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.
A spiritual naturalist, wearing liturgical vestments, leads a small group in Houston. Gary Coronado, Staff, Houston Chronicle
There is a group currently meeting in Houston that calls its members “spiritual naturalists”. They are, for the most part, people who do not believe in doctrinal claims of any religious sort, but who have noticed that the act of everyday living seems to demand something more from them. So they get together twice a week to converse on philosophical ideas and to participate in various “rituals” gleaned from other religious traditions.
Over the past decades, the liberal church has shrunk dramatically in size. Statistics about The United Church of Canada suggest that we close a church every week. Certainly the numbers in the area in which I have led a congregation for the past eighteen years, have dwindled visibly, some congregations simply closing their doors and turning their property over to the wider church; others sell their building and take the financial windfall down the street to a neighbouring church to shore it up for another few years. The liberal church is in crisis and it knows it.
At West Hill, we’ve transitioned beyond traditional doctrine because we recognized that doctrine was a huge barrier for many who might otherwise have little access to the “off label” benefits of religion – a sense of community; rituals that, when shared, make people feel safe and part of something bigger than themselves; the serotonin boost that can be experienced when people know your name and value your presence; the neurological benefits of meditation, silence, and prayer. Church has provided all these things in the past. When society loses church, social cohesion is also compromised as individual well-being loses the significant benefit that participation (not belief) in religious communities has provided.
Photo by morguefile.com user greyerbaby
Within our services at West Hill, we try to capture those “off-label” benefits. We stand up as a group and sing together (I don’t know of a stronger bonding experience than singing a song together. Religions around the world know this whether intuitively or otherwise). We have a time of greeting where people walk all over the hall hugging one another, shaking hands with newcomers. For some people, it’s the most stressful part of the gathering; for others, it’s the only time in a week that anyone touches them at all. We have interesting discussions on a variety of topics that have to do with creating meaning, living up to a set of ideals we choose for ourselves, speaking about and acknowledging that “bigger than me” human experience that transcends our own personal and limited lives. We feel ourselves in the middle of a bigger picture and we explore it from that perspective, always open to the variety of the many perspectives that gather in our little space.
But West Hill still has barriers to participation. It has not yet significantly moved beyond what I call the “stand up, sit down, pass the plate” rituals of Sunday morning gatherings except for a still-small experimental satellite in Mississauga, the city to the west of Toronto and across the metropolis from our home church. There, like the community in Houston, we discuss the topics of life, relationship, and the challenge of defining and creating meaning. And we have initiated a few rituals that open and close our gatherings. We share the intimacy of a meal. We share the burdens of our hearts. It’s a mix of Bono’s “We get to carry each other” and the Irish term “the shelter of each other,” an image that I often use when speaking of what we can be for one another – sometimes we’re shelter; sometimes we’re sheltered.
There are unlimited religious practices out there that are worthy of redirecting toward the ideals of love, justice, compassion, beauty, goodness, truth …. As meaning-making communities like the liberal church dwindle, our resources are often strained. Gleaning practices that have, for millennia, provided inspiration and strengthened us, seems a wise option; indeed, they have been re-articulated by Deepak Chopra (Hinduism), Eckhart Tolle (Buddhism) and Don Miguel Ruis (Toltec wisdom) and become very popular. Still, there is a growing need for the rituals that bring us back to one another, a direction that I do not find foundational in the new interpretations of these traditions; I find they focus more on personal enlightenment and fulfillment and than on social cohesion and civic engagement. It is in these latter areas that I believe our greater work is yet to be done.
Not everyone eschews traditional Sunday morning church. Not everyone finds meditation helpful. Not everyone wants to participate in rituals, particularly if they hold some wahoo meaning that no one is quite able to articulate. Not everyone wants to walk a labyrinth (my husband gets hives just parking on the labyrinth in West Hill’s back parking lot), light candles, spend time on their knees, or dip their fingertips in water and touch their foreheads. Not everyone wants to sing with other people unless they are at that Bono concert, singing “One”. Our communities, towns, and cities, are made up of people with diverse interests and needs, and a variety of personalities, each of which has distinct likes and dislikes. But everyone needs human touch, the inspiration that comes from the meaning created in our lives, an experience of being trusted and forgiven, a person who will, when needed, provide shelter for a wounded heart or carry us when we forget our own strengths. Our churches could be the places where such connections are made. They could be. The question is, will they be?
When the Re-Imagining conference took place over twenty years ago, the greatest outcries against it were for its “syncretism,” the blending of different traditions into Christianity, a practice that was considered heretical and dangerous. But Christianity is an amalgam of many different realities that presented the church as it grew and developed. Gleaned spiritual practices can provide renewed engagement, particularly if they are repackaged to meet the needs of a growing segment of society that is critical of religious dogma. Of course, there are practices that should remain in the historical record – hair shirts, self-flagellation, ritual sacrifice, probably even liturgical vestments – but there many that we could use to create places of inspiration and transformation. Not only for ourselves, but for the communities in which we live, work, and love.
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.
Eric 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
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.
This evening begins the Jewish day of remembrance for Holocaust martyrs and heroes, Yom HaShoah. It should be a day for us all. Or, rather, there should be a day for all of us to remember all who have suffered and died as the result of religious persecution. Or racial persecution. Or because of their gender or gender identity. Or their sexuality. Or …. The list goes on. We are the most creative species ever to have developed a reason to kill; taking a day out of our annual schedule to reflect on that, couldn’t possibly be a bad thing.
Kaleidoscope by Andalusia, morguefile.com
It had a smooth, brass cylinder
that sat coolly in my hand,
my fingers wrapped around it
as I lifted it to my eye.
Kaleidoscope’s had captivated me
since I was a child,
my father’s more serious toys,
stored in a glass-front corner cupboard
and brought out to fascinate us
on special occasions.
Their inner mysteries
shimmered and twirled,
offering an optical feast
of colour and movement.
And so my lips began to curve
of the beauty
I was about to behold.
But someone had imposed a peculiar rule
on this finely crafted instrument.
No colours whirled before me;
only white glass chips
went round and round,
their perfect imperfection
sliding shadows past my eyes.
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
What first would fill me
were I to awake
What first would flood my heart
should it pour its
What first would come into
and my thought
were my mind
as I slumbered?
What first would pass our lips
in a world beyond belief
if our stories were
May we ever open ourselves to that which will fills our souls,
our hearts, our minds, our world with love
and when it must, as oft it must,
well up from deep within,
may we, ourselves,
be the source
with tales and deeds of love.
Well, I’ve recorded my first answer to a question on Vidoyen, a new site for the collection of video responses by thought leaders, academics, lecturers and people like me who have something to say about a particular topic. I was asked whether it was possible to be religious or spiritual and an atheist. Here’s my response:
At the CCPC conference in Halifax, Nova Scotia a few weeks ago, I spoke about the perfect storm into which I believe we are heading. It’s concocted, actually, by three other storms already raging: one brought about by environmental realities; one by social changes and challenges; and one by the lost of mainline religious institutions. These were my closing words.
Let’s recap these three pre-packaged perfect storms and the effect that all three will have on the future of humanity as their systems crash into one another.
1) The Earth has just about had it with us. We’ve kept the taps at full blast and haven’t bothered to unplug the sinks. The effluent is overflowing and its taking its toll. We may be able to enjoy our back yard gardens, but the planet as a whole is cooking and we can’t or won’t see our role in that process. So it will continue to escalate, breaking all the supposed warnings and moving on at a pace that has been unimagine.
2) While that happens, we will continue to lose the cohesive nature of our communities. The global challenges, when they finally come knocking on our doors, will be faced by individuals who have only limited, instinctual knowledge of how to collaborate. In fact, many, if not most of them, will only know how to care for themselves and their families and will turn on those around them who threaten that cohesive unit. We had to climb out of that worldview a hundred thousand years ago in order to survive. Can we do it now? If our leaders are not individuals but dollar signs, do you think there will be any impetus to awaken us to other possibilities or do you think it will be more advantageous for the ruling elite to just keep us fighting one another even if only from within our homes, sitting in front of computer terminals.
3) Unfortunately, the institutions that have nurtured and sustained the narratives that reminded us we could rise out of horror and into cooperation will no longer be trusted to do so. They will long since have lost themselves in the reverie of a masturbatory self-soothing. The communities in which we live will have no common values holding them together and so the value of survival will be the one given most authority. That value uses everything in its sight for its own purpose. If we’re going down, in this scenario, we’re going down ugly.
In this perfect storm, there is no second chance, no waking up and the nightmare is over, no backyard gardens and pleasure cruises that let us forget the hardship away. In this perfect storm, we go down and what’s left when we do is only the legacy of pain we leave to our children.
Almost ten years ago, many of you gathered in a church in Mississauga as we launched the Canadian Centre for Progressive Christianity. It was important work and I spoke about it being time, so obviously time, for that work to be done. We’d been talking about it for decades, or so I thought at the time. Turns out it had been centuries and we in the church had not moved in any significant way that would have tested and built communities of trust and action, trust and forgiveness, trust and keep moving toward something better. We had not moved and so it was time to do so – late, but time. The phrase “It’s time” became my mantra and it pulled me forward when, so many times, it would have been easier to do what most of our predecessors had done, stop, set up camp, get comfy, build the house, put down roots.
It’s time again but this time not just time to think about church. It’s time to think about humanity and what we can do to avert this looming and dangerous storm that is almost upon us. It’s time to look to those beyond us and see what they are doing, to put our shoulders, our time, our energy to the work of saving – and I do mean saving – the human family from itself. It’s time to pour the energy of prayer and ritual and thinking up and around complex theologies into doing and creating, learning and making right. It’s time to work so hard at getting it right that we risk arrest and detention for doing it. It’s time to live out that liberal fairytale about the way of Jesus, a way so many have walked but too few have accepted as right, a way that puts us at odds with what soothes and sustains us and sends us into a struggle like we have never seen before.
I am not interested in doing church anymore – not church that anaesthetizes while it ignores; not church that takes time away from more serious pursuits; not church that refuses to engage the larger community and then perpetuates a distinctive character separating it from the everyday stuff of life. I am interested in doing good whatever and however I am confronted by it and whatever it calls from me. I am interested in doing good and offering whatever I can to those around me, around the world, who are also doing good. I am interested only in stilling the storm. Using my heart, my passion, my intellect, my hands, my life. I am interested only in stilling the storm.