The 95%-of-United-Church-Clergy-believe-in-God Survey
The Rev. Richard Bott
Last Spring, Richard Bott, a United Church minister, decided he wanted to get to the bottom of the question about how many United Church clergy do or don’t believe in god. He was spurred on to the work of designing the God survey by an interview I had with Wendy Mesley of the CBC in which I had said that the Principal of Emmanuel College estimated that over half of UCC clergy had a non-theistic understanding of god. Mark Toulouse later told me that he meant non-traditional, not non-theistic. Here’s the confusion for which I take full responsibility: I don’t consider those two things to be different.
My understanding of non-theist comes into play the minute you step away from belief in a “being” called God, a theistic being, a deity with supernatural powers who is omnipotent (all-powerful), omniscient (all-knowing), and omnipresent (everywhere), and can intervene in the natural world from the supernatural realm in which s/he lives. It’s the god described in the Articles of Faith of the Basis of Union that casts the finally impenitent into eternal damnation, the god the World Council of Churches requires we confess is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Step away from that definition and you’re into non-theism, I’ve long thought. Many progressive Christian authors like Bishop John Shelby Spong use the term in that same manner as did I in my 2008 book, With or Without God.
To others, I now realize, the term theist is simply stretched to cover whatever it is you need to cover – supernatural or not, being or not, interventionist or not, triune or not; these can all remain safely under the heading “theistic” if you want them to. I know, it’s confusing. Suffice it to say, I’m not using any words that use theist as their root anymore. I’m only going to speak of non-traditional ideas of god and hope someone asks me what I mean.
However, last winter, when I spoke with Mesley, I hadn’t realized how important using the term non-traditional over non-theist was so, essentially, I broke my own rule: don’t use words that people don’t understand especially if those words are about god and especially-especially if there are going to be highly literate clergy listening, each of whom may have evolved their own interpretation of what the terms you use. If I didn’t understand the expanded way the word theist was being used, clearly, using the word non-theist to describe those who don’t believe in a traditional concept of god was going to be a problem. As it turned out, it was incendiary.
Still, claiming and reclaiming that I came up with that statistic on my own is misleading. Before we go any further, it’s important to note that both in my response to Wendy Mesley’s question about how many clergy in the UCC shared my beliefs and to Richard Bott’s question about how many atheist clergy there are in the church, I said I didn’t know (3:35). I don’t imagine there are many who believe exactly what I believe and fewer still who would call themselves atheists. My response to Richard’s question was “I have no idea how many clergy in the United Church are atheist …” Richard noted in an email to me that because I didn’t “comment on the number’s efficacy,” I was stating my own opinion even though I had just clearly said I didn’t know.
But Bott did the God survey and proved that more than half of United Church clergy don’t believe in a theistic god – according to my definition. And more than half of United Church clergy don’t believe in a traditional god – according to Mark Toulouse’s definition. We were both right but it’s a sad thing to only be right in one’s own mind so let’s take a closer look at the details.
The God survey results
The results triggered some sensational headlines, at least one of which was as accurate as the ones you read in the grocery store line-up. The United Church Observer, in its October issue, explored the survey’s significance. Researcher Jane Armstrong noted that the results could not be extrapolated to any generalizations because the sample had not been random. Bott had only sent it to his own Facebook friends and two Facebook groups to which he belonged, one of which is Cruxifusion, a group on the extreme right wing of the United Church. And people self-selected which further undermines the random nature of the survey. In a last ditch effort to dilute its bias, Bott sent the God survey out to all UCC presbyteries. Without the response time they needed to get approval to send it out, however, many didn’t forward it. Clergy who did receive it from their presbytery had little time to complete it before the survey closed. Still, Bott expressed his excitement about the findings and the Moderator, Jordan Cantwell, said she hopes it widens the dialogue.
Statistics, statistics, statistics
Looking at statistics can be an exercise in creativity. Look at any set of statistics every morning for a week and you’ll find something new almost every day. It was easy to look at the results of the God survey and come up with the headline that 95% of United Church clergy believe in God. But that’s not a very meaningful statistic. When each respondent may have a different idea of god, something the United Church has nurtured*, only the five percent who say they don’t believe in god at all are really telling you anything. I can legitimately say I believe in god because I, too, like so many other clergy have had to configure a definition I could live with that didn’t include “casting the finally impenitent into eternal damnation”** or dozens of other attributes or behaviours I could neither abide nor believe in.
I could say I’m a panentheist, an easy obfuscation for me because I still can’t tell you what that really means in terms of on-the-street-this-is-what-god-is-doing-for-me-personally-or-for-the-world:maybe-nothing-maybe-everything. God is the universe. God is beyond the universe. God interpenetrates the universe. Those who embrace panentheism are passionate about it. I’m not passionate about that definition so I’d best leave it be.
Perhaps I could say the god I believe in is supernatural because it can’t be weighed or drawn or even described using the blunt force trauma of the written or oral language tools we have at our disposal; but then, neither can “love”. Is love supernatural? It certainly seems to have healing and transformative powers. Perhaps that is a supernatural effect of a neurological function. I mean, love might transform but it might also fail. Having the neurological process unfold doesn’t mean the result will be healing. We just don’t know. So maybe there is something else to it. Some alchemy or other. But those prerequisite neurological synapses suggest natural … Best not go there, either.
When god is beyond anything we can pin down, explain, examine, or unleash, defintions of it become pretty vague. Yellow can be my favourite colour if I add a little blue and cross that fine line that takes it into green but I’d be damned if I could point to where that line actually lay. Similarly, my definition of god can be an iota different from someone else’s and completely different at the same time.
In fact, there are so many fine lines in the definition of god that whatever it once meant is totally obscured with the overlay of our legion definitions. Exploring the results of Bott’s survey may clear up where some of those lines lie. Because his intention was to prove something I said right or wrong, however, he neglected to include other very important characteristics of the god people do or don’t believe in such as where god resides or if one can have a personal relationship with god. Perhaps, in fact, he forgot to include the most important concern to people inside and outside the church: Does the god we call God do anything? Does it heal the sick? Does it answer some prayers and not others? Does it open a window when a door closes? Does it whip up the weather or cause drought? Does it punish us for not loving it or for any of the billions of transgressions we can wage against it, ourselves, our fellow humans or our planet? Does it treat some people well and others poorly for no particular reason other than the accident of their place of birth? Does it know the cure for cancer but just isn’t ready to share it yet? Does it do anything other than comfort us in our ignorance?
Bott forgot to ask that question. And so his results may be of interest to those in the church who are keen on drawing the you’re-in-you’re-out line, but it isn’t much help in clarifying what the god we do or don’t believe in is and whether we believe it has any way of helping us find our way to a future we’d be proud to hand future generations. If it is, great. If not, I say we get up off our knees and begin working. Now.
That said, I got ninety-eight percent in statistics in my undergrad so I can’t resist taking a read of Bott’s results. Here’s what I see.
Bott’s analysis jumped right in with what he seemed to most want to know: did people agree with Gretta Vosper or not. Indeed, the questions posed in the God survey were phrased in exactly that manner. I am not a professional researcher, but I’m fairly certain that your response to being asked if you agree with someone or not can be influenced by what you think of that person. By using my name in the introduction to the survey and then repeating it throughout, Bott, I believe, undermined the integrity of his own data. Would results have differed if my name hadn’t been used or if the statements had come from Bill Phipps in 2016 rather than in the late 90s? If they had simply asked the questions without referring to me? I don’t know. I’m simply saying that if you want true results in a survey, I would think it imprudent to start off by naming someone many in your demographic report to respond to with “visceral reactions” and others believe is “the devil incarnate”. (And yes, those are actual statements about me shared by people in the United Church.) When you do, you risk the possibility that some responses will more about a respondent’s feelings about the person named than they are about the actual data being collected.
Nevertheless, let’s carry on. Bott’s first result analysis shows that 20% of clergy do not believe in a theistic, supernatural god and that 80% believe in a god that is either theistic or supernatural. Because of the phrasing of the question – Would you include yourself in that 50% [of clergy who don’t believe in a supernatural, theistic god as stated by gretta vosper] – Bott really can’t say that the full 80% believe in a theistic, supernatural god. Some may have excluded themselves on the theistic side and others may have excluded themselves on the supernatural side bumping the number up. Indeed, this is immediately evident when the numbers are broken down. The results show that 30% of correspondents identified as not believing in a supernatural god. That drops the number who say they believe in a theistic, supernatural god to at best 70%. I was disappointed to see that The Observer didn’t note that distinction and printed the claim that 80% of clergy in the UCC believe in a theistic, supernatural god which is clearly inaccurate.
When looking at the definitions of god people chose to align themselves with, fifty-one percent claimed panentheism. It is not clear, however, whether a panentheistic god (I believe in the existence of god/God, and while God/god is greater than the universe, includes and interpenetrates it) is supernatural or not. Because it exists beyond the universe, one might expect that it is. If that were the case, however, the number of people who claim belief in a supernatural god should be over 85% since a clear 34% percent believe in a god charged with supernatural revelation (add that to the 51.3% percent who identified as panentheists to get the 85%). But only 70% claimed not to believe in a supernatural god. We can only assume that some who believe in a panentheistic god must believe that god to be supernatural while others must consider it a completely natural phenomenon. Things are getting fuzzier.
But who is suitable for ministry?
They get really fuzzy when you try to figure out who the United Church might now claim is suitable for ministry and who is not. Due to the ruling created by the United Church’s General Secretary, an unelected official, to address “concerns about a female minister in the United Church who calls herself an atheist”, clergy must now be in ongoing affirmation of the questions they answered at their ordination, commissioning, or admission service. That means that ministry personnel must be able to profess belief in a Trinitarian God in order to be suitable for ministry in the UCC. When we look at the statistics, those who are and those who aren’t isn’t immediately apparent but there are alarm bells that begin ringing – and loudly.
The Trinity, or as our Moderator has of late referred it in her recent pastoral letter, the Triune God, is a God who is at once Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Bott’s survey shows that only 1.5% of clergy polled went out of their way to state that they believe in “God as Trinity”. Yikes! That could mean that 98.5% of United Church clergy don’t meet the new theological standard set out by Toronto Conference Executive in its request to the General Secretary! But let’s not get hysterical; what of the other categories? Could those who expressed belief in other kinds of god not also be talking about the Trinity?
It would have been so easy to answer that question if Bott had framed the second category in the God survey in a more orthodox way using the phrases that mark the new orthodox position within the United Church. Instead of “I believe in one god/God as the creator and ruler of the universe, and further believe that God/god reveals godself/Godself through supernatural revelation” had he actually shortened it to “I believe in one God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit”, we’d have our answer. But he didn’t. Which is interesting in itself, don’t you think?
The Maginot Line
A church bent on drawing the Trinity as its Maginot Line should have inspired a question based on the position of that line if it was at all central to the theological discourse within the denomination. It should have been, because of the current review, of especial interest.
If you search the United Church website, however, you will find that none of its documents, including the letters and statements of our Moderator, use the phrase “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” except our statements of doctrine. Those statements must align themselves with the requirements of the World Council of Churches where the Trinity is the lowest common denominator holding churches together. The word “triune” only shows up in in the Moderator’s latest pastoral letter which broke her silence regarding the potential (pending) split in the church due to the drawing of the Trinitarian line. The word “Father”, which might be expected to be used in liturgies or social justice statements in a Trinity dominant church, outside those same doctrinal pieces, only appears once in reference the god called God, and that in the title of a hymn. Clearly, the main image of god in the United Church is not Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, despite what our statements of doctrine attest. Which is very likely why it didn’t occur to Bott to include it.
Still, it is important to explore the categories presented in the God survey and see if any of them might be construed in such away that the majority of United Church clergy could claim ground on Toronto Conference’s side of the UCC’s freshly painted line. The categories are panentheists, traditionalists, naturalists, metaphorical believers and a few others.
The Holy Trinity
Which categories could be assumed to belong with Toronto Conference or be identified as traditional, Trinitarian believers? Definitely the traditionalists and the 1.5% who identified as Trinitarians. That’s 35.6% of clergy polled.
After we have that nailed down, however, we have to make assumptions using logic, a challenging and slippery tool when in the hands of believers. Let’s assume that those in the God survey who identified as naturalists, who held metaphorical ideas, who doubt or deny God’s existence, or refuse to do either, are not traditionalists and would not embrace the idea of a Trinitarian God. I think that is pretty logical though if you’re in one of those categories and do embrace a Trinitarian God, please share what that means to you in the comments section, below. That takes us up to 6.3%.
Next, taking a look at those who identified as “other” and removing any that might fall down on the Father, Son, Holy Spirit side, we get up to 12.3% of clergy claiming a non-Trinitarian concept of god. A not insignificant number when you start holding reviews and finding people unsuitable. Somewhere close to two hundred and thirty clergy would not pass the General Secretary’s test for suitability. Whoops.
But it might be far worse than that. Back to the panentheists. Are they or aren’t they capable of answering “Yes” to the Trinitarian question? Would they be in literal agreement with the concept of the Trinity. Hard to tell. Perhaps, like the question of whether god is supernatural or not, some of them would and some of them wouldn’t. Maybe they just don’t know. Surely many would find it challenging, if not impossible, for a panentheistic god to be described using the terms Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In a recent chat on Facebook, I asked a colleague who identifies as a panentheist, if he could answer the question, “Do you believe in God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?” with a “Yes.” He didn’t answer me. I asked again. He still didn’t answer me. So, let’s suppose that whether panentheists identify as theists or supernaturalists, they are not Trinitarians or are very odd ones. Again, there are going to be people who get screaming mad about me “defining them” but I’m looking at every definition of panentheism I can find and not once have I seen Trinitarian or the words Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; more often than not, the writing clearly delineates the two as separate and different. If you’re an exception, please share your understanding of a Trinitarian panentheistic god called God below.
That creates a very different picture of the God survey than the one shared by Bott, The Observer, and various columnists. Yes, 95% of UCC clergy may claim belief in god, but up until now, we’ve been able, encouraged even, to define god as we have come to understand it. That 95% cuts a wide path down which vast numbers of definitions, mine included, meander. If we slide the panentheists – over 51% of UCC clergy according to Bott’s survey – over to the group that would notbe able to answer “Yes” to the first question asked of ministry candidates at their services or ordination, commissioning, or admission, we leave only that 35.6% of clergy who might honestly profess belief in the Trinity, a god who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit at once. Two-thirds of active United Church clergy, 63.4%, almost twelve hundred of our eighteen hundred active clergy could be found to be unsuitable under the new theological test set by the General Secretary. Whoops again.
United Church clergy do not want their ideas of god mandated; they cringe when someone tries to suggest what they do or don’t believe. Many have recognized that the review process created to address concerns about me creates a theological orthodoxy to which clergy will be called to adhere. Others think this is all about me and that once this review is over, the ruling will never again be used; they can ignore the current proceedings.
Most have no idea that the General Secretary’s ruling can also be used to sweep aside essential agreement, previously entrenched in the Basis of Union and only changeable by a vote of the church’s entire members. They have no idea that clergy who affirmed the ceremonial questions posed to them at their ordination, commissioning, or admission, who are called to meet those questions a second time in a review process, may be required to meet them literally. There will be no room for metaphor or stretchy theist definitions when the determination of suitability is based on a literal belief in the Trinity.
I will go through with a Formal Hearing unless the church clarifies its theological position for me prior to that process and proves it a waste of our time. The General Secretary, at the request of Toronto Conference, redrew the theological landscape upon which we have laboured and ministered for over ninety years. In doing so, she closed off access to that wide theological swath upon which we used to meander, exploring understandings of god, Christianity, and church. She has installed upon it a very narrow the gate through which we must all now squeeze. Biblical or not, I know many would rather the wide swath than the narrow gate and dialogue to doctrinal censure. And so I will attend the Formal Hearing and lay my credentials down in a bid to remove the blight of the General Secretary’s ruling from the United Church.
There are a lot of people who are arguing over whether or not I belong in the United Church. The real question with which you should concern yourself, however, is, “Do you?”
*From the preface to A Song of Faith: This is not a statement for all time but for our time. In as much as the Spirit keeps faith with us, we can express our understanding of the Holy with confidence. And in as much as the Spirit is vast and wild, we recognize that our understanding of the Holy is always partial and limited.
**Taken from the Nineteenth Article of Faith in the Basis of Union.
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.
This past Thursday, my lawyers, Julian Falconer and Akosua Matthews, the Chair of West Hill’s Board, Randy Bowes, and about fifty supporters from West Hill and the wider church accompanied me to a meeting of Toronto Conference’s sub-Executive Committee. West Hill and I had been invited to make presentations to the Committee in response to the recommendations made by the Interview Committee of Toronto Conference when it had acted as the Ministry Personnel Review Committee in the review of my effectiveness as a minister in The United Church of Canada. As everyone knows, that Committee found me to be unsuitable for ministry in the United Church and recommended a formal hearing be undertaken to place my name on the Discontinued Service List.
I lament that I have not made sure that everyone in the UCC knows what the ruling that allowed for my review looks like and how it can be applied. I should have shared my concerns about it a year ago. Trying to deal with a review of your ministry while remaining the sole ministry personnel in a vibrant congregation, however, is a challenge. So I apologize for not getting those concerns out to you in a more timely manner. Considering it was better late than never, however, I determined to write a series of blog posts to share the breadth of my concerns with you.
I had begun to share those concerns in Parts One and Two of Sea Change in The United Church of Canada. I had hoped that I would have an opportunity to blog a bit more about my concerns related to this review and the future of the United Church. But I was knocked off that intention when Toronto Conference, without my knowledge or permission, published the findings of the Review Committee and shared them with the media. Within a couple of hours of reading the report which described me as unsuitable for ministry, I saw the news tweeted out by Colin Perkel of the Canadian Press. David Allen, Executive Secretary of Toronto Conference, had shared it with him and other members of the press. Suddenly, Randy, annie, West Hill’s Administrator, and I were in a rush to try to get the news out to West Hill’s community before they learned of it from news sources. We managed to do that for most members. Some saw it on CP24. Others saw it first on Facebook. This wasn’t how we’d planned it to be. Rather, we had planned a “huddle” for last Sunday. By then, however, most people in the United Church knew I’d been deemed unsuitable.
We rolled with it. You get used to that when you’re under this kind of scrutiny.
With my legal team at Toronto Conference sub-Executive
Back to this past Thursday. The meeting was called to receive and consider the recommendations of the Review Committee. The finding is the finding: I’m unsuitable. The Conference can’t do anything about that. What they can do is try to work with the recommendations and decide whether to follow them or not. Personally, I’m not sure what room they have to work with when someone is found to be unsuitable, but I’ll let them struggle with that. I’ve still a whole congregation’s worth of ministry to attend to.
Because I do not speak from notes, my presentation was prepared but not written out. I chose to speak on the same topic I will speak on tomorrow at West Hill: generosity. And rather than come up with my personal list of things I love about the UCC, I went to Wikipedia and simply wrote down the list of firsts. Common knowledge. Nothing overdone. Simply the facts. So here’s my presentation augmented with some thoughts by Julian. You can listen to it or read the transcribed notes below.
Stole from the first service of ordination of Roman Catholic WomenPriests.
I wore a very special piece of silk around my waist as a cummerbund. It is a hand painted, multi-coloured stole given to me by Bishop Marie Bouclin on the occasion of her ordination. Marie was ordained at West Hill United in the first on-land service of ordination held by the Roman Catholic Womenpriests. The presiding bishop at that ordination service was Bishop Patricia Friesen. She had, in fact, given the stole to Marie; it had originally been worn by Bishop Friesen on the occasion of her own ordination, a service that took place on the Danube in 2002. That was the first ordination of women into and out of the Roman Catholic Church in its history. That its placement on Patricia’s shoulders that day both signified her ordination and her excommunication seemed to make the stole the perfect accessory for Thursday’s meeting.
Here are the transcribed notes of my and Julian’s presentations.
Thank you for gathering today to have this conversation. I think that it is important for us to reflect on the report that came out of the Interview Committee. When I went into that room to have that conversation, I went in with a spirit of collaboration. I did not go in expecting an interrogation and I’m … expecting that that will continue today. I am expecting that a collaborative approach and a dialogue approach will take place.
I wanted to speak a little bit about how we got into this room today, those of you who have come as spectators, those of you who are members of the sub-Executive, and those of you who have come to speak. We come from a variety of trajectories to this room.
Some of us have been life-long members of The United Church of Canada, born into a denomination that, itself, was born less than a century ago. But born into a progressive understanding of theology, of scholarship, of welcoming a diverse and eclectic group of people within its walls and under its roof so that it could be about the work of transforming society and making it a community of love, of justice and of compassion. So, many of us have come through that.
Some of us have joined the church from other Christian denominations. But there are many in this room who have come who had no denomination, no Christian relationship, no relationship with any faith tradition whatsoever, who’ve felt the need for a community that would call them to those things that the United Church speaks that it is about – to compassion, to justice, to living in right relationship. I welcome you to this space, to the court that is formed here today, those of you for whom this [kind of gathering] is yet a strange thing but who have come here through West Hill United Church and what it has offered to you.
Throughout the period of this review, it has been a challenge to remain effective as a minister while trying to respond to the many needs and concerns of the review itself. And so, on occasion I have conflated things that I have had to do in order that I’d only have to do them once. We have been, over the course of the last several weeks at West Hill, looking at the attitudes of mindfulness and walking our way through those attitudes. Ironically, last Sunday, the attitude we explore was Acceptance, had been laid out several weeks before and the readings chosen some time before but they fit the nature of what was happening that week. And so, because I don’t shoot birds and don’t advocate the shooting of birds, I will cast two seeds with one hand today and I will share with you my thoughts on this week’s attitude, this week’s mindfulness attitude and that is Generosity.
I do this because I believe that that is the tradition of The United Church of Canada and I call you to generosity.
I have with me the reading that will be shared with the church this Sunday, a reading that comes from a book by Rebecca Solnit called A Paradise Built in Hell. Rebecca studied disasters beginning with the earthquake and fire in San Francisco in 1906 and ending with Hurricane Katrina in 2006. She found that in every instance the first thing that people do is reach out to one another, to hold one another in care, to ignore whatever barriers may have existed between them, whether cultural, racial, or socio-economic, to just leave those behind and to just be with one another as individuals. And so her book is a profound contribution to who we can be as individuals in society.
This is actually quoted from Krista Tippett’s On Being, a conversation that Solnit had with Tippett on the radio about that book.
And I think of that as kind of this funny way the earthquake shakes you awake, and then that’s sort of the big spiritual question. How do you stay awake? How do you stay in that deeper consciousness of that present-mindedness, that sense of non-separation, and compassion, and engagement, and courage, which is also a big part of it, and generosity. People are not selfish and greedy. So … the other question is why has everything we’ve ever been told about human nature misled us about what happens in these moments? And what happens if we acknowledge, as I think people in the kind of work that neuropsychologists and the Dalai Lama’s research projects and economists are beginning to say, … what if … everything we’ve been told about human nature is wrong, and we’re actually very generous, communitarian, altruistic beings who are distorted by the system we’re in, but not made happy by it? What if we can actually be better people in a better world?
And so I am framing my words today in terms of earthquakes, the earthquakes that happened, that brought the United Church into being, that have taken place during the history of the United Church and recognize that the moment that we are in right now is a moment of an earthquake.
Perhaps the very first earthquake in The United Church of Canada came about before it was even formed. When the three denominations coming into union could not agree what would happen after union. What would happen with that statement of faith that had been written in 1908 and that was going to be embraced by the new denomination in 1925? What would happen to those who had made ordination vows, who had accepted statements of faith that were not reflected in that document? It was a quake of a serious sort and one that threatened to undermine the entire concept of union and not allow it to take place. And then one individuals from the Congregationalists, a denomination that had come into being from the Anglican Church, a dissenting denomination, had an idea and offered the idea of essential agreement to the church. [It] meant that all those clergy that had come in from denominations that were joining the union would have the privilege of carrying their own beliefs into union, seeing them recognized, perhaps not fully, but honoured the way they were brought in from their traditions. Essential agreement was born.
What happened with essential agreement was that it quickly allowed us to also ordain people who also could say “I hold to that, but there are some issues here.” Because already in 1925 those who founded the church knew that those statements of faith were already at question. There were already people who came into union who questioned the reality of a god with beingness and spoke of a god as metaphor. And so already, that conversation was beginning to rumble under the surface and continue. Because of that, the United Church could find, as we have on so many issues since, a common ground on how to be with one another, not necessarily what we believe, but how to be: to call ourselves to justice, tinged and woven together with love; to call ourselves to compassion; to call ourselves to a greater vision.
And so one of the first things that the United Church did, following on another denomination in the United States, was to ordain women. Did we really want women in leadership? Has it not just been downhill ever since? Richard Holloway put that question to the Church of Scotland because he saw that that was the stitch that, taken out of biblical inerrancy, if you take that stitch out and women are ordained, the whole piece starts to unravel, and so perhaps we, women, have been the beginning of that.
But we looked at that, and we looked at the challenges, and we looked at the losses, and the costs that would have to be paid, and we said, these are important costs for us to assume, for us to embrace, because it is right that women should be allowed to lead in this diverse and great church as we challenge the nation to embrace a new understanding of Christianity.
Shortly after that another earthquake hit in the form of the Second World War. Japanese Canadians were being lodged in internment camps and refused [permission] to move freely throughout community. The United Church recognized the earthquake, the shame inherent in that and it quickly spoke against that practice at that time.
Shortly after that, they took a step back and looked at the residential schools that they had inherited at union. In 1949, they began closing those schools, finally recognizing that the tragedy that they had been for First Nations and indigenous peoples and their heritage across the decades.
We stepped up and spoke loudly and clearly about universal health care in the 1950s, recognizing that it was a right that all Canadians should share. We weren’t popular about that, but we asked ourselves “What is generosity if not allowing other people health?” We stepped into that work and we did it proudly.
And then I was born. (laughter) It’s not funny. I was!
I was born in the year that a statement was agreed upon that would guide the creation of The New Curriculum. Ten years before John [A. T.] Robinson’s book [Honest to God] was published, a committee started to look at ways that we could bring contemporary Christian scholarship around the Bible, around Christology, around theology, could bring it to the people in the pews. Because we recognized that even in 1925 there was a gap between what academia talked about in terms of theology and what the people in the pews talked about, that gap was widening every day. And the UCC did not want that gap to be there. So in 1952 they began. In 1958 they set the parameters. In 1964 the first book was published, The Way and the Word, written by Donald Mathers, Principal of Queen’s Theological College at the time. I went to school with his sons and I knew how he was treated and the difficulty it was for him to absorb some of the vitriol that he received for being so involved in that work.
But his [Mathers’] work was illuminated by people like Harvey Cox whose work in The Secular City, noted that we couldn’t go forward with exclusively myth and symbol. We needed to build a tradition that taught the values that were inherent in our tradition and needed to be made available to all. That as long as we continued to truck in these fine-tuned and symbolic rituals and in the myths that were myths but not understood to be by the people, that we were sidelining ourselves from what full community could be.
And at the same time, John A. T. Robinson wrote his work, Honest To God, and talked about a non-theistic understanding of God, challenging the church around the world to stop using the word “god” for at least ten years (sic)* so that we could, if we were gong to reclaim it, by the time it was reintroduced it, it would have such a different meaning that people wouldn’t recognize it from before. That’s when I was born.
Shortly after that Canada was asked to welcome draft dodgers [fleeing the Vietnam draft] from the United States and its initial reaction was that it could not do that. But it quickly changed its opinion about draft dodgers and there are now, many of them, welcomed, contributing members of Canadian society.
And then the question, “Can a woman’s name really go on the ballot for the position of Moderator? Can we tolerate that? Will we survive that kind of change in the United Church? We ordained them but, seriously … ? Seriously …?” Yes! And Lois Wilson became the first female Moderator in The United Church of Canada.
Not long after that, “In God’s Image” was published. A study that looked at issues of sexuality. A study that looked at issues such as abortion and a woman’s right to decide what happens with her own body. It was so cutting edge that people who wrote that got vitriolic mail and were torn down and derided in Presbytery meetings and in public for having brought that work forward.
We found our way toward a First Nations’ Apology, the 30th anniversary of which we just celebrated.
And we worked shoulder to shoulder to dismantle apartheid in South Africa.
Every single time the idea of generosity could be lifted up out of a situation because we had put it there. We had challenged that generosity be part of the story, part of the reality.
The United Church of Canada, I often say when I am speaking around the world, I often describe the United Church of Canada as a table, a table that has a number of voices around it, diverse voices, diverse theologies, diverse social justice understandings, diverse perspectives on the environment, on the economy, on politics. But there is always one empty chair at that table. and the United Church, with courage, has invited the people from whom they least want to hear to sit down in that chair and they have emboldened themselves to listen to that person to the truth that that person has shared with them about sexuality, about indigenous rights about the economy about diverse issues, about gender identity. About … anything. Welcome. Sit down with us. Let us hear your story. Let our hearts be broken by what it is you have suffered and may we find our way to generosity.
And so we have continued to change.
The United Church, over the past 15 years has watched a transformation take place in a congregation. In 2001, when I preached that sermon totally deconstructing God, quite unsuspecting that I was going to do that, and I was embraced by my congregational members like never before (I’m sure they thought I was having a complete breakdown). But my board sat down with me to discuss our pastoral relationship – the bond that had brought us together – to determine together if that bond had been broken, whether I had compromised the strength of that bond. They boldly said, “Let’s go there. Let’s find what might be beyond the language that ties us to a theological perspective that is not shared with those out there.”
And why we did that was because The United Church of Canada had been, for generations, the voice that mitigated the struggle for the social fabric of community, the social fabric of a nation. The United Church is why Canada has the social democratic values that it does, because over and again it stepped in and spoke truth that needed to be heard by all Canadians.
We have abdicated our responsibility to Canadians by not standing strong in that argument for social mores, for the centre of our community. And we have done that because we have believed that belief was what brought us and held us together. That theological doctrine and dogma is what we can represent best in our Sunday gatherings and in our annual meetings. That if we tie ourselves to the archaic language of long ago, that that will help us retain our understanding of who we are.
We aren’t people of a theological pedigree. We are people of a pedigree of generosity. We have lived that out every single time an earthquake has hit us. Every single time we have had the opportunity to speak truth into a moment of fear and loss and uncertainty, we have spoken about generosity and we have been those people.
Early in this millennium, maybe about 2005, 2006, Reginald Bibby started looking [again] into what was happening to religion in Canada, what was happening specifically to Christianity in Canada. He is the “go to” sociologist who tells us what we look like. And he knew that religion was declining and he knew it was declining fast.
But his latest studies showed that we could build again, that there were religious groups that were going to grow. It was very clear that statistics showed that, just as it always had, it would continue into the future. The size of a Christian church was going to be proportional to those who were accepting those who were immigrants to Canada. In the 1950s and the 1960s that was white Christians who were coming from Europe and from Protestant countries. That has shifted and changed.
The United Church looked at that trajectory that Reginald Bibby identified and said, you know we need to go in a direction that would welcome immigrants. But you know, they made a mistake about that. They felt that that meant that we needed to move in a more conservative direction; we needed to embrace a more conservative theology.
I think that if they had flipped that graph [of decline] upside down they would have seen the truth of what was happening since the beginning of the millennium. They would have seen that although few people would acknowledge or admit that they didn’t have any belief in god or that they didn’t have a connection with a church, that though many people at the beginning of the century weren’t really open about sharing that, less so down south than up here, that curve was growing at an incredible rate.
What an opportunity the United Church might have had if had recognized that if we moved one quarter of a step from where we were and we focused ourselves and poured ourselves into generosity, which has been our code for everything we ever touched, if we moved one quarter of a step into generosity and we let go of some of that language that we used that keeps us apart from people, whether we are someone who believes strongly in god as a being who intervenes in the natural affairs and in our lives or whether we don’t, we could leave hold of that language. We could leave hold of that language and we could bring people into community that spoke about what, underneath, we shared – no matter what our beliefs were – that spoke about generosity and compassion and coming together to learn how to live in right relationship with oneself, first, and with others, and with this planet. And rather than continuing to hemorrhage the numbers we had in the UCC, we might have made a difference. We might have not lost that struggle for the centre of our communities which we have now left to religious fundamentalists and libertarian relativists, a mix that can only create confusion and disorientation and trauma.
I come here today because I love the United Church. I have loved what it has stood for. I have loved what it has been. I love the people around me who have been nourished by it who have been trained within it, who have found their way beyond the boxes that we now find ourselves moving into. So I come with love but I come with lament. Lament mostly because this is the first opportunity that I have been able to talk with you that wasn’t in response to a particular set of questions. Lament because you have never sat down and talked with these noble people who have carried this work no matter what the costs have been – and they have been great – and who have continued to move forward. I come with lament because the system, the process that has been created here allows for very little room.
And you need room. You need room for generosity. Not just in this room but in the church beyond us.
Chair, members of Conference Executive, my timer says 9 minutes left and that’s scary if you give a lawyer 9 minutes so I want you to know that I am extremely grateful for your patience in allowing me to supplement what Reve. Vosper’s said but I am aware of the fact that hearing from the lawyer’s isn’t really what this hearing is about. I’ll tryto be helpful rather than self-indulgent.
One of the documents that was made part of the record today came to you Rev. Allen last night at 6:47 p.m. and it is a email from Rev. Bill Wall, Retired Rev. Bill Wall. I asked Rev. Vosper this morning. I asked Gretta. I don’t know why we do this stuff, so I asked Gretta this morning, “Do you know him?” She doesn’t know him. She’s never corresponded with him.
I find that interesting because the words in this email are just so striking. He is the past executive secretary of Saskatchewan conference for 15 years from 1985 – 2000. As recently as last night, this is what he wrote, “After carefully reading …” And I’m picking pieces of this so please forgive me if it looks like I’m cherry picking but the gist of the entirety of this is part of the record and I encourage everyone to read the whole thing. “After carefully reading the report of the review committee, and other relevant materials, I’m convinced that the sub-executive is facing a decision that could substantially alter the future of the United Church of Canada. In addition to damaging the life of one of its more capable and committed ministers. Gretta has proved herself committed to principles the United Church has stood for over the course of its history.” And he lists those principles: “An educated ministry, freedom of thought, compassion for those who suffer, and social justice. Whatever Gretta has said about the person of Jesus, I suspect he would recognize her as a true follower and therefore deserving of the title Christian even if she doesn’t claim that title herself.”
Now, I am the least example of a religiously oriented and devoted person and so I don’t want to in any way pretend that I am or that I have knowledge that I don’t have. I want to be respectful of your devotion and the you have shown to your own church. I have had the honour of assisting the UC in a number of capacities over the years. I said this to the interview committee and I’m kind of honoured that they repeated the words several times. I’ve always been struck by the big tent that the United Church is. And I said that to the interview committee when I closed last time. But what struck me most was this letter because the way he puts it after describing Gretta as something that she doesn’t claim for herself. “The decision facing you is whether to facilitate an unprecedented step, that of putting one of our ministers on trial for pushing the boundaries of theological thought. I trust you will ponder deeply the consequences of your decision and ask yourself how many ministers in the United Church could honestly reaffirm their vows for ordination, commissioning, or admission without the benefit of the essential agreement provision, a provision that for 91 years has provided ministers with some leeway in theological interpretation and personal integrity. This destructive and unjust process could stop here if you are willing to do what is necessary to stop it and I respectfully ask you to do just that.”
Now, the recognition that Gretta Vosper has all of these things – an educated ministry, freedom of thought, compassion for those who suffer, and social justice – this sounds like the heart of your organization. As I said, I know very little and I mean to be respectful but I have to say this, you are a victim of your own essence, your openness, your fearlessness, your willingness to embrace critical debate is to be contrasted with the thought police of many religions. You’re a victim of that now because you’re engaged in it. I have to say that I worry, as an outsider, that I fear if you lose Gretta, I fear you will lose a piece of yourself far bigger than Gretta, far bigger than West Hill. I look at the report, a report where twenty percent of the members, where four of twenty-three, I’m not trying to make the numbers bigger, I’m not trying to do the lawyer thing, where four of twenty-three, twenty percent of that interview committee, saw what Gretta stood for, as they saw it, the same as many ministers and lay persons. Now you can agree or disagree with them but obviously this is a very principled debate for which there is no right or wrong answer.
Putting Gretta on trial isn’t a way to have a principled debate. It’s a way to ensure my kid goes to a college in the US, I suppose. It’s the worst thing you can do to yourselves. I am the carpenter who’s telling you, don’t hire the carpenter. I’m the plumber who’s telling you, don’t hire the plumber. Don’t reduce this to a piece of litigation. I have been in enough formal hearings. Some of the worst and most atrocious allegations. Some of the pettiest allegations. I have seen over the years a number of different matters tried by way of formal hearing. What is interesting about this one is it is one of the few times I will honestly tell you a hearing is a huge mistake. Dividing your church as you can see it doing it right now, isn’t healthy. A hearing that decided that Gretta should no longer be a minister will not end the matter. It will actually start a much bigger fissure in your church, in your community. For what end? She is obviously a healthy part of your process. She contributes. She makes you healthy by recognizing the importance of debate and dialogue. She makes the point that you have created safety for ministers and congregations alike. You have created that safe space. Don’t be afraid to embrace it now.
I’m not saying reject the Interview Committee outright if you feel that would go too far. Put it on hold. There’s no rush. Put it over for a year. Structure a debate. You have heard, you have heard from the dissenting members, you have heard from extremely credible individuals such as Rev. Wall, but there are many more. It is within your power to adjourn this for one year, that is entertaining the recommendation for a hearing while you structure the debate that needs to take place.
Dialogue not discipline, is really recognizing that there are more than Gretta Vosper at stake here. And I understand the theory that your membership is in decline but I can’t believe that a way to fix numbers is by becoming more closed, more dogmatic and less vital as a trade place for ideas. She represents ideas. She represents, actually, the essence what I thought the United Church was about. What interests me and I say this candidly, most of the cases I do, you will understand, the clients never help themselves. It’s probably not a great idea they talk. I’ve never seen many clients in the stand make their case better by the time they leave the stand. I say that with all due respect to all of the clients I deeply love. Gretta is an exception. When Gretta speaks, we all listen. There’s a reason for that. Rev. Wall said it best. A true follower, deserving of the title even if she doesn’t claim that for herself. Please don’t lose sight, please don’t lose sight of the opportunity here to embrace dialogue. This does not have to be a win/lose. This need not be a litigation paradigm. This needs to be a structured and open dialogue representative of who your church is. Thank you.
Audrey Brown, President, Toronto Conference
I do need to note that, as part of the United Church tradition we don’t, … we ask people to refrain from responding to speakers by clapping or by acting in any way. I appreciate your enthusiasm, but I did ask that you remain silent observers and would ask you to continue to do, or to begin to do that.
*John A. T. Robinson actually called for the word to be unused for a generation.
In the United Church, there are only two reasons a minister can be disciplined. One is for insubordination – pretty straightforward. The other is for effectiveness – maybe not so obvious. The processes for both are covered by the handbook, Pastoral Charge and Ministry Personnel Reviews. In Part One of this series, I discussed how a complaint against ministry personnel can be made and the difference between the then and the now with respect to that process. This post will take a look at the concept of effectiveness and its new definition.
I like to believe that the handbooks the United Church has published are helpful. I also like to believe they are used by the different levels of the church and their respective committees. Both of those things would make it easy to figure out how to go about a review of effectiveness. And, to a certain degree, they do.
The Ethical Standards and Standards of Practice for Ministry Personnel (ESSPMP) handbook is the go to guide for exploring what is and is not effective leadership in the United Church. A breach of any of the elements within it could, and very often should, trigger a conversation about a minister’s effectiveness. That conversation, whether it takes place with or without the individual concerned, may lead to a review of his or her effectiveness using the review process set out in the handbook mentioned above.
The Standards of Practice set out in ESSPMP outlines expectations in the areas of administration, community outreach and social justice, continuing education, participation in the denomination and its communities, faith formation and Christian education, leadership, pastoral care, self care, and worship. Each area identifies the basic requirements for effective leadership.
Ethical Standards set out in ESSPMP include appreciation of and commitment to excellence in areas of competence, the understanding of conflicts of interest, personal and professional relationships conduct, one’s relationship with the Law and with people served out of one’s role as minister. They also outline some of the responsibilities of the role with respect to the denomination’s governance and procedures, protecting the integrity of funds and property entrusted to them, self-awareness, and the maintenance of confidence.
It’s a long list and a good one. And, if I do say so myself, I’m pretty effective. Indeed, my congregation ensures that I am and they ought to know. They are the ones who work with me year in and year out. They’ve been doing it for almost twenty years. When there have been situations of conflict or concern, I’ve always pointed to the processes that are available for sorting them out. I imagine that some people who left West Hill during its transition probably wish they’d taken me up on it but the reality is that, according to the standards of practice and the ethical standards, there wouldn’t have been much to argue.
Until now, that is. Now, in order to be effective, you need to be suitable. And that’s a whole other ballgame.
Before you can really understand the difference between what was before the ruling which led to my review and what is now that the ruling is in place, you need to understand how people become leaders in the UCC. Understanding that process may still be rather misleading, though. Because what happened on the way to reviewing my effectiveness hasn’t changed the path toward ordination, commissioning, or admission; it has changed what comes after you’ve been welcomed into leadership. What used to be discerned in the process toward leadership can now be discerned afterward, too: your suitability for ministry.
Getting to lead in The United Church of Canada
Suitability is a big part of the process toward leadership in the UCC. Beginning with the individual’s congregation, he or she is interviewed by three different levels (courts) of the denomination before completing the process. And at each different level, suitability is discerned, the implication being that what one level considers suitable is further refined at the next. If a congregation believes that anyone with a heartbeat is suitable for ministry in the UCC, the Presbytery or Conference is going to demand evidence of a few more qualities and skills.
The United Church currently uses the document Entering the Ministry to help individuals understand the process toward leadership in the church more clearly. It sets out the process, shares what expectations are and what administrative processes must be completed.
It is also a helpful guide for interviewing committees and helps them focus on what they are looking for in a leader. In an Entering the Ministry appendix, “Discerning a Call”, the church clarifies what it is looking for, what manifests “suitability”. Although most references to “suitability” in The Manual refer to “personal character, motives, and faith,” it is clear that having the attributes share in “Discerning a Call” or the potential to develop them goes a long way toward being found suitable.
• Deep spiritual life: Ministry requires a profound sense and experience of the Spirit of
God within the individual, ongoing discernment of the Holy, and passion for being part
of God’s mission in the world.
• Integrity of self: Authentic ministry is grounded in the integration of the emotional and
spiritual self with acquired knowledge and abilities.
• Understanding of human behaviour: Pastoral ministry requires a well-developed capacity
for active listening. It also requires a psychological and sociological understanding of
human dynamics in individuals and groups.
• Scholarship: The ministry of leadership requires an ability to comprehend and teach
theological concepts, the traditions of the church, and biblical scholarship, as well as to
nurture the faith in others.
• Commitment to and longing for justice: The commitment to work prophetically for all is
the direct result of a robust faith.
• Capacity for critical reflection: The ability to be self-critical, to assess situations
appropriately, and to reflect on one’s actions and their effects on others is important.
• Capacity to be a lifelong learner: The openness to admit there is much to be learned
and a growing demonstration of the willingness to integrate new ideas, patterns of
behaviours, and skills are essential for ministry.
• Appreciation of administration: Ministry requires respect for, and knowledge of,
church polity and the ability to oversee the institutional health and well-being of a
congregation or community ministry. Does the individual understand administration to
be part of the call?
(Entering the Ministry, Appendix A, pg. 25)
As noted above, individuals interested in ministry in the UCC engage with three different levels of the church on the way toward achieving their goal. At every level, suitability is discerned. As stated in the Entering the Ministry handbook,
When the United Church makes a wrong decision and ordains, commissions, or recognizes a person who does not have the calling and gifts for ministry, the committees of the church do a disservice to the individual and to the whole church. The result may be future pain and conflict in a congregation, a large financial burden, and frustration and anger on the part of the individual. To “speak the truth in love” and be honest about perceptions and concerns early in the discernment process will help an individual to make a decision that, hopefully, will be the right one for both the church and the person. (Page 28)
We try to get it right before we ordain, commission, or admit someone to leadership in the United Church. Afterward, effectiveness is the test and it can be a difficult time for both the clergy person and the congregation served. So discerning suitability is way preferable to dealing with a review of effectiveness when the wheels fall off the bus.
The congregation discerns the suitability of lay members for leadership and identifies them as inquirers. It then works with the candidate and the presbytery to further discern what type of ministry the individual is suitable for. This could be ordered – ordained or diaconal – or lay. If the individual is found to be suitable for ordered ministry, the congregation recommends the inquirer to Presbytery to be received as a Candidate. (Note 1)
The Presbytery “enquires” into the “call to ministry, character, motives, academic record, doctrinal beliefs, and general fitness for ministry”. When educational requirements are successfully completed, it recommends the Candidate to Conference for ordination. (Note 2)
The handbook used for the discernment of a call to ministry and the assessment of suitability refers to “the inquirer’s call to ministry, personal character, motives, and faith.” Since “call to ministry” is distinguished from “suitability”, suitability refers to personal character, motives, and faith.
Queen’s Theological College Graduation, 1990. With the soon to be ordained Carolyn Woodall.
The Conference Education and Students committee does the final checking of those seeking leadership in the United Church. While the process will undoubtedly be in flux during the church’s transition into the Effective Leadership structure, candidates continue to be examined in accordance with previous guidelines.
In Toronto Conference, the process is outlined in a document prepared for its 2014-2015 Interview Committee. The exploration of suitability takes place in early interviews while the final interview ascertains “readiness” for ministry.
The General Secretary’s challenge
When asked by Toronto Conference to develop a process to deal with “a minister who describes herself as an atheist”, she didn’t have a lot of wiggle room. The Conference asked her “what process” they could use to deal with concerns they were hearing. The motion the Conference Executive passed specifically asked her to
outline a process for considering concerns that have been raised regarding the on-going status of an ordered minister, with a focus on continuing affirmation of the questions asked of all candidates at the time of ordination, commissioning or admission in Basis of Union 11.3
I know, it is a bit confusing. First the letter seems to ask the General Secretary to choose from the existing processes – they Executive notes that it was not sure “what process” to use which suggests they were considering existing processes. In their motion, however, they ask her to create an entirely new process.
A mixing of kinds
In order to overcome the apparent conflict within Toronto Conference’s Executive Committee’s request, the General Secretary was required to look at the existing processes while considering them in a new light. The existing processes were clearly not up to the task. Indeed, when David Allen met with Randy Bowes, Chair of West Hill United Church, and I to advise us of the request to the General Secretary, he made it very clear that there were no grounds for a review of my effectiveness and no situations of insubordination. Those processes simply wouldn’t work.
And so the General Secretary looked at those processes in a new light. With this new illumination and the new insights it provided, she ruled that a review of effectiveness could be used to discern “continuing affirmation of the questions of ordination, commissioning or admission found in Basis of Union 11.3.”
The questions of ordination, commissioning and admission
You probably don’t have a United Church Manual at hand so here are the questions of ordination, commissioning and admission as found in the Basis of Union section 11.3.
1.Do you believe in God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and do you
commit yourself anew to God?
2. (to each Candidate being ordained) Do you believe that God is calling you to the
ordained ministry of Word, Sacrament, and Pastoral Care, and do you accept this call?
(to each Candidate being commissioned) Do you believe that God is calling you to the
diaconal ministry of Education, Service, and Pastoral Care, and do you accept this call?
3. Are you willing to exercise your ministry in accordance with the
scriptures, in continuity with the faith of the Church, and subject to the oversight and
discipline of The United Church of Canada?”
As it turns out, I never answered those questions. I found the service bulletin of my ordination service while unpacking a box of papers in the basement a couple of months ago. I was ordained by Bay of Quinte Conference in 1993. For that service, the questions of ordination had been rewritten to reflect the well-loved liturgical piece known as The New Creed. The questions I answered had no traditional Trinitarian language in them. I did not say that I believed in God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Who knew?!
Technically, then, asking me the questions from the Basis of Union doesn’t actually confirm whether or not I am in continuing affirmation of the questions I answered affirmatively in Pembroke back in 1993 because they weren’t the questions I answered. But we’re quibbling….
Although Congregations, Presbyteries, and Conferences are on the front lines of the work of discerning suitability for ministry, closely matching what they’re looking for with the requirements for effectiveness, the General Secretary made the one dependent upon the other. From her letter to David Allen:
The questions set out in Basis 11.3 relate to belief in God, call to ministry, and the exercise of ministry within the faith of the Church. They go to the suitability of the person to serve in ministry in the United Church.
I know that the General Secretary has the right to interpret polity but I think that arguing that the questions asked at ordination address the question of the individual’s suitability for ministry is a stretch. Are they being posed in order to get the individual to affirm what has already been discerned by a Congregation, Presbytery, and Conference? Are they the ultimate test of suitability?
And what about all those other things that congregations, presbyteries, and conferences have been looking for, lo, these many years: the deep spiritual life, an integrity of self, an understanding of human behaviour, the willingness and aptitude for study and teaching, a commitment to and longing for justice, the capacity for critical reflection and the desire to be a lifelong learner, and, finally, an appreciation for the administrative tasks of ministry? I don’t find any of those attributes embedded explicitly or implicitly in the questions of ordination.
The General Secretary correctly identifies the questions as relating to belief in God, call to ministry, and the exercise of ministry within the faith of the church, but she’s wrong about them being the ultimate test of suitability. If she’s right, then why don’t we just ask people those questions at the outset and forget about the years of discernment each candidate undertakes with the many people who volunteer and work to support them? If an affirmative answer to those questions is all it takes to discern suitability, then ask them and get it over with.
I’m getting ahead of myself. The General Secretary’s response to Allen’s letter continues:
Within our Polity, the Conference Interview Board is the body that is charged with making the assessment of suitability. The mandate of the Conference Interview Board is set out on page 6 of the Conference Committees Resource  and includes:
(b) assisting presbyteries and other bodies in determining the suitability of people for functioning as ministry personnel in the United Church;
(c) reporting the results of the interview to the referring body and the person interviewed;
In fact, as The Manual notes in several places, it is not just the Conference Interview Board (read “Committee”) that makes the assessment of suitability. They may make the ultimate assessment but suitability has been discerned throughout the process by congregations and presbyteries, as the resource quoted notes.
Forging the final link
The final link that the General Secretary forges in order to introduce theological orthodoxy as the test of suitability is hammered out in her opinion.
In my opinion, a person who is not suitable for ministry in the United Church cannot be “effective” as United Church ministry personnel. Where a question has been raised about the minister’s suitability, the presbytery may consider that a question has been raised about “effectiveness” so as to initiate a review of the minister on that ground. The questions set out in Basis 11.3, which are asked at the time of ordering, are appropriate for assessing on-going suitability.
In order to be effective, one must be suitable. That makes sense. After all, congregations, presbyteries, and conferences across the country work hard to ensure that candidates for leadership in the United Church are suitable: before ordination, commissioning, or admission. Once you’re a member of the pension and benefits plan, it’s effectiveness that gets assessed. And we have guidelines for discerning effectiveness.
The General Secretary could not use those guidelines, however, because they make no assertions about theological orthodoxy. And there were no grounds within them to review me as no complaints had been raised about any of the issues covered in the Ethical Standards and Standards of Practice for Ministry Personnel.
It seems that, guided by the Conference Executive’s motion, the General Secretary situated the idea of suitability within the questions of ordination where they conveniently met the work of the Conference Interview Committee. Welding the questions together with the idea of suitability didn’t even really require that any new functions or committees be created. The Conference Interview Committee, already well schooled in discerning suitability, could easily take up the responsibility. And that is just what she ruled the process would be.
Based on the Polity set out above, I rule that the following process would be appropriate for responding to these kinds of concerns. I will refer to the Conference exercising oversight of ministry personnel rather than the presbytery since this ruling was requested by Toronto Conference.
• The Conference (through its Executive or Sub-Executive) orders a review of the
minister’s effectiveness under Section J.9.3(a) [page 194].
• The Conference may direct the Conference Interview Board to undertake this review,
interviewing the minister with a focus on continuing affirmation of the questions asked of all
candidates at the time of ordination, commissioning or admission in Basis of Union 11.3.
• The Conference Interview Board conducts the interview and reports to the Conference whether, in the Interview Board’s opinion, the minister is suitable to continue serving in ordered ministry in the United Church.
• The Conference receives the report from the Conference Interview Board and decides on
appropriate action in response to it. In making this decision, the Conference may take into
account the Basis 11.3 questions as well as the Ethical Standards and Standards of Practice.
• If the Conference Interview Board reports that the minister is suitable to continue in ordered
ministry, the Conference may decide to take no further action.
• If the Conference Interview Board reports that the minister is not suitable, the Conference may decide to take one or more of the actions contemplated in Section 9.4 [page 195],
• Upon the minister’s completion of the action, the Conference decides whether the minister may continue in paid accountable ministry in the United Church as set out in Section 9.8 [page 196].
If the Conference decides the minister is not ready to continue in paid accountable ministry, it
must recommend that the minister’s name be placed on the Discontinued Service List
What she has really done, then, in the weaving together of the questions of ordination and the concept of suitability is provide United Church conferences with the opportunity to review of ministry personnel on the basis of theological orthodoxy. Any ministry personnel.
That ruling is here to stay.
Basis of Union II. The Pastoral Charge. Section 5.10.2 (4) It shall also be [the Session’s] duty to recommend to Presbytery suitable inquirers to become Candidates.
Basis of Union III. The Presbytery. 6.4.5 It shall be the duty of the Presbytery to examine and where appropriate:
(1) to receive an Inquirer who has been recommended by a Session (or its equivalent) as a Candidate for the Order of Ministry; and
(2) to certify each Candidate to a United Church theological school;
6.4.6 to exercise faithful supervision of each Candidate; to enquire each year into the genuine call to ministry, personal character, motives, academic record, doctrinal beliefs, and general fitness for ministry of each Candidate; and to receive annual reports for each Candidate from the theological school;
6.4.7 to make a recommendation to the Conference regarding each Candidate for the Order of Ministry upon completion of the prescribed requirements for ordination or commissioning;
The process that led to the review of my effectiveness
Over the next few days, I’m going to be posting material pertinent to the United Church disciplinary process that has come to light because of the current review of my effectiveness. That may be of little interest to some of you, especially if you’re not clergy in the UCC. That said, if you know anyone who is ministry personnel within the UCC or who knows of one, I ask that you share it.
There has been a lot of media attention drawn to the review of my effectiveness as a minister in the UCC who identifies as an atheist. But what has not been explored is the incredible change this process has wrought on the United Church disciplinary process. That’s the church that raised me, trained me, and to which I have given the best years of my life. That my ministry has worked such drastic changes upon it is disturbing to me.
The changes in the United Church disciplinary process that are a result of Toronto Conference’s concerns about my leadership need to be understood. Those who know and love the once progressive United Church need to know exactly what the challenges now are.
I’ll begin by sharing a bit about the process that led to the review and my concerns related to it. Those concerns start with the new Effective Leadership and Healthy Pastoral Relationships project. Within that project, presbyteries transferred the oversight of clergy to conferences, a very important part of the new United Church disciplinary process. The effects of that transfer are yet to be completely understood. One of the most challenging problems has come to light because of my review. I’m sharing that with you in this blog.
The Effective Leadership Project
In 2012, the General Council of the UCC voted in favour of introducing the Effective Leadership Project which had been developed over a number of years. It was aimed at streamlining pastoral relations processes in the church. Conferences were invited to participate in pilot projects that would help introduce the project and feel for any challenges it might introduce. Toronto Conference, the one in which West Hill, the community I serve, is situated, engaged the project in this pilot phase.
Transfer of oversight
The pilot project required the freedom to act outside of the standard methods of practice in order to test the new methods out. In May, 2013, the General Council Executive made that move.
Motion: Bev Kostichuk/Florence Sanna 2013-05-16-081
The General Secretary of the General Council proposes that:
1. The following Conferences be authorized to engage in a process for testing the principles
of the Effective Leadership and Healthy Pastoral Relationships approved by the 41 st
b. Montreal and Ottawa
c. Bay of Quinte
h. Manitoba and North Western Ontario
j. British Columbia
k. All Native Circle
2. That the Conferences of Bay of Quinte, Toronto, Hamilton, London, Manitou, British Columbia be exempted from the polity and bylaws of the United Church Manual as detailed in the background section below for the duration of the testing period for the Effective Leadership and Healthy Pastoral Relationships proposal approved by the 41st General Council;
3. That, upon request, the General Secretary be authorized to grant further exemptions from polity and by-laws related to Conference or Presbytery responsibilities for pastoral relationships, needs assessments, and the oversight and discipline of ministry personnel in order to enable testing of the Effective Leadership and Healthy Pastoral Relationships proposal approved by the 41 st General Council.
Wait a minute! We can’t do that. Presbytery has to do it.
Included in the background document was a note that stated presbyteries were to ask their conference to take on the roles presbyteries normally held that were affected by the introduction of the pilot project. That the General Council Executive made the motion didn’t matter. The Basis of Union had granted the presbyteries powers that the General Council could not revoke. Therefore, the presbyteries needed to ask for the change. The oversight of Ministry Personnel was one of the areas transferred to the Conference.
Concerns regarding ministry personnel in the UCC
The section regarding the oversight of ministry personnel, formerly infamously known as “363”, was one of the sections covered in the backgrounder. Within the new section J9, The Manual is explicit about who can raise issues of concern regarding clergy. Presbyteries have to take concerns seriously. But those concerns can’t just come from anybody. The Manual provided for that and ensured that concerns could only come from someone who had first hand knowledge of the situation. If the presbytery was going to raise the concern itself, well, it had a direct relationship with every clergy person within it. All ministry personnel are members of presbytery and are supposed to be in regular attendance of its meetings.
In the United Church disciplinary process related to ministry personnel, the single common element shared by all parties that can raise a significant concern about a minister is that direct relationship had with the minister. The person(s) or court raising the concern know(s) the individual. In fact, they work with them either in the pastoral charge or in the presbytery of which the minister is a member.
9.2 Concerns about Ministry Personnel
The presbytery is responsible for the oversight of ministry personnel. It must take seriously any concerns that come to its attention about any ministry personnel. These concerns may be raised by
(a) the presbytery itself, including any member or committee of the presbytery;
(b) a ministry personnel settled in or appointed to the same pastoral charge;
(c) the pastoral charge supervisor;
(d) the governing body of the pastoral charge; or
(e) a proposal signed by 10 full members of the pastoral charge that the pastoral charge’s governing body has passed on to the presbytery.
And now we must think about the implications
When, in accordance with the direction of the General Council, presbyteries asked conferences to take over the presbyteries’ former oversight role, I wonder if they understood the implication of their request. I don’t think they had really thought through what it would mean for clergy when those raising concerns didn’t have to really know the individual. And I don’t think they really considered that they no longer had the right to raise concerns themselves. Transferring those rights to conferences removed the requirement of direct relationship and made clergy far more vulnerable. The conference, which can now raise a concern with or without the input of anyone who knows the clergy person, may or may not itself have a relationship direct enough to be able to discuss concerns about a minister. Indeed, they might end up going on hearsay and hunches, prejudices and opinions. Indeed, that’s just what happened at Toronto Conference in 2015.
Concerns raised about my beliefs….
It might seem easy to argue that everyone knows what the issue related to my review is: I’m an atheist, for goodness’ sake! But the process for reviewing my theological beliefs didn’t even exist when concerns were raised at a meeting of the Toronto Conference Executive Committee in April, 2015. The United Church disciplinary process was in flux and Toronto Conference was affected by the movement. At that meeting, David Allen, the Executive Secretary,
reported on concerns that have been raised regarding Rev. Gretta Vosper describing herself as an atheist. A letter from Metropolitan United Church was referenced as one of the responses. The Executive Secretary outlined various options to be considered. The Executive discussed what action it wished to take on this matter.
The letter from Metropolitan United Church was from the Chair of the Official Board, Vera Taylor. But if you read it closely, you’ll note that it doesn’t actually name me. Rather, it erroneously refers to West Hill as an atheist church in a letter that seems to be seeking clarity about the theology of the church in general. In a letter to the General Secretary, Allen notes that the letter from Metropolitan United raises concerns about West Hill United Church but he does not say anything about me. The oversight of congregations was not transferred to the Conference; it remained with presbytery. That being the case, and Allen’s original note to the General Secretary having acknowledged the letter was about West Hill, perhaps Toronto Conference should have forwarded the letter to Toronto Southeast Presbytery. That Allen raised it in a Conference Executive meeting and said that it was a response to my self-identification as an atheist, is confusing.
Who are these people?
I received copies of two other letters from conference shortly after the sub-Executive chose to initiate a review of my effectiveness based on the General Secretary’s subsequent ruling. (Look for Part Two, coming next). The conference hadn’t received either of them at the time of its April meeting. It took a year for me to receive them all. The emails and letters were sent to the General Council office or Toronto Conference following the publication of an article in the Toronto Star in March, 2016. That article was short, sassy, written by someone who knew little about religion and less about the United Church, and had at least one serious misquote in it. Which is inconsequential at this point. What matters is that I have no idea who any of these people are.
Whether you know the UCC or not, feel free to comment
Some of the writers, like Colleen who sent her missive through the General Council’s online contact form, are definitely not even related to the United Church. Her opinions, such as her intimation that we should all be Creationists, make it clear that she is not familiar with the United Church at all and was using the Star article to express her derision toward a liberal, mainline denomination in general. I just happened to be the focal point for that derision.
Others, like retired clergy James McKnight, are considerate and respectful. He comes from the position of one who has worked within the United Church all his life. But I have never, to my knowledge, met him. Nor, to my knowledge, has he visited West Hill United.
The handwritten letter from Elaine appears to be from someone who also knows the United Church. She may be a member of the denomination. Again, I do not know if we have ever met or if she has any first hand knowledge of West Hill.
The emails from JoAnne and Ann seem to be from individuals who are not members of the United Church. Ann appears to be aware that Ken Gallinger chose to remain in the pulpit until retirement, disclosing his atheism when he no longer needed to lead services. She has no problem with his choice to do so. Again, I have no idea if I have ever met these women or if they have ever stepped foot in West Hill’s building or attended a service there.
The last email, from Neil, is also, from someone who does not know the United Church from the inside. And, once again, I don’t think we have ever met. His note does remind us, however, of the literal manner in which the beliefs shared on the UCC website are understood and that we really don’t know what anyone means when they use the word “god”.
No more need for direct knowledge about a ministry personnel
So here’s the point of today’s post: Now that conferences have been given the right to raise concerns about ministry personnel, who is going to make sure that those concerns come from individuals who actually have direct experience of the clergy person in question?
Of the Conference Executive members gathered that April day in 2015, to my knowledge not one had ever been at West Hill for a service under my leadership, or engaged either me or West Hill about our work. Not one had ever asked me for clarification about anything I have written or said in public of that has been written about me. Not one had asked me about the significant error in the Star article, an error that raised my own eyebrows. Still, egged on by an outrageous talk radio show hosted by a belligerent, evangelical Christian, and the presentation of a letter that didn’t even name me, they engaged in a conversation about my ministry in the UCC. It was such a powerful conversation that they were sufficiently moved by it to invite the creation of an entirely new process to deal with my beliefs. That process would, from its development onward, require an unprecedented theological orthodoxy of United Church clergy.
Personally, I think that action needed more consideration. I think it warranted a conversation with me. Not a review. A conversation. And they could have easily arranged for such a conversation.
It is important to note that none of this negates the possibility that others, with direct experience of my ministry might have brought forward legitimate concerns within the United Church disciplinary process that should have been heard. My point is that concerns about your ministry no longer need to come from anyone who knows anything about it.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking this is all about me: it isn’t
Given that none of the correspondents and no one around the table that day was at all knowledgeable about the ministry they were discussing in even a rudimentary way, it seems the conference’s oversight of clergy under the Effective Leadership Project has some serious flaws. When its sub-Executive met to invoke the new ruling regarding theological orthodoxy, there was still no one in attendance who knew any more about me than those who had asked for the process. The United Church disciplinary process related to ministry personnel has changed and not for the better.
As a result of the Effective Leadership transfer of oversight of ministry personnel to conference, clergy are now unprotected by The Manual‘s previous requirement of intimate knowledge of their work in order for a review to be launched. And while it might seem obvious to many that, as far as “the atheist minister” was concerned, “something needed to be done”, Toronto Conference’s implementation of its newfound privileges falls far short of the previous care put to the United Church disciplinary process related to ministry personnel.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking that this is about me. This is about process. And the process is now far from safe for clergy. If you are clergy in the UCC, you should be concerned. If anyone, anywhere, member of the United Church or not, manages to get the attention of a conference executive that doesn’t know you and the conversation around the table gets, let’s say, “titillating”, the people around that table will feel justified that they are doing the right thing by initiating a review of your ministry. Even if they know nothing about you. If that doesn’t alarm you, you probably still think this is all about me. And if you do, you’re very badly mistaken.
It was indeed a sad day when presbyteries transferred their right to raise concerns about the ministry personnel in their midst but I don’t think even they knew what it would mean. Whether Toronto Conference Executive’s actions were, at best, the result of misunderstanding the implications of its actions or, at worst, a cavalier misuse of the privilege transferred to it by its presbyteries, the result is the exposure of a deep flaw in the Effective Leadership Project. One can only hope that, once identified, the problem might be corrected rather than embraced.
I met with the Toronto Conference Ministry Personnel Committee. Well, they were actually members of the Toronto Conference Interview Committee which normally interviews candidates for the ministry, but that committee had been seconded to act as the committee that would hear my beliefs and decide whether or not they constituted an affirmation of the questions asked of all candidates for ministry within The United Church of Canada. We met at the offices of Toronto Conference.
Actually, as it turns out, I wasn’t asked the questions asked of all candidates but was asked questions that reflected the church’s “New Creed” written in 1968 and amended since then to become gender inclusive and environmentally sensitive. I’ve posted those questions on my Facebook page if you’d like to see them.
Arriving at hearing with legal counsel Julian Falconer and Akosua Matthews.
It was such an honour to be welcomed to the offices by over thirty members of West Hill, all cheering and wearing their “My West Hill Includes West Hill” t-shirts with “My West Hill Includes gretta” buttons. Most of them stayed throughout the whole afternoon and were there to applaud and hurrah as we came out. I am so grateful for these people and the bonds they have built with one another and with me. Truly, this is what being a congregation is about.
My legal team was amazing. Akosua Matthews took notes throughout and Julian Falconer had his incredibly acute attention tuned to everything happening in the room, only interrupting the process when he believed a question was inappropriately phrased or impossible to answer. I was confident walking in because I knew he would be at my side.
Randy Bowes, the Chair of West Hill, was present as my support person but, despite the incredible support for his being able to speak on behalf of the congregation, he was required to remain a silent witness. His prepared statement remained in his folio. What was on the desk in front of him, however, was the signed petition and a printed copy of the electronic one with its almost three hundred comments. It was a visual symbol of your support. Thank you for signing it and for sharing such uplifting comments!
The panel was composed of four individuals who asked questions and twenty who lined two walls of the room in order to hear my answers. I am grateful for the time they took to be there and their willingness to wrestle with this enormously important task. The church is fortunate to have leaders – lay and ordered – who fill these crucial roles.
Additionally, two Conference Personnel ministers were present- one as my support and another as support to the committee – as well as a chaplain. We were well supported in that respect.
I am posting one of the documents that I wrote for the review. It is broken down into the separate segments of the questions of ordination as they appear in the Basis of Union. The interview was not organized along the same lines but I was able to read the whole of it during my time with the committee. (My SEO assistant is showing off the scale readability warnings! Be forewarned: I tend to prefer to spare ink by never using periods!)
What are the questions to which you’d be able to answer “yes” and what are the questions to which you’d be able to answer “no”? Please share them in the comments.
RESPONSE BY GRETTA VOSPER
to the Questions of Ordination
as presented in the Basis of Union of The United Church of Canada.
This response made to the Toronto Conference Ministry Personnel Review Committee investigating the effectiveness of
the Reverend Gretta Vosper
June 29, 2016
DO YOU BELIEVE IN GOD: FATHER, SON, AND HOLY SPIRIT:
IF by “God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” …
… you expressly mean the Trinitarian God, composed of three persons equal in essence, a being who presides over Earth from another realm, a supernatural one, from which it has the power to intervene in the natural world – capriciously or by design – by responding to our prayerful requests, or altering our minds and so, too, our actions, or intervening in the natural world with or without provocation or invitation in order to alter weather patterns, health, the accumulation or loss of wealth, the circumstances of birth including geography – a predictor of health and access to food and water – gender, sexuality, mental capacity, or beauty – all predictors of the power status and ease with which individuals will live their lives, then, no, I do not believe in that at all. Neither do I believe in a god of no substance who exists beyond the universe yet contains it, interpenetrating it in some incomprehensible way for some incomprehensible purpose.
I see no evidence of such gods. And so I see no reason to remain aligned with a doctrine which does not fit contemporary and ever-evolving scientific understandings of the universe or ethical perspectives on human dignity and rights. I see no reason why we should eschew the scholarship of the countless theologians who have argued for centuries, for almost two millennia, in fact, that the doctrine of the Trinity is unworthy of our intellectual consideration, let alone our allegiance. I see no reason to require of anyone who comes to us for service of any kind, including participation in the creation of vibrant, meaningful community, acknowledgement of or belief in Trinitarian or any other form of orthodoxy. I see no reason to demand of them a new lexicon of ecclesial language and the subsequent study and support they will require to move beyond traditionally held interpretations of that language with which they most likely arrive at our doors. To my mind, the only fathomable reason that we might consider holding to the doctrine of the Trinity and commencing an ongoing program of investigation of clergy that requires assent to that doctrine in order for their ministry to be considered effective is the maintenance of our membership in the World Council of Churches and I consider the work of ministry with individuals and communities of transformation more integral to the work of the church than I do membership in an organization.
Were I to be given incontrovertible proof that a god does or gods do exist, the evidence of the cruel and capricious realities of disparity, tragedy, illness, and anguish in the world, and the truth that our world and our experience of it is wrapped not only in beauty but also in excruciating pain, would prevent me from worshipping it or pledging my allegiance to it, no matter the cost.
WHAT I do believe …
… has come to me through a heritage that is rich in church and in the religious denomination into which I was born and raised. It is rooted in a family that, like many families, transmitted positive values to its children. These same positive values have also been projected by humanity, alongside other, more dangerous values, to become the attributes of the transcendent, divine, supernatural beings we have called gods. During times when social cohesion was crucial to the survival of small tribal communities, fear of those deities provided a powerful antidote to individual expression or actions that might threaten the community’s well-being – murder, theft, adultery, abortion, homosexual behaviours. These became offences against gods and came with god-sized punishments. Twinning social laws with supernatural beings may have been an evolutionary twist that provided for our survival.
It does not follow, however, that supernatural beings provided the moral codes or values by which we choose to live. And so, while the values instilled in me as a child were values reinforced by my church school and Christian upbringing, they are not values exclusive to that upbringing. And there are no moral codes that have been formed by the mind of a god. Rather, there is a morality that we have created and that transcends our personal circumstances. It is a morality that we have the responsibility to review and revise as we each see necessary for our personal wholeness and, I hope, social cohesion which is so integral to our well-being, our future as a species, and our impact on the future of all life on the planet.
It is in these non-doctrinal things, I have faith:
I believe in love and that it is the most sacred value. When I call something sacred, I mean that it is so crucial to our humanness, to our humanity, that we cannot risk its denigration, degradation, or destruction. To live without that sacred thing – in this case ‘love’ – would mean we had repudiated our evolved and critically negotiated humanity. Love is sacred; it is essential to our humanity.
Of course, I do not mean a simplistic, self-serving love. I mean a costly, challenging, transformative love that pulls us beyond the people we think we were, the people we may have been content to remain, in order that our humanity be more complete. It is a love that refuses to count its cost, seeking, rather, to disperse that cost into community, pulling us toward one another as it does so and beyond the divisions that otherwise might leave us in isolation.
There are religious texts and biblical stories, of course, that can be interpreted in the light of that kind of love, some of which may even seem to tell of the most complete embodiment of it that has ever walked the earth. These are questions of interpretation. Biblical examples are not integral to the understanding or the living out of love. Anyone, regardless of creed or ideology or even ignorant of any such things, may still live in accordance with a costly love. I believe the greater portion of humanity chooses to do so.
Our Christian forbears were seekers after truth. The Virginia School of Theology has carved alongside the doors of its library a partial quote of the words with which its mid 19th century Dean William Sparrow, is said to have closed his every lecture. “Seek the truth, cost what it will, come whence it may.” How much he must have held to the truths that we who studied theology dissected and hollowed out during our theological explorations, truths he encouraged his students to strive toward.
Or perhaps not. The last line of Dean Sparrow’s maxim is excluded from the library inscription. Perhaps it was considered reckless. The last thing Dean Sparrow said to his students every day just before they left class was, “Seek the truth, come whence it may, cost what it will, lead where it might.” Perhaps Sparrow was actually challenging them for a life in the ministry that would not be compromised by the quitting of intellectual integrity. Perhaps he was coaching them to hold to what they were learning and go out into ministry without forgetting to continue to learn. The quest for truth is never over. And so it must remain at the top of the list of those things which I believe. I believe in truth. I believe it is important to seek it, no matter where it comes from, no matter what we may lose in the process, no matter where we end up. Clearly, it is my commitment to truth – both seeking it and sharing it – which has brought us here today.
There are some who have argued courage is the greater virtue because it is required to live out any of the others but I believe love badgers courage into being. And when love fails to do so, I believe truth picks up the rant. Love and Truth can exist without Courage but almost as soon as one or the other emerges, courage is a must. It is a must if we are to do anything to protect those we love or to strive toward truth, no matter its cost or destination. Indeed, love without truth or truth without love can both deny wholeness.
Courage without either breeds an indifference and savage violence. Violence bred by love and justice, on the other hand, is tempered by the very root of its action which can only ever be to restore rights or to secure safety. It is in the interweaving of these three virtues that positive change happens, in our hearts, in our relationships, in our communities and in the world.
It is these virtues – Love, Truth, and Courage – that provide for all the rest upon which our work, my ministry, is built and which allow for the beauty of the human endeavour to shine forth.
As love and truth lead to courage, so courage leads to justice. John Dominic Crossan, notes that love without justice is banal and justice without love is brutal but I add to that: justice is not possible without courage. Compassion – one of our most prized virtues…
The most recently evolved part of our brain flips the sensory information we receive forward to our frontal lobes where we can consider the impact of an action on others – thus creating the possibility of a compassionate response – or backward, literally, toward the history of our self-preserving fight, flight, or freeze responses. Somewhere back along our lineage, our species thrived on the mutation that compassion once was.
And there are more. Many, many more.
All of these, of course, can be found explicitly or implicitly in the stories of the Bible. But they do not originate with it. To suggest that they did would be inconsistent with contemporary scholarship and dishonour the human story which both predated and ran parallel with its writing. To present them as having been created by a god and given to us is to refuse humanity credit for its most noble accomplishment. It also removes our right and inherent responsibility, as their creator and agent, to bring to the fore or limit certain of them as the needs of human community evolve.
There is, however, one virtue with which I often break faith and which I do not embrace in the same manner as my forbears. It is deeply rooted in our Christian heritage: Hope, as the promise of something we cannot assure. I choose instead to create, to accompany, to name, to comfort, to acknowledge, to embrace, to lament, to encourage, to convict, to trust again. I cannot bring about a peaceful death with only hope. I cannot mitigate the effects of corporatism, global climate change, or the TPP with only hope. I cannot end spousal, or elderly, or child abuse with only hope. I cannot redress our tragic history with indigenous peoples with only hope. I cannot address poverty, violence, xenophobia, arrogance, or illness with only hope. Only if I already have a hammer in my hand, only if action congruent with our responsibilities as human beings to alleviate suffering or redress abuse is in the offing or underway, will I offer the word ‘hope’. I will not offer hope to mollify or comfort when to do so does not alleviate pain or suffering, does not create right relationship, does not forestall death, but only pretends all these things might be achieved and so anesthetizes us to their reality with an illusion that comforts we who extend it more than those to whom we dispense it. I do not offer an empty hope and would not wish one offered me.
DO YOU … COMMIT YOURSELF ANEW TO GOD?
IF by ‘God’ …
… you expressly mean the Trinitarian God identified above, then, no, I do not.
WHAT I do wonder …
… is if the question may have served to direct our commitment to God because God transcended our own perspective, our own self-serving ideas. Already, when the questions of ordination were framed, very likely before 1908 – those who wrote them could not have been unaware of the effects of secularization on Christianity, particularly in the denominations coming into union. They could not have been unaware of the new interpretations of God that, Trinity or no, were non-traditional in nature. To commit ourselves to God meant we weren’t in this for ourselves; we were in it for a higher, nobler reason no matter what we meant when we used that word. The question challenged us to reach beyond ourselves because we were committing ourselves to something that radically transcended our own capacities.
Without God, that transcendent, nobler point of reference to which we have committed ourselves in the past, is it not possible that we might, then, commit ourselves to something mundane and self-serving, something that, in fact, arises out of our ego rather than out of concern for wholeness and social cohesion? Of course it is. Indeed, without an intention to broaden our awareness, make use of our evolved and empathy-producing anterior cingulate, that is exactly what we might very well do. To do so would be, in essence, a compromise of our humanity, and take us back to “the limited, and socially-tense, world of the chimpanzees.” (Loyal Rue)
What makes us different from chimpanzees is that we figured out a strategy for survival that is less taut with potential violence.
Our basic strategy could be phrased this way: “to achieve personal wholeness and social cohesion” (Philip Kitcher) at the same time, balancing them out to our best advantage and creating societies that manage the dramatic tension those two goals create. If we don’t achieve personal wholeness, comprised of a healthy balance of our spiritual, intellectual, physical, and emotional selves, we don’t thrive; we simply exist. If we cannot build social cohesion, we have no means through which we can achieve personal wholeness; lives are constantly under threat, something to which the current realities of refugee camps and the nations that spawn them attest. Humanity, if it is to survive and develop a robust reproductive strength – admittedly evolutionary terms – must develop healthy and autonomous personalities and do so within cooperative social groups. Belief systems – religions – have been a major tool in the facilitation and maintenance of a helpful balancing of self and community interests. At least, that’s one theory.
So, when the gods of our creation fall away, as I believe they have been forced to do by the rise of reason and the constant erosion of supernatural belief by science, we still need to find something, a belief system, that call us to that work – help us keep the equilibrium between personal self-interest and communal well-being. At West Hill, we believe the values of which I spoke present that challenge to us. Lifted before us, they keep our eyes, focused too easily on our own personal well-being, also set toward the panorama of a socially cohesive community. Our mission statement incorporates that challenge: “Moved by a reverence for life to pursue justice for all, we inspire one another to seek truth, live fully, care deeply and make a difference.”
It is to this work, I commit myself. To values which transcend our personal interests and needs and which help us envision a better world. This is the historic work of the United Church which drew me to leadership within it.
The work of living in right relationship with ourselves, with others, and with the planet is a very big work. At West Hill, the congregation has a document, with which you are familiar, which expresses the values to which it chooses to adhere. The document was first written in 2004 with a commitment to review it every five years. It was most recently presented to the congregation in a revised form in January, 2015. The last two times it has been reviewed and revised, I have not been involved.
I commit myself to the work of living toward the fulfillment of the challenges laid out to the congregation and to its members in VisionWorks and to supporting their work to do so as well.
DO YOU BELIEVE THAT GOD IS CALLING YOU TO THE ORDAINED MINISTRY OF WORD, SACRAMENT, AND PASTORAL CARE, AND DO YOU ACCEPT THIS CALL?
This question is answered in segments below.
DO YOU BELIEVE THAT GOD IS CALLING YOU ….
I DO NOT BELIEVE …
… in gods who can intervene in the natural world; therefore, I cannot believe that there is something we could define as a “call” from any god to us to direct us to act in any particular way.
I DO …
… understand the importance of conviction as a virtue in our lives, a deeply felt recognition that one is to follow a certain path or forge a new one. I believe such convictions can be inspired by personal experience – both known and unremembered; our relationships – both good and bad; and our contexts – both the personal and global. I believe our appreciation of life and our experience of wholeness results from how closely one is able to live according to one’s convictions. I believe the spiritual quest is the search for that point of resonance – that place of passion and conviction – where one’s own skills and abilities best meet the world’s greatest needs. I believe the spiritual task is the challenge of living in that place of conviction.
When I entered Theological College it was the result of years of struggling with a conviction that the most meaningful way in which I could be of influence in the world – the place where my skills and abilities could best meet the world’s needs – was through the work of inspiration and transformation, work I had witnessed in profound and moving ways by leaders in the United Church (Jock Davidson, Eldon Hay, Bill Hendry, Mary Smith). That conviction was further galvanized during my theological training, most particularly through the teaching and mentorship of Christopher Levan and Doug Paterson, and the exploration there of theologies of liberation (the people of El Salvador and Nicaragua, Phyllis Trible, Matthew Fox, Naomi Goldenberg), collaboration (Teilhard de Chardin, Douglas John Hall, Leonardo Boff), and radicalization (the Berrigan brothers, Gustavo Gutierrez, Dietrich Bonhoeffer). These theologies were further reinforced by United Church activists and theologians during my time there (Douglas John Hall, Pierre Goldberger, Faye Wakeling, Shelley Finson, Joan Kuyek, Pamela Dickey, Tim Stevenson) and further entrenched in the gospel stories about the man called Jesus. They also further reinforced my convictions that it was in ministry that my gifts could best be used to serve the world at one of its points of urgent need.
DO YOU BELIEVE GOD IS CALLING YOU TO THE MINISTRY OF THE WORD?
IF by the “Word” …
… you mean the Bible as the sole source or the primary source from which I am to draw wisdom for myself or those to and with whom I minister or that our ethical and moral choices must be grounded in its content, then no, I do not consider myself engaged in a ministry of the Word nor do I accept a call to that ministry.
I UNDERSTAND …
… my ministry to be built on the wisdom accumulated by and within humanity over the course of its history, including but not limited to the documents of our religious tradition and that the authority of a text lies in its message and not in its source or the source to which it is attributed. Many stories in the Bible would not meet West Hill’s standards of merit as they present depictions of relationships of power and privilege, many of which include violence, to which we do not ascribe or are set within a worldview we no longer accept. At West Hill, since 2004 our sources for wisdom have been identified in our congregational documents as ‘diverse’. I am challenged to source texts for our gatherings that meet our standards of love, justice, and compassion and that will inform, inspire, edify, or convict. These sources may be from ancient documents (the Bhagavadgita or the Leizi, for instance) or contemporary pop culture (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, World War Z, or Dr. Who) or from anything in between. They may be art, poetry, prose, literature, fiction, biography, screenplay or script, or any field of non-fiction. We are the creators and the holders of an infinite library of accumulated wisdom that is added to daily. It is my responsibility and pleasure to dip into that library in order to find material that addresses the concerns of the day and engages the congregation with them.
DO YOU BELIEVE GOD IS CALLING YOU TO THE MINISTRY OF THE SACRAMENT(S)
IF by the Sacraments …
… you mean liturgical devices through which I, as an ordained person, am able to change ordinary items into signs of God’s grace, requirements for full leadership, or acceptance to membership in community, then, no, I do not consider myself engaged in such a ministry, nor do I accept a call to that ministry.
I UNDERSTAND …
… my ministry to be to the calling of one another to witness the passage of one’s own life and of the lives of others and that there are moments along life’s trail when that is important and meaningful and best done in community. I understand my ministry invites me to lift up those moments for those with whom I minister and to invite them to stand witness to one another’s brokenness and wholeness and to commit to standing with, in love, no matter what. I believe the moments of dignity and memory that we so create can be powerful affirmations of life, being, and community.
I believe the symbolic ritual of marking a child with water is a parent’s opportunity to articulate the qualities of character they commit to instill in their child. It is the community’s opportunity to embrace and celebrate the possibilities inherent in each new life and to pledge themselves to the support of keeping those possibilities large.
I believe the symbolic ritual of breaking bread is a community’s opportunity to “re-member” (intentional hyphenation) itself and its commitments to one another.
I believe symbolic rituals for forgiveness, reconciliation, love, leave-taking, marriage, transformation, divorce, new commitments, death, and grief hold the space in which individuals are invited to move into, through, or beyond significant places on their life’s journey. Visual art that marks these moments has become significant for the congregation.
I believe it is my privilege to work with members of my community and beyond to create meaningful symbolic actions and rituals that allow that sacred space to emerge.
DO YOU BELIEVE GOD IS CALLING YOU TO THE MINISTRY OF PASTORAL CARE
IF by the ministry of pastoral care, …
… you mean the rendering of spiritual care, direction, and counselling to individuals, couples, families, groups, and a congregation that is undergirded by the Holy Spirit or that presumes to guide those under care toward greater discernment of God’s plan for their lives, whether through guided self-exploration or study of the Bible or devotional resources based on it, then no, I do not consider myself engaged in such a ministry nor do I accept a call to that ministry.
I UNDERSTAND …
… pastoral care to mean working with others in their pursuit of right relationship with self, others, and the planet either with a focus on long term goals or as needed in times of crisis. I do not believe that my position gives me the right to impose myself upon people at times of illness, bereavement, or crises but to make myself available as and when needed and to ensure that individuals, particularly those experiencing crises, know that I am available should they choose to avail themselves of my presence.
I am not a trained counsellor and do not enter into counselling relationships for which I am not qualified.
In times of crisis, Pastoral Care is the work of being present in situations of grief, loss, anger, and confusion in an empathic way, open to the needs of the other and responding as and how I am able sufficient to the validation of experience, the provision of support, and the witness of love and compassion. Pastoral Care is also the work of providing safe space to individuals, couples, or groups wherein individuals can build trust and speak openly and with respect while risking appropriately the work of growth and understanding. Creating such space requires an understanding of appropriate boundaries and the creation of them.
The long term work of Pastoral Care might be considered spiritual direction which I understand to be the work of accompanying an individual as they undertake a spiritual quest to find the place at which his or her gifts might best be offered to an urgent need in the world. Its purpose is to draw individuals toward a greater understanding of their potential, opportunities, unresolved grief, and unacknowledged strengths in order that they develop resilience in their personal lives, and within their relationships. It is to repair and recommit to right relationship with self, others, and the planet as is appropriate given the history and contextual realities of the individual(s) involved.
All these things I practice and provide in my ministry at West Hill.
DO YOU BELIEVE GOD IS CALLING YOU TO THE ORDAINED MINISTRY
IF by ordained …
you mean “set apart” by being provided extraordinary and spiritual gifts that allow for the discernment of a divine plan or message in an ancient text or the consecration of juice, bread, or water into sacred elements that have the power to transmit the grace of a supernatural god called God to humans otherwise mired in sin in order to mark them as recipients of that grace to whom I might then extend the comfort of that god, then, no, I do not feel conviction about that ministry.
I UNDERSTAND …
… my work as an undertaking that both awakens individuals to the importance of creating meaningful lives for themselves and contributing to the meaning-making work of others, and that supports them in that work. It is the work of challenging individuals and communities to reach toward both personal wholeness and social cohesion – the balance which, when achieved, leads to success in the human community. Philip Goldberg identifies five significant tasks of religion which I believe go toward creating that balance but recognize them as deeply human undertakings for which religion has been the purveyor. They may each be engaged and fulfilled without the need for religious language or doctrine. Goldberg’s five tasks are beautifully and simply portrayed by five words: transmission, translation, transaction, transformation, and transcendence.
• Transmission – of a sense of identity transmitted from one generation to the next through a variety of means – ritual, shared customs and stories, and historical continuity.
• Translation – of the events of life into a form that helps convey a sense of meaning and purpose and which helps individuals understand their relationship to the wider community or greater whole.
• Transaction – individuals and communities are better able to flourish when the transactions that take place between them are governed by formal or informal moral codes. These define what right relationship means within the community.
• Transformation – encourages the engagement of individuals and communities in ongoing maturation and growth in the pursuit of personal and social fulfillment.
• Transcendence – provides a reference point beyond the individual or community which challenges them to expand their understanding to experience themselves as integrated with a larger whole, the web of life. This can be understood as the realization of the impact one has on the vast expanse of life both during and beyond his or her lifetime and does not require belief in a supernatural realm.
ARE YOU WILLING TO EXERCISE YOUR MINISTRY IN ACCORDANCE WITH THE SCRIPTURES, IN CONTINUITY WITH THE FAITH OF THE CHURCH, AND SUBJECT TO THE OVERSIGHT AND DISCIPLINE OF THE UNITED CHURCH OF CANADA?”
Again, this question is broken down into segments below.
EXERCISING MINISTRY IN ACCORDANCE WITH THE SCRIPTURES
Within the context of a community that sets for itself the work of engaging in contemporary issues with courage, clarity, and compassion, most scripture is obscure at best, most often irrelevant, and at its worst, dangerously prone to misguiding those studying it.
Biblical scholarship has long required that we strain biblical texts through a variety of sieves in order to ensure they are presented appropriately for contemporary audiences and not vulnerable to our own circumscribed perspectives. These include but are not limited to setting the text in a historical, political, and social context; identifying the author and the community to which he wrote; examining the use of words and phrases in the text as they are used in the original languages elsewhere in the Bible to decipher the particular intention of the author; examining conflicting texts for the purposes of determining why conflict exists and assessing which version is closest to the truth; exploring contemporaneous texts not only for the validation of claims within the text but to examine existing arguments or positions against which the text was written; addressing any assumptions or privilege introduced into the text by its author; and finally, guessing at the meaning of the text or intentions of the author to the best of one’s abilities.
Given the challenges presented by a text that ranges in age from nineteen to twenty-eight centuries and the breadth of interpretation legitimated by a wide variety of theological and scholarly perspectives, I cannot say that I understand what exercising my ministry in accordance with the scriptures means.
EXERCISING MINISTRY IN CONTINUITY WITH THE FAITH OF THE CHURCH
In my submission, I spoke of the progress of my theological development from my youth through my theological training and on to the continuing education I undertake as an ordered minister within the United Church.
In that description, I presented my experience of and development within a denomination that, at much cost to itself, explored beyond the realms of belief that had been charted by previous generations. In that important and ground-breaking work, it was the first church to do many extraordinary things, always leading with an interpretation of the faith that called it and its members to greater love, compassion, and truth. It was able to do those things because it regularly and repeatedly held the Bible and the doctrines of the church subordinate to the principle of love and all that required of it and of us. Throughout, it has been an inspiration to other mainline Protestant denominations, to its leaders, and to its members.
The process of change within West Hill clearly consists of the evolution of a congregation of The United Church of Canada “within the faith of the church” insofar as “within” can be described as a reasonable application of scholarship, reason, the discernment of truth, and the subordination of doctrine to the principle of love.
West Hill United Church, about a decade ago, began referring to itself as a “spiritual community of faith growing out of the Christian tradition.” That language was prescient. While it ensured that we held to our roots, bringing much-loved traditions, hymn tunes, and symbols, values that it continues to share with the wider church, and a commitment to actions the United Church initiates or embraces, it also encouraged us to create space in our community for those who were uncomfortable with ecclesial language, who honoured the values and the work of the United Church but did not want to participate in doctrinally focused services of worship. That decision has allowed us to be present to many in our immediate community, and across the Greater Toronto Area. It has placed us as a leader in the evolution of church beyond the beliefs that divide. Our materials are used in schools and in churches around the world.
The evolution of the congregation has taken place over sixty-six years.
EXERCISING YOUR MINISTRY SUBJECT TO THE OVERSIGHT AND DISCIPLINE OF THE UNITED CHURCH OF CANADA
I have deep respect for the men and women who, over the decades, crafted and evolved an institutional structure that placed the ideals of ministry and its practice within the reach and engagement of generations of Canadians. They helped form this nation through the widespread influence of their vision and their labours.
I remain committed to working within that structure even as I invite those who love this church, as I do, to continue to evolve its practices and polity as new realities and challenges emerge.
And so it is that I respectfully submit the following concerns, grieved as I am that the interpretation and application of the church’s disciplinary processes that have led to this review, as they are currently being interpreted, have the capacity to place all clergy and the future of our denomination’s extraordinary and visionary leadership among religious institutions at risk. To such an egregious evolution and application of the oversight and disciplinary policies of The United Church of Canada, and with concern for my denomination’s future, I must, as a member of its order of ministry in good standing, object.
I have identified three causes of concern: the Effective Leadership Project; the ruling of the General Secretary; and Procedural Issues
THE EFFECTIVE LEADERSHIP PROJECT
I believe that the effect of changes to the oversight and discipline of clergy that resulted from the Effective Leadership Project and the transfer of oversight and discipline of clergy to Conferences from Presbyteries is only now being understood as those changes begin to be applied.
I believe that the transfer of the oversight of clergy from Presbytery to Conference during the Effective Leadership Pilot Project has severely interfered with the covenantal relationships that exist between congregations, the presbyteries to which they belong, and the ministry personnel who serve them both.
I believe that Presbyteries, as direct partners to the covenantal relationship with congregations and clergy, are the court best able to discern the legitimacy and merit of concerns raised about its member clergy.
I believe that Conference, with whom most clergy are not in direct relationship prior to disciplinary processes, are unable to adequately assess concerns raised about clergy within their boundaries because they are not within the covenantal relationship and often not in a geographic proximity to settled clergy sufficient to do so.
I believe the intention of those who clarified for us through The Manual those individuals and courts from whom legitimate concerns about clergy could be heard was to ensure that only those concerns raised by individuals or courts in a direct relationship with clergy had sufficient merit to be worthy of being heard.
I believe that the transfer of oversight and discipline processes from Presbytery to Conference did not intend or include transfer of responsibility for raising concerns from the Presbytery, the court to which clergy belong; the evidence for this is the absence of either a transfer of covenantal relationship or the establishment of a direct relationship with ministry personnel adequate to replace the Presbytery relationship.
I believe that a review of the effectiveness of any clergy person as the result of concerns raised by individuals not in the position to have any insight into the ministry of the clergy person, the health of the pastoral charge, or the covenant within which that ministry takes place is a miscarriage of justice regardless of the reasons for that review.
I believe that concerns expressed to the General Council by the church through the Effective Leadership consultation process regarding the centralization of power in an individual Conference staff position, were warranted and that the Presbytery’s retention of the right to raise legitimate concerns about their member clergy is required in order to mitigate those concerns; those rights should not be extended to Conference.
I believe Conference assumed the responsibility for raising concerns regarding clergy under the Effective Leadership transfer of oversight and discipline of clergy but that they did not have the explicit approval of the wider church to do so.
I believe concerns regarding ministry personnel should be forwarded to the Presbytery of which they are a member regardless of to which court or office the correspondence has been directed and that the Presbytery consider the nature and provenance of the concerns before raising those concerns with Conference, the court with oversight and disciplinary responsibilities.
THE GENERAL SECRETARY’S RULING OF MAY 5, 2015*
I believe that the changes to the oversight and discipline of clergy that resulted from the General Secretary’s ruling of May 5, 2015 must also be considered by the whole church following the result of this review.
I believe that the ruling of the General Secretary exceeded her authority and altered the nature of ministry in The United Church of Canada.
I believe that those who birthed The United Church of Canada into being had anticipated theological evolution and so declined to include a requirement for theological conformity or continuity among clergy; had they required them, ongoing affirmations of orthodoxy at set points in the ministry of clergy would have been included in the Basis of Union.
I believe that those who have provided for and supported the formation of leaders within the United Church have expected those leaders to continue learning long after departure from theological colleges and that they have encouraged those leaders to seek the truth, come whence it may, cost what it might, lead where it would.
I believe that the right of the ordaining conference to contribute to the theological diversity of The United Church of Canada has been undermined with this ruling and that we risk a flattening of that diversity with any application of the General Secretary’s ruling.
I believe it is contrary to the Basis of Union for a Conference of Settlement to review the theological beliefs of ministers ordained in another Conference.
I lament that the General Council Executive, being presented with a proposal sent to them as a result of concerns regarding the use of the questions of ordination to judge the effectiveness of ministry personnel and asking for a review of those questions, upon hearing that fifty-one percent of General Council 42 Commissioners did not wish to review those questions, chose to ignore the forty-six percent who sought the conversation. I believe that decision dramatically diverged from the courage the United Church has previously shown in the face of challenging social and theological issues of the day when, long before a majority of its membership invited exploration of an issue, the church engaged, witnessing integrity and courage, and modelling participatory and transformational dialogue.
I believe some of the challenges that have brought us here today and that risk the health and strength of our denomination and those who serve it are the result of a lack of due diligence and attention to our polity and concern for those it serves to both protect and oversee.
I believe those who struggled to bring The United Church of Canada into being were well aware of the implications of the term “essential agreement” when it came to questions of doctrine and intended or expected a breadth of theological perspective to grow and flourish within the church.
I believe those who wrote and have revised our Statements of Doctrine over the years did not intend that doctrinal examinations ever be undertaken which precluded the element of essential agreement, a Basis of Union provision which has allowed for a breadth of diversity in our denomination that is unparalleled in the world.
I believe the decision of Toronto Conference to undertake a review of a clergy person’s doctrinal beliefs in accordance with the ruling of the General Secretary but without the provision of essential agreement is a breach of the Basis of Union.**
I believe any review of the effectiveness of a clergy person, even and especially reviews on theological grounds, the responsibility for which lies with the Session of the Pastoral Charge, must allow for the full participation and input of the Pastoral Charge.
I believe any review of the effectiveness of ministry personnel, even and especially reviews on theological grounds, the responsibility for which lies with the Session of the Pastoral Charge, must allow for the full participation and input of the Presbytery responsible for the oversight of that Pastoral Charge.
I believe that the use of the Interview Committee as a Ministry Personnel Review Committee has led to procedural confusion and an inconsistent application of the procedures for the review of Ministry Personnel which have been set out to ensure transparency, accountability, and fairness.
We sit here today as a first instance of the application of two significant changes to the oversight and discipline of Ministry Personnel:
• the shift of the oversight and discipline of Ministry Personnel from the Presbytery to the Conference and
• the ruling of the General Secretary wherein she established the requirement of ongoing affirmation of ordination questions by all ministry personnel
Because this process and the changes upon which much of it is based raise serious concerns and fall short of our obligation to one another to engage in open and fair procedures as we have agreed to undertake them, I challenge us all to work together so that we might better understand their implications for Presbyteries, Pastoral Charges, and Clergy. Future processes will undoubtedly unfold and we have both the opportunity and the responsibility to ensure that they do so with transparency, accountability, and fairness.
Therefore, I respectfully invite you, as members of the Toronto Conference Ministry Personnel Review Committee to decline to participate in a process that has no grounding in United Church polity, no precedent in United Church history, and no merit based on the ongoing and unbroken nature of the covenant that exists between Toronto Southeast Presbytery, West Hill United Church and me. I respectfully encourage you, rather, to determine that the way forward is not through an aberrant disciplinary process, but through a collaborative effort to improve our United Church of Canada.
*The General Secretary, in response to Toronto Conference’s request for a process to deal with “a female minister who calls herself an atheist”, wrote a ruling that tied a minister’s effectiveness to suitability and suitability to ongoing affirmation of ordination questions. Our appeal of the ruling was denied on the basis that it had no ground. The following is the ruling made by Nora Sanders.
In my opinion, a person who is not suitable for ministry in the United Church cannot be “effective” as United Church ministry personnel. Where a question has been raised about the minister’s suitability, the presbytery may consider that a question has been raised about “effectiveness” so as to initiate a review of the minister on that ground. The questions set out in Basis 11.3, which are asked at the time of ordering, are appropriate for assessing on-going suitability. …
Based on the Polity set out above, I rule that the following process would be appropriate for responding to these kinds of concerns. I will refer to the Conference exercising oversight of ministry personnel rather than the presbytery since this ruling was requested by Toronto Conference.
• The Conference (through its Executive or Sub-Executive) orders a review of the minister’s effectiveness under Section J.9.3(a) [page 194].
• The Conference may direct the Conference Interview Board to undertake this review, interviewing the minister with a focus on continuing affirmation of the questions asked of all candidates at the time of ordination, commissioning or admission in Basis of Union 11.3.
• The Conference Interview Board conducts the interview and reports to the Conference whether, in the Interview Board’s opinion, the minister is suitable to continue serving in ordered ministry in the United Church.
• The Conference receives the report from the Conference Interview Board and decides on appropriate action in response to it. In making this decision, the Conference may take into account the Basis 11.3 questions as well as the Ethical Standards and Standards of Practice.
• If the Conference Interview Board reports that the minister is suitable to continue in ordered ministry, the Conference may decide to take no further action.
• If the Conference Interview Board reports that the minister is not suitable, the Conference may decide to take one or more of the actions contemplated in Section 9.4 [page 195],
• Upon the minister’s completion of the action, the Conference decides whether the minister may continue in paid accountable ministry in the United Church as set out in Section 9.8 [page 196].
If the Conference decides the minister is not ready to continue in paid accountable ministry, it must recommend that the minister’s name be placed on the Discontinued Service List (Disciplinary).
** Toronto Conference’s David Allen required that the reviewers could not use “essential agreement” as a way to determine affirmation of the questions of ordination.
It has been a challenging few months since Toronto Conference of the United Church ordered that I be reviewed due to concerns over the effectiveness of my ministry. But I have been uplifted by the wonderful support I’ve received and I wanted to share some of that with you and offer you some ways that you can also add your support to this incredible work we are engaged in.
Media interest and support
Colin Perkel kicked off the media attention with the article he filed with the Canadian Press. It was picked up by media outlets across North America and in Europe. This is the Globe and Mail publication of it. He also followed up with a conversation with church leaders as they headed into their triennial General Council meeting. Unfortunately, they diverted attention from the national issues related to my review, the two proposals that were sent to General Council from Hamilton and Toronto Conferences and made it seem as though it was a local issue of no national import.
Rachel Browne of VICE news was attentive in her exploration of the issues, including an interview with Terry Plank, President of The Clergy Project. VICE has an audience that would be the envy of most churches; their age demographic, 18-35, is exactly the one missing from most liberal, mainline denominations.
Junaid Jahangir published a piece in The Huffington Post. “Why I Support This ‘Atheist’ Minister” received tons of interest. It was so encouraging to get the support of someone from another faith tradition, Islam.
John Shuck has recorded an interview for his Religion for Life podcast. It should be up next week. Ryan Bell of Year without God is calling to have a conversation tomorrow.
And friends have come forward to make sure that the ups and downs of media attention and the sometimes horrible things people say don’t leave me mired in angst.
These and so many more have engaged in the conversation and are making it take place in the public forum where it needs to be.
What you can do
Photo by morguefile.com user Ladyheart
A few members of my congregation went even further to make it possible for those who wish to be supportive to offer themselves to a few different projects.
One is the ever-helpful letter writing campaign. Postal and electronic addresses for the main characters to whom letters might be helpful can be found here.
Creating conversations and contributing to them on social media is another excellent idea. Ideas for how you can get those conversations going and why they are important can be found here.
The group also created an association to help raise funds for legal fees, an incredibly thoughtful and helpful show of support. Information about the Friends of Gretta Vosper Association can be found here on West Hill’s website or here on Facebook or you can go directly to their fundraising page. Don’t forget to “like” and share that page if you visit it.
And finally, if you would like to support West Hill in its ongoing ministry, you can find out how to do that here.
Thank you to all of you who click on one of those links; even if you can’t do anything right now, raising your own awareness helps keep the momentum up. The effort required to bring about change in an institution that is two thousand years old is daunting. Right now, though, we’re working on an institution that is only 90 years old – The United Church of Canada. Together, our efforts will bring the most important questions and conversations to light. Thank you for imagining that possibility with me and working toward making it a reality.
I am SO sure that this is the right time, the right church, and the right thing to do. Thank you for being part of it and for your visionary support!
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.
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.
I am often asked questions about the work that I and the congregation I serve do. These quick answer videos are meant to help you understand that. If you’ve any question you’d like answered, don’t hesitate to ask me through the contact page. I’ll be happy to consider it for a quick answer video. Thanks for watching!
Last week, I posted a response to a query regarding my beliefs and their seeming dissonance with the statements of faith of the United Church. I augmented that response with a picture, a crest fashioned from the United Church’s official crest but altered to replace the figures in the lower portion of the crest, an alpha and omega, with the atheist symbol, a capital A partially encircled with a loop. The two symbols are close enough in appearance that many missed the change altogether and at least one person thought that the atheist symbol was simply the alpha omega in a different font than the one usually used.
The outcry has been heard and it is telling.
In response to those who wrote to ask why I did it or to advise me that I had breached the United Church’s guidelines on appropriate use of the official crest, I simply noted that the picture was an interpretive device created to augment an article on the challenge of including or welcoming atheists in the UCC. But that reasoned and appropriate response doesn’t get anywhere near the place from which some of the response erupted. It was emotional and it was angry. It was what I call “heart response”, not “head response” and my answer had been a head response.
Since my post had been a response to a question about doctrinal beliefs and my position as a minister, it seemed wholly appropriate to utilize reason in answering it. Reason allows and invites us to play with existing realities, to toss them around, toy with them, hold them up to the light to see what we can see that has previously been hidden. Reason works at finding flaws and exposing them so we can get to work and fix them. It riddles arguments with holes so that we can think our way through more carefully and fill them. It challenges our assumptions so that, when they crumble under the pressure, we can set stronger foundations to replace them. Reason collides with reality in order to dis-cover a deeper reality. It’s supposed to.
Posting the United Church crest alongside my piece on essential agreement with United Church doctrine (now that would have been outside the guidelines – I would have had to have sought and received permission to do so), seemed appropriate (before I read the guidelines) and so I did it. I can understand every symbol on that crest and honour their presence there. But my eye lingered over the intertwined alpha and omega. They are the letters at the beginning and the end of the Greek alphabet. The phrase, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end” appears only in the Revelation of John (identified so as to distinguish it from the many other revelations that were floating around Asia Minor at the end of the first century), a book some believe should never have been included in the canon. It’s a rant argued to have been written as a polemic against the Christianity that eventually won out – Paul’s Christianity – written by a man who wanted Jesus’ movement to remain within Judaism, who wanted the movement to exclude Gentiles (Elaine Pagels).
Sitting next to my article explaining why atheists should be welcomed into the church, it seemed a small irony playing itself out. John of Patmos, author of Revelation, conjures the “Alpha and Omega” god who holds to the strength of the tradition and chastises and burns those who would change it. Many believe, as did John, that those who are already on the inside of the institution are the only ones amongst whom the leadership and work of the United Church should be shared. I argue that the leadership and work of the church needs to extend far beyond those who are currently within the institution’s doctrinal stance, broad though it is. Its work belongs to humanity, not just to United Church Christians; the atheists, secular humanists, freethinkers, and traditional theists in my congregation agree. The intertwined alpha and omega, juxtaposed with my article, symbolized the very exclusion I believe undermines the important work we need to do – not as a church, but as humans. It was a simple process to replace them with the atheist “A” and so press forward my point – that it does not serve the future well to remain doctrinally exclusive and the future is pressing fast upon us. That there was such an outcry against the crest I posted furthers the irony in my opinion. But, I know, that is more head stuff.
To those who chose to be incensed as a way to further their anger at the challenge being made to the church, I have neither response nor apology; you will find ways to condemn this work no matter what I say or write or do and your righteous anger serves only to distract from the real conversation that needs to take place.
To those for whom the United Church crest is a truly sacred object, however, I regret the hurt; I do not experience the crest that way and so did not anticipate that the alterations I made would have such an impact. I hope that as we continue in relationship, experiencing the tensions that are necessarily part of a challenging work, we will continue to call one another to respect and hold one another to its demanding ideals.
The following is the second of a two part article on what it means to be a Christian adapted for use in The Salt Shaker, West Hill United Church’s newsletter. It appeared in its original form in the 2006 summer issue of the magazine Women’s Concerns. Like the first part, this one can’t be taken on its own, either.
Just as The DaVinci Code was about to hit theatres last month, a member of the congregation remarked via email that the Vatican, being hit first with the controversy over the James ossuary and then with the movie, just wasn’t going to get a break. But her next sentence pointed out the reality of the situation–Of course, they’ve had a break for about the last two thousand years.
It seems that has been pretty much true. Christianity, for hundreds and hundreds of years has been the normative perspective for much of the Western world. True, we’ve had a few other religious viewpoints hanging around for all of that, but the worldview that has created the foundations for governments, legislation, and the common law has been foundationally Christian.
Think about what that means for a moment. Say you were born before the protestant reformation. You would have made sense of your world using Christian beliefs as the lens through which you peered. God, creator of the heavens and earth, resided in heaven, a somewhat nebulous place, but one that actually existed. Disease, misfortune, the weather, etc., were all at his control of God and that your ability to accept or survive them was pretty much dependent upon your relationship with him. That relationship could be improved through prayer, the participation in various sacramental rituals and the living of a godly life. If things were desperate, you might be able to purchase eternal salvation if you happened to have the coin to do so.
Even if you’d been born later into a family that had split from the Roman Catholic Church after the Protestant Reformation, your worldview would have been much the same. God in heaven had the ability to grant mercy or not dependent largely upon your wholehearted acceptance of his domination of the world and his skillfully laid plans for its redemption. You would still see the divine hand in all the difficult places in life–illness, bad luck, and such–all part of God’s cosmic plan. Rather than participating in ecclesial rituals, you would search yourself, over and again, for any thought, will, or action that was inconsistent with that belief and, with sometimes heroic effort, purge it from your life.
Indeed, were you born any time before the beginning of the modern era, you would have been living in a world whose boundaries were drawn by a Christian belief system but which didn’t know it. The world just was. In fact, as New Zealand theologian, Lloyd Geering, points out in his book Christianity without God, Christianity didn’t begin to be examined as something distinct from culture for its first 1700 years. My email correspondent was right: the church had certainly had a pretty long break.
But that has come to an end. Despite it being a mere two hundred years or so since we all believed the world was a mere 6,000 years old and Adam and Eve were parents of us all, our post-modern society can no longer assert many of the beliefs once unquestionably normative. Science and discovery have moved such former truths to the archival memory, the mythologies of any serious thinker.
It is a good thing. Religion is a primarily tribal undertaking. While it is true, as Geering has noted, that Christendom required no moniker to distinguish it for its first millennium and a half, the corollary of that is also true: those outside of its worldview felt the powerful condemnation of their alternative perspective. Judaism, the root out of which much of Christendom sprang, became anathema to it, ghettoes and pogroms a part of the distinction. Islam knew the violent peculiarity of the crusades. Even the protestant reformation, never an effort to create a distinctive branch of Christianity, but only an attempt at clarification of liturgy and ritual, brought territorial hatred that continued strong, heated, and legitimate until mere decades ago.
Having been prodded off-centre, Christianity has been open to examination and critique for some time now. Indeed, we have become accustomed in recent years in the western world, to assume that those with whom we are speaking do not necessarily share a similar worldview to ours based on philosophy, religion, upbringing, culture, or nationality. The contrary might even be true, that is, that it might be considered offensive to assume they did unless you knew otherwise. Getting outside of one’s tribe can bring about an entirely refreshing perspective. Or a frightening one.
Not that many years ago, the United Church of Canada participated with the Government of Canada and the Anglican Church of Canada in establishing a school system across the country designed to cultivate Christian morals and values in the hearts of aboriginal children. Within the context of an exclusively Christian worldview, the concept was heroic. Children in traditional aboriginal communities were growing up in what many considered ignorance and squalor. Their communities lacked running water, medical and educational facilities, what ‘proper’ society would acknowledge as adequate housing, clothing, and nutrition. And, considered by many to be the greatest travesty of all, they had only a limited knowledge of the loving and beneficent God who had sent Jesus Christ to reconcile the world to him. All these things were prized by the prevalent Western/Christian culture. To turn away from the challenge of offering the hope of a ‘normal’ life to the children of such communities, could only be seen as a travesty, a shirking of responsibility. The residential schools program was conceived and developed to address what were perceived to be the disgraceful realities of the aboriginal peoples of Canada.
We can see, now, what that program did. Certainly, it increased the literacy rate, but hugely undermined the ability of whole generations to speak in their original languages. Absolutely, it entrenched Christian values in the hearts of the children who passed through its many doors, but at the cost of the dignity and respect due the traditions of the elders. And yes, it managed to introduce the Christian God to hundreds of little children, but that God should never have tried to take the place of the arms of a mother and the warm, familiar traditions of a loving community. Generations of men and women were disconnected from the maternal and paternal patterning of their communal systems. The devastating results of that dis-connection are a legacy with which aboriginals will always live. They will haunt the Canadian Christian culture forever.
It is only when we get perspective that we can see what a system is capable of doing, good and bad. So it is that we celebrate that Christendom no longer has the monolithic world-ordering power it once had–it was in desperate need of that perspective. We are left, then, with the task of assessing what is good, worthy of being safeguarded, taken into the future, and what is wrong, ill-founded, needing to be set aside. And, while it is crucial that we hear the perspectives of those who stand outside the tradition, it is also important that we, who stand within it, bring these challenges to its attention. The responsibility for repentance and transformation lie within the heart of the beast, not outside of it.
At the same time, it is also important we keep our sights set on the far horizons, not on the limits of our own backyards and that we use what we know of humanity and the earth to focus them. We live in an increasingly diverse world. The death of the single monolithic worldview coincided with the maturation of manifold alternate perspectives, each with a gift and a challenge to offer the world. Yet if we continue to hang onto what has been the legacy of religious dogmatism–a tribal mentality that champions the truth and rightness of each particular perspective, we run the risk of creating more and deeper divisions within humanity. While we know the perils of the single, monolithic perspective, we need, somehow, to come to a place where we can set aside our differences and work together as a community. How we do that is the task with which we must currently engage ourselves.
Geering uses a simile to explain the development of Christendom, the changes that have taken place over time and the future of religion as he sees it. He likens it to a river flowing down a mountain to the sea. Its source is not a single, pure fount gurgling up from below, but several rivulets of thought and belief–our Jewish antecedents, the mythologies of Egypt, the gods and rituals of the Gentiles, the Greek philosophies. Each rivulet brings its understanding and perspective into the river and carries on with it. As it moves down the mountain, the river twists and turns, often breaking into several different streams–the Gnostic communities, the Manichean ‘heretics,’ the Essenes, the Pauline perspective–as thought and practice is influenced by particular perspectives and teachings. Some dribble into nothingness; others follow their distinct paths for a time and then rejoin the main river. Eventually, it breaks into three main currents–Judaism Islam, Christianity–and each of them, in turn, has seen oxbows and tributaries break off, rejoin, break off again as the river has flowed steadily down.
But Geering notes a change that has been happening over the past three or four hundred years, a new current that flows and bubbles up, taking strength from and lending it back again to all the various streams that flow. He calls it secularism. Rather than a negative anti-religious current, he sees it as that which will necessarily flow out of what Christendom has been. Beyond the tribal grasping that our multiplicity of perspectives might offer, secularism streams on bringing to the surface virtues consistent across the breadth of the river. They are the things we have in common. They are the lenses by which we judge our past failings and triumphs. They are our hope. And they will be the making of that new worldview, one which might offer hope for the future to what is, indeed, a planet under attack.
At some point in that future, we will stop using the word Christian. Rather than unite, as we once, long ago, sought to convince ourselves it might, the original purpose of the word will resurface and we will see it clearly as a tool created to divide, not unite. We will set it aside. So, too, with those who use other names to describe their particular rivulet or current. Perhaps then, Geering’s simile will buoy us up as we find we are no longer rivers or streams but the ocean, deep, broad, and full.
This is Part 1 of a two part article adapted for use in West Hill United Church’s newsletter, The Salt Shaker. The original appeared in the magazine Women’s Concerns, Summer 2006. It is not the kind of Part 1 that can stand alone; it seriously needs Part 2. Seriously. Don’t leave me hanging here….
Who are we? How do we define ourselves? What would be the words we would use, need, create, discard, reimagine? So much of our value, our worth, is tied up in who we believe that we are. We’d do well to have all the major identifiers straightened out, at the ready, should anyone ask: North American, educated, white, married, female, with children–a description that doesn’t begin to cover the whole of who I am. More’s needed.
Okay, I’ll say it: I’m Christian. Or, at least, I call myself one. When it’s safe. Many of my friends would say the same thing. Probably they would, that is, if they are. But then, how does one know anymore?
Ask any Roman Catholic and they’ll define Christian one way, a Protestant, will say another. Eastern rites and Seventh Day Adventists; Mormons and Christian Unitarian Universalists. Ask any number of Baptists to define what it means to be a Christian and you’ll get nearly as many answers. It isn’t easy, anymore. Not as easy as it used to be.
Well, sort of. There have been differences of opinion since the beginning of the beginning, I suppose. That’s why there are so many gospels out there, only a few of which are actually part of the Bible. Each author, each community, seems to have developed its own understanding of what it meant and promoted their own beliefs as widely as they could. Before them, there had been as many different understandings of Judaism, a fact that made the plethora of beliefs surrounding Christianity so comfortable to the infant faith.
Gerd Ludeman, like so many theologians, has attempted to decode the gospel narratives and understand what Jesus was all about. His particular spin has Jesus believing that he was especially appointed to bring God’s rule into effect, restoring the twelve tribes of Israel to rule (including the ten that had been destroyed centuries before by the Assyrians) and ultimately presiding over a cosmic council, the twelve disciples joining him to judge those same twelve tribes. Ludeman’s perspective sees Jesus’ followers, after his death, continuing on in their belief that they had been chosen to bring about the fulfillment of the cosmos. They believed they were special, that they held an exalted position. In the face of such a belief, they could do anything. Ludeman argues that reason, with its proofs and its tests, fell unused and discarded, by the wayside. Infallibility gave the movement its wings, allowed it to find support in the texts of the Jewish prophetic announcements, and began the process of choosing gospels and developing the belief system of the church we have inherited. To call oneself Christian (although likely a derogatory term at the time) would mean to place oneself amongst the elect, to be in the position to judge others, to be more holy.
Well, so says Ludeman. Another theologian would have another perspective. And another, another. I like Ludeman, though. He makes Jesus seem just slightly mad. Passionate and very real, but definitely a little bit mad. There is a vulnerability in that.
In the early years, understandings of who or what Jesus was grew and spread like wildfire, each little group developing its own ways to be holy, to be part of that Christian reality, whatever it was. And the exponential interpretations of the interpretations only served to make things all the more confusing over time.
By the end of the nineteenth century, things were alarmingly out of hand. So many splits, some centuries old, rankled the church. But more threatening even than that, new ways of thinking, new disciplines of study, new explorations into the known world and into the soft sciences, were also weighing on the definition of Christian.
At the Niagara Bible Conference, in the 1890s, the Five Fundamentals were born. As clear as the day is long, they neatly described what it meant to be a Christian. Sighs of relief may have been expected from around the world but it was not to be. Although the Fundamentals seemed to satisfy many, the work of cracking open the texts and examining them with new hermeneutical tools was too exciting to be stopped. Scholars tinkered and toiled on, exposing, questioning, unearthing, questioning again. Their noise continues to this day.
Even so, it would be nice if we could come up with one or maybe two things we could agree upon. True enough, five was too ambitious an attempt; for most mainline Christians, the fundamentals have proven to be a full five too many. In the simpler days of early Christianity, even with all its different interpretations, there was one thing they could agree upon: the bodily resurrection of Jesus. It is certain that once-unifying belief will not hold us now. Not all of us, anyway.
Christianity has grown up. Or, to be more precise, parts of Christianity have grown up. Passing through the stage known as ‘critical thinking,’ those cantankerous adolescent years when nothing anyone ever says is simply taken as fact, we’ve asked the questions, pried open the mysteries, tasted the holy water and found it all based on very little. Very, very little. The Bible, the book with all the answers, the authoritative word of God, comes apart in tatters in our hands when we look at it too closely, its authors all too human, its hopes all to simplistic for us to believe anymore. We are left with no proof of God, no words from God’s lips, no divine child saving us forever and ever, and nowhere to turn for that simple hope we once knew. We are left, too, with a sick feeling in our stomachs, the aftermath of a destructive, tribal faith that is responsible for far too many sallow pages of pain and horror in the book of life.
So why do we worry when others suggest that we, with our critical eyes and demanding questions, aren’t really Christian at all? Why is it important to identify what it is that lets us keep the name, stay in the club? There are few who go back to believing in the tooth fairy once mommy has been caught sliding the loonie under the pillow. Yet we are reluctant to cast ourselves into an uncaring and indifferent world, afraid that our stories will become rootless, meaningless, lost.
Over the course of the past century, the United Church has, three times, considered what it believes and sought to write it down. The third is still in progress as the Theology and Faith Committee writes, edits, and rewrites its way to General Council in Thunder Bay this August. Each time it has been difficult. Each time it has included contradiction, wavering attempts at honouring a multiplicity of perspectives.
There are many understandings of faith that have gone unwritten, that, over time, have grown and sheltered generations, softening from the vivid passions of their youth into the beautiful hues of their maturity. That they were unwritten allowed for their transformation, for their graceful aging, for the confession of their sins and the determination to be different from what they once were. In their fluidity lies a commonality toward which we might all reach as we seek to identify ourselves as people of faith.
We, too, have lived an unwritten faith these many years. In the ashes of what we once believed, we have found gifts of truth that are eternal–the need to live in right relationship, to build community, to honour life and all creation, to find within another’s eyes a dignity whose fragile presence is only held there by our gaze, to care enough to reach beyond our own self care and want to ease another’s burden. Where these truths came from, how we know them, what it is that rises in our hearts when we encounter them, we neither know nor understand and will not deign to say. But we do know we must live by them.
As we explore these truths, these values upon which we would build our understanding of the world, these unwritten descriptions of what we mean when we say we are Christian, we find that they are not only ours, but are shared by many throughout the world–people of faith, people of science, people of good will. We merely came to them through Christianity, through the difficult process of questioning our own beliefs and discarding those that have blocked these truths for too long. Others come to them by other pathways. We find we have woven together with those many others a highway to understanding. And it is a highway we can walk upon together with honour and joy. It is the answer to our existential angst, a confidence in our sisters and brothers.
As we journey, as those who have not used our path are recognized alongside us, will it be important that we identify ourselves as Christian? For those of us for whom the faith tradition out of which we have grown roots our understanding of who we are, yes, it will be an integral part of who we are as we walk. For those of us for whom the weight of the tradition must one day be shed and left at the side of this broad and freeing highway, the name will no longer be necessary we will walk ahead undisturbed by its absence.
The world is at a critical juncture. Fundamentalist faith groups continue to lay claim to otherworldly salvation and promise to risk the health and wholeness of this wondrous planet in their attempts to achieve it. Corporate interests lure the world’s population toward the blindness of personal self-absorption and whilst we are thus distracted, feed upon our vulnerabilities. To be a person of faith, any faith, for me, is not so much to believe in a set of tenets or doctrine, ecclesial ruminations called orthodoxy, as it is to believe that we can struggle against the systems that threaten our world and hope that, in the end, we will overcome them.
Inspired by the hope I first encountered in the warmth of the springtime, nurtured by the cycles of life my faith strengthened as I grew, and welcomed by a world-wide community of hope, I do this as a Christian.
 Gerd Ludeman, Jesus After Two Thousand Years: What He Really Said and Did (London: SCM Press, 2000)
 The Five Fundamentals as determined by the Niagara Bible Conference included
• the inerrancy of the Scriptures
• the virgin birth and the deity of Jesus
• the doctrine of substitutionary atonement through God’s grace and human faith
• the bodily resurrection of Jesus
• the authenticity of Christ’s miracles (or, alternatively, his premillenial second coming)