My colleague, Beverley Burlock, a former classmate at Queen’s Theological College, has asked to be “defrocked”, removed from the roll of clergy of The United Church of Canada because of the manner in which it is reviewing my ministry under the auspices of my effectiveness. Beverley’s letter has saddened me and, I hope, has saddened others. But her convictions are strong as are those of the many United Church members and clergy who have written to share their support.
Here is Bev’s letter.
TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN:
I submit the following as an official request to have my name removed from every official list of United Church of Canada clergy, and to have my name placed on the Discontinued Service list.
This is partly because of what the church is currently doing to gretta vosper and her congregation, but even more broadly because that is a clear indication of an even larger problem. The United Church has lost its way. I am no longer proud to be associated with it, and have been more and more reluctant to identify myself as one of its ministers.
This is not the ambiance which attracted me in the first place and it certainly isn’t what I was ordained into. Never EVER was I subjected, in any of my pre-ordination interviews over the several years, to such an intensive and excessive interrogation as gretta faced before the subcommittee, which basically amounted to a heresy trial. (Since when was ‘right beliefs’, an ancient persecuted offense, a UCC priority?) I did not become a minister who had to swear I believed in a list of set vows that were unalterable and infallible, and sign to that.
Without growth there is stagnation. It seems the United Church itself is settling into that state. And any ministers who have not grown in their learning and thinking since their seminary days and ordination have not kept up with continuing education as most other professionals are required to, and have failed to be good leaders. “…by this time you ought to be teachers, (but) you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness” – doing what is right, justice, vs doing the opposite, wickedness) (Hebrews 5: 12-13)
There have been threats of splits in the church before – when we chose to ordain women, to support anti-apartheid in South Africa, to accept, ordain and marry gays. The church never gave in to those, some of which were more dire in their seriousness and severity. We were able to ‘accept’ the Renewal Fellowship and Community of Concern. Moderator Bill Phipps said Jesus wasn’t divine, causing a media uproar and frenzy (they do love the scent of a scandal), but he wasn’t subjected to an inquisition or defrocking.
Being of a legal bent, both the originator of the document, that resulted in this investigation of gretta, and the current General Secretary are thus focussing on the legal letter of the law, which is so NOT Jesus. In fact, gretta is being treated the same as the ‘religious authorities’ of his day treated Jesus, who called them out on putting law over compassion. In fact Jesus called them a brood of vipers, snakes and hypocrites for doing exactly that. Maybe it’s time to re-read Matthew chapter 23. And don’t forget, Jesus was right there is the midst of all those the rest of the world had rejected, abused, despised, exiled to the margins, embracing, respecting and including them. In his parables, Jesus even used some as good examples to follow.
Jesus didn’t insist on people ‘believing’ anything – in fact he told the rich young ruler who had kept ALL the laws to a T, that what he lacked was how he cared about and for others around him – go and sell all that you have and give it away to those in need. With the story of the sheep and the goats, it was also all about how vulnerable people were treated. The Hebrew scriptures repeatedly say the same thing – a nation (one could say denomination) will be judged on how it treats the “least of these”. Furthermore, Jeremiah talks about a time when teaching about God will no longer be required, because all God’s desires (& characteristics we claim God has) will be written on/in people’s hearts. The Bible is all about doing and living, not about ‘believing’. Even the understanding of that word’s meaning has become compromised and corrupted.
Ever since the later union with Evangelical United Brethren, it seems the United Church has been gradually slipping into a more conservative perspective. We are no longer the open and exploring, the inclusive and progressive denomination we once were, emphasizing social justice issues, which drew so many people, including me, to it. How many of the EUB clergy or those seeking admission from other denominations were extensively questioned as to their openness to what was then United Church policy? It was my experience that those I encountered still had their old theology. And now the United Church is willing to accept a request from anyone, even with no prior involvement with church, Christianity, let alone the United Church. No longer do they even need to be associated for a few years with a congregation, where they would have been exposed to United Church thinking, and be known by United Church members. Where is the accountability there? Where is the theological grilling and set requirements of ‘beliefs’?
Words are a serious concern in any communication. And communicating anything religious and spiritual in words is even more complicated. For one thing, the meaning of words changes – over time, with translation, from culture to culture. Definitions can even become corrupted, distorted. ANY word connected with “God” is both limited and limiting. Therefore, demanding there be only one single acceptable understanding is slipping into idolatry. The church has not taught well the concept of metaphor over literal.
As I have experienced within my own congregations and with others, many, if not most or even all, of our religious words come with so much baggage and both mis-information and mis-understanding, along with bad translations and interpretations, that they are obstacles, driving people away. Some people, like Spong and Borg, believe the words can be redeemed. But for many that has not worked at all. So now others are working at replacing new less-loaded words in an attempt to meet those many who are desperately seeking something with spiritual substance and meaning. If that meets their needs, resulting in them then living the kind of compassionate, caring, open, inclusive lives Jesus taught, is that not a good thing? Something to be applauded and encouraged, rather than attacked and deplored – exiled from our very midst? Are we not to be “known by our fruits”?
The United Church has supposedly grown, so we proclaim anyway, from union in 1925 along a continuum to a current concept of Holy Mystery. Surely gretta is within that Holy Mystery. Or should be included. She is not trying to convert anyone, nor insisting all follow or even agree with her. She is ‘breathing out goodness’ — even to, I might add, her accusers.
The UCC has missed out on an incredibly important and crucial teachable moment here. Instead of going against our own principles and attacking and excluding, the church should have taken the amazing opportunity to teach the general population and media, as well as its own members (many of whom apparently badly need it too), educating them that it is not just a choice only between God or no-God. That the word God is but a mere feeble attempt to ‘explain’ something beyond description. That God is broader than any word we can come up with and far broader than any concept we can conceive, thus there are many, many, many ways to think about God, some of which might even include not using the word God at all! That the word atheist also has other, broader and deeper understandings than merely no-God. What a tragic loss and waste of such an incredibly wide open opportunity.
While gretta might feel betrayed by her Church (as do I), she’s not the only one being hurt. You are insulting her whole congregation. As well as all those other clergy and congregations who have been quietly teaching and living the same things. You are also grossly insulting and turning away all those others with no current religious affiliation who are searching for a place where they can feel at home spiritually. No more is the United Church of Canada the place to go and be accepted. We used to talk about ‘living with the questions’, but now, no more questions, no more seeking, we too now act as if we have The Answer. This smacks of hubris and a serious lack of humility. The process itself, which was both exclusive and secretive, was a disgrace. No Biblical justice here, just law enforcement & punishment. No “ever-flowing stream” either (Amos 5:21-24).
I would remind you of what Gamaliel, a well respected religious authority of his time, said to the people out to get ‘the apostles’. (Acts 5: 34-35, 38-39) “Consider carefully what you propose to do to these people….I tell you, keep away from them and let them alone; because if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail (as he had mentioned others had). But if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them – in that case you may even be found fighting against God.” No matter what definition of God or whether that word is even used.
In Judaism (& Jesus was a Jew), teaching and learning thrived on controversy and debate (or dialogue as gretta keeps requesting). The sages taught that “every argument deserved a hearing, for one could never know whether future generations might not discover truth in the minority view, as well as the majority”.
When I was first at seminary, I remember thinking “I’m not the first person to be taught this stuff. Why have I NEVER heard even a vague hint of any of it from any of the ministers I have encountered, met or known?” Why indeed. I am beginning to think it was at least partly because of fear. Very sad, since by far the most common Biblical ‘commandment’ is “Fear not”.
Well, I am sick at heart and tired of being in a denomination that is ruled at least in part by fear, and being part of a clergy that keeps silent because of fear. Some years ago I decided I would never again read any scripture, say any creed or prayer, perform any ritual, preach or teach anything I could not do with integrity. I made no public announcement, and my congregations likely never realized the ‘radical’ changes. However, I received positive feed back and comments that they appreciated the honesty and openness, and at least some found it liberating, refreshing and soul-nourishing.
This then is my further act of integrity. I can no longer be silent and secretive. Especially when doing so leaves my colleague and classmate abandoned and hanging out to dry like some sacrificial lamb. When my denomination has betrayed its principles, thus also betraying me and negating my ‘calling’. Again the cry goes up “Let my people go”.
With deep regret I am telling you I am leaving. Remove my name from your rolls.
Beverley C Day Burlock (Rev) Ordained Bay of Quinte Conference May 27, 1990
Colin Perkel has written about Bev’s powerful action. You can read his article in Metro News.
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.
I received the following query from Richard Bott, a colleague in The United Church of Canada. Richard is exploring the question of how many clergy in the UCC may be atheists and invited me to share whatever knowledge I had. My response is also posted below.
Please feel free to share your thoughts on these questions in the comments section. Richard is interested in the impressions those inside and outside the church may have on the situation. Another interesting question would be “How many people in UCC pews don’t believe in the traditional idea of God?” And, if you’re willing, complete the sentence I note in my email “When I use the word ‘god’, I mean …..” and identify whether you are a UCC person and if so, whether a layperson or in ministry.
(Posts are always better with pictures. I’d add my editorial adaptation of the UCC crest with the atheist A in lieu of the Alpha at the bottom – a well thought out theological statement actually – but the UCC sent lawyers the last time I did that. Waiting for them to send the cease and desist letter to Our Untied Church …)
Here are Richard’s questions:
I’m in the midst of a discussion about some of your thoughts on atheist ministry personnel in the UCCan – and we’re wondering if you could clarify what percentage of ministry personnel you believe are atheist, and how you’ve come up with that number? (Anecdotal reporting, survey, whatever evidence you would have for that claim would be helpful!)
The other question that has come up is how you are defining “atheist clergy” in that context. For example, would someone who has process theology as core, be considered “atheist” by your definition?
And here’s my response:
I have no idea how many clergy in the United Church are atheist but almost every United Church clergy person who has spoken to me about their beliefs either identifies as non-theist, agreeing with me “while not completely agreeing with me” or has told me “I don’t believe in the god you don’t believe in”, often in a condescending manner or rudely on social media. There are a very few who have corresponded with theistic beliefs. Most who do so are not United Church clergy or members or related to it in any way. One clergy person, on Facebook, told me that he doesn’t know anyone who believes in that god but he still believes I lack integrity for not using the word when I don’t believe in what it is normally understood to mean.
Unless a UCC clergy person was transferred in from another denomination, I assume he or she received a theological education that was not dissimilar to mine. I was taught to explore the concept of god in theological college, not to deepen my relationship with a being. Concepts are human constructions. I was taught to read the Bible with a critical hermeneutic using exegetical methods that addressed its human construction. I researched the historical Jesus and engaged with the concept of the Christ of faith, another human construction. So I don’t think that there are many clergy trained in the UCC who, if they actually engaged during their studies, came out as classic theists with the understanding of the Bible as God’s Word or Jesus as the Son of God who died for our sins. Could be wrong, but if we took a poll and left out the word “atheist”, I think the results would show that most clergy are not theists. Which, of course, goes to your second question….
I think anyone who completes the phrase, “When I use the word ‘god’, I mean …” without using the words theistic, supernatural, divine, being, or some arrangement or combination of those words or ones like them is not a theist. Whether they call themselves atheists or not is none of my concern; my choice to call myself an atheist was a choice of solidarity with those being maligned and targeted for arrest in Bangladesh and the FACT that my understanding of god was not a theistic understanding and has not been since before my ordination. FACTUALLY, I am an atheist and my responsibility as a human being raised in the United Church was to be in solidarity with that particular group of people. I use the term in a theological sense within a theological setting but I do not shy from its use in a public setting because my belief system is aligned with the public understanding of atheist as it pertains to god. I do not believe in what the public understands god to be.
I have a stack of papers beside me from an event I did at ASTE with Marcus Borg in 2010. For sure, these were likely clergy and lay people on the more progressive side of the spectrum in the church but, in that stack, on which was printed the phrase above, “When I use the word god, I mean …” forty-one have non-theistic understandings, three have theistic understandings, and one has a theistic understanding but notes that he or she doesn’t believe in that god but that’s what they believe the word means.
My concern about the use of the term “god” is that when the public hears a UCC clergy person say “god” without clarification, they believe the person is talking about a divine, supernatural, interventionist being. Those in the pews who have accessed programs like the ones at ASTE or read books by popular authors in the field – Marcus, Jack Spong, Dom Crossan, etc., can hear the word god and hear it in a way that appeals to them. But by educating the people in the pews, as Marcus argued we should do, I believe we have simply moved the chasm that once existed between the pulpit and the pew and dug it around the walls of the church. It is now a moat. By stretching words like “god”, “salvation”, “resurrection”, etc. to cover complex definitions not held by the general public, we have essentially told them they are not welcome, we have nothing to offer unless they are willing to get over their ideas of what god is – note the inherent condescension there – and do it fast. My litmus test is, how much does someone who needs a church need to learn before they “get” what I’m saying and we can be present to them. And the answer to that should be “Nothing,” in my opinion.
At the symposium on the draft statement of faith many years ago, Orville James argued that if baseball has a special language, how much more important it is that Christianity have a special language; he argued for a gnostic faith. Marcus feared that Christianity might die if we did not continue to distinguish it with exclusive Christian terms. I disagree with those perspectives. The work we have done has always held our theologies accountable to love and justice. It was important. And the work we had yet to do was important, too. But we have failed to do it by requiring people come to us on our terms rather than inviting them to change us; we have lost them and turned them away in droves. The result has been that the UCC now enjoys almost complete irrelevance – indifference according to the Observer study a couple of years ago.
Now it’s your turn. How many atheist clergy do you think are in UCC pulpits and how are you estimating that? How many atheists do you think are in UCC pews? What’s your definition of “atheist”? And, if you are willing, complete the sentence, “When I use the word ‘god’, I mean …..” and let us know what your relationship with the UCC is. Thanks!
Richard and I are grateful!
(Just before posting this, I learned from my Bangladeshi friend, Raihan Abir, that another atheist has been brutally attacked and murdered in Dhaka. Like I said, this is the reason I call myself an atheist.)
For many, something other than religion meets the definition of religion
It’s true. Fewer and fewer people in North America are heading to church on Sunday morning. Religion, well, its Christian iteration, is on the wane. But for hundreds of thousands of those who avoid church, alternate sources of inspiration, engagement, community, and well-being exist. We just don’t normally think of them as religion.
CrossFit members hang out with one another.
Take Crossfit, explored in the New York Times last week in the article, “When Some Turn to Church, Others Go to CrossFit“, by Mark Oppenheimer. He notes that the benefits people experience when they are deeply engaged in the lifestyle that CrossFit engenders are similar to those we like to think are the exclusive purview of religion.
The same is true of some 12-step program members, and devoted college-football fans. In an increasingly secular America, all sorts of activities and subcultures provide the meaning that in the past, at least as we imagine it, religious communities did.
So what are the characteristics of a religion? According to Joseph Price of Whittier University in California, something constitutes a religion if it establishes a worldview. It isn’t just how regularly someone engages, it’s what is taken away by that person and whether the activity really leads to the reconfiguration or cementing of a way of life.
Using this logic, one can see how “Star Trek” fans, with their deep interest in science and cosmology, might qualify as religious. But members of a men’s breakfast club who meet weekly at a diner, by contrast, while they might derive great joy and comfort from their ritual, would not, by virtue of it, be religious.
As the review of my effectiveness for ministry in the United Church of Canada has been unfolding, many people query whether it is appropriate for an atheist to be a minister in a UCC congregation. I’ve given my reasons for why I believe my leadership at West Hill United is totally consistent with the United Church’s perspective. These may seem contradictory to the remarks I made in conversation with Mary Hines of CBC’s Tapestry when I mused about the eradication of religion. But beyond that striking comment lies the reality that organizations like CrossFit are claiming. All the previously divisive elements of belief within religions have created barriers we can no longer withstand as a species. Doctrinal worldviews collide. So let’s follow CrossFit’s lead and build worldviews that inspire, engage, uplift, and turn people toward one another instead of away from one another. Hey! We can even do this in church!
A letter to United Church of Canada elected officials and senior staff
from Ben Robertson, Windsor, NS
To paraphrase Blaise Pascal, I apologize for writing such a long letter; I
didn’t have time to write a shorter one.
As a member of the United Church of Canada, I am writing to express my
deep concern with the process that has been initiated to review the
“suitability” of Rev. Gretta Vosper to continue as an ordained minister of
that church. I have been following Rev. Vosper with great interest for a few
years and am very supportive of the work she is doing. I will state up front
that if the church decides that she is not longer suitable for ministry, I will be
forced to question my own relationship with the United Church of Canada.
First, a bit of background. I was brought up in a rather traditional and
conservative Christian church, the First Methodist Church in my hometown
of Athens Georgia. At an early age I began to question the beliefs that had
been taught me, and by the time I finished university, I decided that these
teachings made no sense, so I stopped going to church entirely. Some
years later I became aware of some of the work that was being done on the
subject of the historic Jesus, and as a student of history, I began to read
many books on that subject. All this was done outside of the context of any
church, since I still found that the church’s message as I perceived it did
not resonate with me.
In 1993, I moved to Canada to marry a lovely Nova Scotia lady and
subsequently accompanied her occasionally to services at her church,
Windsor United. I did not particularly enjoy the services themselves, since
the incessant “God language” was a bit of a turnoff, but Rev. Bill Gibson’s
sermons were always interesting and thought-provoking, more grounded in
real life than theology. I also noted that the church had a pretty good
choir, which I eventually joined in order to indulge my love for choral singing.
Over the years, I found this church to be a welcoming community that, to
my surprise and delight, included a sizeable number of people whose
beliefs tended toward the more “liberal” end of the spectrum. I have been
able to be quite outspoken about my lack of belief in the traditional
interventionist God, and in the annual Lenten discussion groups we are
able to have a respectful dialogue in which all views are honoured. I
eventually became a member of this church by transfer, which did not
require making any affirmative statements of belief. I did so as a way to
support this inclusive community which I believe is providing a valuable
service to the members as well as to the wider community of the town. I
continued my study of scholarship on Christianity and the Bible by such
authors as John Dominic Crossan, John Shelby Spong, and Tom Harper,
among many others, with encouragement from Rev. Bill.
One of the first things that made the United Church of Canada seem
interesting to me was the time when Rev. Bill Phipps, newly appointed
moderator, mused to a reporter about his doubts concerning some of the
traditional tents of Christianity, such as the divinity of Jesus and the
historicity of the resurrection. The fact that he could make such statements
and not be removed from office was intriguing, and I thought, this is an
interesting church, indeed. Much later, when I became aware of Rev.
Vosper’s writings and her work in her own supportive congregation, I was
impressed with what seemed to be the ability of the church to accept such
wide-ranging views among its clergy, much as my local church accepts a
wide range of belief (or lack thereof) among the congregation. It seemed to
speak to a church that is mature enough to allow its members and clergy to
think critically about the big questions, a church that can allow for open
dialogue and even controversy.
Now it seems that she is to be subjected to a test of her “suitability” for
ministry, using a process that had to be created especially for her case. It is
my understanding that there have been no real complaints about her from
within the church. Her congregation lost ⅔ of its members when she
eliminated the Lord’s Prayer from the service, but they have since grown to
about 100 who support her, encompassing a broad spectrum of thought
and belief, from theistic to atheist and everything in between – probably not
all that different from Windsor United and many other UCCs across the
country. It would seem to be a growing and vibrant church at a time when
most are shrinking and many are shutting their doors (not ours, as it
This causes me deep concern. If she is found to be “unsuitable” and is
expelled, what next? What about other UCC ministers? I’m sure you are
aware that there are a great many clergy across the United Church whose
beliefs are not that different from Rev. Vosper’s but who remain quiet.
Is this test to be applied to all, or is she being singled out because of her
notoriety? Are we going to go on a witch hunt? When we have had other
controversial issues to deal with (such as gay marriage), the church
engaged in a lengthy process of deliberation, with congregations across the
country invited to have structured discussions. Now it seems that we are in
a big hurry to have what some have called a “heresy trial.” Why the
difference? And what about the many in the pews who have serious doubts and
questions about the articles of faith? Such people are there for various
reasons – perhaps habit, tradition, a need for community, or a need to feel
grounded in something.
Many are non-theistic “spiritual seekers” who choose to pursue their quest in the familiar context of the Christianity that they grew up with. If a voice like Rev. Vosper’s is to be silenced, what place is there in this United Church for us?
If Rev. Vosper is allowed to continue to minister to her flock (which it seems
they would welcome), I seriously doubt that many people are going to leave
the UCC. If she is rejected, however, is it possible that a great many will be
forced to ask whether the UCC is a suitable spiritual home for them?
Do you really want to risk that?
Instead of this headlong rush to judge one person, perhaps it would be
wise for the church to take a deep collective breath and give some serious
thought to what the church should look like in the future. I don’t mean an
administrative restructuring like we are going through now, I mean really
look at what this church wants to be and to whom it wants to minister.
There are some who say that the UCC is shrinking because it has
embraced liberalism. While it is certainly true that many people of a more
fundamentalist or evangelical bent have left over the years, it is not the
whole story. Most churches are shrinking for a variety of reasons. I contend
that a big factor is that a great many people who are in need of spiritual
nourishment find the church’s ancient formulas and outmoded language,
derived from prescientific cultures of thousands of years ago, to be
offputting. Is the UCC interested in reaching out to these people and finding
ways to engage them, or does it prefer to be a closed club for those who
are willing to affirm belief in these ancient ideas? Or to put it another way,
does the UCC want to step bravely into the 21st Century, with all the risk
that entails, or does it prefer to turn its back on progress and hope for the
I would prefer to remain a part of a church that is inclusive, welcoming to
all, and big enough to allow for doubt, deep questions, and outspoken
unbelief, even among its clergy. If that is not the United Church of Canada,
then so be it.
Both Toronto Conference and Hamilton Conference had voted by large majorities at their annual meetings this spring to ask the General Council to have its Theology, Inter-Church and Inter-Faith Committee (TICIFC) review the questions of ordination. Nora Sanders, the General Secretary of the UCC, and its highest administrative officer, had ruled that clergy needed to be in continuing affirmation of those questions throughout their ministry in order to be considered suitable. Any clergy person deemed unsuitable if they could not answer those questions affirmatively, could be deemed to be ineffective, one of only two reasons a clergy person can be disciplined by the denomination. By asking that those questions be reviewed, Toronto and Hamilton conference members were acknowledging that the language in them supposes a theological construct, the trinity, and a supernatural divine being that is not the concept of god held by many clergy. Today, the General Council refused to act upon their requests.
I am deeply disappointed that the UCC General Council sent proposals from Toronto and Hamilton Conference requesting a review of ordination questions to a Commission rather than having the whole court deal with them; my understanding of the categorization of proposals for the 42nd General Council, based on a document sent to commissioners by Fred Monteith, Business Chair for the meeting, was that any proposal that anticipated a change in the Basis of Union, would be dealt with by the full court – all the commissioners. Only those “calling the church to take a time-bound stand on national or global issues and/or on an issue for which the church does not have an existing policy or statement” or “contemplate changes to existing General Council policies and procedures,” or “which more properly fall within the purview of another court of the church” were eligible to be sent to a Commission. The rules, whether they were set up especially for this General Council or are existing policy related to proposals, seem to have been changed for these two proposals. (If anyone understands Monteith’s document better than I, please share your understanding in the comments below. It may be that, since the request was to have a committee review the questions and that any impact on the Basis of Union would come to a subsequent General Council and not this one, that it was eligible to be sent to a Commission but that understanding, as far as I can tell, is not represented in Monteith’s preparatory document.) The Commission voted not to act on the Toronto proposal and referred the Hamilton one to the General Council Executive, again, something I didn’t think was procedurally possible when the impact was on the Basis of Union.
The vote was 51% not to act (that is, not to ask the TICIFC to review the questions), 45% to act, and the rest abstaining.
The results are disturbing but not because they went against the review of the questions, despite how critical and timely I think that conversation is. I would be disturbed if the results had been reversed with these same percentages. They are disturbing because they indicate, to me, a deeply divided church. Half of those who voted want the questions of ordination reviewed with a view to making them consistent with contemporary theological understandings. Half believe they should be preserved as they are, reinforcing theological concepts that have been crumbling under critical inquiry for at least a century and very likely much longer. Fifty fifty splits are rancorous. They harm. They reject dialogue and entrench positions. They are not the way that we find a common, sustainable future.
I recall a conversation in my first year of theological study at Queen’s Theological College, now known as Theology at Queen’s School of Religion (and no longer taking new students). It was 1988. General Council was going to be meeting that summer and we knew that the issue of the ordination of gays and lesbians was on the table for discussion. The issue had rocked the church for several years and those individuals who had been proactive in getting it to Council had been treated dismally by members of the church and the general public. It, too, was a fractious time. Our professor asked us whether we should wait until we had the numbers, until we knew we would win, or if we thought we should throw caution to the wind and set the issue before the court, confident that what was right would come about, that those who spoke positively about embracing that change and the justice issues it would champion would be heard. I can’t remember how the class came down on that, but I remember thinking we should just take a stand[ that justice couldn’t wait[ that he church, my church, needed to risk finding its way toward truth; that the Bible, no matter how you parsed it, should never stand in the way of justice.
The decision to embrace the leadership of individuals who put themselves forward for ordination based on their suitability for ministry and not on their sexuality almost split the church. Many congregations lost members. Some whole congregations left. But The United Church of Canada identified itself as the first Christian denomination that embraced the leadership gifts of gays and lesbians (and now all sexualities and genders across the spectrum of diversity). It was a defining moment. We didn’t know, going in, what the numbers were. It wasn’t like a last minute negotiation on The West Wing, with Josh running around trying to get the numbers to make the vote, the triumphant moment unfolding seconds before the vote was called. We took a leap of faith and we landed, bruised and sore but confident that we had made the right choice. History has affirmed our choice.
We didn’t walk into the vote on ordination and sexuality unprepared, even if we didn’t have the numbers all figured out when General Council gathered in 1988. But we had created opportunities for dialogue, for discussion, for learning, for exploration, and we had engaged the wider church in conversation. We had worked at building relationships and articulating values. We had exemplified good process and then, when we needed to, after all that process had unfolded, we stepped out into the unknown, confident that we had done what we could and that justice could wait no longer.
Dialogue is the United Church’s modus operandi. It’s what we do and it’s how we do things. We were born of dialogue and discussion, of compromise and the exploration of unknown territories. We’ve been at it for ninety years, longer if you count the two decades of discussion out of which we were finally born in 1925.
But here’s the thing. Not one official from any court of the church has ever come to speak with me, with West Hill United, the congregation I serve, or with us together about the work we do and why we believe it is the United Church’s work, too. There has been no dialogue. Nothing but silence. Until, after fifteen years of being totally accessible to them and willing to engage, West Hill’s unique stance is challenged by a disciplinary review of its minister, me. Toronto Conference’s Executive Committee, decided against the United Church’s historical nature and ordered a disciplinary review as a way to explore what it is we do. And dialogue continues to be suppressed in relation to this issue; a request for conversation with the General Secretary’s office or the Judicial Committee my review, an attempt to seek an alternate resolution to the concerns raised, was rejected in favour of the disciplinary process.
I am saddened that Toronto Conference’s Executive committee, in stark contrast to the proposal passed by its full court a few short weeks later, rejected the UCC’s time-tested tradition of dialogue, requesting instead a new disciplinary process be created based on the questions of ordination and a minister’s ongoing affirmation of them. Today, the results of the conversation that took place in the Commission reviewing Toronto Conference’s proposal, has proven their decision to be as divisive as it could possibly be. It has led my denomination from the positive outcomes inherent in dialogue to the fractious and dangerous outcomes of divisive debate.
A spiritual naturalist, wearing liturgical vestments, leads a small group in Houston. Gary Coronado, Staff, Houston Chronicle
There is a group currently meeting in Houston that calls its members “spiritual naturalists”. They are, for the most part, people who do not believe in doctrinal claims of any religious sort, but who have noticed that the act of everyday living seems to demand something more from them. So they get together twice a week to converse on philosophical ideas and to participate in various “rituals” gleaned from other religious traditions.
Over the past decades, the liberal church has shrunk dramatically in size. Statistics about The United Church of Canada suggest that we close a church every week. Certainly the numbers in the area in which I have led a congregation for the past eighteen years, have dwindled visibly, some congregations simply closing their doors and turning their property over to the wider church; others sell their building and take the financial windfall down the street to a neighbouring church to shore it up for another few years. The liberal church is in crisis and it knows it.
At West Hill, we’ve transitioned beyond traditional doctrine because we recognized that doctrine was a huge barrier for many who might otherwise have little access to the “off label” benefits of religion – a sense of community; rituals that, when shared, make people feel safe and part of something bigger than themselves; the serotonin boost that can be experienced when people know your name and value your presence; the neurological benefits of meditation, silence, and prayer. Church has provided all these things in the past. When society loses church, social cohesion is also compromised as individual well-being loses the significant benefit that participation (not belief) in religious communities has provided.
Photo by morguefile.com user greyerbaby
Within our services at West Hill, we try to capture those “off-label” benefits. We stand up as a group and sing together (I don’t know of a stronger bonding experience than singing a song together. Religions around the world know this whether intuitively or otherwise). We have a time of greeting where people walk all over the hall hugging one another, shaking hands with newcomers. For some people, it’s the most stressful part of the gathering; for others, it’s the only time in a week that anyone touches them at all. We have interesting discussions on a variety of topics that have to do with creating meaning, living up to a set of ideals we choose for ourselves, speaking about and acknowledging that “bigger than me” human experience that transcends our own personal and limited lives. We feel ourselves in the middle of a bigger picture and we explore it from that perspective, always open to the variety of the many perspectives that gather in our little space.
But West Hill still has barriers to participation. It has not yet significantly moved beyond what I call the “stand up, sit down, pass the plate” rituals of Sunday morning gatherings except for a still-small experimental satellite in Mississauga, the city to the west of Toronto and across the metropolis from our home church. There, like the community in Houston, we discuss the topics of life, relationship, and the challenge of defining and creating meaning. And we have initiated a few rituals that open and close our gatherings. We share the intimacy of a meal. We share the burdens of our hearts. It’s a mix of Bono’s “We get to carry each other” and the Irish term “the shelter of each other,” an image that I often use when speaking of what we can be for one another – sometimes we’re shelter; sometimes we’re sheltered.
There are unlimited religious practices out there that are worthy of redirecting toward the ideals of love, justice, compassion, beauty, goodness, truth …. As meaning-making communities like the liberal church dwindle, our resources are often strained. Gleaning practices that have, for millennia, provided inspiration and strengthened us, seems a wise option; indeed, they have been re-articulated by Deepak Chopra (Hinduism), Eckhart Tolle (Buddhism) and Don Miguel Ruis (Toltec wisdom) and become very popular. Still, there is a growing need for the rituals that bring us back to one another, a direction that I do not find foundational in the new interpretations of these traditions; I find they focus more on personal enlightenment and fulfillment and than on social cohesion and civic engagement. It is in these latter areas that I believe our greater work is yet to be done.
Not everyone eschews traditional Sunday morning church. Not everyone finds meditation helpful. Not everyone wants to participate in rituals, particularly if they hold some wahoo meaning that no one is quite able to articulate. Not everyone wants to walk a labyrinth (my husband gets hives just parking on the labyrinth in West Hill’s back parking lot), light candles, spend time on their knees, or dip their fingertips in water and touch their foreheads. Not everyone wants to sing with other people unless they are at that Bono concert, singing “One”. Our communities, towns, and cities, are made up of people with diverse interests and needs, and a variety of personalities, each of which has distinct likes and dislikes. But everyone needs human touch, the inspiration that comes from the meaning created in our lives, an experience of being trusted and forgiven, a person who will, when needed, provide shelter for a wounded heart or carry us when we forget our own strengths. Our churches could be the places where such connections are made. They could be. The question is, will they be?
When the Re-Imagining conference took place over twenty years ago, the greatest outcries against it were for its “syncretism,” the blending of different traditions into Christianity, a practice that was considered heretical and dangerous. But Christianity is an amalgam of many different realities that presented the church as it grew and developed. Gleaned spiritual practices can provide renewed engagement, particularly if they are repackaged to meet the needs of a growing segment of society that is critical of religious dogma. Of course, there are practices that should remain in the historical record – hair shirts, self-flagellation, ritual sacrifice, probably even liturgical vestments – but there many that we could use to create places of inspiration and transformation. Not only for ourselves, but for the communities in which we live, work, and love.
On Sunday, March 15th, Eric Andrew-Gee of the Toronto Star joined us in our weekly gathering. It was a busy morning. We’d removed half the pews that Saturday in one of our first efforts at continuing our work toward creating a barrier-free community, this time focused on the challenges that traditional forms of gathering as church pose to those not familiar comfortable with them. The one side of the Gathering Hall was filled with an assortment of chairs gathered from different parts of the church or donated or on loan from congregational members. As the day’s reader noted, they perfectly reflected the diversity of the community. Much to my surprise, it was the chairs that filled up first; latecomers were forced into the not-so-comfy mid-century pews on the other side of the room.
Eric hadn’t been sure when he arrived that he had actually found the church he was looking for. The building doesn’t look much like a church at all. The only colored glass, v-shaped windows on the original roof, is covered with large rectangular windows set into the reshaped structure when it was renovated in the late 1980s. There is no steeple but a large steel cross on the north side of the building’s front entrance is now stunningly visible from Kingston Road; the tree that once obscured it from view was blown down in a wind storm a few years ago. You can’t see the cross from the normal entrance to the church from the parking lot, though, so Eric, who has no previous or ongoing experience of church or congregational life, had to run up the stairs to inquire whether he was in the right place.
It was the third Sunday of the month. On that weekend each month, our leadership team – Scott, me, and our choral director, Babette – head over to Mississauga to lead our satellite community, West West Hill. Without the history of a traditional congregation, that community gathers around a meal and an activity or discussion rather than the format usually experienced in our Scarborough setting. So we’ve been using that particular week of the month to do something a bit different at our home base and the new chair set-up was perfect for it. Having gleaned words and phrases from West Hill’s newly embraced version of VisionWorks, our guiding document, we explored our relationship to our values and what happens in us when others deride them or uplift them with us.
Eric said he’d never experienced church like that. But then, he doesn’t have a lot of experience in church.
Photo credit Eric Andrew-Gee, Toronto Star
The article, “Atheist Minister Praises the Glory of Good,” appeared in the Monday edition of the Toronto Star. As with most newspaper articles, it made me nod and made me wince. Nothing is ever perfectly portrayed by the media. My comment about Jesus, for instance, was one in a somewhat longish exchange about the problematic sources, dubious historicity, and contradictory stories about him. Eric’s blackberry skills may have captured all of it but his journalistic skills pointed him toward the most controversial lines. I get it and I’m okay with it. I just wish it provoked conversation instead of the black and white comments and responses of either derision or accolade. Interesting that we had been exploring that very thing in our service that morning.
And I wish the remarks about Scott, an integral and incredibly important leader at West Hill (to say nothing of the breadth of wisdom and depth of encouragement he offers with me personally) hadn’t been so petty. Scott is far more than a sidekick when it comes to West Hill. What he shared with Eric in conversation was brilliant but, unfortunately, nothing of it was included in the piece.
Here is the article. The comments there and on the United Church Facebook page suggest that tonight’s presbytery meeting will be interesting. It is the first time I’ve been able to attend a meeting this year and the first time I’ve driven home from a meeting without being able to talk it over with my mom, laughing or crying or both. Whatever happens, I’ll be missing her more this evening than anything else.
It’s been two months since the articles of the “Beyond Belief” piece in The Observer were published so it was with some trepidation I opened my newly arrived copy to see what the response had been. Eight years ago, when the first article “Out of the Box” was published, letters flooded the editor’s office and the letters section of the magazine for a full year. Many were vitriolic, many very supportive. My favourite then was from a woman out west who suggested that “Maybe ministers shouldn’t be that honest.” I loved that!
This time, it’s a whole new world. I’m hardly standing alone anymore with more and more colleagues both within the United Church and other denominations finding it possible to give voice to their doubts or non-belief. Atheism is in the news. The Sunday Assembly is planting atheist churches across the United Kingdom and the United States. Secular congregations are popping up all over the place. Perhaps the only strange thing about what I do is that I’m still doing it in the United Church, convinced as I am that my denomination has what it takes to open itself to real conversation about belief, disbelief, and the unpacking of those peculiar phrases heard so often in church, “God loves you,” “God be with you,” “What is God saying to us in this situation?”, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” Until we can really explain what we’re doing to that baby, why what one person thinks God told him is so radically different from what another believes God told her, and why it never really feels like God’s love when you’ve been given a horrible diagnosis or lost a loved one to violence and why, for many, it certainly doesn’t feel like God is anywhere close, we won’t really have created a safe place to question, despite our desire to look like we have. But I digress ….
I wanted to share the letter sent to the editor of The Observer that most touched me. In the article, I spoke of being a product of the United Church’s 1960s New Curriculum. Because of it, I had never been fed as much traditional doctrinal Christianity as many have. As a result, the intellectual shift away from language that masked what I really understood god to be to language that is clearly understood was not a big one. It really only took my needing to see clearly that my words were not understood “as poetry”, as Ken Gallinger said in his piece in the same October issue. So it was wonderful to see this letter amongst those that were printed in January’s edition.
“I am the last survivor of the four person senior editorial team of the New Curriculum. Gretta Vosper has wrestled with her understanding of God, and I hear her saying that, in part, she owes her theological perspective to the fact that she is a product of the New Curriculum. Thank you to Vosper for suggesting that it helped her to begin her own deep reflection. Her stance is not the only one possible, but it does point to the fact that our major problem in the church today is that of the meaning of God.
“Vosper suggests that we should have kept on with what we started in the 1960s, but perhaps we are too late. Yes indeed. If only.”
Rev. Gordon John Freer
Thank you, Gordon, for the gift you gave me fifty years ago, and for this new one. The first helped set me on a path. The second is a lovely bouquet received along the way.
As a result of various Facebook conversations taking place that pose questions about the appropriateness of my ministry as an atheist within The United Church of Canada, I’ve been asked by Evan Smith, who is in the process toward ordination, to address the issue. Here is her question, followed by my response.
Hi Gretta. I hope things are well for you. I’m sure you know this but if not, three times recently there have been lengthy facebook debates on various sites about what it means to be an atheist church leader. I keep wondering in these posts the same questions, and because everyone is having this conversation without you, you never actually get a chance to reply. So I’m gonna be the one to ask you the question. I am wondering and feel free to disregard this, feel free to think I’m annoying and whatever, but my question is, as a minister and an atheist, how do you find yourself in essential agreement with the statements of faith? I am not trying to attack you, I am partially curious just because this is something I have been thinking about a lot as I go into my final interviews and in a period of five years have moved from being agnostic to having a high Christology, but it is also something that I don’t want to talk behind your back about as a colleague. Sorry in advance, I don’t know how you will react to this message, but with all the accusations on these conversations about how we should just ask you, I thought maybe I just would. Peace and blessings, Evan
And now, my response:
Thanks for your straightforward question, Evan. The answer, I’m afraid, isn’t so simple as there are so many facets to it and they all hold together; without all of it, the answer is incomplete, so please indulge me.
When I was ordained, it was (and I think remains) beyond my power (“ultra vires”) to state that I was in essential agreement with the Statements of Faith; the Education and Students Committee of Conference had to determine if candidates were in essential agreement and, if the committee was so convinced, to present the ordinands to the Conference to be voted upon. The doctrinally drenched questions you will need to answer many excellent leaders from entering the United Church because they can only be answered guilelessly if one believes in a strictly theistic interpretation of God. I lament that those who cannot answer the UCC’s 2007 ordination questions because of the theistic language inherent in them will not be working with you and me to create and nurture places of belonging for those Canadians who, regardless of their beliefs, might otherwise look to the UCC for a “spiritual” home. I lament that many who read the arguments taking place on Facebook find themselves excluded from the church in ways they never imagined they would be.
The concept of a theistic god is one that I was encouraged throughout my childhood, my theological training, and my ministry, to wrestle with and, for the most part, discard. (This should not be a surprise, raised as I was with the New Curriculum in Sunday school and studying contemporary critical scholarship at seminary.) At the same time, I was given metaphorical understandings of religious terms such as “god” and stories such as the resurrection that helped me make sense of religion and my world. I have come to believe, however, that using theistic language metaphorically without disclosing that you are doing so is a form of dishonesty in which I no longer wish to participate, fluent in it though I once was. And simply saying that God is a metaphor without saying what it is a metaphor “for”, if not dishonest, is at least lacking in clarity.
As an atheist, I do not believe in a theistic god called God and, although I did as a child, by the time I reached theological college, I was hungry for another interpretation of the concept. There I found not one but several and a permission to create and mould my theological understanding as it suited the context in which I would be challenged to preach it (Paul). I was astonished when, after a decade of doing so, I found that very few, if any, congregants recognized that my understanding of the concept of god or my interpretations of the stories of the Bible were metaphors for life and the costly love we are, at every turn, challenged to weave into it. When I tried to figure out why no one was “getting it”, it wasn’t hard to find: everything in my services other than my sermons was steeped in a pre-Copernican theology. And it was a fickle theology that could be used to reinforce any number of grievous assaults on humanity, the planet, and ourselves. Indeed, I was ordained at a time when many members of the United Church used that same language and the literal interpretations of the stories we thought we were presenting as metaphors to argue in support of the denial of rights and access to the LGBTQ community. I have seen, as most of my colleagues have, the ugliness that a literal ignorance of scripture can uphold. I could no longer affirm such theology through the use of terms that reinforce it and so began disentangling my understanding of god, the concept of god, from it.
Science, anthropology, psychology, sociology, and Biblical history and criticism have offered us the insight that long ago, in order to explain reality and quell our fear and helplessness, we as humans gradually took the highest and best of human characteristics, ideals and activities, constructed an image of a supernatural being, and projected the best (and sometimes the worst) of ourselves onto it. Like us, but not like us, this god was not merely good but wholly good, not merely powerful, but all-powerful, not merely wise, but all-wise. Like us, but not like us, this god could not merely say and do things, but intervene with supernatural power to change things for the better. In my theological education, we were taught to reverse this historical view and take “god” words as metaphors for these very qualities and activities that they originally matched: our highest ideals, our strength and wisdom, our goodness and compassion, and also our capacity to act for good in the world. If, then, god-words, doctrinal words, are metaphors for these vital, human attributes and possibilities, it seems clear to me that we either be perfectly clear each time we use doctrinal terms that we are speaking only as metaphor, or simply use the words directly. Awe, wonder, integrity, connection, empathy, kindness, justice – these are precious and powerful and necessary all on their own – they need no other authority or validation. If the United Church is demanding that its people use metaphorical language instead of direct language to express themselves, then we run the danger of distancing, even alienating ourselves from the millions of people who cherish these values and take part in acts of justice and compassion without using metaphors about the idea of god or the god, God, to describe them. We at West Hill cherish the same values as the United Church has always and continues to stand for. We have chosen to speak of those values directly, not metaphorically. We make no claims for what we do not and cannot know. We honour everyone’s right to hold the beliefs they choose. We want to be about the work that moves us beyond the beliefs that divide to the unity of purpose that will enable us to live with deep respect for ourselves, for others, and for the planet.
I believe, as Don Cupitt says in his latest book, that anyone trained in a mainline theological seminary can be nothing other than a sceptic when it comes to the theistic god called God. That scepticism often takes us far beyond the doctrinally theistic God who “calls” you to ministry. I suspect that most of my colleagues could not complete the statement, “When I use the word ‘god’, I mean….” without resorting to non-, post-, or a-theistic language. Often, (as I suspect recently happened in the interview printed in the current Observer) the question is avoided by clergy who are uncomfortable walking too close beside me; their answers would distance them from the classical theism they want to be seen (by their parishioners) to believe. Once you let people know you use the word metaphorically, that it doesn’t mean a supernatural god that can intervene in human affairs or the natural world, it gets challenging. Answering the onslaught of subsequent questions is difficult. I have already heard far too many clergy patronizingly tell me they, too, don’t believe in the god I don’t believe in while being unwilling to tell me “and their parishioners” what they mean when they use that word, and responsibly answering the ensuing questions. Neither have they been willing to admit that the reality of the god they don’t believe in manifests and supports all kinds of horrors around this world and that it continues to be fed by the liberal assent to belief that the Bible is TAWOGFAT. As the liberal mitigation of the power of that god abates with the decline of the mainline church, fundamentalist beliefs, often nurtured by an absence from church (“I don’t need to go to church to be a good Christian”) that has bred a frightening biblical and ethical ignorance over generations, will only grow in strength and that is something I fear; you should, too.
I was opposed to the latest remit on the recognition of the various statements of faith as subordinate documents. My perspective did not prevent (or even influence) the conversation my congregation had which led them to vote in favour of the remit. My concerns were that the discussion at GC was pre-empted by John Young’s motion which, in my opinion, circumvented the initial intent of Saskatchewan Conference’s petition. They had argued that the language and theology of the Articles of Faith of the Basis of Union were no longer representative of the beliefs of the denomination’s members (or what was being taught in theological seminaries) and were hampering the ordination process for those who believed differently. But the motion Young made argued the primacy of the Bible, something we, as a denomination, had refused to acknowledge a decade or so before. Young, and those who helped him frame the motion, were inserting into our theology a more rigid and orthodox doctrine than the denomination had embraced in practice in some years. That they framed it in a motion that suggested it was a “progressive” step and travelled the country to reinforce that, assured its success. It could be argued that the Bible is now established as the authoritative document of the United Church; however, since that belief was something originally only recognized in what we have since proclaimed a “subordinate” document, it is as trustworthy as the Bible being the only source (beyond personal “interpretation” of experience) for any proof of God.
Because I can easily come up with a definition of the word “god” that would allow me to use it as many of my colleagues do, that is, without any compromise of my lack of belief in an interventionist deity, I could easily resurrect my use of theological language and use it to share my perspectives on the world, personal realities, politics, economics (Jesus against Caesar or Empire as Dom Crossan would put it) and be easily affirmed as being in “essential agreement”. I cannot do so because it would be dishonest in that it would allow others to project onto my words things that I do not believe but that are common within their use. We have little time for dissembling. The losses that I believe are associated with the decline of mainline, liberal denominations like the UCC are significant and have been rippling through society for decades. The effects are now growing, mounting like tidal waves and contributing to the challenges communities, nations, and humanity are experiencing. Bringing people together who want to work to oppose these forces is, I believe, what the stories of Jesus were about. Not all of them, of course, but some of them and we only ever use some of them, basing our interpretations of Jesus on the interpretations we want to believe are right. (Check out the voting procedures for the Jesus Seminar or any other process that seeks to remove subjectivity from outcomes. Or, think about leadership skills and promise me you won’t model your relationship with your first Board on the relationship Jesus had with his disciples, calling them all sorts of names and expressing exasperation with their stupidity! We all pick and choose and it is wise to do so.) Whether they came from an individual, were woven around much older, Hebraic tales, grew out of ancient Egyptian mythology, were infused with Platonic thought, or were, as has most recently been argued, crafted by first century Romans, is of little import to me. Whatever it takes to build community around the principle of love being lived out along the edge of a ragged and complex justice and a deeply empathic compassion is what I want to work toward. If the fact that I do so without using the word “god” or focusing on ancient stories of a man who may or may not have been an intrinsic part of the original telling of those stories sets me apart from the denomination that taught me to think this way, I am both surprised and deeply saddened by that.
The West Hill Board and I reflect from time to time (based on whatever challenging decision we may be wrestling with) on the possibility that I or we will be rejected by the United Church. Each time, we have determined that the cost of creating inspirational community beyond the beliefs that divide is such an important element of our work that we must take the risk involved. Providing a language that is barrier-free is the only way to do that and, to date, our decisions have kept us focused on that work. It may not be your work and it may not even be recognized by some as United Church work. But I think it is UCC work in exactly the same way as was the ordination of women, the acceptance of divorce, the advocacy for a woman’s right to choose, the acceptance, celebration and ordination of people of diverse sexualities and gender truths, the breaking of apartheid, the boycott of goods from illegal Israeli settlements, etc., etc., and I hope that the United Church can be a haven for those who are otherwise excluded, exiled, or marginalized by the church because their beliefs are not reflected within the language of its doctrine or who simply want to come together in community – beyond the beliefs that divide humanity – to struggle toward a sustainable future, the right relationships with self, others, and the planet that can be manifest within it, and to be inspired and supported as they do so. That’s the work we are currently about and I will continue to support and nourish that work in whatever way I can because it needs to be done, with or without the god called God, and with or without essential agreement. While some may lose sleep over that, others lose sleep when they hear of United Church ministers tying 13 year olds to crosses and dabbing them with red paint. The UCC is a big tent and those opposed to the work we do aren’t the only ones who sometimes wonder if that tent is too big.
Accusations are plenty when it comes to the perception of privilege I and my congregation experience by remaining in the United Church. Some suggest that our building is a benefit we don’t deserve because we aren’t really Christia; others argue I am taking advantage of the United Church’s benefits or remain in the United Church because of my pension. I feel I need to ensure that people are aware that West Hill is not dependent upon the United Church financially. Sometimes, because we attract people who have no church experience or who come from other, more hierarchical denominations, we have to explain that we pay our own bills from donations received from those in the congregation and beyond who support our work but this is not something I would expect I would need to explain to other United Church clergy. West Hill continues to pay its TUCC held mortgage and, as it does so, increases the property holdings of The United Church of Canada, not our own private reserves. We recognize that, should we be asked to leave the denomination, we would leave behind the church building we currently call home but maintain on behalf of the UCC. Quite frankly, we would be better off financially were we to be free of that responsibility. We continue to support the Mission and Service Fund of the United Church recognizing that much of the work it does is work we believe needs to keep happening. We continue to contribute to the medical and dental plan which benefits all UCC personnel and to the pension plan, the payout of which hovers around the national poverty line. All of the contributions to that pension fund (your pension fund) will have been paid directly by me and the people who work alongside me in this work. Clearly, one is not in the ministry in The United Church of Canada for either the salary or the pension.
The bigger question for me is not whether or not I am in essential agreement with the denomination or whether West Hill has a right to remain within the UCC but whether the UCC is able to be honest about the dissonance between the education it provides its clergy and that being received by those in the pews. Can we be honest about believing in a metaphorical understanding of god? Can we survive that conversation with our parishioners and supporters? Can we do what William Sparrow, Dean of Virginia Theological Seminary in the mid-nineteenth century challenged his students to do? “Seek the truth, come whence it may, cost what it will, lead where it might”? That is the question that I have because I am betting every day on this denomination and that it has the strength and the courage to be forthright with its members about what we really mean when we use the word “god” and that it will stop obfuscating and so be able to enter into a meaningful and important conversation about what it will take to save, really save, humanity. And it isn’t the god most people think you’re talking about when you use that word, nuanced and enriched as you believe your interpretations are. Whether you believe in a divine, interventionist god or not, we (humans, not Christians) are, when it comes right down to it, the only answer we have to the problems that plague humanity today. I am betting on the United Church being intentional about being in the midst of that important conversation, engaging in it with integrity, providing safe, barrier-free space for it to happen, and celebrating those individuals and congregations that have the courage to work toward such goals. If the UCC breaks faith with that work – work in which it has been engaged throughout the whole of my life – because it chooses the reinforcement of exclusive doctrine over that important and costly work, it will be I who will have been betrayed, not the denomination. The United Church I love and give my life to is not about defending the faith but about defending human rights and the planet we live on; not about being right but about being compassionate and just and courageous; not about being separate and distinct, but about being engaged and involved; not about requiring uniformity in doctrine but unity in love for one another.
First, a disclaimer. I am not an expert in this area so I would recommend that you be intentional about seeking out information from a variety of sources that are able to provide more detail than that found here. The United Church national website has several links to the issue to which they have given the name “Unsettling Goods“. Kairos-Palestine (not related to Kairos here in Canada) has considerable information, too. There is a long list of United Nations resolutions to be found on Wikipedia that point to the attempts to restrain Israel’s encroachment upon Palestinian land, to set permanent borders, to refrain from taking land as a war bounty, etc., etc. The history is long and I am familiar with only slightly more than the headline version of it. If you want to correct me on something, feel free to do so.
The main point that I have distilled from all my reading, however, is that Israel continues to act in defiance of international law. The United Church is saying, “That’s not okay!”, their version of my niece’s admonishment of customers in a Costco line-up when she was two: “No pushing!” And they are backing up their words with actions. The boycott extends exclusively to goods manufactured in “illegal settlements”. It is not a blanket boycott of Israel although there were certainly factions who argued for that. That the Jewish representatives of many interfaith dialogue groups who had conversed for years with many of my colleagues became incensed by the United Church’s position is confusing to me. The Zionist pursuit of the colonization of the whole of Palestine has always been distasteful in these groups and rejected by many – if not all – of the Jewish delegates to those conversations. This is not about Judaism. It is about what is right and what is right according to international standards, laws, and treaties. I am completely boggled as to why the international community has not risen up in protest before now. But to name a critique of an illegal Israeli political aggression an affront to Judaism is, in my mind, a red herring and beneath the level of discourse that this situation deserves.
The history is deep and challenging on both sides. My limited understanding is that the United Nations voted in favour of a partition that was never really recognized (Arab states unanimously opposed). Israel was to get a majority of the land even though they owned little of it and had fewer people. Lines had been redrawn to create a 60% majority in Israel held areas, but there was no guarantee that they would be able to maintain control of those lands with that slim a majority and an expectation that all who lived within the boundaries would be citizens of the state. The Palestinians did not accept that they were being given the smaller portion of the land despite their greater numbers and the reality that, at the time, Jews only owned 7% of the land (some people say 6%). Why, they argued, should they end up with the smaller portion when they owned most of the land to begin with and there were more of them? The end result was civil war, replaced by the Arab-Israeli war a few months later when the State of Israel was declared.
In and amongst the withdrawal of the British and the civil war, there was no opportunity to peacefully and creatively clarify boundaries and borders that would a) acknowledge the long history of the Palestinians in the region, b) create sufficient space for a influx of Jews from their dispersion throughout the world, and c) be acceptable to both parties. The result has been that Israel’s boundaries have been drawn by war but never formally defined. Within a very short time of the declaration of the State of Israel, they had, by force, acquired 75% of the land of Palestine. Obviously that had belonged to Palestinians and the history of things like Operation Hiram have left blood under the fingernails of Israel, blood that Palestinians can smell all the way from the refugee camps many still inhabit. The international community responded but, in the eyes of those whose villages were destroyed and whose families were violated and massacred, it was never enough so the hatred continues, generations later.
Under international law, the acquisition of land by force is illegal. The land taken in the early years of Israel’s statehood was illegally gotten land but, for some reason, no one in the international community seems to have said anything, allowing the boundaries to be assumed as the Zionists had achieved them. It is interesting that the acceptance of Israel by the international community was pretty much based on the borders set out in the partition act but as peace treaties were negotiated with Israel’s neighbours, the annexed land became part of the non-defined geography of the State of Israel as Israel created peace treaties with neighbours.
It is also interesting that West Hill has begun a petition regarding our responsibilities as parties to First Nations’ Treaties; I see the situation as being similar in Israel. Although Israel expropriated (by force) much of the land of Palestine, they do not live up to the responsibilities they said, in their Declaration of Independence, they would live up to with respect to people living within their country. That declaration states that the State of Israel will uphold democratic principles like ensuring all its inhabitants have equal rights and freedoms without regard to religion, race, gender. It entrenched freedom of religion, language, education, and culture. The Knesset feels differently about it and does not recognize it as law thereby justifying the differences in ways that Palestinians within its pseudo-borders (and outside of them) are treated. As with our petition, it is the people of Israel who must rise up and call on their government to live up to its own responsibilities and international obligations just as we have had to stand up and ask our government to appropriately live up to our obligations.
Where the United Church comes down on it has been denounced as anti-Semitic and anti-Jewish. It is not. Within the United Church documents and its conversation on the topic, the right of the State of Israel to exist was honoured and recognized over and again. There is no threat to the right of the Jewish people to have their own state and, yes, history reminds us how important that right is. That said, however, Israel does not have the right to continue to displace people as they have been doing for decades through acts of war and aggression. Yes, there are terrorist attacks against Israel. I know that. But I try to put myself in the position of a displaced people and I find I have more sympathy for them than for the multibillion dollar military machine that hunts them down when they send rockets. Israel has continued to be the major aggressor and the UN has recognized that, although they use bulldozers rather than rocket launchers and so escape the mainstream media’s pursuit of blood for their headlines. A Palestinian rocket into a settlement will be at the top of the news every time. The international community has stated refugees should be allowed to return to their homes but Israel moves others into those areas and the homes are no longer available (and often no longer in existence, having been bombed or bulldozed long ago). Settlements continue to grow and spread throughout the land, often destroying homes and farms that have been in families for generations. The transportation systems that link settlements cut through areas populated by Palestinians and cut family members off from one another and from their sources of income. Check points make simple connections horribly cumbersome.
Although I try to tread carefully in the area of faith when it comes to these issues, I believe that faith has a lot to do with the tensions but we’re not supposed to really say that. The Zionist vision, the Muslim vision, the evangelical Christian vision – they are all egregious in their unblinking pursuit of power in the name of YHWH, Allah, or God. That one reason would be enough to inspire me to continue doing the work I do for decades. This broken world has seen more than its fill of divisive religious agendas. It is time we began looking at one another and recognizing ourselves in each other’s eyes. It is, I am convinced, the only way forward. Until that day, however, I feel convinced that we must stand in the face of oppression and speak clearly and loudly. And so, I applaud the United Church for taking this stand which far too many have denigrated as anti-Jewish.
The following is an excerpt from my speech, The Perfect Storm, given at CCPC’s conference, Christianity: The Story Evolves, this week in Halifax. There are many other things that make me proud of the church of my heritage, but this brief synopsis got the point across. It was, of course, a prelude to a significant “But, ….” which I’ll post another time.
The United Church amended its crest in 2012 to recognize Aboriginal churches that were part of union in 1925 but never recognized.
I am proud to be a member of The United Church of Canada. Nowhere else in the world would I be tolerated. That may seem like an incredible thing and I get emails letting me know how incredible it is on a fairly regular basis. But the truth of the matter is that I am proud to be a member and a leader in The United Church of Canada because there are whole segments of the population that are also tolerated in leadership positions within this church. Divorced people, women, gay, lesbian, transgender people. In other denominations, too many of the world’s people are seen only as mission fields, as potential candidates for conversion or volunteers with no official title. I am proud to be a member of The United Church of Canada because we ordained women over 75 years ago and the Roman Catholic Church hasn’t yet figured out how to do that. I am proud to be a member of The United Church of Canada because we ordained married women in the 1960s, and affirmed a woman’s right to an abortion in the 1970s and because we decided to forgive and move on when divorce fractured a clergy marriage. All that was done decades ago yet evangelical denominations around the world continue to consider divorce and abortion so sinful that they exclude from leadership those whose lives have had to reconcile such devastations, naming them as unfit for ministry – volunteer or otherwise. I am proud to be a member of The United Church of Canada because, in the 1980s, it embraced the leadership being offered by our LGBTQ sisters and brothers; twenty five years later, the Anglican Communion continues to obfuscate on decisions related to sexuality either because it might be against God’s will or because it might be objected to by the fastest growing group within its bounds – the African Church. And I am proud of The United Church of Canada now as it struggles with the new definitions of Christianity that you are placing on the table and with which you continue to invite it to engage.