Tag Archives: West Hill United

My Response To Being Found To Be Unsuitable

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

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

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

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

With my legal team at Toronto Conference sub-Executive

With my legal team at Toronto Conference sub-Executive

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And so we have continued to change.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Sea Change in The United Church of Canada: Part One

The process that led to the review of my effectiveness

Over the next few days, I’m going to be posting material pertinent to the United Church disciplinary process that has come to light because of the current review of my effectiveness. That may be of little interest to some of you, especially if you’re not clergy in the UCC. That said, if you know anyone who is ministry personnel within the UCC or who knows of one, I ask that you share it.

There has been a lot of media attention drawn to the review of my effectiveness as a minister in the UCC who identifies as an atheist. But what has not been explored is the incredible change this process has wrought on the United Church disciplinary process. That’s the church that raised me, trained me, and to which I have given the best years of my life. That my ministry has worked such drastic changes upon it is disturbing to me.

The changes in the United Church disciplinary process that are a result of Toronto Conference’s concerns about my leadership need to be understood. Those who know and love the once progressive United Church need to know exactly what the challenges now are.

I’ll begin by sharing a bit about the process that led to the review and my concerns related to it. Those concerns start with the new Effective Leadership and Healthy Pastoral Relationships project. Within that project, presbyteries transferred the oversight of clergy to conferences, a very important part of the new United Church disciplinary process. The effects of that transfer are yet to be completely understood. One of the most challenging problems has come to light because of my review. I’m sharing that with you in this blog.

The Effective Leadership Project

In 2012, the General Council of the UCC voted in favour of introducing the Effective Leadership Project which had been developed over a number of years. It was aimed at streamlining pastoral relations processes in the church. Conferences were invited to participate in pilot projects that would help introduce the project and feel for any challenges it might introduce. Toronto Conference, the one in which West Hill, the community I serve, is situated, engaged the project in this pilot phase.

Transfer of oversight

The pilot project required the freedom to act outside of the standard methods of practice in order to test the new methods out. In May, 2013, the General Council Executive made that move.

Motion: Bev Kostichuk/Florence Sanna 2013-05-16-081
The General Secretary of the General Council proposes that:
1. The following Conferences be authorized to engage in a process for testing the principles
of the Effective Leadership and Healthy Pastoral Relationships approved by the 41 st
General Council:

a. Maritime
b. Montreal and Ottawa
c. Bay of Quinte
d. Toronto
e. Hamilton
f. London
g. Manitou
h. Manitoba and North Western Ontario
i. Saskatchewan
j. British Columbia
k. All Native Circle

2. That the Conferences of Bay of Quinte, Toronto, Hamilton, London, Manitou, British Columbia be exempted from the polity and bylaws of the United Church Manual as detailed in the background section below for the duration of the testing period for the Effective Leadership and Healthy Pastoral Relationships proposal approved by the 41st General Council;

3. That, upon request, the General Secretary be authorized to grant further exemptions from polity and by-laws related to Conference or Presbytery responsibilities for pastoral relationships, needs assessments, and the oversight and discipline of ministry personnel in order to enable testing of the Effective Leadership and Healthy Pastoral Relationships proposal approved by the 41 st General Council.

CARRIED

Wait a minute! We can’t do that. Presbytery has to do it.

Included in the background document was a note that stated presbyteries were to ask their conference to take on the roles presbyteries normally held that were affected by the introduction of the pilot project. That the General Council Executive made the motion didn’t matter. The Basis of Union had granted the presbyteries powers that the General Council could not revoke. Therefore, the presbyteries needed to ask for the change. The oversight of Ministry Personnel was one of the areas transferred to the Conference.

Concerns regarding ministry personnel in the UCC

The section regarding the oversight of ministry personnel, formerly infamously known as “363”, was one of the sections covered in the backgrounder. Within the new section J9, The Manual is explicit about who can raise issues of concern regarding clergy. Presbyteries have to take concerns seriously. But those concerns can’t just come from anybody. The Manual provided for that and ensured that concerns could only come from someone who had first hand knowledge of the situation. If the presbytery was going to raise the concern itself, well, it had a direct relationship with every clergy person within it. All ministry personnel are members of presbytery and are supposed to be in regular attendance of its meetings.

In the United Church disciplinary process related to ministry personnel, the single common element shared by all parties that can raise a significant concern about a minister is that direct relationship had with the minister. The person(s) or court raising the concern know(s) the individual. In fact, they work with them either in the pastoral charge or in the presbytery of which the minister is a member.

9.2 Concerns about Ministry Personnel

The presbytery is responsible for the oversight of ministry personnel. It must take seriously any concerns that come to its attention about any ministry personnel. These concerns may be raised by

(a) the presbytery itself, including any member or committee of the presbytery;
(b) a ministry personnel settled in or appointed to the same pastoral charge;
(c) the pastoral charge supervisor;
(d) the governing body of the pastoral charge; or
(e) a proposal signed by 10 full members of the pastoral charge that the pastoral charge’s governing body has passed on to the presbytery.

And now we must think about the implications

When, in accordance with the direction of the General Council, presbyteries asked conferences to take over the presbyteries’ former oversight role, I wonder if they understood the implication of their request. I don’t think they had really thought through what it would mean for clergy when those raising concerns didn’t have to really know the individual. And I don’t think they really considered that they no longer had the right to raise concerns themselves.  Transferring those rights to conferences removed the requirement of direct relationship and made clergy far more vulnerable. The conference, which can now raise a concern with or without the input of anyone who knows the clergy person, may or may not itself have a relationship direct enough to be able to discuss concerns about a minister. Indeed, they might end up going on hearsay and hunches, prejudices and opinions. Indeed, that’s just what happened at Toronto Conference in 2015.

Concerns raised about my beliefs….

It might seem easy to argue that everyone knows what the issue related to my review is: I’m an atheist, for goodness’ sake! But the process for reviewing my theological beliefs didn’t even exist when concerns were raised at a meeting of the Toronto Conference Executive Committee in April, 2015. The United Church disciplinary process was in flux and Toronto Conference was affected by the movement. At that meeting, David Allen, the Executive Secretary,

reported on concerns that have been raised regarding Rev. Gretta Vosper describing herself as an atheist. A letter from Metropolitan United Church was referenced as one of the responses. The Executive Secretary outlined various options to be considered. The Executive discussed what action it wished to take on this matter.

The letter from Metropolitan United Church was from the Chair of the Official Board, Vera Taylor. But if you read it closely, you’ll note that it doesn’t actually name me. Rather, it erroneously refers to West Hill as an atheist church in a letter that seems to be seeking clarity about the theology of the church in general. In a letter to the General Secretary, Scan MUC Letter completeAllen notes that the letter from Metropolitan United raises concerns about West Hill United Church but he does not say anything about me. The oversight of congregations was not transferred to the Conference; it remained with presbytery. That being the case, and Allen’s original note to the General Secretary having acknowledged the letter was about West Hill, perhaps Toronto Conference should have forwarded the letter to Toronto Southeast Presbytery. That Allen raised it in a Conference Executive meeting and said that it was a response to my self-identification as an atheist, is confusing.

Who are these people?

I received copies of two other letters from conference shortly after the sub-Executive chose to initiate a review of my effectiveness based on the General Secretary’s subsequent ruling. (Look for Part Two, coming next). The conference hadn’t received either of them at the time of its April meeting. It took a year for me to receive them all. The emails and letters were sent to the General Council office or Toronto Conference following the publication of an article in the Toronto Star in March, 2016. That article was short, sassy, written by someone who knew little about religion and less about the United Church, and had at least one serious misquote in it. Which is inconsequential at this point. What matters is that I have no idea who any of these people are.

Whether you know the UCC or not, feel free to comment

IMG_20160831_0001 email removed

Some of the writers, like Colleen who sent her missive through the General Council’s online contact form, are definitely not even related to the United Church. Her opinions, such as her intimation that we should all be Creationists, make it clear that she is not familiar with the United Church at all and was using the Star article to express her derision toward a liberal, mainline denomination in general. I just happened to be the focal point for that derision.

Others, like retired clergy James McKnight, are considerate and respectful. He comes from the position of one who has worked within the United Church all his life. But I have never, to my knowledge, met him. Nor, to my knowledge, has he visited West Hill United.

JAmes McKnight

The handwritten letter from Elaine appears to be from someone who also knows the United Church.  She may be a member of the denomination. Again, I do not know if we have ever met or if she has any first hand knowledge of West Hill. Letter Elaine

IMG_20160831_0002 email removedThe emails from JoAnne and Ann seem to be from individuals who are not members of the United Church. Ann appears to be aware that Ken Gallinger chose to remain in the pulpit until retirement, disclosing his atheism when he no longer needed to lead services. She has no problem with his choice to do so. Again, I have no idea if I have ever met these women or if they have ever stepped foot in West Hill’s building or attended a service there.
The last email, from Neil, is also, from someone who does not know the United Church from the inside. And, once again, I don’t think we have ever met. His note does remind us, however, of the literal manner in which the beliefs shared on the UCC website are understood and that we really don’t know what anyone means when they use the word “god”.

IMG_20160831_0008 email address removed cropped

No more need for direct knowledge about a ministry personnel

So here’s the point of today’s post: Now that conferences have been given the right to raise concerns about ministry personnel, who is going to make sure that those concerns come from individuals who actually have direct experience of the clergy person in question?

Of the Conference Executive members gathered that April day in 2015, to my knowledge not one had ever been at West Hill for a service under my leadership, or engaged either me or West Hill about our work. Not one had ever asked me for clarification about anything I have written or said in public of that has been written about me. Not one had asked me about the significant error in the Star article, an error that raised my own eyebrows. Still, egged on by an outrageous talk radio show hosted by a belligerent, evangelical Christian, and the presentation of a letter that didn’t even name me, they engaged in a conversation about my ministry in the UCC. It was such a powerful conversation that they were sufficiently moved by it to invite the creation of an entirely new process to deal with my beliefs. That process would, from its development onward, require an unprecedented theological orthodoxy of United Church clergy.

Personally, I think that action needed more consideration. I think it warranted a conversation with me. Not a review. A conversation. And they could have easily arranged for such a conversation.

It is important to note that none of this negates the possibility that others, with direct experience of my ministry might have brought forward legitimate concerns within the United Church disciplinary process that should have been heard. My point is that concerns about your ministry no longer need to come from anyone who knows anything about it.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking this is all about me: it isn’t

Given that none of the correspondents and no one around the table that day was at all knowledgeable about the ministry they were discussing in even a rudimentary way, it seems the conference’s oversight of clergy under the Effective Leadership Project has some serious flaws. When its sub-Executive met to invoke the new ruling regarding theological orthodoxy, there was still no one in attendance who knew any more about me than those who had asked for the process. The United Church disciplinary process related to ministry personnel has changed and not for the better.

As a result of the Effective Leadership transfer of oversight of ministry personnel to conference, clergy are now unprotected by The Manual‘s previous requirement of intimate knowledge of their work in order for a review to be launched. And while it might seem obvious to many that, as far as “the atheist minister” was concerned, “something needed to be done”, Toronto Conference’s implementation of its newfound privileges falls far short of the previous care put to the United Church disciplinary process related to ministry personnel.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that this is about me. This is about process. And the process is now far from safe for clergy. If you are clergy in the UCC, you should be concerned. If anyone, anywhere, member of the United Church or not, manages to get the attention of a conference executive that doesn’t know you and the conversation around the table gets, let’s say, “titillating”, the people around that table will feel justified that they are doing the right thing by initiating a review of your ministry. Even if they know nothing about you. If that doesn’t alarm you, you probably still think this is all about me. And if you do, you’re very badly mistaken.

It was indeed a sad day when presbyteries transferred their right to raise concerns about the ministry personnel in their midst but I don’t think even they knew what it would mean. Whether Toronto Conference Executive’s actions were, at best, the result of misunderstanding the implications of its actions or, at worst, a cavalier misuse of the privilege transferred to it by its presbyteries, the result is the exposure of a deep flaw in the Effective Leadership Project. One can only hope that, once identified, the problem might be corrected rather than embraced. 

 

 

 

 

 

My Answers to the Questions of Ordination

Yesterday was a big day.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RESPONSE BY GRETTA VOSPER
to the Questions of Ordination

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

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

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

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

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

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

WHAT I do believe …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DO YOU … COMMIT YOURSELF ANEW TO GOD?

IF by ‘God’ …

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

WHAT I do wonder …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This question is answered in segments below.

DO YOU BELIEVE THAT GOD IS CALLING YOU ….

I DO NOT BELIEVE …

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

I DO …

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

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

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

IF by the “Word” …

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

I UNDERSTAND …

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

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

IF by the Sacraments …

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

I UNDERSTAND …

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

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

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

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

IF by the ministry of pastoral care, …

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

I UNDERSTAND …

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

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

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

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

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

DO YOU BELIEVE GOD IS CALLING YOU TO THE ORDAINED MINISTRY

IF by ordained …

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

I UNDERSTAND …

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

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

Again, this question is broken down into segments below.

EXERCISING MINISTRY IN ACCORDANCE WITH THE SCRIPTURES

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

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

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

EXERCISING MINISTRY IN CONTINUITY WITH THE FAITH OF THE CHURCH

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PROCEDURAL ISSUES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CONCLUSION

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

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

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

____________________________________________________________________________________________

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

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

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

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

Here All Belong

It has been months since I wrote new words to a well-loved tune but yesterday morning, three hours before the service started at West Hill United, I felt inspired to do so. It is the first song I’ve been able to write since the review of my effectiveness was initiated by The United Church of Canada last May and it was a great feeling to be able to move past the block that process has been and create something new.

Music at West HillThe song I rewrote, as it turns out, isn’t that old. It became a favourite of United Church congregation’s through its publication in Voices United, a hymn book that transformed the church’s singing in the early 1990s. Prior to that, the Hymn Book of the Anglican Church of Canada and the United Church of Canada, a bright red cloth book,* annoyed congregations in both denominations for over two decades. I wouldn’t doubt that it was the publication of the red Hymn Book that ground the amalgamation conversations between the two denominations – already years old – to a chilly halt. The Hymn Book was the first collaborative undertaking between the two denominations. It brought together the accessible words of contemporary songwriters like the late Fred Kaan, beloved by United Church members but scorned by Anglicans, and the complex tunes of contemporary composers which enthralled Anglicans but were reviled by UCC members. The result horrified everyone in the pews, ironically uniting them in their shared fear that church might end up looking like the ugly paste-up the book appeared to be thereby ensuring amalgamation would never take place.

Here I Am Lord was written by Daniel Schutte in 1981 and garnered an evocative response to God’s call in the last two decades of the twentieth century. While a contemporary piece of music, it was beautifully singable with a powerful chorus that spoke commitment to all who sang it.

As I began writing the piece, I was aiming for something that could welcome people in to the community, a song that would speak about who we are and encourage engagements. Here’s what happened on that quest.

Here All Belong

Truth be told, we’re not alone:
we have built ourselves a home;
built it large, and built it free –
love was our goal.
This, a home for anyone,
creed or custom, barring none.
This, a place where love can grow –
here all belong.

Refrain:
May we find here, what we’re seeking.
May we share the strength to carry on.
May the love here do the healing,
lift our hearts, and make us all as one.

Truth be told, we cannot be
whole without diversity.
many different voices raised
create the song.
Whether brown or black or white,
all together, we are light;
any-gendered, any-loved –
here all belong
Refrain

Truth be told, when gathered here,
we can all our sorrows bear,
held in hearts made strong by love;
we shall not fail.
Aged wisdom, questing youth,
all connected, seeking truth,
altogether, each inspires –
here all belong.
Refrain

© 2016 gretta vosper

*I remember purchasing a red Hymn Book for my mother when it first came out. I was disappointed that it didn’t come bound in leather like her old, well-loved hymnal which she, like so many others, carried to church with her each week.

Getting Your Religion at the Gym?

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 NYT, 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!

Do you really want to risk that?

 

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
happens).

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
best?

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.

Respectfully,
Ben Robertson
Windsor NS

The Rev. John Shuck, Presbyterian Church (USA), Letter of Support

August 21, 2015

The Right Reverend Jordan Cantwell
Moderator, UCC
3250 Bloor St. West, Suite 300
Toronto, ON M8X 2Y4

Nora Sanders
General Secretary, UCC
3250 Bloor St. West, Suite 300
Toronto, ON M8X 2Y4 Canada

David Allen
Executive Secretary – Toronto Conference
65 Mayall Avenue, Toronto, ON M3L 1E7

The Reverend Bryan Ransom
President – Toronto Conference
65 Mayall Avenue, Toronto, ON M3L 1E7

Dear Esteemed Colleagues in the United Church of Canada,

I am writing on behalf of Rev. Gretta Vosper. Gretta is a friend and colleague. I am a pastor in the Presbyterian Church (USA). I host a radio program, Religion For Life, and Gretta has been a guest twice.

I am writing in hopes that you will be an advocate for Rev. Vosper. I have nothing to say about polity and process within the United Church of Canada, of course. What I wish to write to you about is larger than Gretta, you or I, or our respective denominations. I wish to write about the intellectual future of Christianity and the importance of ministers like Gretta Vosper as they fearlessly present to us the issues we face.

What are these issues?

We live in a universe that is 13.75 billion years old. Earth is 4.5 billion years old. It is a pale blue dot in the suburbs of a galaxy that is one of billions. Humans have evolved through a process of natural selection. We share a common ancestor with all of life going to back to single-celled organisms from perhaps three billion years ago. It is an incredible universe that science is unfolding before our eyes. Yet religion with its ancient creeds and symbols is still in a pre-modern era.

All of the symbols and doctrines of faith from creation to eschatology including “God” are products of a pre-modern era in which humanity was “created” around 6000 years ago in a garden in the midst of a geocentric universe over which Father, Son, and Holy Ghost could be imagined as real entities existing in real time and space. These doctrinal formulations are little more than poetry today.

As one wag put it: Galileo put God out of a home and Darwin put God out of a job.

A supernatural interventionist deity, a god called God, is no more credible than a hammer-wielding Thor scaring humanity with his thunderbolts. By virtue of living in a modern world, we are all a-theists whether we want to admit it or not. No one expects a divine being to send rain, heal diseases, stop the sun in the sky, spin the planets, or cause my team to win in battle or in football, except perhaps fundamentalists.

What we do with our symbols of faith, how we approach them, what we keep, what we reject, what we redefine and reimagine is the responsibility of our generation of ministers and theologians. “God” must be on the table for dissection. That is our task. The one thing that will cripple our work is the silencing of our most creative minister-theologians. This is from American biblical scholar, Roy Hoover:

“Those who insist upon the unaltered retention of traditional forms of religious understanding and language and who retreat from the challenge posed by the actual world after Galileo want to direct the Christian community into the confines of a sacred grotto, an enclosed, religiously defined world that is brought completely under the control of scripture and tradition; and they want to turn the ordained clergy into antiquities dealers.” The Fourth R, Jan. – Feb. 2004

Gretta Vosper and courageous clergy who tell the truth are our last hope for a faith that will have any integrity. You may not agree with the approach that Gretta and West Hills United Church are taking. We will not agree on one clear approach to theology in this time. Agreement isn’t the point. The point is not to punish voices and force people to mouth a wooden formula created in a pre-modern world.

We need ministers and theologians to experiment and to try out new ways of being church. We need ministers and theologians to articulate new ways of doing good in our world. Both our denominations have strong commitments to social justice and ethics. That is the heart of the church. Diana Butler Bass, author of Christianity After Religion quotes Harvey Cox:

“Faith is resurgent while dogma is dying. The spiritual, communal, and justice-seeking dimensions of Christianity are now its leading edge….A religion based on subscribing to mandatory beliefs is no longer viable.” p. 109-110.

West Hills United Church and Rev. Gretta Vosper are Christianity’s leading edge. I hope you will consider the larger picture as you reflect on this particular situation. Once we start down the road of silencing creative clergy, then all clergy begin to run scared. Once we do ministry from a context of fear, the love vanishes.

This is an exciting time. The world is watching The United Church of Canada, a denomination that Rev. Gretta Vosper loves and serves. May your church be a leader in exploring a faith for a 21st century mind.

Sincerely,

Rev. John Shuck

Reply

Hello Mr. Shuck,

I’m responding on behalf of Moderator Jordan Cantwell, General Secretary Nora Sanders and Toronto Conference President Bryan Ransom. Thank you for sending your letter regarding Rev. Gretta Vosper.

You raise many good points in your letter, not least of which is your regard for Gretta as a friend and colleague. I experience her in both of those ways too, and am glad of it.

The process we are going through does not have a predetermined endpoint. Our Executive heard many people asking how a minister can say the things Gretta says and still be a minister. Others, like you, have written eloquently in her support. My hope is that at the end of the process, we’ll have a good reason for maintaining her as a minister – or we’ll have a good reason for saying she is not to continue in that role. What we have not done is to pre-judge the outcome and we, like many others, await the recommendations that will eventually come to us.

Again, thank you for writing, and for being a good friend to Gretta.

David W. Allen (Rev.)
Executive Secretary, Toronto Conference
The United Church of Canada

Visionary Support …

… and how you can get involved

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

Media interest and support

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What you can do

Antique Typewriter

Photo by morguefile.com user Ladyheart

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

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

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

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

Dividing the United Church

Today, at its meeting in Cornerbrook, NL, the General Council of The United Church of Canada (UCC) sent two petitions to a Commission rather than dealing with them with all its Commissioners in attendance. The two proposals had been triggered by both the review of my effectiveness ordered by Toronto Conference’s sub-Executive Committee and the sending of forms to the Rev. Bob Ripley by London Conference‘s Executive Secretary, Cheryl-Ann Stadelbauer-Sampa, that when completed, would remove him from the Order of Ministry in the United Church. She sent them to him when she read a newspaper article stating that he was an atheist. It was published three years after his retirement.

UCC Moderator, Gary Paterson at GC42

UCC Moderator, Gary Paterson at GC42

Both Toronto Conference and Hamilton Conference had voted by large majorities at their annual meetings this spring to ask the General Council to have its Theology, Inter-Church and Inter-Faith Committee  (TICIFC) review the questions of ordination. Nora Sanders, the General Secretary of the UCC, and its highest administrative officer, had ruled that clergy needed to be in continuing affirmation of those questions throughout their ministry in order to be considered suitable. Any clergy person deemed unsuitable if they could not answer those questions affirmatively, could be deemed to be ineffective, one of only two reasons a clergy person can be disciplined by the denomination. By asking that those questions be reviewed, Toronto and Hamilton conference members were acknowledging that the language in them supposes a theological construct, the trinity, and a supernatural divine being that is not the concept of god held by many clergy. Today, the General Council refused to act upon their requests.

I am deeply disappointed that the UCC General Council sent proposals from Toronto and Hamilton Conference requesting a review of ordination questions to a Commission rather than having the whole court deal with them; my understanding of the categorization of proposals for the 42nd General Council, based on a document sent to commissioners by Fred Monteith, Business Chair for the meeting, was that any proposal that anticipated a change in the Basis of Union, would be dealt with by the full court – all the commissioners. Only those “calling the church to take a time-bound stand on national or global issues and/or on an issue for which the church does not have an existing policy or statement” or “contemplate changes to existing General Council policies and procedures,” or “which more properly fall within the purview of another court of the church” were eligible to be sent to a Commission. The rules, whether they were set up especially for this General Council or are existing policy related to proposals, seem to have been changed for these two proposals. (If anyone understands Monteith’s document better than I, please share your understanding in the comments below. It may be that, since the request was to have a committee review the questions and that any impact on the Basis of Union would come to a subsequent General Council and not this one, that it was eligible to be sent to a Commission but that understanding, as far as I can tell, is not represented in Monteith’s preparatory document.) The Commission voted not to act on the Toronto proposal and referred the Hamilton one to the General Council Executive, again, something I didn’t think was procedurally possible when the impact was on the Basis of Union.

The vote was 51% not to act (that is, not to ask the TICIFC to review the questions), 45% to act, and the rest abstaining.

The results are disturbing but not because they went against the review of the questions, despite how critical and timely I think that conversation is. I would be disturbed if the results had been reversed with these same percentages. They are disturbing because they indicate, to me, a deeply divided church. Half of those who voted want the questions of ordination reviewed with a view to making them consistent with contemporary theological understandings. Half believe they should be preserved as they are, reinforcing theological concepts that have been crumbling under critical inquiry for at least a century and very likely much longer. Fifty fifty splits are rancorous. They harm. They reject dialogue and entrench positions. They are not the way that we find a common, sustainable future.

I recall a conversation in my first year of theological study at Queen’s Theological College, now known as Theology at Queen’s School of Religion (and no longer taking new students). It was 1988. General Council was going to be meeting that summer and we knew that the issue of the ordination of gays and lesbians was on the table for discussion. The issue had rocked the church for several years and those individuals who had been proactive in getting it to Council had been treated dismally by members of the church and the general public. It, too, was a fractious time. Our professor asked us whether we should wait until we had the numbers, until we knew we would win, or if we thought we should throw caution to the wind and set the issue before the court, confident that what was right would come about, that those who spoke positively about embracing that change and the justice issues it would champion would be heard. I can’t remember how the class came down on that, but I remember thinking we should just take a stand[ that justice couldn’t wait[ that he church, my church, needed to risk finding its way toward truth; that the Bible, no matter how you parsed it, should never stand in the way of justice.

The decision to embrace the leadership of individuals who put themselves forward for ordination based on their suitability for ministry and not on their sexuality almost split the church. Many congregations lost members. Some whole congregations left. But The United Church of Canada identified itself as the first Christian denomination that embraced the leadership gifts of gays and lesbians (and now all sexualities and genders across the spectrum of diversity). It was a defining moment. We didn’t know, going in, what the numbers were. It wasn’t like a last minute negotiation on The West Wing, with Josh running around trying to get the numbers to make the vote, the triumphant moment unfolding seconds before the vote was called. We took a leap of faith and we landed, bruised and sore but confident that we had made the right choice. History has affirmed our choice.

We didn’t walk into the vote on ordination and sexuality unprepared, even if we didn’t have the numbers all figured out when General Council gathered in 1988. But we had created opportunities for dialogue, for discussion, for learning, for exploration, and we had engaged the wider church in conversation. We had worked at building relationships and articulating values. We had exemplified good process and then, when we needed to, after all that process had unfolded, we stepped out into the unknown, confident that we had done what we could and that justice could wait no longer.

Dialogue is the United Church’s modus operandi. It’s what we do and it’s how we do things. We were born of dialogue and discussion, of compromise and the exploration of unknown territories. We’ve been at it for ninety years, longer if you count the two decades of discussion out of which we were finally born in 1925.

But here’s the thing. Not one official from any court of the church has ever come to speak with me, with West Hill United, the congregation I serve, or with us together about the work we do and why we believe it is the United Church’s work, too. There has been no dialogue. Nothing but silence. Until, after fifteen years of being totally accessible to them and willing to engage, West Hill’s unique stance is challenged by a disciplinary review of its minister, me. Toronto Conference’s Executive Committee, decided against the United Church’s historical nature and ordered a disciplinary review as a way to explore what it is we do. And dialogue continues to be suppressed in relation to this issue; a request for conversation with the General Secretary’s office or the Judicial Committee my review, an attempt to seek an alternate resolution to the concerns raised, was rejected in favour of the disciplinary process.

I am saddened that Toronto Conference’s Executive committee, in stark contrast to the proposal passed by its full court a few short weeks later, rejected the UCC’s time-tested tradition of dialogue, requesting instead a new disciplinary process be created based on the questions of ordination and a minister’s ongoing affirmation of them. Today, the results of the conversation that took place in the Commission reviewing Toronto Conference’s proposal, has proven their decision to be as divisive as it could possibly be. It has led my denomination from the positive outcomes inherent in dialogue to the fractious and dangerous outcomes of divisive debate.

The Complexities of Language: Atheist

On Sunday, I shared the following with my congregation. You’ll get the point as you read it. It has to do with the pastoral care of the congregation, as you’ll see, but it may also be a helpful piece for you to share with others as you have the conversation about beliefs, perspectives, and the conclusions we come to.

Interview an Atheist at Church DayFor some months, West Hill has been looking forward to welcoming Kile Jones, the founder of Interview an Atheist at Church Day. Two years ago, Kile and I connected when I learned about his project and we’ve been fast friends ever since even meeting on the grounds of Chautauqua Institution a couple of years ago when he was leading an interfaith dialogue there. Delighted that conversations were taking place in churches between clergy and atheists, I quickly explored the possibility of hosting such an interview at West Hill. In fact, as we explored that option, it became clear that it would provide the opportunity for me to own the label “atheist.”  Here’s the video of that conversation*. You’ll see in the piece I shared with my congregation why we felt that was an important thing to do at that time.

Kile B. Jones. The B stands for Brainiac.

Sunday’s Interview an Atheist at Church Day was fantastic! Although Kile refrained from showing us the tattoo of sola scriptura that he has across his chest, we did get into the nitty gritty of communication between believers and atheists. And he proved me a novice when it comes to engaging fundamentalists! He was a fabulous interview and we had a lot of fun. As soon as it is posted to YouTube, I’ll put a link here and let you know it is up.

As I am with the people of West Hill, I hope to be able to engage with you in conversations about my choices as well. An email I received today from a gentleman noted that, as a Christian, he did not believe I should be leading a church if I don’t believe in God. But he commended me for my honesty; I hope that my response invites him into conversation, too. I was honoured that he took the time to write.

Here’s what I shared with West Hill today, altered to put them in the third person but otherwise the same.

One of the characteristics of my congregation, West Hill, that many value is its openness to exploration, to examination, and to reflecting seriously on what it says, does, and projects. That openness has led it to many changes over its history because it has considered nothing to be off limits. If understandings change, we feel it is important to change what we say we believe, the choices we make, or the way we express ourselves.

We’ve done that work together for almost two decades. During that time, we have been challenged to integrity on a number of different issues with respect to exactly those things: our beliefs, our choices, and the way we express ourselves. For some of in the church, it has felt like an exhilarating journey. For others, it may have been more like a series of unexpected surprises; sometimes good, sometimes bad, but never quite what was expected.

In 2013, as we prepared for our first INTERVIEW AN ATHEIST AT CHURCH DAY, the denial of human rights and the perpetration of violent acts against those who identified as not having religious beliefs were on the rise. Four Bangladeshi bloggers had been arrested and were being threatened with execution. Internationally renowned Turkish pianist, Fazil Say, had been sentenced to ten months imprisonment for declaring his atheism.

In solidarity with these persecuted atheists, and in the tradition of the Christian witness to stand with those whose rights are denied or abused, on that day, I publicly named myself an atheist. Sadly, events around the world continue to underscore how dangerous it is in many countries to identify as someone who does not believe; they continue to affirm my decision, the recent violent and public murder of atheist blogger, Amanta Das, but one horrific example.

Although I had been open about not believing in a theistic, interventionist God since 2001, the word, with all its complications, has added to the challenges we have faced as a community. It has had a significant impact on the way I and West Hill have been portrayed in the media, with assumptions often being made about the church that are incorrect. It has affected how I am received by my colleagues and in the wider church world.

More importantly, however, I expect it has affected the way participation in the church is perceived by those who are not familiar with West Hill but are exposed to media comments about us. While some West Hill people may be delighted and share the news with anyone who will listen, others may have had difficulty with family or friends who are astonished to hear that they go to a church where an atheist is the minister. My identifying as an atheist may negatively affect how people feel about being part of West Hill or about having me as their minister.

Today we are having our second INTERVIEW AN ATHEIST AT CHURCH DAY. This time, Kile Jones, the founder of the project, will be speaking with me. I’m looking forward to the conversation. But I am also taking advantage of the moment to acknowledge with my congregation how difficult this particular part of the journey has been for them. In the version of this blog that is being printed and handed out this morning, and that will remain available at the church for any who wish to pick it up, I apologize for any of the ways my being known as an atheist has been challenging or even difficult. And I invited conversation. I do that here, too.

My friend and colleague, Jerry DeWitt’s very public journey has taken him from evangelical ministry to atheism. In the midst of more losses as a result of that journey than I will ever experience, he crafted this incredibly astute clarification for those of us who struggle to express what it is we believe and why we believe it. I share it in the hope that you and I, whatever the differences in our beliefs, might have an ongoing conversation sparked by his wisdom.

FB20150530 Jerry DeWill

Skepticism is my nature.
Freethought is my methodology
Agnosticism is my conclusion.
Atheism is my opinion.
Humanitarianism is my motivation.

Jerry DeWitt

As I often write inside one of my books as I’m signing it, “Let’s keep the conversation vibrant!” Thanks for helping me do just that.

* Please note that in the first interview in 2013, I refer to myself as a positive atheist. NOT TRUE! I’m actually a weak, negative atheist and simply used the wrong word.  Being a weak, negative atheist means that I see no evidence for a god. Positive, strong atheists argue that there is no god and I can’t actually argue that. How could I possibly know?

The Church of Gleaned Practices

A spiritual naturalist, wearing liturgical vestments, leads a small group in Houston. Gary Coronado, Staff, Houston Chronicle.

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.

morguefile user greyerbaby

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.

 

semantics sleight of hand

For the past many years, I’ve been struggling against the power of the Christian story within the traditional church and outside of it. Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Baha’i, and so many other religious streams ply stories of a cosmology that includes either a deity residing in a supernatural realm or a life that is more (or less) rewarding after this reality. They are all stories which, I do admit, can have a positive influence by controlling masses (through fear) and keep them in check thereby reinforcing the positive norms of civil society. But for me and for the many who no longer hold those stories as sacred, the cost is simply too high. The potential for posthumous reward or damnation has too often drained life of its beauty, wealth, diversity, and joy and the norms of civil society that are reinforced are often not in the best interests of humanity or, at least, significant swaths of it. So we need a way forward. 

Slipping new meanings behind old words

Wellington St. Andrew'sWithin the church, leaders often slip new interpretations and definitions behind the original words so the story remains palatable and they can keep using it. I did that for years without realizing how powerful the language was; powerful enough to prevent anyone from “getting” what I really meant. Many of my mentors and peers can offer new explanations for theological terms or new interpretations of ancient stories that make them ring with new life for me. But I learned, the hard way, that even as I shared those engaging and transformational new interpretations and explanations, the practice of wrapping them up in the stuff of antiquity – hymns and practices that reinforced all the old interpretations and explanations – prevented anyone from really moving forward in their understandings.  It wasn’t until I dropped the language completely that we started really talking about the struggle to live a meaningful and rewarding life made up of positive relationships with oneself, others, the world around us, and the seventh generation. With the language went the pretense of being religious and the expectation of a rewarding afterlife. But it opened up the challenge of being human and the immensity of wonder this side of the grave.

Anyone who has shifted in their understanding of god from that of a creator, intervener, grantor of requests to an amorphous non-ish-being that represents good or meets the “god is love” criterion knows how easy it is to get away with using the same old language. My FB posts are riddled with people telling me their understanding of the nature of reality and then saying that they don’t have a problem calling that “god.” I don’t have a problem with them calling it that, either. Unless they are in a position of authority in the church; then I have a big problem with it. Then its what I call a semantics sleight of hand. We’re saying one thing but leading others to believe we’re saying something completely different.

We stole a word and made it a name

clock towerThe word “god” refers to a deity, a being that inhabits a sacred realm and exists, for the most part and in most stories, in that supernatural dimension where he or she has supernatural powers. Gods interact with humans in specific ways. Most have had names and very human characteristics. Some could take human form to interact with us or even mate with us.

In our Christian tradition, however, our deity became known as the god called God. We seem to have stolen the generic word from the multitude of other traditions and made it the name for our special trinitarian god, a kinder, gentler version (we like to tell ourselves) of YHWH or Elohim, the god of the Israelites, who morphed into the god of the Trinity. When we use the word god in western society, we usually mean the god called God. And we’ve saturated public space and the public mind with that definition.

If we use that word to mean “a sense, a deep feeling and a belief in something more” as one FB poster recently argued and “can call that something more God”, we’re in complicated territory. Who is going to know that’s what is being meant  when 99.9% of the population (more likely 99.999999999%) still think you’re talking about “the big guy” as he was identified on a radio show this past week? Surely, the woman who called god “the big guy” wouldn’t know you meant “a deep feeling” or belief in some indefinable “more”. Nor would she have known what the Executive Secretary of London Conference meant when during her phone in, she referred to the “god” the whole United Church believes in. Other callers, and, indeed, the talk show’s host, would have assumed that the Executive Secretary was talking about “the big guy”.

Wellington ChurchObfuscation is the pretty word

If I do not believe in “the big guy”, I cannot think of a single reason why I would want people to think that I do. And so I continue to challenge those in The United Church of Canada who do not believe in “the big guy” to use language that clearly describes what it is they do believe in. When clergy obfuscate, we do more than just talk a fuzzy theology in a messy church kind of way. They allow others to interpret their words in ways that they do not mean them. I cannot comprehend the reasoning behind that beyond mere self-preservation. I do understand self-preservation, but I think it is deeply troubling that The United Church and the many other liberal denominations that teach contemporary critical scholarship in their seminaries would not create supportive environments or workplaces that are safe enough for clergy to speak of their beliefs clearly while caring for parishioners in the process of doing so. Encouraging ministers to obfuscate by not supporting them during the difficult times that will follow in their congregations should they share their true definitions for the word god, ensures a cognitive dissonance that can be terribly hard on clergy and and arrogance that is incredibly condescending to church members.

I recall a letter to the editor of The Observer many years ago. An article about the work we were doing at West Hill United had been published in the February issue. It provoked letters for a full year following. But the best letter of all was the one in which a United Church member wrote asking if ministers should really be that honest. Mainline denominations are complicit in preventing their clergy from being honest. By encouraging clergy to cover their true beliefs with language that neatly allows everyone else to believe they hold traditional ones, mainline denominations are complicit in a mass obfuscation. That’s the pretty word for what is a very serious issue indeed.

As West Hill United Church and I continue our course of bringing theologically barrier-free church to our small corner of Toronto, this conversation will continue to rage (that is the perfect word for it)  across the country. It is my hope that we will find a way to encourage all clergy to speak openly about what they believe, both those who continue to believe in the interventionist being that created the world and all that lives in it and those who may never have believed that at all. May we create space with such integrity and security that it invites and allows each person within it – especially the clergy – to find the language necessary for him or her to speak clearly and truthfully enough about religious belief that no one in the church is ever again misled by those who lead it. And as we struggle to hold the diversity that will inevitably exist in such places, my we exhibit respect for one another even and especially if we do not respect the beliefs that are held.

 

 

All Roads

pathsFor this Sunday, the service is looking at privilege. So my hymn writing challenge veered off in that direction. An abrupt shift in the first verse might be disconcerting but it evidences the kind of “scales falling from our eyes” reality that consciousness raising so often is. And I hope that the song ends with a sense of cooperative movement toward a positive goal. The tune is Crusaders’ Hymn most often sung with the words to Fairest Lord Jesus

All Roads
Tune: Crusaders’ Hymn
Traditional Words: Fairest Lord Jesus

Silent, our wondrous earth
spins through the universe
clear, bright, and blue from a million miles.
Yet on its jagged face,
scarred by the human race,
there walks a lonely, hungry child.

Freedom, we all desire,
to wealth, we all aspire,
while she bears sorrows we’ll never know.
Might we not see our lives
as viewed through troubled eyes
and for her sake, our mercy show?

Faced with our privilege,
honoring our heritage
might ours be duty with love imbued.
Truth must we ever seek;
with wisdom ever speak;
the dignity of all pursue.

Some roads are walked with ease;
some make their pilgrims bleed;
all lead away from the world we’ve known.
Seeking another way
might we create the day
where all roads are with beauty sown?

© 2015 gretta vosper

we the only authors

Royal Botanical Garden sunflower

Royal Botanical Garden sunflower

Too often, as I begin the process of creating for a Sunday service, my mind and heart slip off the disciplined road defined by the theme chosen for that week and into the areas in which I am most comfortable – the consideration of time, of words, of meaning, of our relationships. It seems there simply aren’t enough words or images to exhaust the breadth and depth of these favoured concepts. So I invite you, once again, to allow these simple words,  strung together in this likely not very unique way, to settle upon your hearts that these concepts might, once again, invade your seeing.

The binding of our hearts to one another,
in the moment of the binding,
feels as beautiful
as fields of sunflowers
following the glory of their golden god,
enormous waves pledging themselves
to the hard and rocky coast,
and the twilit earth,
quiet, peaceful,
awaiting the night’s unfolding
of its billion billion stars.
We love to love one another
and we build our lives
upon the tethers
that stretch and pull between us,
their resilience a constant reminder
of the nascent beauty
through which they came into being,
the whole, a limitless web
mapping our way to one another,
challenging us to live
as though bound for better or for worse
and remembering
we are the only authors
of our fates.

to the glory of good

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

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

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

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

Photo credit Eric Andrew-Gee, Toronto Star

Photo credit Eric Andrew-Gee, Toronto Star

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

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

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

 

 

women rock

Photo by morguefile.com user pedrojperez

Photo by morguefile.com user pedrojperez

It might seem a bit cheeky, but I thought that since rewrite for this week’s traditional hymn should focus on women and we’ve had a Women Rock service at West Hill several times, that I’d use the tune Toplady to which Rock of Ages is most often sung so here it is!

This year, in addition to focusing on women for International Women’s Day, our Women Rock program has Stephanie Baptist working with several women from the congregation, getting us prepared to sing back-up for our upcoming TrainWreck pub night! We’ve having a blast, learning how to really rock, and “building our brave” in a fun and safe environment where we know we will have nothing but support.

But that isn’t so for all women and most face challenges far greater than learning to sing back up for a rock band. From physical and sexual abuse to the tragedy of genital mutilation, enslavement as sex workers, and the indignities of grueling poverty, women in the world build their brave every day. This one is for them and everyone who brings their own brave into the game on their behalf.

Women Rock
Tune: Toplady, Redhead 76
Traditional Hymn: Rock of Ages

Women free and women bound
join to turn this world around!
In your laughter and your song,
Speak your truth to the wrongs!
Every woman, every girl:
time to rock, and change the world!

From the stories from the past
we can free ourselves at last.
Share the table, share the bread.
Share the wine ‘til all are fed.
Every woman, every girl:
time to rock, and change the world!

Women with their courage strong
walk a road that’s been too long.
Struggling for the right to choose
much to win and more to lose.
For the rights of every girl,
women rock, and change the world!

‘Til the last can walk with pride,
arm in arm and side by side,
without fear, their heads held high,
half the shoulders holding sky,
every woman, every girl,
we will rock, and change the world.

© 2015 gretta vosper

there isn’t a moment goes by

This coming Sunday falls on International Woman’s Day. The week has been filled with stories on the challenging realities women face – the New York Times front page article, “A Thin Line of Defense Against Honor Killing,” on the work of Women for Afghan Women, an organization that rescues girls and women from the horrific and ongoing tragedy of honor killings; the announcement that Tennessee will become the first State (how’s that for prophesying an increasingly troubling future for women?) to criminalize women for their pregnancy outcomes if they consume substances that harm their babies (see this Salon article); the documentary film The Hunting Ground has young women on campuses reeling at the sight of frat boys chanting, “‘No’ means ‘yes’ and ‘yes’ means ‘anal'”; and twelve of the thirteen men suspended from Dalhousie University’s Dentistry School were reinstated a mere three months after posting violent threats against female classmates on Facebook (the thirteenth student refused to acknowledge his unprofessionalism and was not reinstated).

We’re holding a Women Rock service as we have in previous years but this year, we’re actually going to be listening to women rock stars and the messages they have shared and struggled with in their careers. I’m hoping it will be an opportunity for complexity and complicity to be recognized and addressed. So here is my Focused Moment for International Women’s Day. I’m thinking at this point that it might actually become a longer, more dramatic piece and I’ll post that if it does. Hear in it what you will, take from it what you need, hold of it what you can and honour those whose lives bear witness to realities you may never know.

Photo by morguefile.com user Comeilmare.

Photo by morguefile.com user Comeilmare.

There isn’t a moment goes by
that some woman somewhere
doesn’t get born
into a world of privilege and luxury,
wrapped in cashmere and lace,
rocked in a satin cradle.
There isn’t a moment goes by
that some woman somewhere
doesn’t get born
into poverty,
spilled from a starving womb barely adequate to its task.
There isn’t a moment goes by
that some woman somewhere
doesn’t hold her offspring
wondering how such beauty could come to be.
There isn’t a moment goes by
that some woman somewhere
doesn’t mourn her absent child
taken by a system convinced it could care better than she.
There isn’t a moment goes by
that some woman somewhere
doesn’t worry how she’s going to make it through the day.
There isn’t a moment goes by
that some woman somewhere
doesn’t give up something for somebody else,
convinced her need can wait,
her hunger go unfed.
There isn’t a moment goes by
that some woman somewhere
doesn’t begin the long, hard walk for water,
swinging her two or three year old
along on her hip as she goes.
There isn’t a moment goes by
that some woman somewhere
doesn’t hide her children away in the forest
praying their safety for just one night more.
There isn’t a moment goes by
that some woman somewhere
doesn’t rise in the night
and gaze down upon her sleeping child,
convinced she’s the luckiest woman in the world.
There isn’t a moment goes by
that some woman somewhere
who lies rigid in the night,
literally steeling herself against the intrustion,
her body taken because somebody can.
There isn’t a moment goes by
that some woman somewhere
doesn’t scream loud and long, but only inside,
her silence her complicity,
her acceptance her guilt.
There isn’t a moment goes by
that some woman somewhere
doesn’t rise in the morning
and do what needs to be done,
bruises and all.
There isn’t a moment goes by
that some woman somewhere
doesn’t fight for her life after rape,
brutalized by her attacker
and the system that protects him.
There isn’t a moment goes by
that some woman somewhere
doesn’t walk the floor of her home,
back and forth, back and forth,
anxious for the lives of her children, her family.
There isn’t a moment goes by
that some woman somewhere
doesn’t hold a tiny still body
and weep.
There isn’t a moment goes by
that some woman somewhere
hides who she loves
to save who she loves.
There isn’t a moment goes by
that some woman somewhere
doesn’t risk it all for love.
There isn’t a moment goes by
that some woman somewhere
doesn’t pay for the crimes of a man she loved.
There isn’t a moment goes by
that some woman somewhere
doesn’t lose a little piece of her heart
as she watches her children grow hard against the world,
raised in dust and poverty,
on dreams that fade with every morn.
There isn’t a moment goes by
that some woman somewhere
isn’t bustin’ proud of her grown child’s grace,
success, choices, refusals.
There isn’t a moment goes by
that some woman somewhere
is lured into an infatuation
with skin-deep beauty
sold by industries of lies.
There isn’t a moment goes by
that some woman somewhere
doesn’t stand in front of a mirror
and feel the criticisms
of a thousand passing glances.
There isn’t a moment goes by
that some woman somewhere
that doesn’t feel she’s not enough.
There isn’t a moment goes by
that some woman somewhere
that wouldn’t give her eye teeth
for a little bit comfortable –
one, pants that fit without lycra,
another, a winter coat that might keep her warm.
There isn’t a moment goes by
that some woman somewhere
doesn’t spend a kid’s college tuition
on handbags and high heels.
There isn’t a moment goes by
that some woman somewhere
doesn’t smash into a glass ceiling,
never break it
but bleed anyway.
There isn’t a moment goes by
that some woman somewhere
doesn’t lie and tell someone
she fell down the stairs.
There isn’t a moment goes by
that some woman somewhere
doesn’t hand another woman
the address of a place that’s safe,
where she can go if she needs help.
There isn’t a moment goes by
that some woman somewhere
doesn’t scream herself hoarse
at a system that keeps her down, down, down.
There isn’t a moment goes by
that some woman somewhere
doesn’t close her eyes
on a life filled with joy and sorrow,
weakness and strength,
leaving only her legacy to rise in the morning.
There isn’t a moment goes by
that some woman somewhere
doesn’t take a long, hard look at her life
and begin to think,
to think for herself.
There isn’t a moment goes by
that some woman somewhere
doesn’t sort through her thoughts
and begin to put two and two together.
There isn’t a moment goes by
that some woman somewhere
doesn’t rub those two plus two thoughts together
and come up with a view of the world
that she’d never even considered before.
There isn’t a moment goes by
that some woman somewhere
doesn’t realize she has a choice
and that whether she takes it or not,
she’ll have made her choice.
There isn’t a moment goes by
that some woman somewhere
doesn’t get up
and walk out of her life,
out of what has been –
out of the stories she’s told herself,
out of the truths she thought were hers,
out of the lies we’ve lined up for generations.
There isn’t a moment goes by
that some woman somewhere
doesn’t step into a new moment,
a new reality come wrapped in fear,
and know the exhilaration of her own self.
And there isn’t a moment goes by
that some man somewhere
doesn’t see himself reflected
in that woman’s eye
and wonder.

what is a theologically barrier-free church?

I am often asked questions about the work that I and the congregation I serve do. These quick answer videos are meant to help you understand that. If you’ve any question you’d like answered, don’t hesitate to ask me through the contact page. I’ll be happy to consider it for a quick answer video. Thanks for watching!

 

nothing once, for all

woodstock windowA new hymn written to the tune Blaenwern, one of the tunes most often used for Love Divine. Scott named it this morning as one he wanted new words for, so this is what came in the late afternoon.

I’ve been preparing for Sunday’s reflection on Into the Woods, the first film I’ve ever picked for the Academy Award series that didn’t make it. But then, musicals usually don’t so I wasn’t all that surprised. Still, breaking my perfect record was humbling. And that’s what this song is about – the humbling realities that undermine our perceptions. I hope you have opportunity to use it.

Nothing Once, for All
Tune: Blaenwern
Traditional Song: Love Divine; God Is Here

Love is like the purest water
rinsing clean the deepest stain.
Still, a pool will freeze to hardness;
boiling, water scars with pain.
Every day, new understandings
fill the gaps where love has waned.
Nothing shares but of love’s freedoms,
nothing once, for all, sustains.

Hope is like a bright horizon,
promise of a brand new day.
Still, the trek is never ending,
all our progress seems in vain.
Every day, though charted courses
press us onward, lead the way,
nothing guarantees hope’s promise,
nothing once, for all, ordained.

Peace is like the evening stillness,
lending earth its quiet glow.
Still, the world has many places
peace has yet the strength to go.
Every day, we face the future
knowing more than we have known.
Nothing peace has built came quickly,
never once, on all, bestowed.

Truth is like the brightest sunshine
filling all our world with light.
Yet the day moves into darkness
as the shadows welcome night.
Every day, new understandings
set aside our old insights.
Nothing holds truth’s purest meaning,
nothing once, for all, is right.

© 2015 gretta vosper

you beyond you

The Focused Moment at West Hill United takes responsibility for tuning those gathered into the more inspirational elements of the service, formerly what would have been called the Word in this now doctrinally-free congregation. It has evolved loosely and over time from the collection of the Call to Worship, Prayers of Approach, Confession and Assurance, and the small prayer often shared before the reading of the Word, the hearing for which all had gathered. Not all are included on any given Sunday as the themes explored vary widely and challenge us to lean in toward any one or more of these modes of speaking in church as it would be explored in a manner more relevant to our contemporary worldview.

This Focused Moment was inspired by and prepared for the service in which we were engaging the concepts and ideas in the Academy Award nominee, Boyhood.

hand

The sum total
of everything you have ever seen,
everything you’ve ever touched,
considered,
understood or misinterpreted,
everything you’ve loved
or lost, or found again,
the stuff you wish had never been,
every word you heard –
remembered or forgotten –
every compromise made,
opportunity ignored,
trust warranted or ground to dust,
every possibility unfurled,
door closed or window opened,
every anxious moment,
every consequence endured,
every everything you’ve ever been,
lies written
on the underside of here and now.

Can you, who reaches out to own it,
break with what has been
and chart your course?
Or is it fore-ordained
by what has been?

Let the moment seize you.
Follow where it leads;
for we can only write the future
on lives embedded in our past,
tied to truths we must outgrow
Let the moment seize you
and trace its way
to wonder,
beyond yesterday,
beyond you.