Tuesday, 5 July 2016

What bugs me about West Hill United Church, Rev. Vosper and the United Church of Canada

Hopefully (but probably not) my final thoughts on Rev. Gretta Vosper, Westhill United Church and the joys of being United Church.   These have been challenging times from all of the above.
I will preface these remarks by noting that some of my friends and colleague will NOT agree; and some of the same may not be happy with what I am saying.  To them, I am sorry if this puts a strain on our friendship.  To others, these are simply my current thoughts and I may very well have different thoughts next week. 

I will also note that Rev. Gretta Vosper’s interview with Toronto Conference Interview Board has been concluded, but the recommendations of the Interview Team are not yet known.  It is my understanding that the report may well be concluded, so my remarks will no effect on the report in any way.  

As Rev. Vosper’s views and this specific review have played out throughout the church and the media over the past couple of years, a couple of things have bugged me and I think that I'll express them and then (finally) shut up.    

It bugs me that we think that this is such a big deal, the theology/philosophy is not particularly novel and as big a deal as we may be making this – that an Atheist minster serves a United Church of Canada congregation, or that others in the church would have the church courts act to remove her from that pulpit – the rest of the world is not all that interested.   In the face of growing intolerance, a worldwide refugee crisis, violence against the LGBTQ community, terrorist attacks, polarizing de-humanizing politics around the world and the fractured and devastated relationship that main-stream Canada has with First Peoples – an internal squabble within the United Church of Canada doesn’t really make it very high on the leader board.   Outside of church circles, in a week where Rev. Vosper is not interviewed on CBC, mention her name and most people give you a blank stare.   So, everybody, dial it down… and let’s talk like calm adults, not like children running from a burning building.  For those who maintain a more traditional Theistic faith, do you really think that this is the thing that will thwart and inhibit God’s love?

It also bugs me that we carry on like this shouldn't be happening.  Of course it should... nothing every grows or develops without challenge or controversy.  This is the very thing that we should be doing - questioning and daring our faith to reach further than it did yesterday...
But, just because something seems new or novel, doesn't mean that it is better than that which came before.  It might be... but it deserves the same scrutiny, examination and challenge as the faith it desires to replace.  It bugs me when we carry on as if Rev. Vosper must be right because she is modern and her views were not common currency 30 years ago. 

It bugs me when theology becomes binary as if we must choose between Anselm and Vosper... as if there aren't thousands and thousands of profoundly spiritual and brilliant theologians inviting us to grow our faith and vision.  For me, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin would be a great place for many folks to start.

There are some wonderful people in the West Hill United Church Congregation, I have sat with them at table, enjoyed their company and consider them to be great companions on any journey – faith or otherwise.  Having said that, it bugs me that the don't seem to appreciate the actual polity of the United Church of Canada:    Gretta does not belong to them.

When they wear the T-Shirts bearing the slogan, “My United Church includes West Hill” they should be aware that nobody is suggesting that West Hill United Church should be removed from the United Church of Canada.  Nobody has a quarrel with the congregation.  There is a question as to The United Church of Canada’s responsibility in providing a leader who is appropriate for a community wishing to be included in The United Church of Canada.    When an ordained person from another congregation joins The UCC, we make sure that they are properly educated in the practices and ethos of the UCC before letting them lead a congregation; we supervise them as they prepare for Admittance into the leadership of the United Church of Canada - this is to support the minister AND to be sure that the congregation is well served.  We don’t simply accept any ordination or faith position as sufficient, we do our due diligence and strive to share and nurture the “ethos” of the United Church of Canada.   By reviewing Rev. Vosper, we are doing our due diligence, and also taking the opportunity to review our “ethos” and perhaps redefine it.  It bugs me that people assume that we are simply trying to get rid of Rev. Vosper. 

It is important to note that, in the United Church practice and polity, Rev. Vosper doesn’t work for West Hill United Church.  In practical terms it may seem so, but in reality she works for the United Church of Canada.  West Hill United Church doesn’t hire or fire any minister, they request Presbytery to place or remove the minister that they desire and Presbytery acts in the best interests of the Congregation, the broader community and The United Church of Canada.   If a congregation voted overwhelmingly to hire a rodeo clown, a firefighter or Joel Osteen to lead them, the United Church of Canada would say “No”.  The congregation, community and The United Church of Canada would not be well served – in short, just because you want to hire or keep someone, doesn’t mean that you get to – that’s not how the system works.  I’m not saying that we shouldn’t change the system, only that as it stands right now, the system does not responsibly acquiesce to “but we want her to stay”

I note that Rev. Vosper and many of her supporters speak of a radical change needed in the church; almost a revolution of thought, speech and practice.  I don’t recall Luther’s supporters, at the time of the Reformation, insisting that he be allowed to remain an Augustinian Priest.  If Rev. Vosper’s assessments of the needs of the religious community are accurate then perhaps insisting that she remain in the United Church of Canada is simply denying a much needed revolution, let something new be birthed rather than constrained. It bugs me that some people seem to call for a revolution, but don't want to give up anything to have it. 

But, let me get back to the T-shirts and something that has bugged me since I first saw one.  The shirt includes another slogan:  My United Church includes Gretta Vosper”.  To this, I say, “Yes, it does!: Truthfully, my United Church does include Gretta… but it also includes Jesus, God and a variety of expressions of faith that challenge and occasionally offend my own faith.  It is Rev. Vosper who insists that the United Church NOT include that which is important, even essential, to me.  I have been at Conference AGMs and heard Rev. Vosper comment on a given motion before the whole court, “if we would just remove Jesus from the wording, West Hill United Church could vote in favour”  But if my United Church includes Gretta Vosper, why can it not also include Jesus?  It was Rev. Vosper who admonished our Moderator for praying in a time of hurt and crisis – but that prayer brought such comfort and light to a dark situation for me… if my United Church includes Gretta Vosper, why can’t it include prayer?   Why can’t it include me, with my less evolved theology and desire to stay connected to the nurturing stream of tradition?  Who is that is actually trying to narrow our view and shrink our large tent? It bugs me... 

Personally, I don’t think that Rev. Vosper is a danger to the Church or to Christian faith – I think that she enhances both, but she does it best when both sides are listening.  Right now, we're not listening: We are glaring, seething, championing and competing.  The many people who came out to support Gretta at her Interview last week, were no doubt a balm and embrace to her in her time of challenge… however, for others, it felt like intimidation and bullying.  I am quite confident that nobody involved directly in the interview had any desire to railroad Rev. Vosper or support injustice – they came trying to discern God’s will in a time of challenge; to discover together what love for the individual and community looks like in this moment.  Do you have any idea how hard it is to pray when people are glaring at you and demanding that you pray correctly?   It would have been entirely inappropriate for 50 people who want her removed from the United Church of Canada to show up with signs demanding her expulsion – we would have called that bullying and asked them to leave.  If an Ordinand brought such a group to his or her interview, it would have deemed in appropriate.   But there they were and they were afforded courtesy and kindness – because the United Church of Canada will always include West Hill United Church.   It bugs me that they wouldn't do their best to help the dedicated loving people do they job and ministry that has been assigned them. 

So… now that I’ve got all of that off my chest… I wonder how I will react when the recommendation is made public; when things unfold as they will…?  I hope that neither side will cheer, but instead lovingly and respectfully try to find a way forward that is gracious and supporting of both sides.  Through it all, I will trust and love… as I have been enabled by the one that I still desire to name as God.    


  1. Thanks Norm. You have articulated way better than I could, how I feel and think about this matter. May our Holy One help us find a way as he showed us through Jesus

  2. Thank you for expressing so wonderfully the things that have been bugging you! Your words were not a rant... but a gentle, thoughtful telling of what is on your heart... and what is on the hearts of many. Thank you for this gift.

    My prayers are added to yours that when the recommendation comes down we can lovingly and with grace move forward... to proclaim the Gospel in word and action!

    Blessings on your vacation time apart. May you find rest, renewal, restoration for your body and spirit as you enjoy your travels with Boo!

    Your sister in Christ,
    Pastor Sue Cowan

  3. Wow! A Brilliant expression of the situation. Thanks!

  4. Interesting that the interviewers are asking for God's guidance when God isn't recognized by the interviewee.

    Also if an ordinand came for their interview saying they didn't believe in God, how would that be received? Would they become United Church ministers?

  5. My thanks as well, Norm. I very much agree.