Of Hearings and Heartbreak

Update: November 7, 2018

Toronto Conference, Rev. Gretta Vosper and West Hill United Church have settled all outstanding issues between them.
Rev. Gretta Vosper will remain in ordained ministry at West Hill United Church.
We acknowledge the faithful work of all of those who have been involved in this process.Read the full statement from Gretta here.

This week, the United Church of Canada began to hear arguments to decide whether the Rev. Gretta Vosper will be placed on the ‘Discontinued Service List – Disciplinary’, their euphemistic way to defrock and excommunicate a minister. Even as of last week, even Gretta herself wasn’t clear about the scope of the hearings. The first week of the hearing is meant to establish just that. Will the hearing allow the panel to reconsider the the now-two-year-old ruling of Toronto Conference that she was “unsuitable” as a minister, or be limited to simply addressing the “consequence” of that ruling and in essence only be determining her ‘sentence’; or will the power of this panel lie somewhere in between?

There have been others, as well as Gretta herself, who’ve written on the confusing and dangerous equating of unsuitability and effectiveness, something never before done in the denomination. There is the ridiculous fact that though deemed unsuitable, West Hill United Church, with whom she remains in a called pastoral relationship, continues to be very pleased with her leadership, making her extremely effective and suitable. Likewise, Gretta’s views on doctrine and how these were encouraged to evolve in her life-long relationship and training in the United Church, have never been a secret. As a published author, her views have long been public. Even her responses to the review’s theological questions have been public on her website. Gretta’s work has always garnered both positive and negative reaction, however the value of her work and approach to church and spirituality is affirmed by many within the United Church and around the world who seek her counsel, mentorship and inspiration. She has opened the church to new theological conversation that need to happen, and that many across the country are indeed pursuing with great rewards. She and many of us wish that the Toronto Conference, the General Council Executive, and the church as a whole would be as willing to engage mutually in these important conversations.

I will speak very personally now. Living in the Toronto area in 2009, I was at a crossroads in my ministry within a different denomination. I had been bringing what I would have then called a ‘progressive christian’ approach to ministry for ten years and I found myself for those few years, feeling like I was banging my head against a wall. What was spoken about in book studies, wasn’t what could be preached from the pulpit. The understandings that were a given in theological training and biblical scholarship for almost a generation were still seemingly ignored when it came to the practice of ‘worship’. How could the church encourage this scholarship, yet remain unchanged in its rituals, its language, its songs and its liturgies? And what impact was this having on clergy like me who were sharing new thinkers, writers and theologians with excitement, but in essence told, only Monday through Saturday please. This disorder was making its way through clergy I knew, through me, and through the church as a whole. Why wasn’t anyone willing to be honest about all this? Why were we not collectively saying what we mean and meaning what we say?

This is the context in which I first met Gretta, in her books and in person at West Hill United. She above all lived and encouraged integrity in theological and pastoral leadership. She exemplified a transparent church leader, saying in short that there’s nothing to hide; that as we learn more, we share more; as we have more conversation about the evolution of our faith, our understandings, our biblical and church history, the more we grow together – lead where it will. It was Gretta Vosper who allowed me to see that a pathway forward was possible – maybe not in the denomination I’d been serving, but certainly in the open and always questing/questioning United Church of Canada. Without even knowing it, Gretta helped me make the decision to apply to be admitted to ministry in the United Church, knowing that at this crossroads, I could find space here to lead, to teach, to grow and to learn with integrity. This is one of Gretta’s great legacy’s she is giving the United Church: the evolution of spirituality, christianity, and ancient belief systems is possible; to be rooted in this faith yet grow from it and branch into new places is possible; to be relevant for 21st century multi-disciplinary thinkers and do-ers is possible. This I learned and continue to learn from Gretta.

I was asked this week if and/or how I would respond to the questions of ordination today. The fact is, I still believe we shouldn’t have to. In so many fields of study, we do not hold to ancient understandings in light of new scholarship, and although these questions couldn’t be classified technically as ancient, they were created variously from 1925-40. In the evolution of thoughts and ideas, this is ancient. When I was admitted to the United Church, ten years after my theological training and ordination vows, I was instructed (whether sanctioned or not) that I was to answer the questions under the rubric of ‘essential agreement’, a lately much-debated phrase often used in the United Church. So in answering these questions when I was admitted, I answered them with the understanding that I was defining the meanings and metaphors. When asked if, for example, I “believe in God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit…”, etc. I was counselled that I was in faithful company to answer based on the understandings that I came to the theological subjects of sacredness, care, community, mutuality, accountability, etc. that were given shorthand expression in these ancient formulas. Was this the right thing to do? As a newcomer to the culture of the United Church and with confidence in its ‘big tent’ philosophy, I wasn’t worried (especially considering I was extremely honest about my theological views in my admission interviews, and welcomed enthusiastically). In today’s context and environment, the response to these questions raises different issues and has a different impact.

Asking how I would answer these questions now is not a productive thing for me to spend my time worrying about. Why? Because I (and so many of us) have moved beyond the language and world-view that these questions imply. This summer’s General Council 43 could recognize this too. Although there is no immediate change being proposed, there was a successful move toward re-evaluating the questions of ordination and commissioning for a new time, or in their words, that “the Theology and Inter-Church Inter-Faith Committee will be directed to engage in a study on modernizing the theological language we use for the agreements required in the ordination, commissioning, admission, and recognition of ministry and to report back to the 44th General Council”.  See the GC decision here. I believe that the church as a whole recognizes that there are issues in having candidates for ordination, commissioning and admission use language that dates back at least 80 years. What this says to me is that any questions concerning one’s interpretation of this antiquated language ignores the fact the highest decision making body of our church has decided that study and modernizing is necessary. It would be unwise and, I would say, irresponsible, to base a crucial decision such as “effectiveness”, “suitability” or placing a valuable member of our clergy on a discontinued service list which would in effect end her career based on language the church itself has deemed needing study and updating.

I am heartbroken that the church has drawn in the sand, unwilling to see the danger, the poor and unjust precedent and generally non-compassionate action that they are taking in proceeding with this hearing. Never mind that an inspiring and much needed leader’s career, livelihood and reputation has been damaged and threatened, this action says to many in the United Church, including me, that we aren’t welcome. The theological rigor and openness to evolving thought and faith for which this denomination has been known is no longer welcome. This is a month that, for Gretta and West Hill, is about a hearing, but for all of us it’s a month of heartbreak.

I stand in full support of Gretta Vosper remaining in active ministry within the United Church. I stand in full support of her continued and effective leadership at West Hill United Church. I stand in full support of the United Church being open and welcoming enough to embrace theological diversity that includes Gretta Vosper and those like her. I stand in full support of the community of United Church ministers and lay people whose evolving faith and understandings have been encouraged by the ethos of the United Church and who still belong and find space within it.

Christopher New