Review of Effectiveness of Ministry
On Sunday, May 10th, Randy Bowes, Chair of West Hill's Board, advised the congregation that Toronto Conference of The United Church of Canada (UCC), under a new ruling from the UCC's General Secretary, would be deliberating as to whether or not to review the effectiveness of gretta's ministry. The new ruling determines that a minister cannot be deemed effective if not in compliance with the questions asked at ordination pertaining to belief in God, call to ministry, and exercise of ministry within the faith. Randy shared the following letter, written by him to David Allen, Executive Secretary of Toronto Conference, with the congregation. David received the letter in advance of a meeting of the Conference's sub_Executive committee at which it would be decided whether or a review of gretta's ministry will be initiated by the Conference.
Unfortunately, the Conference Sub-Executive has decided to proceed with initiating a review; the timing to be determined shortly.
We will keep you informed.
May 8, 2015
Rev. David W. Allen
Executive Secretary, Toronto Conference
65 Mayall Ave
Downsview ON M3L 1E7
Gretta has shared with me your email and the letter from the General Secretary of General Council outlining the process that would be used if Conference decides to take steps regarding concerns that have arisen regarding her beliefs. I want to thank you for your prompt sharing of this information and your commitment to keep us informed as new developments arise.
In your deliberations about whether or not to take any further action, I am confident that the sub-Executive committee will consider not only the impact to gretta and West Hill United Church, but also the implications to the other ministers and the wider church.
The congregation at West Hill United Church is comprised of people with a wide diversity of theological beliefs. Some hold very traditional understandings of God, others self-identify as atheist or humanist, but most of us choose not to label ourselves at all. This diversity is likely very consistent with the theological beliefs held within almost every United Church congregation. At WHUC, we do not require anyone to subscribe to a particular set of beliefs in order to “belong”, an intentional decision made eleven years ago. Any formal review of gretta’s suitability for ministry based on her theological beliefs, whether or not any action comes out of the review, will be construed by many in the congregation as casting doubt on whether they are welcome within the United Church of Canada and risk creating a division in this community.
Throughout its 65 years within the United Church of Canada, WHUC has strived to live out the ideals of the UCC. Over the years, the emphasis has shifted and swayed, with more or less prominence placed on various ideals depending on the make-up and priorities of the congregation. In 2015, WHU’s priorities are inclusiveness and social justice, with very significant work being accomplished in the areas of creating a barrier-free spiritual experience, engaging and confronting Empire, the rights of First Nations peoples, refugees and those of diverse sexual identity, and community engagement and support within the congregation, its neighbouring community and beyond.
The congregation at WHUC embarked on a progressive journey with gretta fifteen years ago and the board has been completely supportive, at times encouraging her to take us further and faster than even she envisioned. Her leadership inspires us, collectively and individually, to be attentive to what matters most. Her intentional efforts to create a barrier-free space for spirituality and growth within a safe environment have attracted many congregants who had left the United Church of Canada years before, disillusioned or hurt by the dogma of traditional faith. Other congregants have had no previous experience of The United Church of Canada and have been impressed with the UCC’s breadth of commitment to meaningful engagement as they experience it at WHUC.
In her email to you, gretta “lament(s) that theological understanding and perspective now fall under the heading of ‘effectiveness in ministry’ and places many of our colleagues, whose ministries are otherwise highly effective, at risk of disciplinary action.” The practical reality of this new process is that every minister whose reads a book by a contemporary scholar or attends a continuing education conference, and then decides to share what they have learned with their congregation, will be at risk of being deemed “not suitable” for ministry solely because their understanding of God/the divine/spirit has shifted from what it was on the day they were ordained. It would be a very slippery slope to step onto and, once on that slope, impossible to draw a line determining how far one’s understanding of God is permitted to shift before facing a disciplinary review.
In the past several years, there have been a significant number of ministers in Toronto Southeast Presbytery, and beyond, who have quietly confided to gretta that they are fully supportive of her work and encouraged her to continue. Unfortunately, too few are willing to show their support openly, even as they use resources developed by gretta and/or West Hill United Church; a church in mid-town Toronto uses our Words of Commitment, As I Live, a church in Barrie uses the compilation of traditional hymns rewritten by gretta vosper and Scott Kearns in Sing It Forward, and Saskatchewan Conference will be using several songs written by Scott Kearns, the Music Director at WHUC, at its Annual Meeting.
Shortly after The Observer published an article about gretta in 2005, a formal request was made to Presbytery to conduct a review of gretta’s suitability for ministry based on her self-identification as a non-theist. Presbytery voted against conducting this review. In the intervening ten years, gretta’s theological position has not changed substantively, other than she now chooses to self-identify as an atheist rather than a non-theist, a decision she made as a stand in solidarity with atheists around the world who were/are being persecuted and killed for their beliefs. The most significant change has been the increase in media attention given to gretta’s theological position.
In January of this year, The United Church Observer introduced a new feature column called “Secular But Spiritual” with little or no backlash from readers. It seems paradoxical that the United Church’s national magazine can begin to talk about spiritual life in a secular context at the precise time a minister who has been doing exactly that for more than a decade potentially faces disciplinary action for her belief in the importance of connecting the spiritual and secular.
At West Hill United Church, the phrase we use to centre ourselves on Sunday mornings is “grounded in life, guided by love and growing in wisdom.” I hope this perspective will be in the forefront of your deliberations.
Board Chair, West Hill United Church