West Hill's Submission re: Gretta's Review by Toronto Conference
West Hill was permitted by Toronto Conference to make a submission in support of Gretta, in advance of the review that took place on June 29, 2016. The document below is that submission (view PDF here), which was provided to the Executive Committee and the Interviewers on June 17, 2016. Unfortunately, Toronto Conference did not permit our representative to speak to the issues during Gretta's review on June 29th.
Re: Rev. Gretta Vosper
From West Hill United Church
Dear Committee Members and Rev. David Allan, Executive Secretary, Toronto Conference:
We welcome this opportunity to present our unyielding support for Rev. Gretta Vosper by offering our perspective on the review and our relationship with Gretta, providing some clarification around West Hill and our evolving theology, and responding to challenges that have been voiced about our place within the United Church of Canada.
In 1997 Scarborough Southeast Presbytery, the congregation of West Hill, and Gretta Vosper entered into a covenant. The members of West Hill have taken a very active role in enriching and supporting this covenant. In 2004 we created a document we call VisionWorks that articulates our shared values and reflects what we hold to be of utmost significance in our community life. It calls us to examine ourselves in light of these values as we set priorities and make decisions, both individually and as a community. This document was created by members of our congregation and was affirmed by our Presbytery at its 2005 oversight meeting. Our covenant remains strong and has not been broken. In living out that covenant, Gretta meets and exceeds our standards of effectiveness.
Effectiveness is measured by outcomes and we are the ones best suited to measure those because we are the ones to set the goals and objectives for our congregation – and yet we have never been approached regarding our vision, our strategies, our objectives or the effectiveness of our minister.
Almost throughout our 66-year history, West Hill United Church has been on the forefront of progressive theology, many of our congregants have grown in knowledge of biblical critique as a result of yearly book studies of works by John Shelby Spong, Bart Ehrman, John Dominic Crossan, Marcus Borg, Tom Harpur, Elaine Pagels, and Riane Eisler, for example. And, like Gretta, many of us are products of the United Church’s New Curriculum. When Gretta was called to West Hill, the Search Committee conscientiously sought candidates that were progressive in their theology and selected Gretta as we recognized in her the leadership qualities we sought to help us push the envelope of what church could mean in the coming years.
She has done that both through her own development as a minister and also by being emboldened by this very congregation to align our values, language, and Sunday services to better reflect contemporary progressive understandings and a focus on non-exclusive gatherings. It is vital to understand that this was not done in isolation by Gretta but in conjunction and coordination with the congregation and the Board of West Hill. Gretta has never acted unilaterally in any of these decisions but sought the advice or consent of the Board. West Hill and Gretta were – and are – inextricably galvanized in this work.
We believe it is essential to recognize that when the congregation called Gretta we embraced her progressive value-centred views because they aligned with how the congregation itself viewed and embraced the concept of god. When she began using the label atheist rather than non-theist, in solidarity with Bangladeshi bloggers who were being murdered for their secular perspectives, the congregation again supported her and indeed, there are many here who would align themselves with the fundamental issues at hand.
Like the LGBTQ community taking back language that was once used to hurt, Gretta and others have reclaimed the word “atheist” in the same manner, to destigmatize the concept and to remove its power to harm. For these reasons, the congregation supports Gretta.
Our congregation itself is formed with roots in the Judaeo-Christian tradition and we embrace theists, agnostics and atheists. Many here would agree with the 24% of the ministers responding to a 2011 United Church Observer survey who indicated their belief in god was wholly dependent on how god was defined. That is to say, we are a congregation diverse in our beliefs yet embracing the groundedness, guidance, and growth experienced through living in right relationship with ourselves, each other and the planet. This is manifested through Gretta’s ministry, our own connection with each other, and by our focus on non-exclusive services. We are brought together by a desire to belong to a community of shared values that seeks to make a difference in the world, rather than through beliefs that divide. West Hill is a vibrant and growing church, celebrating the joys and triumphs of our community on Sunday morning and sharing our burdens in times of need.
Finally, many have voiced concern about why Gretta and by association, our congregation, wish to remain within the United Church. We want to respond to this as a congregation. There are several reasons. The first is that many of us have very deep roots in the United Church of Canada, some of us for more than 70 years. It is our home. We believe in its ability to change the world for the better through its focus on social justice and its attention to issues relevant to Canada and the world. Others within our community have come to the United Church later and have embraced its values and focus on justice and have described the feeling as coming home.
We also recognize the UCC as a church of firsts; first church to ordain women, then married women, the first to have a woman moderator, the first to welcome LGBTQ folk as clergy, the first to recognize the tremendous harm done to indigenous peoples of Canada. We are proud to belong to a church that lifts up peace, seeks justice for the marginalized, supports equity, has a process of supporting sanctuary to those refugees who can only turn to churches as a last resort, and that walks in solidarity with other organizations seeking these same goals. At West Hill, we lift up these values as well and our outreach is focused on many of these same concerns. These include our First Nation’s Study Group which, among many other projects, worked tirelessly to bring the gap in funding and the living conditions of indigenous people to the attention of local representatives of the previous federal government. Our outreach also includes voting unanimously in 2009 to become an Affirming Ministry, support for a Bangladeshi refugee family, provision of sanctuary to those who have nowhere else to turn, local community outreach and support for the M&S fund of the UCC.
We also believe strongly that the United Church of Canada is a big tent, big, bold, and strong enough to embrace those whose beliefs are on the margin of both conservative and liberal or progressive values. We have not heard of congregations or ministers being reviewed when their beliefs adhere to more evangelical, literal, and dogmatic systems, yet there is ample room in the UCC for those groups. By the same token, West Hill United and Gretta have always had a place within the fold, and should continue to do so.
We have been assured by presbytery and conference that if Gretta should be placed on the Discontinued Service List, the West Hill congregation will remain. Yet Gretta is a doorway to many who are averse to church for a number of reasons, not the least of which is compliance to doctrines that can be restrictive to those who are looking for an ethical , values based approach to living in right relationship with themselves, each other, and the planet. The congregation of West Hill and Gretta Vosper are walking along the same path bound together by the values of love, compassion, integrity and a quest for justice. These of course are the deepest values of Christians as well as others seeking to live a life of right relationship.
Respectfully, if you have concerns about Gretta, then you have questions with us as congregation members. Because we view the United Church as our home, this feels very much like family members marginalizing and dismissing us. It is both hurtful and harmful and, given our covenant with Gretta, sets a dangerous precedent. We raise this issue not as a way to create leverage. Rather, we believe it is crucial that we identify this hurt and allow it into this space in order to name and legitimize our deep sense of betrayal in the way this process has been undertaken and carried out. We further believe it is important for you to be aware of this hurt and help carry the burden as something that the Conference has created and must mitigate.
Thank you again for the opportunity to give voice to our perspective and highlight our concerns about the review. The congregation of West Hill United Church has crafted this document mindfully, with openness and care, allowing ourselves to be vulnerable to the process and its outcomes. It is our most sincere hope that we can walk together in this openness and that the committee will find much here that they recognize within their own ministry and perspective.
For your reference, we have enclosed copy of our mission statement, our values and beliefs as outlined in our VisionWorks statement, and the prayer that espouses the values we try to live by, every day: “As I Live”.
West Hill United Church Board Chair