Thursday, 5 January 2017

A Canadian Solution

I hope I am not being too optimistic, but I am wondering if a settlement of the matter of self-described atheist and United Church minister The Rev. Gretta Vosper may be at hand. This is entirely my own opinion, but it seems a reasonable conclusion.

I say that after the news in late December that Vosper has joined the Board of Directors of the Oasis Network and she is planning to organize regular network gatherings in downtown Toronto. While Vosper and her congregation at West Hill United Church quietly joined the Oasis Network nearly a year ago, according to the network’s web page, the action to develop another group locally may well be seen in a slightly different light.

Oasis Network describes itself as “Powered by Reason. Connected by Compassion.” They are laudable goals, but they are not related to any specific belief structure, Christian or otherwise.

The possibility of a reasonable settlement opens up because of a clause in the United Church Manual, the primary governance document of the denomination. It says that any minister who becomes a leader in another faith group or denomination may be placed on the Discontinued Service List (Voluntary). The DSL(V), as it is known, is different from the Discontinued Service List (Disciplinary). That is where Toronto Conference has requested Vosper be placed following a Formal Hearing for to determine if Vosper should be removed from the United Church ministry.

The DSL(V) is considered much less harsh than the DSL(D), which implies wrongdoing or impropriety of some kind.

In regard to placement on the DSL(V), the member of the Order of Ministry need do nothing. Their actions have already spoken. The denomination itself performs an administrative process. The pastoral relationship with any congregation is usually terminated. The person can no longer function or identify themselves as a United Church minister, but are free to do whatever else they wish.

There are many advantages. The monetary and emotional cost of a Formal Hearing are no longer considerations as the hearing itself is moot. There are no lawyers involved. Everyone just walks away.

If a minister ever wishes to return to active ministry from the DSL(V), there is a church process which is far, far less strict than returning from the DSL(D).

The matter of the congregation is entirely separate and unrelated to the minister. The church property is owned by the United Church of Canada, whose interests are represented by congregationally elected Trustees. The actions of a minister or individual church members have no effect, something which may come as a surprise.

This may be the best outcome. There is no hint of discipline, no fault, no failure, no formal decision, no winners and no losers. People agree to disagree. How Canadian.

Rev. David Shearman is a retired United Church minister in Owen Sound and the host of Faithworks on Rogers TV - Grey County.

Wednesday, 18 May 2016

Give money, not stuff, to help

Canadians are generous. At least that’s the cultural myth we hold on to. The evidence does seem to support the myth, but how we are generous needs some unpacking.

In 1992, during Hurricane Andrew’s destruction of Florida, Canadian generosity was called on. It was the early days of online communication. The internet wasn’t even public. People who owned computers were thought to be real geeks.

I was one of them.

In the days after the storm, there was all kind of help sent; some of it was quite strange. A colleague told me of a bunch of unmatched woman’s dress shoes. Others told of receiving expired drugs.

Hearing these stories and of how donated goods were left to rot in the hot Florida sun, I learned then that the best way to send assistance in any natural disaster was not to send stuff but send money. Donate to relief charities such as the Red Cross, the United Way or various religious groups who normally have low overheads.

Overheads? Every charitable organization has overhead. Use your cell phone to text a small donation? The phone company takes a cut. Donate by credit card? The card company charges a fee. Religious charities will often absorb local administration costs, but even they are subject to bank charges for currency conversion.

People, it appears, aren’t listening. In the wake of the Fort McMurray fire people are still sending “stuff”. And a lot of it is ending up in parking lots and warehouses where it gets in the way. Eventually it may end up in a landfill. That’s what happened after the 2011 fire in Slave Lake. Much of the donated stuff went to a Calgary landfill.

After the 2010 devastating earthquake in Haiti, concerned mothers sent bottles of breast milk. In a country that lost its infrastructure, including electricity, a perishable product like breast milk couldn’t be kept. You know the rest of the story.

Many Canadians seem to get it. We were incredibly generous to the Canadian Red Cross, which is the lead relief agency, for the Fort McMurray fire. Money is already being distributed directly to fire victims.

In the case of local disasters here in Grey Bruce, there is an alternative. Gift cards. They are as good as cash, carry no overhead, and can be used for food, necessities or gas. Just donate some gift cards, of any denomination (smaller is better). Use local outlets or chains. Drop them off at the Red Cross or the United Way or even mail them.

Disaster relief is best left to those with experience. And it’s one line of work which will continue to grow. Just remember, “Give money not stuff” to a disaster relief effort and do it through a registered charity or non-profit with full accountability. That’s the best way to help our neighbours locally and around the world.

Rev. David Shearman is a retired United Church minister in Owen Sound and the host of Faithworks on Rogers TV - Grey County.

Thursday, 12 May 2016

A touch of redneck not so bad

I recently discovered that I’m a borderline redneck, not well insulated from mainstream culture.

I found that out by taking a survey at, the American broadcaster, based on a book by American political scientist and author Charles Murray, trying to get a handle on mainstream white American culture. Some are suggesting it’s helpful in explaining the rise of Donald Trump.

The survey is easily translatable into a Canadian setting and in doing so I found out some surprising things.

I found out that like many of those in white mainstream culture, I’ve worked on a factory floor, I watch TV and drive a truck. I fish occasionally. I don’t drink beer, however, and I rarely go out to chain restaurants to eat.

My score was 65 out of 100. That makes me, in Murray’s explanation, “a first generation middle class person with working class parents and average TV and movie watching habits.”

That’s odd, because both my parents had university degrees, as did my grandparents. My father, as a minister, occupied a position of privilege in the community. At the same time, I have worked on a shop floor to put myself through university. I’ve worked hard enough that my whole body ached at the end of the day. Repeatedly. . I’ve cleaned urinals and feces-filled toilets. I have unloaded rail cars so filthy with charcoal dust, with no mask provided, that black tears came out of my eyes at night, staining my pillow.

Perhaps it was my early ministry days that affected me. I have picked potatoes in cold, foggy New Brunswick fields. I’ve sat around kitchen tables with the teakettle bubbling away on the wood stove, listening to heartbreaking stories. I’ve ridden in a log hauling semi, having important pastoral conversations over coffee in the truck cab while taking a quick break from loading or unloading.

Maybe it was the people who came through my office door with one story or another, most of which were fictitious, but who appreciated whatever I could offer. Which, sometimes, wasn’t much.

The point is that there is a huge amount of insulation between levels of society in white, mainstream culture. And that insulation prevents a sensitivity to the other person in our community.

We like to think we are different, as Canadians. But this survey showed me that while there may be culturally different specifics, they aren’t as significant as we think.

I learned something about myself in this survey. I’m more rural and a bit more redneck than I imagined and by golly, I don’t live in a bubble. For a pastor, even a retired one, that’s a good thing. But even if I could, I would never, ever vote for Donald Trump.

Rev. David Shearman is a retired United Church minister in Owen Sound and the host of Faithworks on Rogers TV - Grey County.

Tuesday, 3 May 2016

Our bathroom, ourselves

I want to talk about bathrooms. My apologies for being so forthright about this, but it is becoming a matter of life and death in some parts of the continent.

It’s a big issue in that boiling cauldron to the south of us. Several states have put laws in place regarding bathroom use. In order to “protect people”, you have to use the washroom of the gender which is listed on your birth certificate. In other words, men (according to their birth certificate) and women (according to their birth certificate) have to use the specific gender identified loo.

That poses a problem for a number of situations.

Men who are out with their female children, can not, under this law, change their children on the change table in the men’s washroom. Mothers can’t do the same with their male children.

As a parent of six children, both male and female, I have been in the position of being with a child of the opposite gender and heard the plaintive wail of “I gotta go!”. Fortunately, help was at hand and the problem was resolved to everyone’s  satisfaction.

This matter is a real problem for those who are transgender or those who visually identify or dress as the opposite gender. It is also an issue for those who dress outside of culturally acceptable stereotypes.

A friend of mine, a pastor in the US and former US Marine officer, prefers pants, slacks and jeans to dresses, especially as she grows older. She finds it a lot more functional. Another pastor prefers khaki pants, dress shirts and bow ties. She has had several difficult encounters in women’s rest rooms, although she is a woman.

I have seen American media reports that some people are intending to carry a gun into the washroom to “protect themselves from perverts”.

The bottom line is that people just want to use the facilities. Heck, we all need to use the facilities. Is that too much to ask?

The rural church is light years ahead on this matter. I have served rural congregations where it was expected that you used a bush behind the church or an outhouse. In churches where there was a washroom, it was exactly that. A washroom with one toilet. Behind the furnace. Everyone used it. The unwritten rules were that the men put the seat down and wiped the sink afterwards. The women kept it clean and the men fixed the plumbing problems. And no one got twisted out of shape about who used it. People recognized we all have the same human need.

I have known at least one transgender person in Grey Bruce who told me she never really had any serious issues with washroom use. I hope she was right and telling me the truth as she knew it. Just remember, we’re all human and at some point, we all gotta go.

Rev. David Shearman is a retired United Church minister in Owen Sound and the host of Faithworks on Rogers TV - Grey County.

Monday, 25 April 2016

Back to Hydro One-derland

Just like Wiarton Willie showed up on February 2 with his spring prognostication, the Ontario Energy Board announced in mid-April that effective May 1, rates for customers of Hydro One would be going up. Again.

So what else is new? Actually, the reason rates are going up is worth looking at. It shows the ongoing Alice in Wonderland world which customers of Hydro One have to live in. To put it succinctly, rates are going up because electricity use is going down. That’s right. Electricity use in Ontario is declining, so rates paid to Hydro One are going up to cover their costs.

When I bought my house a year ago, I took the opportunity to do a complete review and assessment of the house’s energy efficiency. Insulation? Check. Weather stripping? Check. Quality thermal windows? Check. Gas heat? Check. Energy efficient appliances? All but an electric hot water heater and clothes dryer. All lights either fluorescent or LED? Check.

Pretty good, I thought. The house is as energy efficient as I can make it. And the electricity bills this past winter reflected that. I wasn’t displeased. I mean we have been told for years and years to conserve, conserve, conserve. You will save money, Hydro One told us.

Not anymore. If you read the report the Ontario Energy Board makes to support Hydro One’s request for a rate increase, the justification sound like this. It was a minder than normal winter. Customer are using less electricity; so much less that Hydro One can’t cover their costs of production of that power and their support costs for the electrically system. They need more money.

The OEB supports the request. They have revised their profile of their “average consumer”. They say in their recent report supporting Hydro One’s rate increase request, “ Since late 2009, the OEB has defined the typical residential customer as a household that consumed 800 kWh of electricity per month. A recent review indicates that average residential consumption has declined significantly since the standard was last established. As a result, the OEB has determined that the standard used for illustrative purposes should now be 750 kWh per month.”

In other words, Hydro One customers have been good stewards of their resources, conserved energy, invested in energy saving technologies and reduced average consumption by almost 10%. Now have to pay more for that same electricity?

I have a suggestion for Hydro One. Instead of looking to their customers to pay for your failures, how about looking at all the employees who are on the Sunshine List? How about finding management efficiencies or changing plans to save costs, as most  businesses do? Just stop with the Alice in Wonderland logic. We are doing our best to conserve electricity in our lives. We deserve the benefits of being good energy stewards, not having to pay more for the privilege of buying our electricity from Hydro One.

Rev. David Shearman is a retired United Church minister in Owen Sound and the host of Faithworks on Rogers TV - Grey County.

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Little faith in do-it-yourselfers

A 16th century fresco inside a Naples, Italy church was damaged last week when someone drilling next door accidentally punched a hole through a wall, perforating the valuable artwork. Pictures show a hole in a stone wall above the shoulder of an image of St. Peter in the Basilica of San Giovanni Maggiore. Fortunately the drill missed St. Peter’s face, but the incredibly valuable artwork has been badly damaged. The perpetrator was an overzealous do-it-yourselfer who lived next door.

The risks of enthusiastic but unknowledgeable renovators knows no bounds.

In one church I served, the oak pews which were over a century old, began to split. A zealous church member, according to the story I was told, said he would fix the splits and fixed they were. With monstrous screws with massive heads. And instead of fixing the splits, the repair made the splits worse and the pews unusable.

I saw one church basement renovation where the floor beams below the sanctuary had been cut out to fit low doorways for halls and classrooms. I would not have wanted to been in that church with a full congregation present.

One of my colleagues was telling me of the acoustic problems they were having in their church. No one could hear without a lot of amplification and speakers. A lot of money had been spent and no one was happy.

“You went to a split chancel, didn’t you?” I asked.

“Yes, we did. A few years ago we moved the furniture around and made a flat performance floor. The central pulpit was taken out and the pulpit and lectern were placed on each side of the platform.”

“I hate to say it,” I said, “But knowing the original design of your church, I think you may have ruined the acoustics. Those old churches were well designed for the human voice. You could speak for hours without using a microphone and everyone could hear you.”

Church renovations are tricky. Changing sanctuary design to conform with a modern style of worship is very risky business. Make a mistake and you could end up with a very expensive mess than makes no one happy. You could even punch a hole in a valuable piece of art. But then you could have the result of an amateur artist who recently tried to repair an early 20th century fresco of Jesus in a church in Spain. It failed. Horribly. Her unskilled attempt went viral on the internet and was mocked as a bad restoration. But since then 150,000 tourists have flocked to the town to see the image, causing a tourist boom. New restaurants opened and local museums had the largest number of visits in years. Sow’s ear meet silk purse.

Rev. David Shearman is a retired United Church minister in Owen Sound and the host of Faithworks on Rogers TV - Grey County.

Sunday, 17 April 2016

Atheist minister a distraction

From time to time I am asked about “that United Church minister who doesn’t believe in God.” That United Church minister is The Rev. Gretta Vosper, who has made headlines in Canada and globally by calling herself an atheist. By that she means that she does not believe in a supernatural, interventionist god called God.

I am not going to argue for or against her theological position. I find my own understanding of God may have some small point of common ground with her, but as I read more and more of her material I find far more points with which I don’t agree.

About a year ago, a formal question regarding Vosper’s suitability for ministry was raised with Toronto Conference, the body which oversees United Church ministers in this area, including Grey County. That started the process of what is called a “review”, in which questions are asked of the subject; in this case, Vosper.

Because this was such an unusual situation, guidance was sought from the General Secretary of the United Church, who proposed a process for the review through what is called a Ruling.

Vosper, in turn, appealed the ruling. The appeal was considered by the Judicial Committee of the General Council. They issued their decision just before Easter. They turned down all five points in the appeal with the brief words, “The grounds for the appeal are not met.”

So what happens now?

Briefly, the review will proceed. Toronto Conference will ask their Conference Interview Committee, the group who interview ministers about their beliefs prior to ordination or commissioning into ministry, to nominate several members to form a review team. There will be ordained and commissioned ministers as well as experienced laypeople involved. They will meet with Vosper and write a report.

One the report is finished, it will be submitted to the conference executive for their final decision.

It would be reasonable to say that all the reviewers will be screened for conflict of interest and apprehension of bias. They will be trained in the review proceedure. They will do their work in isolation, with no interference. They do not make any decisions; only report findings. I expect the review will be conducted this spring. I would not be surprised if it was completed by the end of June.

The final report of the review will go forward to the conference executive, a group of a dozen or so elected lay persons and ordained and diaconal ministers. They will consider the report and make their decision.

I don’t know what the final result will be. But I believe the process will be as fair as possible. I look forward to the result, no matter what it is. The United Church needs to move on from what is, I believe, a distraction. We don’t do theology by popular vote and there are more significant matters the United Church needs to attend to.

Rev. David Shearman is a retired United Church minister in Owen Sound and the host of Faithworks on Rogers TV - Grey County.