Monday, 29 June 2015

Pope Francis’s encyclical is for all of us

In the midst of all the global turmoil of the last week, events in Charleston SC and even here at home, the Vatican released the second encyclical of Pope Francis, Laudato Se’ 

An encyclical is one of the highest forms of communication within the Roman catholic Church. At its most basic, it is a letter to the church leadership saying that in this time and place, this is a hugely important issue. It also outlines the church’s teaching on the issue. There is no debate of an encyclical. It is as if the church is saying, “Here we stand.”

Laudato Se’ is remarkable in many, many ways.

It is, without question a very political statement. At the same time, it breaks new ground by stating clearly that all our conversation about the environment (global warming, nuclear waste disposal, environmental degradation) has a spiritual component. Pope Francis is saying unequivocally that the language of faith has a place in those conversations and offers a framework for that participation.

Pope Francis makes clear that the poor and those on the margins of the global community are the ones most affected by environmental change. They bear the brunt of what happens to our environment, yet often they have no voice. That has to change.

Technology is no solution. That flies in the face of so called “dynamists”, as Ross Douthat has named them in the New York Times. Dynamists believe that all human problems can be solved by technology, there is a genius and rightness in free markets and modernity is a success story whose best days are ahead.

On the other hand, Douthat suggests that Francis is a “catastrophist” who sees a global civilization that for all its achievements is becoming more divided, more environmentally despoiling. Catastrophists say that things cannot go on as they are and that the trajectory we’re on will end in crisis and disaster.

But perhaps Francis’ biggest connection is the reminder to all of us that “we are all connected”. We are all in this together. He is most harsh towards indifference and selfishness. We cannot care for the rest of nature “if our hearts lack tenderness, compassion and concern for our fellow human beings”.

For the first time, this encyclical is not eurocentric. The insights of bishops in the Third World are included, as is a comment from the Eastern Patriarch, Bartholomew and an ancient Sufi mystic. This is a global message for all of us.

Perhaps the best words of Francis are descriptive of our situation. We face an urgent crisis, he says, when, thanks to our actions, the earth has begun to look more and more like, “an immense pile of filth”. At the same time, there is hope. Francis reminds us that because God is with us, we can strive to change course.

As Fr. James Martin, editor of America: The National Catholic Review says, “To use religious language, what the pope is calling for is conversion.”

But are we prepared for that step? Our future as a world demands it and depends on it.

Rev. David Shearman is the minister of Central Westside United Church, Owen Sound and the host of Faithworks on Rogers TV - Grey County.

Monday, 22 June 2015

United Church on what could be a painful journey

If you have not heard, Canada’s largest Protestant church, the United Church if Canada, will be undergoing massive changes in structure in the next five years.

Did I say the changes would be massive?

The reason for the change is primarily to streamline structure so as to be economically affordable.

Like most churches, the United Church has a serious financial challenge. Givings to the Mission and Service Fund, which pay for the work of the national church structure, have been flat for over two decades. Financial reserves have reached a critical level. The United Church must (not might or could but must) cut $12,000,000 from it’s overall budget of about $40,000,000 per year.

Cuts to staff are first. It is expected that 60 positions will be lost.

Restructuring is next. A four level system is proposed to be come three and geographical groupings will be greatly expanded and existing boundaries will disappear.

Local congregations will be given much more control over their property and ability to call and terminate ministers.

This has the potential to cause massive dislocation and upheaval. The closest parallel I can think of was the Hospital Services Restructuring Commission in Ontario between 1996 and 1998. If you remember those days, there was turmoil, upheaval, dislocation, protests and job losses as change worked its way through the system.

A recent analysis of the proposals for change used the phrase “disruption of the system”.

I think that’s probably quite apt. The United Church of Canada, sometimes seen as a consummate example of the Canadian identity, along with hockey and Tim Hortons coffee, is going to be different.

Organizations don’t to change well. Kathy Underwood, in a recent report to the church’s Toronto Conference, laid out the risks ahead in very clear terms.

She says that there needs to be a clear rationale for change. People have to understand what it is about and why.

Small changes have to come first, building on successes and learning from mistakes.

There will need to be a high level team leading the change, who are committed and skilled in project management and change management.

There will also need to be champions and encouragers of the change. Communication will be paramount. The leadership will have to communicate, communicate and communicate again.

If there is a flaw in what lies ahead, it is, I think, a lack of mission and vision. That may sound like a strange statement for a Christian Church, but it endemic to the United Church of Canada. It’s not that there is no vision. The problem is that there are many, many visions. And without clarity of vision, the difficulty of change multiplies.

Personally, I predict a good five years of anxiety ahead for the United Church. The proposals which will initiate the change process will be discussed at this summer’s General Council in Corner Brook, NL in early August. There may be some tweaking, but the main thrust of the change movement can’t be denied.

This will require a lot of patience on the part of church leadership and members and a concerted effort not to be anxious. That’s not going to be easy for both pastors and local congregations. But it is necessary.

My prayers are with the representatives to the General Council, called “commissioners”, and with the United Church in the next few years.

They have much to decide.

Rev. David Shearman is the minister of Central Westside United Church, Owen Sound and the host of Faithworks on Rogers TV — Grey County.

Monday, 15 June 2015

Church far from the only place to find God

Are declining numbers and empty pews a serious problem for the Christian church today? Not according to the new Bishop of Crediton of the Church of England, Dame Sarah Mullally.

Dame Sarah, former Chief Nursing Officer on the UK’s Nation al Health Service and now an Anglican priest and the church’s newest Bishop Designate, said in a media interview recently that people will still “encounter God” without ever taking their place in a pew.  She went on to say that “...clerics must recognise that young people are as likely to hear the Christian message through social media sites such as Facebook or in caf├ęs as in a church.”, according to the Daily Telegraph.

Society is changing, she went on to say, and membership in many organizations is declining. She pointed out that many people encounter the church and encounter God, but will only occasionally engage the church on a Sunday.

This is the kind of forward thinking I like to se happening in the church. For far too long and especially in North America and western Europe we have been bound to buildings where somehow we thing God can be found.

God isn’t just in church buildings. God can be found in many places; in a hospital room; in a hospice; at a local coffee shop. God can be found on the ranges at Meaford and on the cliffs overlooking Georgian Bay at Cypress Lake. God can be encountered anywhere.

That does not make the church, as a gathering irrelevant. By definition, one can not practice the Christian faith alone. It’s a faith founded in community and community gathering. But Gos is everywhere.

Many years ago I knew of a Roman Catholic parish which had an ongoing dilemma. They held Mass every Sunday in a local community centre. Sixty of seventy showed up regularly and I was told there were probably a hundred or so families connected to the parish. They had property a mile down the road from the community centre. There was even a big sign on the property saying that this would be the new home of St. So and So Roman Catholic Church.

Over the years, the sign became more and more worn. The paint peeled and eventually the wind blew the sign over.


The parish could not come to agreement whether they should build a ”proper” church or keep using the community centre. One group argued that the money raised for a building could be better used for mission and outreach work while the other group sais that they needed a permanent, dedicated church building.

If God can be found anywhere (or at least beyond the church doors), doesn’t it make sense to worry less about buildings and more about mission?

I envied that parish and their freedom. Every church I have served has had a permanent sanctuary that has taken up an increasing amount of money to heat, cool and repair. Is that a responsible use of time, talent and treasure? Or should it be dedicated to outreach in the community?

On one hand, it’s a chicken and egg situation. On the other, it neatly captures the dilemma the Christian church faces today.

I don’t have any solution to offer, but I agree with the Bishop of Crediton. God can be found and encountered in many places in life. The more important question is Where will the church be found? In those many places? Or only in it’s buildings?

The answer will be an interesting one.

Monday, 8 June 2015

Silence is not the answer to Calls to Action

One of the age-old questions in recent Canadian history is “Why was the Avro Arrow cancelled?” Put two Avro Arrow enthusiasts together in the same rom and you will hear at least three theories.

The most plausible theory I have read comes from a published doctoral thesis of Prof. Sean Maloney, a military historian at the Royal Military College, Kingston.

Quoting the Chief of Air Staff, speaking of the newly elected government of John Diefenbaker in 1958, Maloney says “they came in with an avowed intention of cutting military expenses and raising old age pensions, etc. and it all costs money...”

In other words, the newly elected government had other priorities than new aircraft for the RCAF and the Arrow was cancelled for that reason alone. There was no political will to spend money on weapons when promises had been made for better pensions for seniors.

I raise this in the aftermath of the release of the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission this past week in Ottawa. The commission was struck to investigate and listen to the stories of the residential schools, which the commission said, “... can best be described as 'cultural genocide.'"

The commission also urges the government and all parties in residential schools, including the Anglican Church, United Church of Canada, the Presbyterian Church, Roman Catholic entities party to the matter and the Jesuit Order to move from apology to action.

Pope Francis has been asked to come to Canada to offer apology to the First Nations peoples.

The churches have said in their response to the commission, “We acknowledge and welcome the specific calls to action that offer direction to the churches in our continuing commitment to reconciliation.

“Above all, we welcome the Commissioners’ Calls to Action as providing the basis for a wide and transformative conversation among Canadians about the better future we intend to foster, not just for Indigenous peoples, but for all of us who long to live in a society grounded in right relationships and equity.”

From the government of Canada, so far, silence. Except that they will wait for the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Which will not occur until after the next election. Not a “thanks very much”. Not an acknowledgement that the recommendations shall be seriously considered. Nothing.

We have an opportunity in Canada to start a new path. We have the chance to engage in conversation. We have a chance to learn our own history from those who experienced it, not from the triumphal writings of those in power. We have the chance to listen to stories, both good and bad and to walk forward in mutual respect and trust.

But there appears to be no commitment on the part of the current government for that to happen.

In the last sixty years, this country has done some incredible things to make the lives of Canadians better. We started pensions and unemployment insurance. We developed linguistic equality between French and English. We started the Canada Pension Plan, and other social initiatives like universal health care..

In 1958, the government of the day changed priorities from military spending to social spending.The government “saw visions and dreamed dreams”, to paraphrase the prophet Isaiah. And the result was that our life and our country is now immeasurably better.

We need that kind of visionary leadership and political will now.

I am under no illusion that the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission will take time. It will take generations. But if we commit to doing the work now to build relationships and establish trust, it will be the work of our children, our children’s children and their children and beyond to build on our foundation.

Silence is not an option for Canadians. We need visionary leadership and we need it now. Let’s begin.

Rev. David Shearman is the minister of Central Westside United Church, Owen Sound and host of Faithworks on Rogers TV - Grey County.

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Questioning a minister about faith isn't the inquisition

Unless you have been lost in time and space for a while, the name Gretta Vosper should ring a few bells with many.

If you have been asleep and lost in time and space, she is The Reverend Gretta Vosper, author, United Church of Canada minister and atheist.

I know. Some are already shaking their heads. How can someone be a Christian minister and an atheist at the same time?

“Well, it’s the United Church, after all,” some will say. But denominational stereotypes aside, Vosper is back in the spotlight, not for a new book or a controversial interview, but because the United Church of Canada has ordered a review of her ministry and theology, following concerns being raised by her referring to herself as an atheist.

How did the matter get raised?

In April, following several letters of concern, including one from Metropolitan United Church in Toronto, the executive of Toronto Conference unanimously requested the General Secretary of the church’s General Council, the most senior administrative officer of the church, to “outline a process for considering the concerns that have been raised regarding the on-going status of an ordered minister, with a focus on continuing affirmation of the questions asked of all candidates at the time of ordination, commissioning or admission in Basis of Union.”

That’s church speak for asking for advice on how to review a minister who seems to have moved away from some foundational statements and questions all prospective ministers are asked to agree to at the time of their entry into ministry.

One question is, “Do you believe in God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and do you commit yourself anew to God?” The candidate is expected to be in essential agreement with that statement and others of belief and say yes. Not a “nudge, nudge; wink, wink” yes or a “crossed my fingers so it doesn’t count” yes, but an honest yes.
When a minister who has affirmed those statements now says they are an atheist, then it is reasonable to conclude that questions will be asked and honest answers expected.

Some will say this is nothing but a witch hunt or an inquisition. They are wrong.

The review process is common to all regulated professions, including teachers, doctors and social workers. The United Church is no different. Ministers are accountable for their actions and their words and this is the church process by which they are called to account.

In subsequent meetings of the governance body, the process of review has been made clear. Again, it is all out there on the internet and fully public. Vosper has been informed that questions have been raised. The review process is moving forward.

The task of review has been assigned to the Conference Interview Committee, who have the job of interviewing all candidates for ministry, ministers seeking admission to the United Church and other individuals.

I am told that five people have already been asked to conduct the review. They will meet with Vosper and then write and submit their report by June 25. The sub-Executive will make its decision shortly after that.

I would not venture a guess on the outcome. I have been through the review process myself. It’s not easy. But the United Church leans towards restorative justice rather than retributive justice.

No one is out to get Vosper. At the end of the day, she may still be a colleague in ministry. But then again, she may not.

Rev. David Shearman is the minister of Central Westside United Church, Owen Sound and the host of Faithworks on Rogers TV - Grey County.