Monday, 31 August 2015

General Council's work largely ignored by media

Every three years the United Church of Canada gathers as a church, bringing elected delegates called commissioners together to make decisions of significant importance to the denomination. This year, the 42nd General Council met in early August in Corner Brook, Newfoundland and Labrador.

You didn’t hear a lot in the media about General Council. It didn’t attract as much attention as previous meetings have, like 1990 when the church reaffirmed there was no barrier to suitably qualified members becoming ministers, no matter what their sexual orientation. At the same time, major and significant changes are being proposed, which will affect the United Church and how it works, right down to the local congregation.

Since the denomination’s founding 90 years ago, there has always been a complex, four level governance system in place. The General Council is proposing, and local associations called presbyteries and local churches will be asked to approve a new, three level structure. All boundaries are on the table and the structure which was, will not exist in two years if two thirds of those voting approve.

In addition, the United Church’s Mission and Service Fund, which is supported by individual church members, will be used to fund the outreach work of the church alone. 10% will be dedicated to aboriginal ministries. Another 10% will be dedicated to new ministries and new, innovative forms of ministries.

In the past, money from the Mission and Service Fund has been used to support church governance funding, including staff salaries. No more. Denominational staff will be reduced significantly and governance and administration will be funded from congregational assessments. Congregations are currently assessed for some governance functions, but it was suggested in one pre-council report that such assessments will increase by 25%.

Of more importance was that the United Church made a long term commitment to reconciliation with First Nations in Canada. This, along with the commitment to First Nations ministries, is seen as the United Church’s way of living out the denominational apology first voiced in 1986 and responding to the calls to the churches and religious organizations by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission this past spring.

The General Council also directed the denomination to divest all holdings in fossil fuel stocks, totalling over 5 million dollars.

Perhaps of more long term significance were three unique agreements. The General Council approved Mutual Recognition agreements with the United Church of Christ in the Philippines (UCCP) and the Presbyterian Church of Korea (PROK). These agreements will allow, among other things, greater facility of denominational pastors to serve immigrant congregations under the umbrella of the United Church of Canada.

The third agreement is to be in Full Communion with the United Church of Christ in the United States. Ratified in July by United Church of Christ’s denominational gathering, the agreement allows for mutual recognition of each denomination’s ministers and opens the door to co-operation at many levels from local to international.

The main item of General Council business was to elected a Moderator, or presiding officer of the General Council. The commissioners, in five ballot rounds, elected The Right Rev. Jordan Cantwell of Delisle-Vanscoy United Church, near Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. In her first press conference she said, “We are fundamentally a people of hope. Our story is one of hope. We have something to offer the world. We as a church need to tap into the hope that is at the core of our faith. It’s easy to get lost in the business and in the fear [of change].”

Cantwell is a graduate of St. Andrew’s College, Saskatoon and was ordained in 2010. She is married to Laura Fouhse, a diaconal minister. They have one daughter.

The next meeting of General Council is in 2017, which may meet electronically, and then in 2018 in Oshawa, Ontario.

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

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Minister's avowed atheism stirs debate

If you want to get people, and especially ministers in the United Church of Canada excited, just say two words. Gretta Vosper.

The Rev. Gretta Vosper is the minister of West Hill United Church in Toronto. In her own words she defines herself as an atheist and her mission in life, according to her Twitter profile is “Irritating the church into the 21st Century”.

That’s all well and good, but in the process, other United Church congregations and members have asked how a someone can say they don't believe in God and say they are an atheist and still claim to be a United Church minister.

Vosper, for her part, is very adept at the use of social media. She is an author. She is well spoken and literate. And she has a lot of supporters, including her congregation. But questions are being asked.

While Vosper has been public about her atheism for well over a decade and has written several books on her beliefs, questions are being raised about what she has said publicly.

In the United Church, every minister is asked questions of belief on their ordination, commissioning, designation or admission to the ministry. The questions are, “Do you believe in God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and do you commit yourself anew to God?”; “Do you believe that God is calling you to the ordained ministry of Word, sacrament and pastoral care, and do you accept this call?" and, "Are you willing to exercise your ministry in accordance with the scriptures, in continuity with the faith of the Church, and subject to the oversight and discipline of The United Church of Canada?" Every minister is also asked to reaffirm those questions when they start with a new congregation.

With Vosper’s public statements, questions of her consistency with those statements, which she would have had to reaffirm when she started ministry at West Hill United Church in the 1997, were raised.

The only tool the United Church as to answer such questions is what is called a “review”. I have been the subject of a review myself. It is a most unpleasant, isolating process. I would not wish it on anyone. But many ministers have been reviewed. Most have continued in ministry. It is simply a tool for answering questions which have been raised.

The best parallel I can think of is the professional review process which happens to teachers, nurses, social workers and doctors in Ontario. In their cases, their professional regulatory college has the power to review their conduct. In Vosper’s case, a governing body in the United Church, the conference, has that authority.

Because the situation was so unusual, the church’s senior administrator, the General Secretary, was asked to outline a review process to follow. Vosper appealed that decision outlining the process. That appeal will be heard in the fall.

Vosper is now conducting a campaign to raise money for her legal expenses (reviews don’t normally use lawyers) and to drum up support in social media.

This is going to be a long, drawn out process. And it won’t be pleasant for anyone. That I know from experience.

I have my opinions about Vosper and her theology, but in the meantime she still has my vocational courtesy. She is still a ministerial colleague, even though we are light years apart in our beliefs. The only thing I can say is that time and the United Church’s due process will give us the outcome. 

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

Monday, 17 August 2015

Apologies from Hydro One, but what of others?

It appears that my troubles with Hydro One are, at least in the short term, over.

When I last left you on this journey through Hydro One-derland, I said that it appeared that Hydro One had sent me an up to date bill and my account was paid in full. So far, so good.

Then I received a call from Hydro One. My guts turned to jelly. Had they messed up my payment? Did I owe more money? 

It turned out that Hydro One wanted to offer me special treatment. I was called to offer an apology for my billing problems. The person went on to assure me that further inquiries were being made and that I would be called when answers were available. I was also given a different phone number and extension and told that from now on they would be my single point of contact for any Hydro One billing issues I might have.

Wow! My own private customer service agent! I guess I’m special.

The person from Hydro One-derland called again later in the week. There was more  information.

First, I received an apology for all the confusing advice I had received from Hydro One. The tapes of my interactions with Hydro One had been reviewed and I indeed had received conflicting and contradictory information from Hydro One agents. The tapes would be reviewed with them and their supervisor and they would be further counselled so this would not happen again.

I hope they don’t lose their jobs.

There was another apology. Am I detecting a pattern here?

The reason there were so many problems was because of a billing rate change on May 1, Hydro One’s billing system did not pick up the meter data and bill me correctly. I was assured that the meter was now communicating properly with Hydro One and feeding usage data. This I already knew, because I could see the usage data on Hydro One’s web page. I couldn’t before.

When I pointed out that the problem was not just with the meter but with their billing system not picking up the data from their own system, it was acknowledged that was also an issue, complicated by the rate change on May 1. I was given no assurance that it would not happen again. In other words, Hydro One’s billing system is still busted.

Finally, Hydro One said they will refund me three months of service charges of $19.28 per month or $57.84 (no mention of including HST, of course).

And I got another apology.

While all of this seems to bring my trip into Hydro One-derland to a close, I am still deeply troubled. I received this level of service because I was able to advocate for myself. I’m not afraid to stand up for my rights and challenge something I feel is wrong. I am literate and have a high level of education. I also have the advantage of a bully pulpit in this column, something I am certain was known to Hydro One.

But what about the people who aren’t literate? What about the people who keep getting further and further behind in their bills and are threatened with disconnection? What about the people who are too afraid to stand up to Hydro One because that might cost them a lot more money?

After careful consideration I am declining the Hydro One billing credit. I shouldn’t be getting special treatment because of my position or place. Hydro One should treat all their customers the same way. They should fix their billing system. But somehow I doubt they will.

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

Tuesday, 11 August 2015

Church offers election resource unlike any other

I hate it when a candidate says “I will run on my record”. It is, obviously, the incumbent who makes the statement, but what it does is make the electoral playing field very uneven and unbalanced.

Unless you have been asleep in your hammock on vacation, we are into an election campaign; one of the longest in Canadian history.

If there is any benefit to a longer campaign (and I am willing to be convinced) it is that it may result in more in depth conversations about key issues. Not just an electoral record, but it may provide a better opportunity for voters to take the measure of all the candidates and their leaders.

There are those who say that politics and faith should never mix.

To which I say balderdash.

Politics and religious faith have been entwined since before Canada was a nation. Sometimes the effect was salutatory and sometimes not.

Some of our greatest parliamentarians have been pastors. Tommy Douglas, Stanley Knowles and Bill Blakie were leaders in parliamentary process and debate. David MacDonald was a Conservative member of Joe Clark’s cabinet.

As we begin this election campaign, a number of the usual voices have already been heard. Debate schedules have been proposed and collapsed. Incumbents are trying to set the rules and their opponents are trying not to play by those rules.

So what is a voter to do?

One of the more helpful resources I have found is the Canadian Council of Churches Federal Election Resource. It’s available on their web site.

The election resource is interesting in that it poses questions which invite candidates of all parties to speak clearly about their convictions on important issues.

Those important issues are not the issues the various parties define. We are not playing by their partisan agenda. These are more broad, thoughtful questions which don’t address party bias.

The presumption of the report is helpful. It says, “For people of faith, religious convictions are not purely a private matter. Values, justice principles and moral commitments inform all our actions. They guide us when we speak to politicians and when we vote on election day. Similarly, candidates representing political parties who arrive on our doorsteps or at our community centres speak from their principles and convictions when they ask for our votes.”

The resource has gathered together seven citizen’s organizations and invited them to give a background to an issue and then pose one or two questions.

Issues include climate justice, poverty, prisons, a national inquiry on missing and murdered indigenous women and children, welcoming the stranger, physician assisted death, international trade, support for small scale farmers, the arms trade, banning nuclear weapons, the Canadian military mission to Iraq and Syria and Canadian mining companies respecting human rights.

On physician assisted death, the kit asks, “What is your position on physician assisted death? Do you agree that a broadly based, public consultation is necessary? As a Member of Parliament, how would you and your party proceed with a comprehensive consultation to ensure all voices are heard?”

On a national inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women, the question is, “As a Member of Parliament, would you and your party support a national public inquiry and work with Indigenous peoples on the development of a clear action plan to address the urgent crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women and children?”

You may not agree with all the questions, but if they get us thinking, they can help us get past the party propaganda and petty bickering and into substantive issues affecting all Canadians. For people of faith, our faith should inform our political decisions. These questions help us do just that.

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

Saturday, 1 August 2015

The billing rabbit hole to Hydro One-derland

A few weeks ago, I jumped down the rabbit hole called Hydro One billing. It turned me into a meter reader, because for some unknown reason, Hydro One could not give me an accurate hydro bill. All I had received were a series of estimated bills, which I knew from taking meter readings, were several thousand kilowatt hours and several hundred dollars too low.

When I left the story last time, I was told to call in on appointed day with a meter reading. So I did.

I'm sorry, sir, you are not allowed to do that.

But I was told that I was.

You aren't. I cannot accept a meter reading from you.

But I was told...

You were told wrongly, sir. I am a billing expert at Hydro One. I know these things.

So I can't give you my meter reading?

No, sir.  And your last reading was declined.


You must wait until we have estimated your bill for three months and then we can accept a manual reading.

But your system is not working.

Sir, that is Hydro One's billing system. You have no need to know how the billing system works. 

I hung up. I hate arrogance, especially when all I want to do is pay my bill.

Several days later, my regular Hydro One bill arrived. Or it was posted to their customer service portal. And again it was an estimated bill. That made the perfect three. 

I called Hydro One. I talked to a representative who was polite and helpful. Perhaps my file had been flagged.

The representative took my meter reading and said that it would be inputted into the billing system and used to correct my next bill in thirty days or so.

No corrected bill?

No sir. No corrected bill.

Later that day, while looking for my missing user data on the Hydro One web site, I checked my account again. The mysterious missing usage data had somehow miraculously appeared! All three months' worth!

Then, 24 hours after my calling Hydro One, some strange entries appeared on my payments section. Thinking this could only predict a very expensive bill, I was astonished to find that 24 hours after that, I received, via the Hydro One web page, another, corrected bill! The bill was for $600! But less all the credits, I apparently owed Hydro One just $55.

I paid it immediately. In full. 

Hydro One’s billing system is broken. Badly. They are lying to their customers when they say it has been fixed. My experience shows it has not. 

Hydro One is not responsive to consumer attempts to correct billing problems. Their customer service reps can be arrogant and inflexible. They appear powerless to change anything and can only offer an advice of "pay your bill". They blame their customers, when it is their billing system which is obviously at fault. The billing system works contrary to what their customer representatives say, causing consumer confusion.

No one has authority or ability to do anything. I called the Ontario Ombudsman's office, who took my story, but said they are powerless. The Ontario Energy Board took my information, but said that Hydro One is supposed to establish their own ombudsman's office, which they have not yet done.

There may be another column out of this. But it shows that so far, anyone can fall down the Hydro One rabbit hole at any time. And once there, you are largely on your own in Hydro One-derland.  Welcome to Hydro One hell. May God have mercy on your soul.

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