On Becoming a Spiritually Non-exclusive Congregation
The community I serve, West Hill United Church in the east end of Toronto, is always evolving. The most recent physical change entailed reclaiming the space previously dedicated to my office to turn it into a multipurpose meeting room. I work mostly from home, and the office had become a repository of old files and artifacts collected over my years in ministry. Making the change was clearly a wise choice.
Emptying 16 years of memorabilia, theological texts, and preserved (why?) reference materials would be a challenge! It was, but the process provided an opportunity to review how far the West Hill community and I have journeyed in that time.
I arrived at West Hill in 1997, the congregation having completed a successful ministry with a high-liturgy/low-christology pastor. Their invitation to me, which I found in a desk file, spoke of their being ready to journey “a new road.” Little did we know.
Initially we didn’t chart the course. We began by relaxing the liturgical rules that had everyone hypersensitive about doing things “the right way.” It took several years. But where the offering plates ended up after making their way through the pews became less and less important. As did what juice we used for communion and whether earrings on choir members dangled too far. Service bulletins from years gone by, hidden in a heavy oak credenza, reveal a liturgical fluidity that loosened the strictures in how this congregation functions.
As our years became relatively stable, we developed the trust we needed to again alter course. When I preached an utterly spontaneous sermon deconstructing the idea of a supernatural, interventionist god called God, congregational leaders, rather than throw me out, chose to join me on a road down which we could barely see.
A New Kind of Community
The journey begun that day has been inspiring and exhausting, filled with joy and deep sorrow. It has been a time of loss, leaving behind beloved hymnody and music, rituals and symbols, texts we once held to be sacred, and the security only a benevolent deity can offer.
It was also a time of eager exploration and incredible creativity. New resources were written and shared, new rituals and symbols embraced, new songs and music scored and harmonized, and a new sense of responsibility recognized and assumed. And it has been worth it.
We are now a community dedicated to offering itself as a “spiritually non-exclusive” congregation for those who wish to enjoy the communal benefits of congregational life without the divisive doctrine that mars the liturgy too dreadfully for those who no longer believe.
Rolled and yellowed flip-chart paper from the depths of my office closet reveals the contributions of congregants hammering out the original “VisionWorks,” a document ratified by the congregation in 2004 as an expression of how we desire to live together in community and in our relationships with self, others, and the planet.
We’d written this document after recognizing that crafting a statement of faith would only do what statements of faith always do – draw a line between those who belong and those who don’t. West Hill United VisionWorks, on the contrary, invites anyone into a relationship of discovery and growth. A heavy file details the exhaustive revision five years later, drawing from what we had learned to update our decision-making document.
Communion prayers and baptismal scripts pulled from drawers reveal the subtle changes that morphed archaic liturgies into powerful, non-exclusive symbols embraced by a vibrant community. Pages and pages of scribbled notes and photocopied study-documents charted the places along the route where we paused, gathered as a group, considered the course, and then mapped the way forward.
Much has changed since the first step was taken. We still glow with the vibrant connections that grow strong in the best church communities. Much that takes place when people sit twelve to a row in mid-century pews may still look and feel like church. But the most beautiful gifts of the journey are embedded in the words we use to engage one another.
We edify and inspire with language that holds no doctrinal connotation and texts we feel worthy of being lifted up. Our songs invite participants to reiterate the positive values we have chosen to guide us, expressed in words that are totally accessible and easily understood. Though we lost many friends, people whose spiritual nurture required a more obvious, extrinsic religiosity, we have attracted many new members. Many newcomers describe themselves as humanists, non-theists, religious secularists, freethinkers, and atheists. Others come from different faith families and want to engage and explore life on a deeper level. Most of them, if it weren’t for a community that gathered and celebrated life beyond the beliefs that divide, wouldn’t be in church.
Back in my office, what was useful was recycled. Precious artifacts and a few books made it home with me. Only then did I notice my alb.
I’d chosen a long, flowing robe because, unlike an academic gown, it didn’t hide that I am a woman. The fabric is a fine, deep purple wool, a color that bespeaks confession rather than profession and had been a marker of the suffragette movement. The alb had hidden, unused, in my closet for years. Pulling it from the cardboard box, I remembered my sorrow in deciding that its symbolism, as with the handcrafted stoles I had worn, each telling a story of my life, was too strong, too tainted to allow me to wear them any longer.
I remembered, too, the anger my refusal raised among some in the congregation who argued that no one would know who the minister was without my robe. My point exactly. It was a dark night on the journey, traversing that particular region. But then, fully half of any journey counted in years is likely to have been made in the darkness of night.
I held the alb up, a night sky aloft between me and the sunlight streaming in from a high window. There, in a magical pattern throughout, I found a symbolic gift. On this detritus of the journey, moths had woven for me the beauty that often only shines in the darkness of night: tiny points of light – the truths by which we found our way, the goodness by which we now chart our course, and the beauty in which we dwell each and every time we gather.