Richard Topping

Principal’s Address to Convocation

The following address was delivered by Principal Richard Topping on the occasion of Convocation 2015 at Shaughnessy Heights United Church, on Monday, May 11th.

Chancellor Clarke, graduates, faculty, board, long-suffering spouses and families of our graduates and friends from our neighbouring colleges, welcome.

Today I have three timely words for this convocation: the first is thanks.

If one of you were to ask me today, “What’s new?” Here is how I would answer.

This fall our school will have four new faculty (Rev. Dr. Jason Byassee, Rabbi Dr. Laura Duhan-Kaplan, Mr. Ray Aldred – and a new dean at SAH if the General Assembly cooperates)

We will move into a new building at the beginning of August.

This past academic year we received renewed accreditation.

We now have a VST foundation to support the school and we’ve renewed our relationship with our denominational partners. Signified by a legacy gift from Capilano United congregation whose doors have closed, but whose gift will support the training of UCC students for ministry in the coming years.

Thanks be to God! for all of this – and you can read all about it in the printed Principal’s report.

All of this is possible because of:

an outstanding Board,

dedicated and talented staff,

faculty and students who make theological education as difficult and delightful as it should be,

the hard work of people who proceeded us,

and our friends and partners.

All of you have supported our calling to engage in

life-changing –

God-loving, Christ-centred


world-embracing, partner-seeking

theological education.

Thank you, all of you, thank you so much!

And thank you especially this evening to Profs. Stephen Farris and Paula Sampson who will retire from VST at the end of June, to Ellen-Clarke King, who returns to the parish, and to Past Chancellor Peter Elliot. We are extremely grateful for your years of wise and faithful service.

VST is called to form and educate thoughtful, engaged and generous Christian leaders. Which is to say that all of the newness – programs, personnel and premises – serve this calling for the sake the church and the world.

What a great time to be alive, to be taught and formed to share in the work of the Gospel in the church and in the world.

Which brings me to my second word – ‘non-competitive!

I am utterly delighted that we present honourary doctorates today – at one and the same time – to The Rev. Dr. Ed Searcy and Mr. Philip Owen. It so suits the identity and work of our school.

Dr. Searcy is a faithful and compassionate congregational pastor, whose work at preaching and pastoral care and Christian formation have been outstanding (So much so that his congregation University Hill has established a scholarship in Pastoral Excellence in Ed’s honour just this week! – and we are glad)!!

Mr. Owen, one of the Bishop Somerville’s men, and a life-time member of the same Anglican congregation, St. John’s Shaughnessy, is a former mayor of Vancouver, who developed the ‘Four Pillar Approach’ for the treatment of addiction in our city, and beyond.

Theological education and formation is for the church and for the world. The relationship is non-competitive. In fact because theological education is for the church – its enrichment, the deep formation of Christians in Christ by the Holy Spirit, it is for the world.

Theological education forms and shapes its recipients so that they recognize and get with the humanizing movements God provokes and enter into the pain of the world where healing and tenderness and weeping in Christ’s name are called for. The church or the world? No! The church and therefore the world! Absolutely!

I was the guest preacher at a United Church in Calgary. The sermon was a dialogue sermon. The texts for the day included the story of St. Paul’s conversion. You know the lights and the voice and the conversion. The minister of that congregation said in front of everyone with just he and I sitting on the platform: ‘hey Richard you’re a theologian what do you make of this conversion stuff. I mean we’re mainline Christians aren’t we sort of against that.’ Well, I stuttered a bit at this question. Then gave an answer from my favourite theologian, Bob Dylan – ‘you gotta serve someone.’ We all spend our lives on something.

And then, Robert came to the mike. Robert wore a t-shirt that was a little too short to cover his stomach; he looked a little unkempt. He went to the pulpit and started to read dead-pan from a hand-written half sheet of paper. ‘I used to live on the street, I was violent. My brother and I used to roll people. And then I stumbled into a church coffee shop. The people there we kind to me and my brother. They helped me kick drugs and alcohol. It took a while, it wasn’t easy for them or me. Now I live in a house. I have a dog. I’m engaged to be married. God helped me. That’s it, that’s what I got to say.”

The church and therefore the world. There’s simply no-competition.

My final word: recruitment. This is part where I ask for your help. Vancouver School of Theology is not a easy place to study – ask a graduate! To take in what we’ve got to give, you need calling, courage, guts, holy dissatisfaction with how it is and a yearning for something more in Jesus’ name. Ministry is tough these days. Leadership in congregations and ministry for the sake of the world, it takes the best that anyone has to pull it off. If you just want credentials on a business card or to fill in time, we are likely not the place.

However, if you or someone you know just can’t avoid this calling; if you or someone you know has an almost irresistible summons to serve for the glory of God, the transformation of God’s good world and to learn how to do that in Christ’s name in collaboration with indigenous peoples and friends of other faiths, then sign up!

My friend, Will Willimon tells the story of a recruiter for teach America who came to Duke University to recruit privileged students to serve in some of the most God-forsaken inner city schools in the US. She said, ‘I know I am just wasting my breathe, you are all set for life, you are the top-academic students who can go wherever you want; but if possibly you might want to waste your life on some of the most challenging people and places in the world, I’ve got some material up front. I know that I am just spinning my wheels, she said, but there are some brochures about the work, here on this table. Thanks for your time.’

Willimon says that there was a stampede to the front of the auditorium. He says that it turns out, ‘student are starving to lose themselves to something greater than themselves.’


VST could help you do that . . . If anyone is interested, I have some brochures down here at the front.

Thank you.