Richard Topping

Remarks at Opening of VST Building, November 14, 2015

It is outstanding to be the Principal of a school that has its own address. We are in our new building, and we are glad. Our school – it’s students, teachers, staff – were without a home and now we have a home in this lovely, gorgeous building. It is delightful to have classrooms and worship space and offices and furniture and file cabinets. We were guests and pilgrims for the past year, and now we have arrived in an outstanding new building.

When we announced in chapel that we had occupancy of this building just about 6 weeks ago in chapel (and my, what an important word occupancy is), there was clapping and cheers and amens! from our students. Even the Presbyterians got emotional!

“Hope fulfilled makes the heart sad, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life,” say the scriptures. Our hope was deferred, a few times, but now longing is fulfilled and we’ve got the tree of life – right there in our trinity cross (an architectural feature on the outside of our building).

And yet, while the building is complete and occupied, it is valuable to us because of what we can do in it. Our vision, our calling is ‘to educate and form thoughtful, engaged and generous Christian leaders.’

This blessed place on Walter Gage Road is a locale for promise keeping. It is a place where significant and weighty matters take place. Lives are changed here through encounters with people and texts and teachers and scriptures. Learning is a brave endeavor if you do it right; it involves what John Calvin called a ‘teachable spirit.’ That means laying your life open to God knows what, to listening and meditating and lingering, to welcoming otherness into your life. All of that means you will be changed. Our hope and prayer is that this building becomes a place where people are porous to scripture and scholarship and example and pain and joy and most of all to the Holy Spirit so that no one leaves the way they came. We don’t just want to lay out a few principals for people to consider at a dispassionate clinical distance, we are looking to form lives for service and ministry in this world to which God sent Jesus Christ. We are not doing safe autopsies on dead letters, we’re engaging with the living Word that challenges and changes and renews. We are a theo logical college.

I think that’s why I chose to read the short piece form the book of Romans for today. (Romans 12:9-19) The text is a description of the practice of faith. It is one thing to have theoretical commitments to a matter, and another to let the matter shape you, seep into your life. That’s why our vision includes both education and formation . . . We want to teach content and creed that gets life-giving traction in the world. Minds renewed by the content of faith gives birth to hearts and hands that engage the world. ‘Love with affection, rejoice in hope, persevere in prayer, contribute to needs of others, extend hospitality.’ That’s not normal. It takes an encounter with God to get to a life like that.

Formation for leadership is ambitious work. It is about more than techniques for success, managerial tips, and tricks; it is about character-transformation, summoning up an eccentric life of witness to the love of God for every person. It is our calling to form leaders like that. That’s why we open our classes with prayer at VST. It is why we promise and then pray on a day like today.

Yesterday, I planned to stop right there. But today we hear the words of our bible reading with different ears, ‘bless those who persecute you and weep those who weep . . . do not repay any one evil for evil . . . so far as it depends on you live peaceable with all . . .’ And we pray for the people of France, of Paris, where they weep, asking that that God would console them and that God’s world would be saved from tit-for-tat retaliation, from violence that begets violence. Friends, the work of peaceable ‘theological formation’ matters a great deal for the world right now. I invite you to pray with me . . .

God of peace,

we pray for the people of Paris, France:
may your peace break through violence,
may your love conquer fear,
may your justice prevail

may your mercy console and comfort; through Jesus Christ


Principal Report to Chancellor’s Dinner 2015

Welcome. I speak to you this evening as an incredibly happy, (relieved) and grateful principal of the Vancouver School of Theology.

Thank you all for sharing in this delightful annual event and for your partnership with our school in the work of theological education.

Thank you to all who have made this evening possible – David McMillan, Shannon Lythgoe and Lisa Wittman of our advancement department have done excellent work for this evening.

A special thanks on this occasion to our board, and to the Property Management Team in particular for their expertise, their wise and prudent planning and oversight. We are now in our new school building. We hope it will be the epicenter for the education and formation of thoughtful, engaged and generous Christian leaders.

I am especially grateful to the chair of our board, Mr. Michael Francis for his perpetual calm and wise advice and for his unflagging encouragement to us all through this past year and a half of transition. Michael is relentlessly positive.

Thanks also to the Deans (past and present) of St Andrew’s Hall (and to their board), who may well be here this evening to be sure that we have moved out. We came for a year at SAH, and like weird uncle Bill at Christmas, stayed a while longer than expected; and you were constantly hospitable and understanding. Jesus said, ‘I was a stranger and you welcomed me;’ somehow that seems less remarkable than ‘we weren’t strangers and you still welcomed us.’

To all the VST staff and faculty, your perpetually ‘we can do this attitude’ and your resourcefulness in transition was inspiring. What a joy to get settled into our beautiful new home where we inform, form and transform students who will make a difference in the world God loves.

Six years ago, I came to theological education from pastoral ministry in downtown Montreal. I did so because I felt summoned to the ministry of theological education for the church. I love the church in its multiple forms; in its spirit-inspired variety; in its acts of beauty, love and mercy for the world. Pope Francis has shown how mercy moves the world. You can get young people from Houston to sleep on the streets of Philadelphia just to catch a glimpse of mercy. I have known the church as an agent of God’s mercy in my own life and in the lives of others.

VST has just moved into a purpose build facility on the campus of UBC, in the heart of the theological neighbourhood. We have a new infusion of energy, wisdom and experience. We have a cadre of professors who come to us from transformative congregational ministry, and it is changing us.

We believe we have a unique place in the world of theological education in Canada and North America. Church leaders across North America say that here on the left coast we are where they will be. They want to know: what kind of witness and work can VST inspire in its graduates for the sake of God’s people and the world in a predominately secular situation, because that’s where they are headed too.

All the recent changes in our school – faculty and facilities – are designed to answer this question. Our vision, our calling, is to educate and form thoughtful, engaged and generous Christian leaders for this time and place.

We want our graduates to be thoughtful people, reflective about how to interact with the wide range of challenges of our time on the basis of the deep resources of faith. We don’t rush to thin relevance, but linger with scripture, tradition and scholarship to expand our sense of the way the world could be, might be, should be. We believe that to go deep with the triune God in spiritual formation and education results in Christian leaders that go wide in their embrace, interest and care for the world God has visited. Doug Hall, United Church Theologian says, ‘to study Christian faith is to enter a conversation that has been going on for a long time, and we need to listen before we rush in with instant wisdom and six-minute sermonettes.’ In a world where folks snorkel near the surface for a passing acquaintance, we’ve interest in diving down deep to encounter and transformation.

Maybe another way to put it is this: in theological education we are trying to make preparing for ministry in the name of Jesus as difficult as it ought to be. I have thought a great deal about why ministry is so hard – secularity, post-Christendom, multi-culturalism, shrinking church, opportunities to golf. My friend Will Willimon has persuaded me, however, that it is Jesus’ fault. He is really hard to follow – I mean ‘pray for your enemies, bless those who curse you.’ It is hard to get formed by that for life. But as Tom Hanks, baseball coach in the Movie, A League of Their Own said, “If baseball was easy then everyone would do it.’ It’s the same with theological education.

We want our graduates to be engaged people; folks willing to get involved in this world, not just wait for the next. We want to get dirt under our nails, gain some traction in the soil of this good earth, not just contemplate creation from an antiseptic, safe distance. Our theological ethos is designed to nurture practioners who are making a difference in the world for God and the gospel. It is in the DNA of VST to get involved in the big challenges the world faces.  Convinced that God is already always at work in the world, we discern that movement and try to go with the flow of grace in the world – wherever we find it. And wow, it is spectacularly wonderful and surprising where it finds us. We think that ‘mainline churches, who want to be a part of God’s future need leadership by impatient instigators rather than patient caretakers of the status quo.’

We want our graduates to be generous people, able to find friends – across denominations, faith traditions and cultural differences – with whom to collaborate for the love of God and the good of creation. Built into our school, our curriculum, we collaborate with folks of other faiths and our First Nations friends, for the sake of friendship, transformative learning and human fullness. We’re working at cooperation with Sauder School of business to teach our graduates how to lead in faith based organizations. We are collaborating with synagogue and church on sponsoring a Syrian refugee. The root of our generosity, our respect and openness to others, is our baptismal identity in Christ, who calls us to love our neighbour unconditionally, to learn from our neighbours without fear and to act with and for others for the sake of the world. The Triune God, who is a beloved community – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – inspires the VST ethos of hospitality and welcome to the other.

Last year with our new students we sat around at the beginning of the semester and asked them, ‘how’d you get here?’ Wow! That was interesting. I listened to call stories – students jerked out of perfectly good careers to come and study theology, bright young people shoved into a very different direction, a woman who came to VST because of a dream! I sat there thinking, what a trust we have; these folks have pushed their chips to the centre of the table, they are all in.

Our promise at VST is to keep that trust. It is our calling to form and educate students who will be thoughtful, engaged and generous leaders in this time and place. And with your help, we will keep our promise.

I want to introduce you now to a three of our new professors. It will be a short interview – two questions and 7 minutes:

Question number 1: What brought you to VST?

What are your hopes for the school?