Principal’s Address to Convocation

Chancellor Clarke, Board members, alumni, faculty, friends, colleagues from our neighbouring colleges, honoured guests and graduates, welcome to this happy occasion: the Convocation of the Vancouver School of Theology. Graduates: the day is here, your hard work and dedication -and late nights – have paid off.  If hope deferred makes the heart sad, hope fulfilled is cause for rejoicing. All of us rejoice with you, especially your families who have loved and supported you. Well done! We are just delighted with your accomplishment! It was our pleasure to share in your life for these few (or more) years! We are proud of you!

This year you have the Principal’s report printed together with Perspectives, our school magazine. I hope you will peruse that document. We have much for which to be grateful.

The most obvious exciting piece of news is that we have landed in our beautiful new building (last October) and are thrilled that it is everything we hoped for.

Our mission to educate and form thoughtful, engaged and generous Christian leaders now has a new physical home. It serves our mission so well with its IT equipped classrooms for real time and recorded delivery of courses to remote students. We’re thickening the educational community we serve.

We are part of an electronic library consortium with other theological schools in the neighbourhood and we are working together with them to populate this virtual collection to serve our faculty and students in their research endeavors. We are strengthening our partnerships, blurring old boundaries.

Tenants in our new building include a coffee shop and offices of St Mark’s College, and they provide a steady revenue stream for our work and, perhaps more importantly, they help animate the space with all kinds of people from the broader UBC community. We are engaging our neighbours.

We are grateful to the board of the Vancouver School of Theology – its members, past and present – for your visionary planning of this project now complete. Thank you for seeing what could be and stepping out to take a chance! We are the beneficiaries of your faithful refusal to be risk averse. Our board, under the leadership of Mr. Michael Francis, has just been awesome. Your contributions of wise guidance, good humour and positive attitude are absolutely inspiring. What a pleasure it is to work with you all in the endeavour of theological education. Would all the members of the board, past and present, and the property management team please stand! Thank you! Thank you!

Thanks must be offered to our faculty, students and staff of the Vancouver School of Theology too for their can do attitude during huge transition. Faculty proved they can do first rate teaching in a variety of interesting circumstances, and at the same time manage logistical details, roll up their sleeves, do manual labour. Our support staff made class rooms and hospitality work, sight unseen, like virtual spiritus sanctus.

Some students who graduate today have attended classes in three locales over the course of their studies. You will take to ministry the experience of a pilgrim people. You have seen a strategic downsize of infrastructure for a strategic upsize in mission and ministry in the service of Christ. Thank you for your understanding and for your insights into the design of our building from the start.

We are grateful to our friends at SAH for housing our school, past our expiry date, while we were in the liminal space of the already and not yet of occupancy.

This year in particular our denominational partners have demonstrated that we are in ministry together – with all the attendant joys and challenges. Vancouver School of Theology is your school, and we have received tangible evidence of that in your gifts to us and in your requests to us to support the work of ministry in the field. Your courtesy, your trust and your candour about what the church needs from us beautifully demonstrate our common endeavor to serve God’s reconciling ministry in Christ for this time. I want to express our thanks to the people of the former Capilano United Church, the BC Conference and the Presbytery of Vancouver-Burrard for the half million dollars we have received to ‘maintain a robust UCC presence on our teaching faculty.’ We are persuaded.

In my work as the principal, I still teach. I also interview every graduating student about their VST experience. I have learned a great deal from this graduating class in the classroom and in our recent pre-graduation interviews. Let me say that there is no lack of candour in your conversation. I noticed not a wit of intimidation by the principal – and that is wonderful (don’t worry you are all still graduating). Perpetual appreciation and improvement are really important to our work. In all my time at VST students have pushed us, me, to think again about matters I thought I knew. And through the grace of my own discomfort have changed my mind.

A number of you, especially you gen X’s have told me you hate the word ‘problematize.’ You tire of education that is designed to make you a ‘critical’ and ‘suspicious’ thinker. About three years ago a couple of you ganged up on me in the hall and said: “What’s with you guys, all your course outlines say ‘critical’ this, ‘suspicious’ that, power move here, power move there; you have got to trouble ideas.” And then you asked me, ‘what’s the upside?’ ‘what are we building?’ You should know that your comments that day is one reason why our vision statement includes the word ‘thoughtful’ and not just critical.

I think there’s a temptation in theological education to conform to government-sponsored, state-sanctioned ways of imagining what a smart person is. Call this – ‘The temptation to be a troubler of ideas, a problematizer.’ We live in a culture that imagines that an intelligent, well-educated person (clergy) is a ‘critical’ thinker. And along with the word ‘critical’ comes the word ‘suspicious.’ In most cases these two words go together. Michael Roth, president of Wesleyan University helps identify the liabilities here.

In a humanities culture in which being smart often means being a critical unmasker, our students may become too good at showing how things don’t make sense. That very skill may diminish their capacity to find or create meaning and direction in the books they read and the world in which they live. 

Don’t get me wrong. This isn’t a pitch for naiveté and fundamentalism. And yet, why do we think either ‘critical and suspicious’ or ‘naïve and gullible’ (that’s a binary) as those these were the only options? I have begun thinking about the what happens to our spiritual formation when the approach we take to important texts – like the bible or Aquinas – or to ‘liturgy’ is almost exclusively defensive, critical? Especially since the critical move most often involves detachment, estrangement, severing attachments; or to dress it up in the language of postmodernity – ‘ironic distance.’ Professors notice that detachment engenders a lack of love for what it read. Students can be hyper-articulate in their criticisms tongue-tied about our loves.

Some like Queer theorist, Eve Sedgewick have written rather masterful accounts of the devastating consequences of what she calls ‘paranoid’ reading. Her article is entitled: “Paranoid and Reparative Reading, or You’re so Paranoid, You Probably Think this Essay is About You.” She makes the case that a person can come to a text with such an arsenal of high power ‘suspicion’ that every text just becomes another instance of

what we suspected. Haunted by a fear of authority or a paranoia about power, suspicious readers tend to demean permeable, prayerful readers as pietistic. Rita Felski, a feminist literary scholar, speaks of the ‘barbed wire of suspicion’ and how we use it to avoid ‘contamination by the texts we read.’  But as some of you noted: ‘We want to be contaminated by what we read.’ It is difficult to engage scripture for formation and life where critical theory and suspicion police Holy Spirit engendered appropriation and Christian formation.

I want to tell you students, the ones who accosted me in the hall a few years back, that you were right to be suspicious of suspicion, critical of criticism because of the Gospel itself. I hope you will continue to listen to scripture for construction, for a world offered that is solicitous and beautiful, one that is habitable and invites listeners into the life of the Triune God.

A number of you told me in your interviews that you love the Bible, that you wrestle with it, preach it, are encouraged by it. You have said that in your work in congregations, with street kids, the mentally challenged, the homeless, you have been given a sacred trust and you want to witness to a world that God is bringing. And so you are using the tools you’ve learned for more than demolition. In fact, you are selecting tools critically so that they serve Gospel ministry. That’s a critical judgement rooted in God service. I have noticed that you are using what we have taught you to fuel positive, constructive ministry – you post-modern bricoleurs, you cobblers together of good things, you breachers of boundaries, you radical disciples. Thank you for your audacity in bringing your deeply ingrained Christian sensibility to question and enrich theological education. You have changed me.

One of you wrote to me just this week. You shared words that guide you in the work God has given you to do: You said [I] am trying to discern where God is at work in the world and to join in the mission of God.’  You said, ‘this sounds simple and yet it requires paying attention, a heart and mind tuned to recognize God’s call.” Hallelujah! May it be so.