Richard Convocation 2021

President’s Convocation Address

by Richard Topping

Mr. Chancellor, VST board members, staff, faculty, students, friends, honored guests and graduates, especially graduates, the classes of 2020-2021, you marvellous kind, delightful and determined cohorts. This is the day you have worked for.

Welcome all to this online convocation – a gathering unique in the 50-year history of our school.

Around 60 students from a variety of programs are recognized today, together with 4 distinguished recipients of honorary doctorates and 12 recipients of certificates from the Sauder School of Business in Leadership Excellence.

Diplomas have gone out in the mail. Students have them in their hands – I have already seen some of them on Facebook – and today it is made official. Please accept our congratulations for your hard work, resilience, perseverance during this challenging time. You have crawled to the finish line in this spring semester with mundane despair and frayed edges. Your brave smiles and deliberate cheerfulness show your COVID-self isn’t quite depleted by the grace of the Holy Spirit.

We laboured together this year to keep spirits up, assisted each other in struggles – even if just to say, “you’re muted,” or to send a pizza to a discouraged friend or to suggest something helpful like: “there is a great series on the history of chess on Netflix.”

You formed friendships born in the crucible of common challenge. What is always true about us is felt just now – we need each other, we are created to be co-human. We live for the promise of strangers become friends.

Truly God has helped us, all of us, as we’ve waited for light at the end of a tunnel extended longer and longer. Education and formation took place in that catacomb this year. But it did take place! And we do confess: “Our help is in the name of the LORD, the Maker of heaven and earth.”

Attendance at worship (from within and beyond) reached all time highs in the life of our school. Together we reached out to God for what we can’t give ourselves. And worship not only turned us Godward – it turned us outward. ‘To go deep with God’, we say ‘is to go wide with the world.’

We remember during this Eastertide that Christ risen came to socially distanced disciples behind locked doors on the first Easter and he sent them out, sent them out with all their weakness, fear and trauma to bless the world. Perhaps so the wider world would know that any life we can speak and give to others comes first to us from God, and that God meets us more often in our weakness than in our strength.

You all have been ministers of God’s grace to the world in ministry placements in houses of worship and organizations that bring life to the world and to your circle of friends and to your professors. You chose to see others and pay attention for the common good. Anne Lamont says, “Unlike watching or looking at, seeing is why we are here.” And seeing – on social media, in the virtual classrooms, at morning prayer – moved you to compassion and you lingered and listened.

As the president of the Vancouver School of Theology I am grateful to all of you, and can say, even in this time with all its not-knowing and fragility and anxiety and languishing; what a joy, yes -a joy, to teach and learn and do ministry, while learning ministry with new depth, with all of you.

2021 is our 50th anniversary.

Ambitious plans are in place for the renewal of our buildings for our mission. We have awarded a contract for the creation of a large classroom in the main VST building. We do not have enough space for our expanding student body. This spring we had an all-time high enrollment of 106 FTE students, 445 course enrollments and 243 students enrolled in at least one course. Our online lectures and summer school take in thousands more – with over 1000 this year at the G. Peter Kaye lecture online. We need space and a “Zoom Room” to accommodate our growing numbers both online and in the flesh for an excellent learning experience.
Epiphany Chapel needs refreshing to support the worship, learning and student life of the school. It will become Reconciliation Chapel in keeping with our long-term commitment to Indigenous Studies, the Indigenous church and to the more recent calls to action of Truth and Reconciliation.

We want to make sure theological education is glocal – attentive to the place we are in and informed by the larger international growing-thriving body of Christ from which we have so much to learn.A podcast series is now up and running featuring our faculty. Bruderholz is what it is called, after a famous pub in Basel where there was pub theology before we all discovered it. These informal conversations are about theology for the life of the world.

We struck new partnerships with theological schools in Indonesia and the Philippines so we can learn together with the global church, which often breathes life and vitality that we hope gets on us. We want to make sure theological education is glocal – attentive to the place we are in and informed by the larger international growing-thriving body of Christ from which we have so much to learn. International students add blessed diversity and inclusion to our classrooms.

I am thrilled to announce today that VST is the first Canadian Theological College to receive a Lilly Funded post doctoral placement through the Louisville Institute – Dr. Sarah Kathleen Johnson, a Notre Dame Ph.D. graduate with a speciality in theology and liturgy, will be with us for two years beginning this year.

We have also received a Lilly Grant through the “Pathways for Tomorrow Initiative.” This will help us prepare and support pastoral leaders for Christian congregations by working collaboratively with our partner denominations.

A grant from the Murdock Trust provides funding for our Project in Congregational Vitality through Community Engagement directed by Mr. Chris Pullenayegem – demonstrating our commitment to resourcing the church for faithful and relevant ministry now.

We are grateful for an excellent development team that is finding sources of funding for the flourishing of theological education at VST for the sake of the mission of the church.

Our faculty is amazing. Students consistently express profound appreciation for their brilliant instruction and mentorship – “they care.”

Books on biblical interpretation, bible commentaries, theological themes, interreligious studies, animals in the bible, Indigenous preaching, missional theology and thriving congregations are coming out at such delightfully alarming rate. We will hold a big book launch once we can do so in person. We want you to hear from our faculty and buy their books. We also have a book coming out we worked on together – Before Theological Studies: A Thoughtful, Engaged and Generous Approach. It is at the publisher and our hope is that is will be available by years’ end. This collaborative project will ramp up student orientation and school promotion since it reflects the very heart of the VST project.

Our new Dean, Professor Mari Jorstad has a chapter in the book, and we look forward to her start with us July 1.

Rabbi Dr. Laura Duhan-Kaplan and The Rev. Dr Jason Byassee both underwent reviews this year and we are glad to report they were about as positive as it gets. Contract renewal is the happy result for our school. And congratulations to The Rev. Dr. Ross Lockhart for his appointment as Dean of SAH, an important VST partner.

Today we also honour two recipients of the Thoughtful, Engaged and Generous Christian Leader Award. This award was conceived three years ago by a group of donors who want to celebrate excellent leadership in the church.

This award is presented to Clergy in their first 10 years of congregational ministry, who are recognized by their peers as embodying the virtues our school celebrates. Today we recognize the 2020 recipient – The Venerable Clara Plamondon – and the 2021 recipient – The Rev. Curtis Bablitz.

Clara is a VST graduate (class of 2013) and has excelled in congregational, regional and national leadership in the Anglican Church of Canada. Congratulations Clara and it is with delight that we acknowledge you as the recipient of the 2020 Thoughtful, Engaged and Generous Christian Leader award.

Curtis Bablitz, a Presbyterian minister, is also a VST graduate (class of 2011). He is celebrated for his preaching, congregational leadership and ministry with youth and children. Congratulations Curtis and it is with delight that we recognize you as the 2021 recipient of the Thoughtful, Engaged and Generous Christian Leader Award.

Our current Dean, the Rev. Dr. Pat Dutcher-Walls, will complete her sabbatical year on June 30. We are grateful to Pat for her close to 18 years at VST – as Associate Dean and then Dean of students, studies and faculty, Professor of Hebrew Bible and Library Director, Director of the VST Accreditation Review, and many other behind the scenes jobs at Vancouver School of Theology. Her love for teaching and learning and especially for students is amazing. Thank you, Pat.

We are also so grateful to the Rev. Dr. Ray Aldred, who in addition to his responsibilities as Director of the Indigenous Studies program assumed the role of Dean this year with good humour, diligence, calm and charming wisdom. Ray has a deft sense of strategic triage – lifting matters of consequence to the top of the list. Thank you, Ray.

Thank you to our Board for support and encouragement – under the astute leadership of Mr. Michael Francis – to our committed and talented staff, Ms. Shari Coltart, Vice-President, and all our faithful partners in the work of theological education – especially the Anglican, United and Presbyterian Churches.

Your consistent generosity inspires, encourages and confirms us in our calling: to educate and form thoughtful, engaged and generous Christian leaders. And to do this in conversation with the indigenous church and friends of other faith traditions.

Please pray for us – it is a challenging time in which to lead.

I conclude with this Liturgy for leaving:

By your Spirit, O God, make us faithful in the meanwhile,
As we go to labour in the diverse fields to which you have assigned us,
Labouring toward that better meeting,
And toward that new-made world
That is yet promised and that has already begun.

Dr. Rev. Richard Topping is the President and Vice-Chancellor of the Vancouver School of Theology. He also is the Professor of Studies in the Reformed Tradition.