Rob Oliphant

Rob Oliphant

Class of 1984, MDiv | Interviewed by Richard Topping

[Richard Topping] Rob, it’s the 50th anniversary this year for the Vancouver School of theology and one of the things we’re doing is talking to some of our graduates and we wanted to talk to you. Here’s a question for you: what are some important memories you have of your time as a student at VST and UBC?

[Rob Oliphant] I think obviously, people. People and place come into mind. It was a tremendously rich period of time for me. I was young. Even though I was 2nd career, I had been an accountant for a couple of years and had a degree in business, I was still one of the younger seminarians there and it was hugely formative for me. It was the first time that I had encountered ordained women. Even though I grew up in a United Church and I had a staff associate and I knew theiaconal ministers, it was the first time that I encountered professors and the teaching pastor The Rev. Dr. Morar Murray-Hayes at the time as an ordained woman.

Issues around inclusive language were new and while others were having a struggle with it in those first weeks of seminary, it was a great Aha! for me. Of course, our language needs to change not just of people but of God. People like Lloyd Gaston opened up the ideas of anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism embedded in Christian tradition, Christian theology and in Christian writings in the New Testament. It was hugely important for me to appreciate the first part of the bible as Hebrew scriptures and understand the Jewish nature of it.

People and ideas were hugely important to me. A couple of visiting professors, like J. Philip Wogaman were important. The staff who were there were all, every single one of them, a mentor to me. I could name every one of them from theology and Bible and history and church and ministry. Each of them left an imprint on me. Some of the other visitors: Belden Lane, who taught a week-long intensive course of the spirituality of place and geography and about how we’re shaped by topography or the landscapes in which we are living. As I reflected today on not only the people of VST, but the place of seminary wedged between mountains and plain and ocean on traditional territory of Indigenous people, on the border of United States, on the Pacific Rim. All of those things created an environment that if I were secular, I would say it was magical but trying to keep up the tradition of being a pastor and theologian which is what we were trained to be in that era of VST, I would call spiritual. That’s a fuzzy word for many people but there was something mystical and luminous in a Celtic sense about the place. It was 4 years of my life that were hugely transformative.

What about classmates? Since graduation in 1984 have you kept in touch with other students who you attended school with? Lots of students talk about how a community forms; it becomes a life-long support of peers.

Oh many! It looks a little different in that I’ve not been in active parish ministry but as a politician and then a presidency of a charitable organization. It’s not just my classmates. There is a VST-ness that has transcended the people that I studied with in those 4 years that I was there and so people who graduated the year before I did, like Jean Ward. She had a career in the national church and David Allen, her then-husband. We’re still close; we share a VST sensibility to the world. I ran into Peter Thompson who’s been a long-time friend; he was 1 year ahead of me. Bev Brazier followed me at Whitehorse United Church; she was in her 4th year when I was in my 1st year. There is an instant rapport. You don’t have to explain the way we exegete a passage. You don’t have to explain why you moved from text to sermon and how you do it. You don’t have to talk about anti-Semitism and explain it or feminism or so many things because people get it.

Over the years I have had professors “sitting on my shoulders”; they are whispering to me as I prepare a sermon. Whether that’s David Lockhead or Herb O’Driscoll, who was the Dean of the Cathedral and taught an Advanced Preaching course with a United Church minister, Jack Chafer. Herbie sits on my shoulder and sometimes I connect with him. He’s well into his 90’s but we both preached at opening services at the renovated Christ Church Cathedral in Vancouver about 3 years ago. He did the opening Eucharist and I did the first Sunday because I’d been the youth minister there. Herbie is always there. One time he said to me: “Correct theology is very important but being interesting is even more important.” Lloyd Gaston sitting on my shoulder, reminding me “Where’s the twist? What’s the surprise in that parable? Don’t assume you know it because you’ve read it. Jesus didn’t tell us things we knew. Jesus told us things we never thought of.” Jim Cruikshank, my long-time mentor, 25 years of caring and friendship has never left me. Now I text his son, Jason, living on Vancouver Island, when important things happen.

These are kids who lived on campus because faculty mostly lived on campus. Very rich . . . and you have dinner with them and talk. All of those people are with me.

Wonderful! We’ve talked a bit about how your education helped in your vocation, particularly as a preacher, a minister. I’m interested in how you connect-the-dots between your education at VST and your vocation as a minister but also your vocation as a Canadian politician. How has that worked into your life as an MP (Member of Parliament)?

Well as you noted my last pastoral charge was Eglinton St. Georges United Church, and I think we were #3 or #4 in the country in terms of size, but I would say that we were #1 in terms of innovation. We were trying to cut new pathways in many areas whether it was Celtic worship, Jazz worship, African-American or Canadian, Latin-American stuff . . . bringing things in to touch hearts as well as minds.

In that place, I was getting stale. . . I was really not being challenged so I did the DMin in preaching at the association of Chicago Theological Schools, and it kept me interested for a few more years. I was looking at the interplay of art and the arts and the gospel in preaching. But I was bored. Nine years in that pastoral charge I was a prophetic preacher but somewhat tired of telling the congregation what I thought government should do in terms of fairness and justice, inclusion. The kinds of things that I would hope Micah or Jeremiah at his best and Jesus always would be saying.

I decided to throw my hand into politics. I found the impact of mainline denominations increasingly both shallower and narrower. I wanted to have a bigger parish and the parish was increasingly women and not men, increasingly elderly and not youthful, increasingly white and not multi-cultural, increasingly left-wing and not full-spectrum of the political world. So, I thought if I want to have an impact where I thought the church used to have an impact. I better get there, into politics.
I never saw myself as leaving ministry; I saw myself as expanding my ministry and reclaiming it . . .

If I wanted to truly be a pastor theologian, taking the gospel to the world and the world to the gospel, then I had to be in a place which was receptive to that. It was the bigger parish. Instead of being 1400 people at Eglinton St George’s it became 120,000 people in Don Valley West (riding). I had understood anti-Semitism from a Christian perspective and now I had 3 synagogues that I represented (now 5 synagogues). I have a major mosque and Evangelical churches that I have to represent in parliament. I have campaigns full of young people with questions and ideas, intelligence and integrity and imagination which I had been losing in the church. All of those things were things that VST had told me to have eyes and ears for, so I still use my tools I learned at exegesis, in hermeneutics, in critical theological reflection on what I’m doing. VST taught me to ask questions and to probe and to be broadly interested in the world.

One of the things that some people are saying now – which hasn’t borne out in my experiences – is that God doesn’t come up in conversations. You talked a little bit about new Canadians or the multi-cultural nature of your own riding. My own experience is that lots of new Canadians are quite happy to talk about God, are not threatened by talking about God. Do you find that with your training in theology, that people want to talk to you about God?

Oh regularly, especially after tragic incidents. It’s interesting for me because I had a grandmother who would often say ‘God willing’. My Muslim community almost without exception will say “insha’Allah.” It’s an important reminder that we’re not in control of everything . . . It’s an important reminder that we are not God. The response that I will often give is ‘Mashallah’. I use Arabic expressions now; it happens without thinking. It’s more than just jargon and semantics; it has to do with a world view.

I had a person in my office, and he had a very successful immigration case; we were very happy to get his wife to Canada. He says it’s 3 of you: Rob Oliphant, the case worker and Allah. The three of you worked together and got it done. So, we had that discussion. It’s humbling at times. I go to church, and I hear clergy not mentioning God. I hear a fear of offending people because we actually talk religion. It’s that phrase ‘I’m spiritual but not religious’ and I always say I’m spiritual and religious. It’s part of who I am. And I get criticism at the door too.

There was a big debate in the House of Commons just towards the end of this last session on so-called ‘conversion therapy’. On the bill they would ban conversion therapy. A lot of the arguments against it were coming from the religious right and from Christians, particularly. I decided in my closing remarks to quote Micah; the typical ‘what does the Lord require of us? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God’ and to acknowledge we don’t know everything that we purport to know.

A final question, Rob. You keep up with VST, you’ve been reading our newsletters, you were part of a group that gathered with some VST alumni a few months back just to be brought up to date on what’s going on at the school just now. What’s going on now that’s encouraging to you at VST? Please feel free to offer some advice about the way we’re preparing people for ministry. I’m quite happy to take that.

The big change that just started at the very end of my time there and didn’t take off for a few more years was that partnership with Indigenous Canadians and on the whole reconciliation and coming at it from the perspective of both church and theology. Allowing the church to be humbled by spirituality and theology that comes from Indigenous Canadians. That’s something that the rest of Canada caught on to, but VST was early. It was early and it tried to find a way to embed it in the institution while also allowing it to have some free form because it didn’t all fit into the system and institutional structure of the school. I think that’s probably been a tense kind of relationship because church and institution and seminary and the academy have demands. The wisdom and the learning and the conventional approaches defy those who come from the Indigenous. That’s one obvious place.

I think Asia and the Pacific Rim have also played a role, as Canada recognizes that we need to keep looking across the Pacific as opposed to at our traditional English/French founding people groups and to see what does that world speak to us, in what way?

Some of the work on environment and creation VST has done, has also been good but I might push it again another notch. To challenge churches to be more prophetic on the issue . . . it’s easy for churches to demand that politicians act on climate change but churches have to talk about people and how their lives are going to radically change if we’re going to save this planet. That’s an area you’ve done work on but you need to keep doing it.

The concept of reflection is something that’s embedded in VST more than I’ve seen in other academies and seminaries in Canada. It is a demand that people not repeat (at best) or regurgitate (at worst) tropes that come from theologians but that they develop the skill to actually do theology.

I don’t know whether VST is as engaged in that as it was 20 years ago but it’s something that I find . . . I’ve supervised 8-12 theological students over the years . . . and the model that I use for my interns in parliament is the same as I use for theological interns . . . and it is to have them not learn political science but to do politics. Not to learn theology but to do theology. To actually do theological reflection on what just happened to me as I walk down the street or what is happening in a neighbourhood or an institution. So that’s where I would keep working; I think it’s still there.

I hope you would get more gender parity in your student body. The pendulum has swung in the church and in seminaries to becoming a female-dominated profession. I think you have to find out why and try to figure out if the church can still speak to men. Can the church still respect male leadership? Is it possible to have gender parity in a student body and find out why men are avoiding careers in the church now.

That’s a great question. You were talking about Asia. We have quite a cohort of students from Indonesia because of the historical connections with Protestantism; we probably have 14-15 Indonesian students.

And most of the men that I see in your student body are international students. How do we get a Canadian cohort? It may be simply that ministry in the last 30 years has become a ‘helping’ profession and it didn’t used to be. When I grew up, my United Church minister was not in the ‘helping’ profession; he was a theologian, a leader, a prophet, he was not a social worker. He was not a community builder. There were some great clergy that I grew up with and foudn in university. Herb O’Driscoll was not a caregiver; he was a preacher/theologian, a storyteller. Did his theology lead to tremendous pastoral care? Yes. But he also taught me: if you put everything you can into Sunday morning worship, everything else in the church will fall into place because the lay people will be so empowered, they will find ways to do everything that they need to do. Write a sermon, do brilliant music, make worship so inspiring that people can’t but demand to have Bible study and to have a refugee sponsorship program because Sunday morning has lit them afire.

Some have described good worship as pre-emptive pastoral care.

Absolutely. Linnea Good, a United Church lay person did a paper a few years ago on the human emotion through worship. All the kinds of things she did with the ebb and flow of worship, I tried to put into Eglinton St. Georges with some modest success.

The last thing for VST is never to give up on the absolute centrality of worship, even in the school. I have no idea what you do now for worship with COVID, but when I was at VST, nobody missed Thursday morning community worship because if they missed it, they might miss out on something brilliant. The way Gerald Hobbs did things and Bill Crockett, the more others did worship, you didn’t want to miss it! In the fall semester, the professors each had to do a sermon and in the 2nd half of the year, the graduating students all did sermons.

The Honourable Robert Oliphant was elected to the House of Commons on October 19, 2015 and re-elected on October 21, 2019, representing the federal riding of Don Valley West. In this capacity, Mr. Oliphant served as Chair of the Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration and Chair of the Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security. An ordained minister in the United Church of Canada, Mr. Oliphant has also served congregations in Newfoundland and Labrador, Quebec, Ontario, and Yukon, and was the Senior Minister at Eglinton St. George’s United Church in North Toronto. He earned a Bachelor of Commerce from the University of Toronto, a Master of Divinity from the Vancouver School of Theology, and a Doctorate from the Chicago Theological Seminary located at the University of Chicago.