Richard Topping’s 2014 Convocation Address

Principal’s Report

Convocation May 5, 2014

Christ Church Cathedral

Chancellor, Members of the Board of VST, Faculty, Emeriti, 28 graduates and your families, students, alumni, VST staff, DD recipients, friends and guests welcome to the Forty-Third Annual Convocation of the Vancouver School of Theology.

We are grateful to Christ Church Cathedral, to our Chancellor and the Cathedral’s Dean and staff, for their hospitality in this beautiful sanctuary tonight.

I am grateful to the Board of the Vancouver School of Theology (the Chair and Vice-Chair) and to the faculty (former Principals) and staff for their support, understanding, wisdom and hard work.  This year has demanded a certain imaginative dexterity on everyone’s part, and yours is greatly appreciated.  Thank you.

It was a Thursday afternoon in downtown Montreal.  I was sitting at my desk when a white limousine came into the church driveway.  I thought it was turning around.  I went back to work.  The side door bell rang.  Four people were there.  The one I immediately recognized was Rod Stewart!  ‘Can we come into your church to pray,’ said Mr. Stewart flanked by his super-model girl-friend, Rachel Hunter, his publicist and a security guard.  I blurted out, ‘Hey you’re Rod Stewart.  Come in’ and with the excitement of a school boy, I lead the man who sang Maggie May and his entourage down the hall toward our neo-gothic sanctuary.   The building was undergoing renovation that summer, so I turned to Rod and said, ‘watch the mess on the floor; the church is under construction.’

He said, “Isn’t the church always under construction.”  Isn’t the church always under construction? 

Most of you will know that VST is under construction, or at least it will soon be.  Over the last year and a half,  after prudent and creative deliberation, the Board of Governors decided to sell the Iona building to the University of British Columbia and to repurpose Somerville house, currently a residential building, as the future home of academic programs and operations for VST.  We’re moving!

Our largest asset, the Iona building, lovely and stately as it is, contains about 100,000 sq ft.  For the operations of the school we require about 20-25,000 sq ft.  Most of our assets are currently in the building.  By selling to UBC for 28 million dollars, we are able to release those assets and make the castle work for mission and ministry in God’s good world.  By becoming asset poorer, we are able to become mission richer, we will have additional resources for our core mission of delivering excellent theological education for our time.  We will use some of the money to repurpose Somerville house.  It will become an elegant and beautiful home that reflects the importance of our work. The rest of the money, over 20 million dollars, will be held in a Foundation which will generate a revenue stream to support the work of theological education into the future.

While we wait for Somerville to get its makeover, St. Andrew’s Hall has graciously invited us into their building.  In the academic year 2014-2015, we will house our programs and operations out of Epiphany Chapel and St. Andrew’s Hall.  We are very grateful to the Dean of St. Andrew’s Hall and to the Board for their welcome and friendship in the midst of our transition.

We hope our moves will be instructive to the larger church.  Ours in a time in which many of our congregations have large physical assets, which they are struggling to maintain in post-Christendom Canada.  Many of our graduates will be placed in just such circumstances across this country.  What we are doing, we hope and pray, will expand the creative repertoire of our graduates.  What a witness where graduates, with eyes open to what the living God is already up to in the world, lead congregations to rich investments for the missio dei in the world.

Aren’t theological colleges , like churches, always under construction in the service of God?

Alongside of the physical construction of a new home for VST, we will also be rebuilding (not repurposing) our faculty.

Our former Principal, Wendy Fletcher, is moving to Renison College of the University of Waterloo where she will be Principal and Vice-Chancellor.  We will certainly miss Wendy and are grateful for her many contributions to the life of VST.  We are so glad to see her moving to this distinguished role where she will have opportunity to use all the gifts that God has given her.

After five years as the multi-tasking, net-work making, founding director of Iona Pacific Inter-religious Centre, Rabbi Prof. Robert Daum is moving to cognate work in our near neighbourhood.  We have wished Robert well in his new ventures.

The Rev. Dr. Harold Munn has completed a three year term as Anglican Spiritual Mentor in residence, and we pray God’s blessing upon his continued work for the Diocese in congregational care with gratitude for his years with VST.

The Rev. Dr. Glen Davis will retire a second time from VST as PCC DDF, after assuming this work to our benefit for a second time.

This coming year, as Somerville house takes on its new shape, so too will the faculty at VST.

We have already announced the appointment of Rabbi Dr. Laura Duhan Kaplan, as Interim Director of Iona Pacific and the Rev. Dr. Ross Lockhart as PCC DDF.  In both cases, what good news for us.

We have initiated a search for an Anglican Director of Denominational formation, as we give our attention to the specific formation that is so very important to sacramental leadership and diaconal service.

This fall we will begin a search for the next Director of the Indigenous Studies Centre in anticipation of the retirement of The Rev. Dr Paula Sampson.

And finally, with a gift in excess of 3 million dollars now received in full, the first incumbent for the Butler Chair in Homiletics and Biblical Interpretation will be sought.  We are grateful to the Rev. Laura and the late Rev. Ralph Butler for their generous gift and the opportunity it has created for us.

Please pray for us in the coming days, and please make us aware of potential candidates for each of these searches.

Aren’t theological faculties always being built and rebuilt – by the Spirit who calls.

The Principal’s report would be incomplete unless I said something about our students.

Many of our graduates today, will have taken a course entitled, ‘Constructive theology.’  I know that because I teach the course.  Others have not – too late to do anything about that!  The premise of that course, like many others, indicates that theology and theological education is a matter of putting things together.

Of course there is the critical side of learning – we do like to take things apart.  We do teach a little theological demolition, deconstruction, at VST.  But construction, a willingness to commit to a project, a mission, a theology, a life in the service of something larger than me – I’ve seen that among our students.  I can’t tell you how wonderful that is.  What a change from the easy detached, ironic -often cynical – style that in my view has been a part of theological education and church life for too long.

Will Willimon, a long time theological educator at Duke, notes that for a former generation ‘dissection’ was the metaphor for knowing.   Even knowing about God.  How do you know something, well, first you kill it, take it apart and then you understand how it works.   Trouble is this method produces lots of corpses.  He notes however a big change in current theological students.  When they encounter a matter to be understood, find something weird and wonderful, they don’t say let’s kill it but rather let’s try it, get involved with it, give our lives to it . . . he says theological educators can work with that kind of holy curiosity.

I think I see that in our own students. I’ve just interviewed all but a few of those graduating today and many are all coming back for more courses.  They aren’t done learning; they are committed to being both a learned and learning leader. They’ve pushed their chips to the centre of the table to get involved with the great moves God is working on the world.

Theological students, life-long learners, aren’t they always under construction by the grace of Jesus Christ.

Finally, we are working on mission and vision at VST.

Our accreditation visit just last month was an experience of self-examination, of measuring our commitments against our performance.   The whole school mobilized for this event and we got a good report (seven years of accreditation of the school and our degrees); and guess what?  We’ve got more construction to take up too!  Thanks to everyone who worked on the self-study report, a special thank you to our Dean, Prof. Pat Dutcher-Walls, who coached us, and edited us, and cajoled us with chocolate, to the finish line.

We have had a mission and vision and we are also constructing one.   Mission and vision are always under construction as we listen for the Spirit’s call in this time.  Here’s a working version of a new vision statement that the board is testing – (and we welcome your input) . . .

‘At VST we are called to thoughtful, engaged and generous Christian faith and to form thoughtful, engaged and generous leaders.’

Here’s a constructive vision, a calling, that coordinates our efforts and gives direction to our faculty and students and staff.

The church and the world need thoughtful Christian leaders for our time.

The church and the world need leaders who will engage with the world, as God has in Jesus Christ and does in the power of the Spirit.

The church and the world need generous leaders who can find ‘overlapping consensus’ with other people and faith groups for the sake of the kingdom of God.

To answer Rod Stewart:

Isn’t the church always under construction?  Yes!  And so are theological colleges, their students and faculties and visions as we try to keep pace with the God who calls us to bear witness to the Kingdom that has come and has yet to be constructed.


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