I wanted to explore some of the world of different Christian leaders, small and big. However, I wanted to report less on those and more in their own words. These will be published, slowly, over time. This, I trust, may open dialogue and understanding between various communities. Of course, an interview does not amount to an endorsement, but to the creation of conversation, comprehension, and compassion. Rev. Tim Bowman is the Minister of Gladwin Heights Church. Here we talk about the Gladwin Heights Church, community, church services, and more.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What was early life like for you, especially regarding religion and irreligion in peers and family? As you were born in Guelph, Ontario in 1977 and raised in Calgary, Alberta. You earned degrees in English and Psychology with a Master of Divinity degree from the Vancouver School of Theology. This seems to indicate an early life influence as well – potentially not, but probably so.
Rev. Tim Bowman: My father grew up in the steel town of Hamilton, Ontario; my mother was a farm girl from southern Ontario. She had a large extended family; I saw a lot of my aunts and uncles, grandparents and cousins at every holiday. My fondest memories are of Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas at my grandfather’s farm and later at an aunt and uncle’s, large meals with dozens of people, board games and snowmobiling and sleeping on floors and couches. Pretty much everyone attended church.
My father studied engineering and got into oil and gas work, and so we moved quite a lot when I was a child, including to Saudi Arabia and Italy. Finally we settled down in Calgary when I was in Grade Three. My father taught Sunday School at our local church for a few years, and my mother was the assistant office administrator for a long time.
Given our frequent moves, family and belonging were important to me, and I felt like I belonged at our church. I noticed how my mother went above and beyond her job description to set up and clean up after every event. I began to volunteer with the Sunday School and to attend the youth group. So many people clearly found joy, purpose and belonging there – how could I not want to be a part of it?
As I made friends in Junior High and then High School, I noticed that few of them talked about their faith, but at the same time I was never made to feel out of place because of it.
Jacobsen: When did you first become Christian or a follower of Christ in an explicit way? Often, in conversation with Christians, the conversions come from upbringing or adolescence/later life experience of God – using their terminology.
Bowman: My friend in Guelph invited me to a fairly evangelical children’s / youth group (similar to Scouts). I continued to attend that group’s meetings and go to its summer camps for a few years after moving to Calgary. The emphasis tended to be on believing the right things and avoiding sin so I could get into heaven. As I got older, I began to drift away from church somewhat – partly as the search for individuality that all adolescents experience, and partly because that message began to lose its appeal.
Of course, if I’d listened closer to what was said at my family church on Sundays, I might have heard a different message.
University was when things really changed for me. I tried out one or two of the Christian groups on campus, but they always seemed to be lacking something. A shared faith was a reason for gathering, maybe reading the bible and then having pizza and watching a movie, but that felt a little hollow. I sought out the United Church campus chaplain, and he suggested the Student Christian Movement.
The first SCM meeting I attended was a planning session to host the national gathering of the SCM, so it was more jumping in the deep end rather than dipping my toe in the water, but the more I saw of these folks, the more I liked. Here was a faith that really made a difference in how they lived. They advocated for gay rights, they attended environmental rallies…this was a faith with purpose and meaning and relevance. It was also small and tight-knit enough that it felt like a home among the large and impersonal campus crowds.
When I graduated with Arts degrees in English and Psychology, and decided that overseas English teaching wasn’t for me, I asked, “What’s next?”. I decided to actually start listening to the voices in the back of my head (as well as the voices of my parents, chaplain, and minister). I asked my congregation to help me consider whether I was called to ministry, and attended the open house at the Vancouver School of Theology. I began to pay attention to my spiritual life, and to follow my father’s example in experiencing the divine in nature.
At around the time I encountered the SCM, I was also given a book by Marcus Borg. Borg’s demonstration that Christianity is at least as much about meaningful and ethical life in this world, as about life in the next world, also struck a chord with me.
Jacobsen: Gladwin Heights United Church is the place where you preach, teach, and build Christian community. Who was the founder? Why the title Gladwin Heights United Church as the name of the church? What are the positives and negatives of working in and building a church community in Canada?
Bowman: In 1979, the Fraser Presbytery of the United Church noted new housing developments in Abbotsford-Matsqui. A new church would be needed to serve all of these new residents. Trinity Memorial United Church provided much of the funding and human resources to establish the new congregation, which was named Gladwin Heights after the neighbourhood it was situated in.
It turned that many of the new residents were immigrants from Christian-minority countries, so the church has not been quite as full as was expected. This diversity is both a challenge and blessing of ministry in the Canadian context: whereas previously many people attended church simply because it was the thing to do, cultural and demographic shifts mean that people no longer attend simply as a cultural norm, which translates into smaller congregations. At the same time however, it means that people are here because they really want to be.
Canada has a complicated history with First Nations people, and the Church is part of that history. As First Nations are becoming increasingly visible and assertive, we have engaged more deeply and intentionally. Trying to heal old wounds, deeply embedded in Canadian society, is not easy, but it is also faithful and life-giving.
Jacobsen: What is the particular denomination of the church? How does this differ from other churches? Also, why focus on ecotheology and process theology within this work or calling for you?
Bowman: The United Church of Canada was born from the union of the Methodists, Congregationalists, and most of the Presbyterian churches in Canada in 1925. These denominations saw the need to coordinate their efforts to serve northern and Prairie areas where the need for clergy to serve the growing population often outstripped the supply. Throughout the years other denominations and local churches, for example the Evangelical United Brethren, have joined as well. At one point we envisioned becoming the national church of Canada. As the religious landscape changes, we are again looking more and more to collaboration with other denominations to serve God’s people.
Each of the founding denominations have contributed to the personality, or perhaps DNA, of the United Church. From the Methodists we inherit a concern for justice, from the Presbyterians a concern for ordered worship, and from the Congregationalists a tendency to allow individual congregations as much local decision-making power as possible while still remaining a united church across the nation.
The vast size and diversity of Canada, including the desire for local autonomy, means that each region and indeed congregation can be different, but one can make a few general statements. We tend to have a strong streak of social justice and activism, as well as a liberal, non-literal approach to theology. For example, while some denominations are currently debating whether to ordain openly LGBTQ people as ministers, we decided in the affirmative back in 1988. My favourite nickname for the United Church is “the NDP at prayer.” But then, I mostly vote NDP, so I consider this a compliment! Again however, the United Church can be very diverse; not all of us vote NDP.
Perhaps this is why ecotheology and process theology interest me. Whereas some ancient theologies stressed the power and glory of God, meaning that God existed in splendid isolation from the world and remained unaffected by it, I am more attracted to theologies that understand God in relationship to the world and everything within it. This implies that God is affected by, involved with, grows along with, and interpenetrates the world, because if you are not affected by anything someone says or does, how can you claim to be in relationship with them? Process theology envisions a God that operates by persuasion and invitation rather than by compulsion. The stories in Scripture that I find most fascinating are those that seem to show God and/or Jesus learning or changing their minds in response to encounters with human beings. This is a God that truly loves the world.
Jacobsen: What does an average Sunday service look like at the church? How do you, as a pastor, prepare the sermon? What tends to be the topics taught or spoken about at the church? Final question, what seems like the bigger problems and trends for the Christian church in Canada into the coming decade, i.e., the 2020s?
Bowman: I think of a worship service as having three movements, if I as a musical amateur may use that term. First, we gather with God and each other (to be with each other is to be with God). We invite each other, we pray that we may be aware of God’s presence, and confess the truth about ourselves and our world – unburdening ourselves of that which separates us from God. Then we read the scriptures and reflect in a sermon on how the living Word of God is speaking to us today. Lastly, we respond to the Word in action: through prayer, through offerings for the work of the church in the world, and by going out into God’s world as God’s people.
My music director and I choose scriptures and hymns two weeks in advance, so I get an advance look at the scriptures for a given Sunday. At that time I choose one text which might reward further study, and do enough reading and thinking to get an idea of what I might want to say about it.
Then it mostly sits in the back of my head until the following week. At the beginning of the week I pull it out again and begin to study it in depth. Eventually I have enough understanding of the text, enough ideas and information circling around in my head, that one or more will collide with a situation in the life of congregation members, the church as a whole, or in the world.
When that ‘aha!’ moment occurs, I get a sense of what the Word might be for us in the intersection of that passage and our lives. To get my thoughts in order, I then try to map out my ideas in the following outline: 1) What is the need or problem in the Bible’s original context that the text describes or is responding to? 2) What is the analogous need or problem in our world today? 3) What is the good news of God’s activity in response to that original problem? 4) What is the analogous good news of God’s activity for today’s problems?
Ideally, then, the topic of a sermon emerges from themes found in one of the prescribed scripture texts for a given Sunday, in conversation with needs or events in our world today. At the risk of fulfilling the stereotype that Christians are obsessed with talking about sex, I recently preached on two Bible passages which are often used to condemn homosexuality; I argued that this not the only way to read such texts. Previously I preached on the Biblical idea that the love of God can “overcome the world,” and pointed to the example of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s teachings on nonviolence.
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Rev. Bowman.
My pleasure. Thank you for the opportunity to communicate with people who see things differently than I do. Our world needs more of that.
Image Credit: Rev. Tim Bowman.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-books, free or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott: Scott.D.Jacobsen@Gmail.com.
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