It was a delicate moment in the life of the United Church when Rt. Rev. Richard Bott, the new moderator, stood up to preach late on a Friday evening in July.
Just hours before his installation service, an extraordinary shift had happened at General Council. What was supposed to be a fairly straightforward final afternoon of passing motions was completely transformed and made sacred as people approached the microphones to share their personal experiences of racism and exclusion in the church.
Due to unfortunate timing, the moderator-elect was not in the court to hear it. He was in his residence room finishing his sermon for that evening. After learning what had happened, he quickly revised his notes. Bott’s opening words went to the heart of the matter.
“I stand before you tonight as a person who has exactly one set of lenses: I am a white, middle-class, university-educated, able-bodied, middle-aged, cis-male settler who grew up and lives on unceded territory of the people of this land. I am the epitome of privilege.”
With those words, the tension in the room eased, and there was a sense among the commissioners that they had elected a person who understood what was needed for the next three years.
Bott lives in Vancouver. He is divorced, and co-parents a 15-year-old daughter. The eldest of three children, he grew up in Marathon, Ont., a small town perched on the shores of Lake Superior. His parents, George and Joy, raised all their kids to have a strong sense of service to others. They say they weren’t surprised when their son, now age 50, entered the ministry and was ordained in 1994.
“We had a good, strong suspicion that this was the direction his life was going to take,” his father says. “He went through a whole period of hearing the knocking on the door and ignoring it.” His mother emphasizes his skills as a listener: “He has gifts of communication and connecting with people he knows and those he doesn’t. He creates community pretty quickly.” They both agree that his deep personal faith and his belief in the importance of discipleship are two elements that will support him over the next three years.
Bott has served as a minister in both Ontario and British Columbia. Rev. Dave Anderson, lead pastor at Eagle Ridge United in Coquitlam, B.C., met him in 2003. “I don’t know anyone with more integrity,” Anderson says. “He oozes integrity.”
Anderson has long admired his friend and colleague’s ability to help congregations thrive. “Here on the West Coast, we are in the secular world,” he says. “It’s very tough to keep a church going, and Richard builds churches. He is one of the people who can actually build up a church.”
With laughter in his voice, Anderson adds that Bott “is a church geek. He’s the Manual go-to guy, and he has a deep appreciation of the wisdom of those who came before us.”
Together, Bott and Anderson created Immersion, a curriculum for people new to the United Church. Soon to be widely available, it is not only informational but experiential, with a commitment to both communal and individual spiritual practices. It reflects Bott’s belief that Christianity is a deeply lived, transformative experience.
The new moderator has a lifelong grounding in faith, a long practice of ministry and genuine hope for the future of the church. He is well placed to lead the United Church through the major denominational restructuring of the next three years.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story stated that the moderator is a single parent. This version has been corrected.