Rt. Rev. Bill Phipps shares his vision and
his theology with Fellowship Magazine
by Gail Reid
Shortly after his election as Moderator of The United Church of Canada, Bill Phipps shared his vision and his beliefs with Gail Reid, managing editor of Fellowship Magazine. The interview is in the December 1997 issue.
Reid: What is your vision for the United Church?
Phipps: I think people are yearning for a recovery of the moral centre of society. There are so many pressures on people, so many stresses and interests. Life has become so complex that people of all faiths are realizing we have lost what I call our moral centre. Especially United Church people are saying: "The society that our grandparents tried to build when the UC was more influential--in the 20ís 30ís 40ís, when we tried to create a compassionate and caring society, now is being dismantled in a whol e variety of ways." People are yearning for a moral centre that can bring Christís critique to the kind of society that seems to be emerging --where money, bottom line, winners and losers, and dividing people into categories is the name of the game. Pe ople in the UC know thatís wrong; they are wanting the church to assume again its roll as a social critic, based on the gospel, based on biblical values, and being unabashed about it and not apologizing for it.
I also envision every UC congregation becoming a safe place for people--that everyone and everybody, no matter who they are or where they come from, is welcomed in our churches, and is loved as a child of God. People who are broken in many ways come to our Calgary congregation because the atmosphere, the worship, the biblical life brings some sense of calm, peace and security, but mainly a safe setting where they know they arenít going to be judged; they are going to be loved. I think everyone in the world needs that, and if our congregations can truly become those kind of places, theyíll be doing what theyíre supposed to do.
Reid: In your comments to the General Council before your election, you described Jesus Christ as ďone of the most important windows to God.Ē Could you explain what you mean by this?
Phipps: The Bible uses the image of the door. I like window better than door because doors shut people out. As far as Godís revelation to human beings, or presence in a human being, Jesus is the most complete we have, as far as we understand it, the most complete revelation of God. Thatís why Jesus is a window to God. I look at the person of Jesus and itís as though I am looking through a window to God. You could say a lens through which we can see God. When we are in touch with Jesus, we are in touch with God.
Reid: Is he the only way to God or the window to God?
Phipps: No. I think itís the height of arrogance to claim that a particular group of people know the only way to God. White Europeans when they came here were very arrogant about the civilizations they found here and we are now finding out they were wrong . Anything you say about faith must be said in humility. Itís arrogant to think we have the answers to everything and everyone and that our experience is the only experience and that everyone else is wrong. What I experience in life, shouldnít define i t for everyone else. There are countless people, and generations and experiences of God, that other people can have.
Reid: Do you believe Jesus is divine?
Phipps: Part of the problem I have is trying to make things so definite and defined. I think we have to live in the world more loosely than that. I mean Jesus is unique. Iím reading a book by a Buddhist monk who was a great friend of Thomas Merton and other Christian believers. Itís called Living Buddha Living Christ. He would say we are all unique. I used to say that Jesus was unique in a way we are not, because Jesus captivated and still captivates countless millions of people. Thereís no questi on that God is acting through Jesus in a unique way. How do you define it? I donít really know, other than saying for 2000 years Jesus is still encountering people in a unique way. Itís like being in love with someone. You can describe their charact eristics but there are a lot of people with those same characteristics who donít fill the bill. If you filled a room with them you would say thatís the one I love. You canít define it. You just know its true.
Reid: Much of what you have said is presented in the new Christology document which looks at a number of different ways to see Jesus Christ. What will happen to those people in the UC who believe that Jesus Christ is the only way to God?
Phipps: Nothing happens to them. The way you are talking it sounds like if I believe something there is going to be some authority to come and tell me I am wrong. Nobody tells me what to believe.
Reid: Will there be a place for someone who believes this orthodox way to be ordained?
Phipps: Well thatís a very good question? If I was in the conference committee examining that person, I would have to make very sure that he or she was not saying to people, who do not agree with that position, that they are not Christian or part of the fa ith. Itís fine for that person to believe it, but it is not okay for she or he to feel that other people are also required to believe it.
Reid: But their very belief presents a dilemma, particularly for someone who wishes to be ordained and will be teaching and preaching?
Phipps: If someone is that clear, that categorical, why would they want to be ordained in the UC, where they know that the majority do not believe this? And if the whole purpose of their ministry and their interpretation of the calling of the Gospel, is t o get people to believe that truth, why wouldnít they be ordained in the Pentecostal church or the Baptist church? Why not be ordained there, where its clear that that is the mandate?
Reid: So you are saying, if I wanted to be ordained I must leave this church?
Phipps: No, you are asking the church this question.
Reid: I am asking, can I (and those with these orthodox beliefs) be ordained within this church?
Phipps: Well, I think people have been and still are.
Reid: I think its getting harder; we have to be honest about this.
Phipps: Okay, it is. But I think you have to ask yourself, why that is. You have to ask that question not only of the church, but of the person who wants to be ordained.
Reid: Do people who believe this way, who have grown up in this church and feel called to be ordained, have to leave the United Church?
Phipps: No. My Dad probably believed that stuff, thatís probably what his faith was. He worked with teenage boys. But his effort wasnít to try to make them believe that stuff, it was to try to help them see Jesus as a good example in the church. It had v ery little to do with theology, it had everything to do with making them feel part of a community.
Reid: But he would have shared what he believed if they had asked him?
Phipps: Oh sure, but he was also a person who respected other peopleís right to think what they thought and would encourage them to do that.
Reid: And to make a choice?
Phipps: Well, make a choice or continue in dialogue for the rest of their life. I know people who say: ďThe only way to salvation, the only way to heaven is to believe in Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior. Thatís the only way you are going to get to heaven and anyone who is not saved by Jesus Christ is going to hell.Ē they are very clear about it. I know others who also believe this, who have no desire to impose it on anyone else. They will accept that other people have a different point of view which is just as valid as theirs. It is just that they disagree fundamentally. Those two people have the same belief; but the way they carry it out, the way they relate to other people, is totally different. That is where the dilemma is.
Reid: So you are saying if someone wants to be ordained this dilemma must be sorted out?
Phipps: Yeah, I think it will be a problem for the first person, but not for the second.
Reid: Iím concerned that those who interview these candidates, especially if they are radically liberal theologically, will not take the time to work this out. I worry that anyone who believes in an orthodox way will have trouble in theological schools
or being ordained. Why are we getting letters from people who say they are being told their beliefs are not an acceptable way of thinking in the UC today. Are you suggesting it may be the way they are saying it?
Phipps: It may be. Itís the conference board who makes these decisions around ordination. But it does bring up the question: Are there boundaries that we put around our theological understanding? This is a big debate in the UC. Or do we just say that a nyone can be ordained or commissioned or a member of the church, if they have any belief that has ever been attached to the word ďChristian.Ē In our system, the group who defines the boundaries is the conference group who recommends, or doesnít recommen d, that person for commissioning or ordination. If we were a doctrinal faith, or a more dogmatic faith, it wouldnít be as difficult. Because Iím sure there or more clear lines more clear boundaries for ordaining a Catholic priest or a Jewish rabbi. One of the problemís in the UC, is that we have su ch a broad spectrum that its more difficult to define.
Reid: Do we not have certain vows that we do acknowledge that we confess together?
Phipps: Well sure but you have the problem of interpretation. Itís the same with the Bible, you get two biblical scholars sitting down and they end up at opposites sides over one passage. If a person says, ďyou must have this specific interpretation of S cripture or the Basis of Union or else you canít be a UC member,Ē I would think they wouldnít be appropriate to be ordained in the United Church. They are not tolerant of other points of view. A United Church minister has to understand that there are a whole variety of interpretations of things, many of which he or she would not agree with. To be a minister in the UC you have to be open to many points of view.
Reid: Are you saying for someone who is going to be ordained they have to be willing to be open to accept the other points of view and be open to change their own, or are you saying they have to be willing to accept the idea that different points of view
exist within our church?
Phipps: The latter. I think the UC minister has to be able to respect contrary points of view within their congregation, and the church at large, and not feel that they are wrong or that their job is to convert them to their point of view. For example, I donít believe that Mary was a virgin. I donít believe that the world was created in 6 days. Some people insist that Mary was a virgin and that if people donít believe that, they canít be a Christian. I know there are people who believe that, I think t hey are wrong but that is their privilege. If Iím going to be a United Church minister, Iíve got to respect the faith of people who believe both those things.
Reid: So it is okay to think people are wrong?
Phipps: Oh sure; but you canít draw any implications from that--you just disagree. If someone has a belief that cannot broach any changing, or any difference, they will almost automaticallly have trouble being in dialogue. The other thing that is really important here though is why do we get stuck on one particular thing. We are discovering in our work with different faith groups or with people who donít believe in our society, that instead of concentrating on what divid es us, we should concentrate on what can unite us, like a common project of creating a better world. Mother Theresa was a very orthodox Catholic, there was no question about what she believed. She was very clear about it--her faith was like a rock. Yet she had no problem relating to people of other faiths and not judging them. She linked up wwith oth er faiths, not just other Christians, by saying: "There are sick and dying people who need Godís love." She was immovable about her beliefs, but Jesus called her to be with the sick and dying. She didnít want to convert the Hindu and Muslims around her , it wasnít what she was called to do. Instead of focusing on things that clearly divide people, we should focus on what Jesus would have us focus on, the suffering and the dying, our world which is broken.
Reid: Itís okay to have that solid rock foundation as Mother Theresa did.-- to have an orthodox faith within the United Church?
Phipps: Itís okay as far as Iím concerned. But it really depends on what you do with it. When you take that solid rock foundation and you put it between you and everybody else and you say: "Okay buster, you gotta come through that rock before I can accep t you." Maybe thatís what we do to each other. I am not just saying that only orthodox people do this. All of us have our rocks that block the window, block the door. And maybe what we have to do is say Letís relax for a minute, God is much bigger than any of us. Then take that rock and say: "Iím not getting rid of this, itís my faith I need it and nobody can take it away." Then stand on it or have it beside us or up our spine so weíve got some guts. And the other person does that too. And we look at each other and say: "Maybe you, with your rock, and I, with mine, can join hands together and do some stuff to deal with the suffering in the world.
Reid: Is this what the Mending the World document is all about?
Phipps: Yes, I believe it is.
Reid: At General Council there were comments questioning the theological foundation of the document. Some expressed concern that there appeared to be the assumption that it was necessary to believe that all faiths lead to God in order to work with other
faiths. Do you think there is a bedrock theology in this document that says, all faiths lead to God?
Phipps: I donít think thatís the question they are asking. Bob Smith (a former UC moderator) introduced the document by saying something like this: ďWhen God wakes up in the morning what God is concerned about is the brokenness of the world, even more that God is concerned about the health of the Church. God created the world itís Godís world. So my particular faith and belief system, and all those that human beings have may be of some importance to God, maybe its #5, but the brokenness of the world and humanity is the most important. The question to ask is: How has humankind treated Godís world and joined together, regardless of where they are coming from, to mend the world?Ē The primary question is the health and the wholeness of the world and all Godís creatures, not orthodoxy of belief or a particular kind of belief. You keep focusing on the need to believe and the necessity to believe; what I am saying and what the do cument is saying, is that that may be an important question but it is not the important question. To Mother Theresa that wasnít the important question she never asked any of those people what they believed and she knew that they didnít believe the Cath olic catechism, that wasnít her question, the question was human suffering.
In the next issue of Fellowship Magazine, Rt. Rev. Bill Phipps shares his thoughts on ways to end the deadlock between the renewal/reform groups and the national church.
This interview took place on Sept 9, 1997, shortly after Phipps was elected.
This interview took place on Sept 9, 1997, shortly after Phipps was elected.