'I don't believe Jesus was God'

United Church's new moderator rejects Bible as history book

Bob Harvey
The Ottawa Citizen
Friday 24 October 1997

Pat McGrath, The Ottawa Citizen / Rev. Bill Phipps, the new United Church moderator, believes 'your soul is lost unless you care about people starving in the streets.'

The divinity of Jesus and the reality of heaven and hell are irrelevant, says the new moderator of the United Church of Canada.

What really matters, says Rev. Bill Phipps, is mending a broken world.

He says Jesus was more interested in life on earth than the afterlife, and had more to say about economics than any other subject.

"I don't believe Jesus was God, but I'm no theologian," Mr. Phipps says. His lapel button, "Zero Poverty," reflects the views he developed in the mid-1960s as a student observing riots and civil-rights marches in New York and Chicago.

"Biblically, it's an abomination that there are any poor people in Canada at all," he says.

As a minister in Toronto, and most recently in Calgary, he has been quick to demonstrate against everything from nuclear arms to what he sees as the cultural genocide of Canada's aboriginal peoples.

Mr. Phipps, 55, was elected head of Canada's largest Protestant denomination in August, and he says what appealed to the 400 delegates was his platform: putting the United Church's views front and centre in public policy debates.

Yesterday, he did that by taking on the Citizen's editorial board in a free-wheeling debate about theology and the free-market economy.

His views on poverty are strong and definite. "Your soul is lost unless you care about people starving in the streets."

He says Canada's major churches can no longer be called mainline churches, because they now have relatively little influence.

Nevertheless, he thinks Canadians are increasingly conscious of a moral void and the church has much to contribute in the debates about world trade, employment, and the diminishing emphasis on health care and social services.

His views on the afterlife, however, are more agnostic.

"I have no idea if there is a hell," he says.

"I don't think Jesus was that concerned about hell. He was concerned about life here on earth."

"Is heaven a place? I have no idea.

"I believe that there is a continuity of the spirit in some way, but I would be a fool to say what that is."

"We've got enough problems trying to live ethically and well here, to have any knowledge or understanding of what happens after we die."

Rev. Phipps says Jesus is central to his beliefs and motivates his compassion for others, but he doesn't accept the Bible as a valid historical record. Nor does he accept the traditional Christian concept of Jesus as the Son of God.

"I don't believe Jesus is the only way to God," he said. "I don't believe he rose from the dead as a scientific fact. I don't know whether those things happened. It's an irrelevant question."

Mr. Phipps says it would be a mistake, however, to say that he does not believe in Jesus. "The bald statement that Jesus is not divine gives the wrong impression."

"I believe that Christ reveals to us as much of the nature of God as we can see in a human being. ...The whole concept of the nature of God is broader and wider and more mysterious and more holy than could be expressed in Jesus. ...That doesn't mean that Jesus is the totality of God," he said.

He says the defining mark of evangelical Christianity -- a personal relationship with Jesus -- does not ensure ethical conduct. South Africa's regime of apartheid was unbiblical and obscene, he says, but "it was put in place with all the Christian rhetoric by Christian individuals who loved Jesus."

He says it is not enough to simply go to church, pray, and live an upright personal life.

"Some of the great giants of Canadian commerce were upstanding moral people in church. But they paid low wages and opposed unions. Or they had no compunction about making armaments for Third World countries, and getting them deeply in debt.

"These are the kind of moral, ethical questions that often don't get raised."

Mr. Phipps admitted the United Church continues to lose members, and its 1988 decision to ordain homosexuals drove many away.

Although about three million Canadians claim affiliation with the United Church, there are only about 320,000 people in the denomination's pews on a typical Sunday morning.

Copyright 1997 The Ottawa Citizen

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