Tuesday 25 November 1997

United Church reaffirms its faith

Leaders state adherence to creed, support for Phipps

Bob Harvey
The Ottawa Citizen

TORONTO -- The national executive of the United Church supported both its founding beliefs and its controversial moderator in a statement released yesterday.

The moderator, Rev. Bill Phipps, ignited a nationwide controversy last month with his remark that "I don't believe Jesus was God."

After a 90-minute discussion, the 85-member executive wound up its regular four-day meeting yesterday by unanimously approving a series of recommendations that try to satisfy both the liberal and conservative wings of the church.

And it adopted a statement that says "Our grasp on the truth of God is finite and fallible, and we do not believe that faithfulness consists in assenting to particular statements. Rarely, if ever, do we use doctrinal standards to exclude anyone from the circle of belonging."

Membership in the United Church is not based "on a creedal subscription or test," said the executive. "New members are asked to profess their faith in the triune God and to commit themselves to faithful conduct in church and world."

At a press conference, the moderator said he has learned a lesson from his encounter last month with the editorial board of the Citizen: to be more careful with his words and to state the church's views as well as his own.

Mr. Phipps said he had no idea that he would ignite a nationwide controversy with his remarks.

However, he said, "My views are well within the theological mix of the United Church, and have been for some time."

The national executive approved recommendations that:

  • affirmed their support for Mr. Phipps and their "gratitude and respect for (his unique) gifts";

  • agreed that the theology of the church is inclusive of a wide variety of views, and is an evolving theology. They said the doctrinal standards of the United Church are included not only in the more traditional articles of faith set out at the beginning of the church in 1925, but also in a series of other documents, including its 1968 creed and 1990s documents on the Lordship of Jesus and the Authority and Interpretation of Scripture. Church members should recognize and celebrate the diversity of interpretations of such documents, said the executive.

    The church's national executive also attempted to put a damper on the controversy within the church by:

  • acknowledging the pain of many members who felt Mr. Phipps' remarks challenged not only their personal beliefs but also the doctrine of the church.

  • endorsing plans to distribute a pastoral letter from Mr. Phipps and a video in which he and other church officials attempt to clarify the issues brought up by his remarks.

  • clarifying the role of the moderator. They said denominational officials are free to publicly express their personal beliefs, but must temper that with "the need for congruence with the stated policies and statements of the United Church."

    They also restated the fact that the United Church is governed not by bishops or moderators, but by groups of clergy and lay elders, which are the only bodies empowered to approve doctrinal statements.

    "No individual ... can usurp this role of the community in the articulation of the faith," said the statement adopted by the executive.

    Marion Best, Mr. Phipps' predecessor as moderator, said many people misunderstand the role of the moderator. She said they do not realize the moderator speaks only for himself, and it takes time for a new moderator to realize that people attach more importance to his words than they should.

    However, in a reference to the denomination's divisive 1988 debate over the ordination of homosexuals, she said the latest controversy has one advantage: "It's a relief to be talking about Christology instead of sex."

    The controversy over Mr. Phipps' remarks brought back into the open the deep divide between the denomination's left and right wings that surfaced during the 1988 debate.

    On one side are theologically conservative churches like Ottawa's Chinese United Church, which has called for the moderator's resignation, and Ottawa's Dominion-Chalmers United, which has called on the church's national executive to reaffirm the denomination's original 1925 articles of faith as its doctrinal standard.

    These articles of faith name Jesus as "the eternal Son of God" and affirm that "he rose from the dead and ascended into heaven."

    On the other side of the debate are United Church members who support Mr. Phipps' views and are prone to condemn the media, rather than the moderator, for the controversy.

    However, Jon Jessiman, of Ladner, B.C., told the national executive yesterday there are many other church members who are somewhere between those two poles.

    Some are disturbed by Mr. Phipps' remarks. Others perhaps are more like the elders of Bloor Street United Church in Toronto, who wrote to the national executive to say Mr. Phipps' comments are not new.

    "We have heard similar statements from our pulpit for the last 30 years ... We do not wish to have some people tell others what they should believe," said the Bloor Street elders.

    Virginia Coleman, the denomination's top administrator, told the national executive that church members and local congregations are still free to launch formal proceedings to force Mr. Phipps to resign, but said that to date no one has yet taken the steps to do so.

    Rev. Don Smith, of Morrisburg, said he hoped Mr. Phipps would not be forced to resign and said there would be little profit for the church if any groups or individuals attempted to take that route.

    One man who didn't get his say at the national executive meeting yesterday was Rev. John Ellis Currey, 75, a United Church minister who has a regular slot preaching on radio in Newfoundland. He said he came to the meeting to "restore the moderator's faith in the basic tenets of the United Church." However, he was denied an opportunity to address the meeting.


    Copyright 1997 The Ottawa Citizen