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Sent: January 9, 1998 5:08 PM
United Church of Canada leaders blow their big chance
Leaders in the United Church of Canada (UCC) have squandered a golden opportunity to affirm their Christian bonafides and to dispel some of the stereotypes attached to Canada’s largest Protestant denomination. In late October, UCC Moderator Bill Phipps diminished the divinity of Jesus, denied the resurrection and undermined the authority of Scripture in an interview with the editorial board of the Ottawa Citizen (CW, Nov18/97). The comments received enormous coverage in the mainstream media, and Phipps has been more than willing to elaborate his personal theology in the public arena ever since. Many UCC members are outraged that the leading spokesperson for their denomination so blithely denigrates these fundamental Christian convictions. Others, however, applaud their moderator for honestly grappling with questions that Canadians in the 1990s find difficult to believe.
Stereotype #1: The UCC should be called the "Untied" Church of Canada.
The UCC has historically taken great pride in its willingness and ability to embrace diversity. It is the product of the 1925 merger of the majority of churches from three denominations (Presbyterian, Methodist and Congregational), which were able to unify because of their "essential agreement" with a clearly articulated "Basis of Union" faith statement. Over the years the limits of "essential agreement" have been sorely stretched and denominational squabbles over such things as hymnbooks, Sunday school curriculum and sexuality have been very public. When secular editors asked Phipps about theological beliefs, he had an unanticipated but superb opportunity to proclaim the essence of Christian unity. Instead he babbled his own unbelief and alienated countless church members. Then when the UCC’s executive council met a few weeks later, they emerged with a document that attempts both to affirm the historic creeds of the Christian church and the authority of Scripture, and to insist that the moderator’s remarks are congruent. The ties that bind certainly have been loosened. Indeed, the executive stated explicitly that while the UCC does have doctrinal standards, "rarely, if ever, do we use doctrinal standards to exclude anyone from the circle of belonging." Belonging to what?
Stereotype #2: The UCC is the NDP at prayer.
Mr. Phipps went to Ottawa wearing a "Zero Poverty" button, primed to talk economics. The faith questions clearly caught him off-stride. What really matters, he told the Citizen, is mending a broken world. Indeed, when Phipps was elected to serve a term as moderator last August, he was already well-known for his outspoken activism and his call for a renewed vision of the social gospel within the UCC. "The church exists for the sake of the world," he said at the time, expressing a desire "to be in solidarity with the hurting people of the world, regardless of who they are and how they come to us." Few UCC members are objecting to the fact that Phipps sees political and social engagement as part of the church’s agenda. The problem is the priority it is given and the predictability of official UCC proposals, which characteristically criticize private sector initiatives and promote "big government" policies. In a recent defense of his theologically controversial comments, Phipps stated: "Salvation, and I’ve got to say this because some people have asked about salvation, I think salvation for our world, which is in deep need of salvation, is through witness to the love and the justice and the compassion of Jesus Christ and not through the market economy, political power or any other kind of thing where people are looking for salvation now." True enough, and church activity does have political and social implications. But salvation is fundamentally a spiritual transformation. UCC leaders are too content to remain on the temporal plain.
Stereotype #3 The UCC is really the "Agnostic" Church of Canada.
Phipps exemplifies the discomfort - apparently shared by many UCC leaders - with basic tenets of Christian conviction. These people in positions of authority within a Christian denomination are evidently unable to take the step of faith required to accept and affirm that Jesus Christ is the Son of God! Savior and Lord. Recent scholarly debates about Scripture are given as much as or more credence than tradition and the creeds. Arriving at a knowledge of the truth seems to be less important than the continuing search for it. And it probably isn’t true to say that Phipps is agnostic. His statements leave little doubt that he knows that Jesus is not divine, that the resurrection was not a historical, physical event or that heaven and hell are not important concepts - let alone realities. Ironically, it’s the secular press that is taking Phipps to task for doubting the faith he is supposed to uphold. The Globe and Mail, for example, ran a cartoon of a UCC minister telling his congregation, "Merry Christmas! Or…whatever!" And a Globe editorial (Nov27) discussed the "rationalist challenge" to faith, observing that "social gospelers…want to influence the behavior of individuals and governments in the name of Christianity. On the other hand, as a religion correspondent once said, they do ‘not quite seem to believe in Christianity itself.’" The editorialist went on to make the point that churches that make more stringent faith demands tend to exert more real influence. "Take away faith and what remains is religion as group therapy," he wrote. The apostle Paul declared that faith without the resurrection was futile. Tragi-comedy The oxymoron of agnostic pastors would be quite funny if it wasn’t so prevalent and so spiritually damning. Phipps is reportedly a very nice, kind and generous person. No doubt he is also sincere and courageous. We may commend him for many things including being honest about his doubts, but his inability to affirm Christianity’s core beliefs as articulated in, say, The Apostle’s Creed, puts him outside the historic parameters of the Christian faith. A person who cannot accept that Jesus Christ was fully human and fully divine, and who denies the historical basis of the resurrection, has no business leading a "Christian" denomination. Phipps’s eloquent waffling on Christianity’s core convictions is akin to hearing the president of the Bank of Montreal insist that it’s not about profits. And the failure of the denomination’s leaders to censure his statements makes them complicit in this departure from Christian norms. Many have accused the UCC of abdicating its very raison d’être in an effort to be inclusive. Phipps’s sentiments will undoubtedly be popular both within the church and beyond. But this is because they have more in common with the postmodern spirit that values alternatives over truth. UCC leaders had a great chance to dispel some of sad stereotypes about their church. Instead, alas, they were confirmed.
Doug Koop, Editor