United Church moderator raises Cain

Ministers scrambling to distance themselves from leader's radicalism

Leonard Stern
The Ottawa Citizen

In an affirmation of their Christian credentials, some United Church ministers are prepared to stand up in their pulpits tomorrow and avow that, yes, they believe Jesus Christ was raised from the dead.

Ordinarily, members of the Christian clergy might consider it redundant to proclaim their belief in such a fundamental tenet as the resurrection -- the glory of Christianity, after all, is the promise of a shining afterlife. But suddenly some members of the United Church feel it's not such a bad idea to restate some of the old ideas.

The truth of the resurrection, not to mention the divinity of Christ, became a controversial topic in the United Church this week after comments made by Rev. Bill Phipps, the recently elected moderator of the United Church of Canada. In a Citizen article yesterday, Mr. Phipps said he doesn't believe Jesus was God nor does he think Christ was resurrected as the Bible suggests. Mr. Phipps also said he has no idea whether heaven and hell exist.

In Ottawa, Rev. Andrew Stirling of Parkdale United Church said he was deeply concerned after hearing of Mr. Phipps' remarks. Because Mr. Stirling ran unsuccessfully against Mr. Phipps for the job of moderator last summer, he said it would be inappropriate to comment on whether Mr. Phipps should step down. Nonetheless, Mr. Stirling made it clear his own theology is less controversial than Mr. Phipps'.

"I subscribe to the divinity of Jesus and the centrality of the resurrection to the Christian faith," said Mr. Stirling. "I believe you can have great diversity in the Church, but at the same time there must be some unity -- and unity is based in the common recognition that Jesus Christ is Lord. One can have great diversity on many things, but there is a bottom line."

Another local reverend, Heather Moore of St. Paul's United Church in Carp, was similarly astonished that the church's national leader would seem to diminish the stature of Christ. "Jesus is God incarnate," said Ms. Moore, adding that Mr. Phipps' comments might reduce the United Church to a kind of secular organization.

"If we renounce the resurrection, we're in serious trouble," she said. "What, then, is left? I don't for one minute believe that I am (simply) a minister to a social club."

As his followers expressed hurt and anger, Mr. Phipps said he never intended to undermine anyone's faith. "I never wanted to hurt anybody," he said yesterday. "I want only to stimulate people to examine their faith. I've always respected other people's beliefs and understandings, and I ask that they do the same for me."

By noon yesterday, United Church headquarters in Toronto had already fielded several angry inquiries. Mr. Phipps himself spoke with two irate callers who could not believe a church leader would appear to deny the most basic principles of Christianity. "Both of them were quite upset, but we had good conversations," said Mr. Phipps.

"I told them that indeed I had said Jesus was not God, but also that I had said a whole lot of other stuff. I tried to explain that Jesus is the most we can know about God in one human being, but that God is more comprehensive and mysterious than anything in one person. Jesus is at the centre (of Christianity) but I just don't believe that all of God walked on earth with Jesus."

Although Mr. Phipps acknowledged that he was quoted correctly, he argued that the newspaper article did not capture all the nuance and subtlety of his hour and a half debate with the Citizen editorial board. For example, he explained yesterday that while he may not believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus, he believes very much that Jesus was and is always present in the world.

"Whether or not Jesus rose from the dead in the same physical body and walked around in the same body -- the scientific (truth) of this fact doesn't matter to me," he said. "Some people would say it is essential, but to me it doesn't have to be (essential) in order to understand that Jesus is alive and well."

Muriel Duncan, the editor of the United Church Observer, a national magazine, said she was not shocked that Mr. Phipps would speak so candidly on sensitive matters. "He's recognized for his integrity, by his willingness to talk openly," she said. Ms. Duncan also said it is very unlikely that Mr. Phipps would be forced to step down as moderator, as the church has many members who will agree with his liberal theology. "It's a church that sits well with diversity," she said.

Rev. Brian Cornelius, the minister of Ottawa's Northwestern United Church, said he'd be surprised if his congregants are offended by the moderator's beliefs. "Mr. Phipps does not want to describe the (afterlife) in specific, literal words. I suspect a majority of those in the United Church understand that."


Copyright 1997 The Ottawa Citizen