Jesus debate rocks United boat

Toronto Star
February 8, 1998

By Leslie Scrivener
Toronto Star Faith And Ethics Reporter

Few would have guessed the election of Bill Phipps as moderator of the United Church would bring coast to coast controversy about the nature of God and Jesus.

Phipps - popular, plain speaking, baseball loving, roaming United Church headquarters in beaded moccasins and jeans - might be expected to stir things up about native land claims, global warming and economic policies that impoverish the Third World. He is after all, a minister who gave a sermon on the ``joy of paying taxes,'' preaching that taxation allows for an adequate minimum wage and health-care system and is a mark of a compassionate society. It was a view that provoked some in his Edmonton congregation to walk out in protest.

But suddenly everyone in the country wanted to talk to him not about economics, but about who Jesus was. How could it be that the head of Canada's largest Protestant denomination would say that Jesus did not rise bodily from the dead and that while Jesus revealed the nature, the mystery, the love of God more than any other being, He was not all of God?

Not only were hundreds of church members calling or writing him, outside the church, many thousands more - faithful and faithless alike - were asking the question Christ himself asked: Who do you say I am?

`The resurrection is essential to Christian faith. How you interpret that is a whole other question.' - Bill Phipps

``People were writing saying `Thank you, we haven't had a religious discussion in our household for 30 years,' '' Phipps said in an interview at United Church headquarters in Etobicoke. His hiking boots are in the corner. A poster of slain archbishop Oscar Romero hangs above his desk. There's a cross from Nicaragua and a dream catcher from Hobbema, Alta. A bumper sticker reads: ``Feminism is the radical notion that women are people.''

``I don't see people looking for pat answers. They are looking for a safe spiritual home. That doesn't mean we have no values. We have very strong values of accepting people in a non-judgmental way.''

What may have seemed a disaster for the United Church, warmly inclusive but losing members by the thousands, slowly came around to be seen in a more positive way. People, even the godless media, were talking about God and religion and examining their own spiritual beliefs, and all of that was considered a good thing.

``Isn't it more interesting to think about what you think yourself, rather than what the moderator thinks?'' asked Roger Hutchinson, principal of Emmanuel College divinity school. However, for those with more traditional, orthodox views, it was impossible to put a rosy spin on the moderator's musings, first published in an interview in the Ottawa Citizen last October. And Phipps's views made clear the division between them and church leadership was wider than they had ever suspected.

The bad news - for conservatives - became worse when former moderators and theologians went on to say that Phipps' views lie fully within the boundaries of accepted theology. Such views had been taught in divinity schools for decades and were not at all new.

``If that is true, that his views are in the mainstream of the church, it's horrific because it's a denial of everything we call Christian,'' said Rev. David Snihur, a Woodstock, Ont. minister and head of a return to orthodoxy movement within the United Church.

He went on to say he worried not only for the moderator, but for the church bureaucracy, the national staff, theological professors and others who represented the ``ultra-liberal wing'' of the church. (For the record, again, Phipps says, ``The resurrection is essential to Christian faith. How you interpret that is a whole other question. Jesus is alive and a transforming power in the life of the Christian community. It's a secondary debate to talk about it biologically.''

Christ is more than a role model and teacher, Phipps said. ``I make unique and special claims for Jesus I don't make for any other. Jesus reveals divine will to us, to give us a grace and confidence where there is no reason to be confident. You have to make a huge leap of faith to believe that.'')

``To us, the whole point of the Christian story is God loved us so much, lived among us, died in our place and when He rose from the dead gave us hope for the future. Everything else is window dressing. We see that being thrown out and replaced by the social gospel which says, essentially, believe what you want about God and be kind to other people,'' Snihur says.

Snihur's and other orthodox groups in the United Church - still upset after the church voted in 1988 to ordain homosexuals - already had felt ostracized. At the church's General Council meeting in Camrose, Alta. where Phipps was elected last summer, someone left on a display table a plastic bag that contained not only their group buttons but also excrement. Council denounced the incident, which was reported in Fellowship, a quarterly representing orthodox views. ``This shakes one through and through,'' outgoing moderator Marion Best said. Rev. Bruce Miller has known Phipps for about 20 years and nominated him for moderator.

After the turmoil that followed the ordination issue, the church was preoccupied with building bridges and with pastoral care, said Miller, minister at Robertson-Wesley United Church in Edmonton. ``The mood of this General Council was that we had been silent too long on social justice issues. Now is the time for outspoken leadership,'' he said. ``And Bill was the most outspoken of the candidates on social justice.''

Phipps has shown his beliefs at prayer meetings during the bitter labour dispute at Gainers meat packing plant in Edmonton in 1986 and demonstrating with the Lubicon Indians.

He was brought up here. ``We were North Toronto and all that implies,'' his sister Elda Thomas said. ``Very conservative, very proper and very correct.''

Phipps still sees himself as the child of that upbringing. ``I don't think I'm radical. I think I'm cautious and conservative.''

As a teenager, each time he started to find church life irrelevant, he was drawn back - to be part of a choir, to be a youth minister, to run a boys' group. He was interested in the church as part of community life.

Phipps went to law school - what else did a 20-year-old with a political science degree do?

But after a summer of community work in Brooklyn, N. Y., he saw something that attracted him more. He won a scholarship to McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago, where one part of his work was hard core community organizing and another was sitting in silence with parents whose children were dying of leukemia. It was the mid-'60s, racial tensions were high, and Martin Luther King and Jesse Jackson were leading marches. ``The church I saw in Chicago was the strongest agent for social change I had ever seen.''

After working in Toronto as a community consultant and a storefront poverty lawyer, he left for Alberta, where he learned about native issues, spent time in the north and visited Nicaragua. His first marriage ended in the mid-'80s. He married Carolyn Pogue, a writer and editor, in 1990.

His earlier years as minister at Trinity-St. Paul's Church on Bloor St. W. were wonderful as the church became a centre for culture - Tafelmusik is housed there - and social activism.

But how is that different from a community centre?

``In many ways it's not,'' he said. `` But for me, it's an integration, where you have a worshipping community with a solid ethical community as a basis, where grace, forgiveness, humility, recognition of human frailty are all important.''