Monday 27 October 1997

Moderator 'undermines' faith, United Church minister says

Pastor calls on flock to ask for reaffirmation of official doctrine

Charles Enman
Citizen Special

Rod MacIvor, The Ottawa Citizen / Rev. Allen Churchill says one can't be selective about faith in Bible.

In the pulpit yesterday, a United Church minister took strong exception to recent remarks by the church's leader and said his fellow congregants must devote at least a year in prayer to look for a new vision.

The remarks by the moderator, the Very Rev. Bill Phipps, "do not correspond at all to the historic faith of the worldwide church of Jesus Christ nor of the United Church of Canada," Rev. Allen Churchill told the congregation at Dominion-Chalmers United Church on Cooper Street.

Mr. Churchill was referring to statements Mr. Phipps made in an interview with the Citizen's editorial board last Thursday.

The moderator, who was elected to office last August, told the board:

- "I don't believe Jesus was God."

- "I have no idea if there is a hell."

- "Is heaven a place? I have no idea."

- "I don't believe (Jesus) rose from the dead as a scientific fact."

In yesterday's sermon, Mr. Churchill said such comments contradict church doctrine.

The first article in the church's Statement of Faith answers the question of whether or not Jesus was divine, he said.

That article reads in part: "We worship Him in the unity of the Godhead and the mystery of the Holy Trinity, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, three persons of the same substance, equal in power and glory."

Mr. Churchill asked the congregation, "Is our moderator right about the identity of Jesus that he is not God in the flesh? Or is the World Council of Churches right, which declares that Jesus Christ is God and Saviour?"

Clearly a rhetorical question.

The moderator, in his session with the editorial board, had affirmed the importance of compassion for the poor, while expressing skepticism about the existence of heaven and hell.

But one can't pick and choose what to believe of the Bible, Mr. Churchill said.

"The very scriptures that state that the church should have compassion for the poor are also the scriptures that require that there is in fact a heaven and a hell. They don't define them -- but they clearly announce that heaven and hell exist."

Mr. Phipps' skepticism about the Bible contradicts the church's Statement of Faith, Mr. Churchill said, quoting from Article 2 of the statement: "We receive the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, given by inspiration of God, as containing the only infallible rule of faith and life, a faithful record of God's gracious revelations, and as the sure witness of Christ."

Mr. Churchill quoted from the Church's manual on the duties of the moderator -- to give leadership, "quickening in the hearts of people a sense of God as revealed in Christ and strengthening the whole United Church."

Mr. Phipps' recent statements "dishearten and weaken our Church," Mr. Churchill said. "They are in fact a serious embarrassment."

The Church's attempts to find new members "are seriously undermined when the denomination's primary leader undermines the central point of our faith," Mr. Churchill said.

Mr. Phipps' comments have also injured the United Church's ecumenical relations with other denominations, he said.

"Ministers of other denominations are now phoning the Presbytery Office here in Ottawa and asking what the official doctrines of the United Church are."

The moderator, he noted, was voted into office at the Church's general council last summer in Camrose, Alta. He won handily on the first ballot.

Like other candidates for the office, Mr. Phipps had been questioned about his views on Jesus Christ and other matters before the vote, Mr. Churchill said.

"General council voted our moderator into office with knowledge," Mr. Churchill said.

"They therefore must have some responsibility for this situation in which we find ourselves in today."

But the pastor of Dominion Chalmers church said there were positive elements in the controversy.

"The moderator has neither the ability nor the mandate to redefine the faith of the United Church of Canada. These are personal views of one person who happens to be the moderator, and it is too bad that he said them. But he cannot change the doctrines of the church."

Moreover, to criticize the Bible is to fight the wind, he said.

"Happily, the Bible has always withstood its critics and will continue to do so -- it truly is an anvil that has worn out many hammers."

Mr. Churchill said church members should write to the local presbytery and to the general council asking for affirmation of the Statement of Faith.

He said congregations should "spend at least a year in theological reflection and prayer, looking for a new vision for the future, asking serious questions about whether the United Church can maintain our valid Christian witness to the world."

He also had advice for his fellow clergy.

"I believe we ministers should stand in our pulpits and declare before our congregations what we believe, and that this be done as a matter of first priority."

Following the service, two members of the congregation expressed agreement with the sermon.

"It was excellent," said George Tweedy. "It expressed my views fully."

David Slater said he was "very much in sympathy with the sermon."

The moderator is entitled to his own opinions, Mr. Slater added.

"But he has no right to change the fundamental beliefs of the church -- and when he speaks, he should make his audience fully aware of the limitations of his authority."

Another United Church minister had a take on Mr. Phipps' remarks that was completely different from Mr. Churchill's.

"I was delighted with our moderator's human questing faith because it is so essentially Christian," Rev. Brian Cornelius of Northwestern United Church on Northwestern Avenue said in a phone interview yesterday.

Mr. Cornelius believes most of his congregation saw merit in the moderator's remarks, once they were put in theological context in yesterday's sermon.

Mr. Cornelius said he personally believes in the resurrection of Jesus but does not know if it was a literal resurrection.

When Jesus returned from the dead, it was in a body that was qualitatively different from His earlier body -- He could walk through walls, disappear, be unrecognized, Mr. Cornelius said.

"Clearly, His resurrection may have had nothing to do with human bones, for example.

"The resurrection is the mystery of life beyond this life. And that mystery would not be dissolved if some archeological dig found remains that were indisputably His."

For Mr. Cornelius, putting great emphasis on whether Jesus was divine misses the point of His mission.

"What really matters -- and this is what Mr. Phipps emphasizes -- is the ethical component that comes from Christ, which is to care for the powerless in our society.

"This meaning of Jesus' life is far more important than discussing the nature of His existence."

In fact, Mr. Cornelius had only approbation for the moderator.

"A courageous leader like him saves us from ecclesiastical structures that would control us through doctrinal purity, thrive on wooden literalism, and regurgitate pat answers."


Copyright 1997 The Ottawa Citizen