Theological fault lines in the United Church of Canada have resurfaced with public musings by the moderator about the veracity of the Resurrection and the divinity of Christ.
And some members of Canada's largest Protestant denomination say the comments reveal how the liberal wing of the church has taken over. Some go so far as to call for Rev. Bill Phipps, formerly of Calgary's Scarboro United Church, to step aside.
Calgary church member Stephen Istvanffy says Phipps' comments typify the way the denomination has been moving. Istvanffy is active in Community of Concern, a conservative movement within the United Church.
``The election reflects the general direction the church is going - a liberal direction not in keeping with traditional doctrine,'' said Istvanffy. ``Phipps is expressing personal opinions contrary to church doctrine.''
Istvanffy says the church's General Council is more liberal than the rank-and-file and argues that it has not represented members in the pews for several years.
He linked Phipps' remarks to the divisive issue of the ordination of homosexuals that fractured the United Church several years ago as another example of the church's hierarchy being out of touch. ``If the 1988 gay ordination vote had been put to the membership, it would have been defeated by a nine-to-one margin,'' he said. ``The General Council chose to ignore the general membership.''
Phipps made no secret of his liberal leanings when he ran for moderator of the church. In his inaugural speech, he promised to push social activism.
Rev. Judy Chapman, serving the Scarboro church in Phipps' absence, says the new moderator has a lot of support in her congregation.
``His social activism was a good fit with ours. Ours became more so because of his,'' said Chapman. ``We're quite supportive of Bill. We're very, very pleased he was elected moderator.''
Chapman, who will lead a Bible-study session over the next few weeks to discuss the issues of faith raised by Phipps' statements, says the Scarboro congregation was quite aware that he would stir things up once elected.
``There is lots of scriptural evidence to support that Jesus is not God,'' said Chapman. ``Bill challenges us to re-think what we believe and how we will respond to the Gospel.''
Rev. Tom Sawyer, the development officer for St. Stephen's College in Edmonton, likewise disagrees with the conservatives.
``I was very pleased that Bill was elected moderator of the church,'' Sawyer said. ``It was the first time in years that a moderator had been elected on the first ballot. There was a strong sense of unity, unanimity and oneness among the delegates . . . You no longer have to leave your brains at the door. An awful lot of people are very excited at Bill's election.''
Still, Sawyer says he can understand opposition to Phipps' statements. ``I'm sure people from a more conservative persuasion would like things to be more black and white,'' he said. ``But the mainstream United Church knows that things aren't black and white.''
In Ottawa, where Phipps made the controversial statements, Rev. Dr. Allen Churchill of the Dominion-Chalmers United Church, argues Phipps' view are detrimental to the the long-term viability of the church.
``He (Phipps) definitely stated Jesus was not God, which I think first and foremost is problematic,'' said Churchill.
``It puts the United Church outside of the historical centre of the Christian church.''
It will also make it impossible to attract new church members, says Churchill, as well as make it equally difficult to work ecumenically with other Christian churches.
``The United Church of Canada has always been ecumenically oriented,'' said Churchill. ``How can we work with other churches if we don't have the same theological basis?''
Churchill says Phipps' views clash with the Articles of the Basis of Union of the United Church, the agreement which in 1925 brought together the Methodist, Presbyterian and Congregationalist churches. That document, he says, confirms a belief that Christ is the son of
God and the way to salvation.
``If he thinks he speaks for the majority of church members, then the United Church is no longer a Christian church, but is a unitarian church with Jesus as teacher,'' said Churchill. ``No moderator has the ability or mandate to redefine the theology of our church.''
Ellinor Townend, President of Alberta and Northwest Conference disagreed with Churchill. ``There was nothing in that Article that says that,'' she said.
Townend says Churchill is part of a minority that claims to speak for a large group of church members dissatisfied with the leadership and the direction of the church.
``In our church, we hope we can have open and honest discussion about these issues,'' she said, noting that there had already been some healing, and if people are willing to talk about these issues there will be much more.
``We're trying to get real with what the gospel says,'' Townend
said. ``We can debate these theological issues like the divinity of Jesus but it doesn't help us live the gospel in the streets. That's what Jesus was all about.''
Townend says Phipps' statements have already attracted some members back to the fold, and expects more to come. But she is concerned about the long-term effect the dissident group may have on the church.
``A small group may use (church) court processes, which won't be helpful,'' she said. `` It's too bad -- it takes up time and energy from other things.''
Before being elected moderator, Phipps was the minister for the Calgary Scarboro United Church from 1993-97. His nomination was backed by four presbyteries across Canada - Calgary, Edmonton, Northern Lights and Toronto South, and he won the leadership on the first ballot.
But Dr. John Trueman, head of the Community of Concern, an Ottawa-based group formed in 1988 in the wake of the divisive gay ordination issue, says Phipps' election was a result of hard
lobbying of the ultra-liberal wing of the church, which he blames for the decline of church membership in the last 15 years.
``The church government is not democratic,'' said Trueman. ``The * ultra-liberal minority controls our church. In Bill Phipps, you see the culmination of 15 years of a liberalization process which began in the 1980s.''
Trueman says the church structure is highly balanced towards the clergy, at the expense of the people in the pews.
``There are 200 members (of the 400-member General Council) representing the ministers, and 200 members representing the laity,'' said Trueman. ``The laity are outweighed considerably. It's balanced towards the ultra-liberal end of the spectrum.''
Trueman calls for Phipps' resignation because of his statements regarding his beliefs in Jesus.