'We have been hurt,' church moderator told

One minister blames drop in attendance at his Ottawa church on Phipps's views

Bob Harvey
The Ottawa Citizen

Lynn Ball, the Ottawa Citizen / Rev. Bill Phipps, left, received mixed reviews when he called for United Church members to transform the world through the love of God.

It was the United Church at its passionate best, and some would say its divided worst, as Rev. Bill Phipps, the denomination's moderator, came to Ottawa yesterday to defend personal beliefs some have labelled "heresy."

Mr. Phipps said he came to apologize to those church members whose orthodox bedrock faith had been undermined by his comments to the Citizen's editorial board Oct. 23. But neither anger nor tears nor applause from the crowd of more than 300 church members persuaded him to back down on his theological views.

He reiterated his belief that although Jesus is unique, and represents as much of God as can be poured into one human being, he still does not reflect the fullness of God.

"Jesus is not all of God," he said. "In my understanding of the biblical story, that would be blasphemy."

The important thing, he said, is not whether Jesus is God, or whether he literally rose from the dead but the fact that Jesus is alive in the world today and is calling United Church members to transform the world through the love of God.

About a third of the audience gave him a standing ovation after his initial statement. The other two-thirds steadfastly refused to stand; a few even refused polite applause.

Rev. T.K. Ng, of Ottawa's Chinese United Church, was one of many who said Mr. Phipps' comments have severely damaged the denomination.

Mr. Ng said that in 1989, his church split and 315 members left because they objected to the denomination's decision to ordain homosexuals. Since then, the church has slowly built up attendance, to an average of 300 to 400 people at Sunday services.

But since the Citizen article on Mr. Phipps' views appeared Oct. 24, attendance has dropped to about 80 people, he said.

Mr. Ng said his members believe Mr. Phipps' views are "heresy."

"You have a lot of interpretations (of the Bible), but we have been hurt," he said. "We have a right to exist."

Rev. David Chesney, former president of the church's Montreal-Ottawa conference, said the two churches he serves in Osgoode and Kars were battered by the controversy in 1988 over the homosexual ordination, and Mr. Phipps' comments may drive one of the two churches to close its doors. They have also divided the denomination once again.

"Your duty is to hold the church together. ... You need to be exceedingly cautious in what you say," he told Mr. Phipps.

Some in the audience, like Eleanor Montgomery, a lay member from Kingston, tried and failed to pin down Mr. Phipps to yes or no answers on whether he believed Biblical verses condemning homosexuality as an abomination, and suggesting that Jesus is the only way to God.

Mr. Phipps said it's impossible to give a simple answer to such questions. The moderator also had many defenders at the 7 a.m. meeting in Parkdale United Church.

Brad Lavenne, the church's co-ordinator of youth services in Ottawa, said Mr. Phipps' interview has provoked so much interest among young adults that in the first four days after the story appeared, he took calls from 30 people interested in connecting with a local church or church youth group.

Jolynn Somervill said she had recently started attending Ottawa's Southminster United, and welcomed Mr. Phipps' approach to faith. She said when her young daughter starts asking questions, her answers will be much the same as those given by the moderator.

Since Mr. Phipps appeared before the Citizen's editorial board, his views on Jesus, heaven and hell have been reprinted in newspapers across the country, and the moderator and other church leaders have been deluged with calls, some of them angry, some of them delighted.

Mr. Phipps said the United Church has always been a free-thinking church and there is nothing new about his views. Past moderators have said much more outrageous things.

"What's new is that my views hit the front page of a secular newspaper."

A 1994 survey of more than 2,000 United Church members by Alberta sociologist Reg Bibby, however, showed that 85 to 98 per cent of United Church members held "traditional beliefs concerning the existence of God, the divinity of Jesus, and life-after-death." The one exception to that was members of the faculty at United Church seminaries; only one in four said it was very important to them to confess "Jesus as Lord and Saviour."

Mr. Phipps said his worst fear is that the controversy over his views will divide the church, but his hope is that church members will see it as an opportunity to "invite people to see the significance of Jesus in our world."

He said that since his views were reported, many people have phoned to congratulate him because people are now talking about Jesus at work. Others phoned or wrote to say his comments encouraged them to return to church after absences of up to 30 years. Mr. Phipps said his hope is that more and more Canadians will open their Bibles and struggle to understand just who Jesus is.

The United Church is Canada's largest Protestant denomination. About three million Canadians identify with the church; about 320,000 attend on an average Sunday.

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Copyright 1997 The Ottawa Citizen