Thursday 13 November 1997

'A betrayal of his position and tenets of the Christian faith'

Moderator's comments cause growing uproar in United Church

Bob Harvey
The Ottawa Citizen

The protest against United Church moderator Bill Phipps's statement that "Jesus is not God" is spreading rapidly across Canada.

Hundreds of congregations have repudiated the moderator's statements. Congregations from across the country have either officially requested his resignation or taken up petitions condemning his comments.

Among those who have requested the moderator's resignation is Orleans United, a middle-of-the-road congregation that has the largest attendance of any United Church in the Ottawa area.

"The moderator's apparent public disavowal of the divinity of Christ is a betrayal of the constitutional responsibilities of his position and the core tenets of the Christian faith," say the elders of the Orleans church in a letter to Virginia Coleman, the church's general secretary.

"As elders, we re-emphasize our uncompromising belief in Jesus Christ, who lived and died and lives again. If the moderator is unable to meet this standard of faith, and the trust placed in him by General Council and the entire church, he should resign his position," said the Orleans elders.

Nancy Best, co-chair of the board of elders at Orleans United, said Mr. Phipps's comments had a good effect because they forced the church's leaders to re-examine their own faith. But she said the elders felt the moderator had done the denomination a disservice by disputing its beliefs from his senior position in the church.

The presbytery of Halifax, representing 47 United Church congregations, also voted Tuesday to "disassociate itself from the theological statements made by the moderator to the Ottawa Citizen."

Rev. Calvin Ginn, chair of the Halifax presbytery, said the majority of ministers and lay elders in the presbytery "were not happy" with Mr. Phipps's comments to the Citizen's editorial board on Oct. 23 that Jesus is not the only way to God, and that he has no idea if there is a heaven or hell.

Members of the executive of the denomination's Maritime Conference, were more restrained. They have asked all United churches in the Atlantic provinces to pray for Mr. Phipps "in this time of controversy" and to direct their attention "to the urgency of recognizing with him (Mr. Phipps) the need to profess our belief in Jesus Christ as the Son of God."

Rev. Catherine Gaw, executive secretary of the Maritime Conference, said the Maritime executive's statement "was not intended to be critical as much as it was intended to be supportive of the need for us to be in discussion about our faith."

The Alliance of Covenanting Congregations, representing 114 conservative congregations within the denomination, repudiated Mr. Phipps's views as being "in no way representative of the denomination he leads."

"There are many, many people within the United Church who do not subscribe to our moderator's beliefs," said Rev. Dave Snihur, president of the Alliance.

Church Alive, a conservative theological association within the denomination, has also criticized the moderator's views as contradicting the United Church's official teachings.

Rev. Graham Scott, president of Church Alive, said the church's traditional belief in the divinity of Jesus is good news. But he said "Moderator Phipps's denials, unbelief and agnosticism are not good news. They seem to be an invitation to suicide. They do not even inspire me to care for the poor."

Mr. Phipps has been working hard to explain his views. He faced mostly hostile questioners at a packed meeting in Ottawa's Parkdale United Monday, and is expected to face a similar crowd today at Metropolitan United, in London, Ont. It is the country's largest United Church, and one of its most conservative.

Rev. Bob Ripley, the senior minister at Metropolitan, has already co-authored and distributed a statement rebutting the moderator's theological views.

Mr. Phipps has also personally contacted many of those who wrote to the national offices to criticize his views. Tony Copple, a member of Glen Cairn United in Kanata, was one of 10 people that Mr. Phipps spoke to in a conference call last week. All had written critical letters to the moderator, and were invited to relay their concerns to him first-hand.

Mr. Copple says he admires Mr. Phipps' willingness to reach out and listen to his critics but says the moderator has no authority to water down the denomination's historic faith in the divinity of Christ.

He has now launched an Internet website to further discussion of Mr. Phipps' views. It can be reached at

Among those churches and groups who have officially asked Mr. Phipps to resign for his comments are these:

-Grace United, in Cobden,

-Zion United, in Pembroke.

-Harrisville-Steeves Memorial in Moncton.

-The Community of Concern, a conservative renewal group within the church. John Trueman, president of the group, said that "with one sweep of his hand, Mr. Phipps has repudiated both Christmas and Easter," because he disputes both the divinity of Christ and his resurrection.

Members of Central United, in Brandon, Manitoba have also been circulating a petition calling for Mr. Phipps' resignation.

The reaction to the moderator's comments may still be building. A number of presbyteries in the Maritime conference are also expected to discuss the controversy surrounding Mr. Phipps. So are the elders of a number of United Church congregations in other parts of Canada, including Ottawa's Dominion-Chalmers United, Parkdale United and Westboro United.

The elders of White Lake United Church, near Arnprior, have already asked the Ottawa presbytery to discuss Mr. Phipps' comments at its meeting Tuesday. Rev. Don Anderson said the elders of the White Lake church have made a submission on Mr. Phipps, but want to discuss their concerns within the church before making any public statement.

To date, the national office of the United Church in Toronto has received only three official requests from local congregations for Mr. Phipps' resignation, but other written requests are still in the mail.

Mary-Frances Denis, a spokesperson for the denomination, said the requests for Mr. Phipps's resignation will be discussed by the church's national executive at its meetings Nov. 21-24.


Copyright 1997 The Ottawa Citizen

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