Friday 14 November 1997

'Church has a place for all of us'

United Church moderator asks critics for tolerance

Bob Harvey
The Ottawa Citizen

Bill Phipps says he won't quit.

The United Church's embattled moderator says he will not resign, despite the controversy over his theological views.

"I'm not going to destroy people's faith. If one moderator can destroy people's faith, it's not all that deep," Rev. Bill Phipps said yesterday.

Mr. Phipps said the United Church is big enough to include conservatives who fervently believe in traditional Christian formulations of doctrine, and liberal Christians like himself who are seeking new words to express God's presence in the world.

The church has a choice, he said. "We can take up all our time sniping at each other, when what Jesus calls us to do is heal the broken world, which knows us by the way we act toward each other. Who's going to be interested in us if all we do is snipe at each other?"

Mr. Phipps pleaded for his critics in the church to recognize that "I honor where you stand on your faith. You stand within the mainstream of Christian theology. There's a place for you in the United Church.

"But I want you to hear there are people in the church who think differently than you, and who also stand firmly in their faith. There's a place for all of us."

Mr. Phipps said some people have suggested he resign from the church and the ministry because they believe he is not even a Christian.

But he said most members of the United Church would agree the denomination is theologically diverse enough to include people of many different viewpoints.

"I say I'm not going to resign because I would be resigning from people's request to express only one point of view within the Christian tradition, and our church represents a lot more than that."

The moderator said he takes full responsibility for statements he made to the Citizen on Oct. 23, including such remarks as "I do not believe Jesus is God" and his stated lack of belief in the scientific reality of Jesus's resurrection. Those remarks have since led hundreds of church members to repudiate his theological statements, and some churches to formally request his resignation as moderator.

Mr. Phipps said that if his critics believe that membership in the United Church is defined by adherence to one narrow set of doctrinal beliefs, "we've got a big problem."

He said he came to the Citizen editorial board meeting expecting to talk about faith and politics, and was surprised that much of the discussion centred on his theological orthodoxy.

Mr. Phipps said that because he was caught off-guard, he made the mistake of saying first what he did not believe, and those negatives have stuck in people's minds. Now he says he begins by saying first what he does believe: that Jesus is alive in the world today, that he has called Christians to transform the world through their experience of Jesus, and that Jesus represents all of God that could be poured into a human being.

"As this thing has gone on, I think the conversations with people have been even more interesting. I think they have encouraged people, basically."

Mr. Phipps said he wants to reassure his staunch critics in conservative renewal groups within the church that there is a place for them within the denomination, and that he believes they are genuinely trying to renew the church. He has already requested a meeting with the conservative Community of Concern, and said he is also willing to meet with the Alliance of Covenanting Congregations and Church Alive, all of which have strongly criticized his theological views.

John Trueman, president of the Community of Concern, recently said Mr. Phipps should resign as moderator and be disqualified from membership in the church because of his views. But the group's executive has now agreed to a meeting with the moderator.

More than 700 people turned out yesterday at Metropolitan United, in London, Ont., to hear Mr. Phipps and question him on views he expressed to the Citizen's editorial board on Oct. 23.

Mr. Phipps said in a telephone interview there was "less tension in the air" at the discussion in London than there was on Monday when he spoke to hundreds of people at Ottawa's Parkdale United.

He said that some people in both London and Ottawa suggested he resign, but some London-area church members also spoke movingly in support of him, just as members did in Ottawa.

He said he feels bad that many people have been hurt by his comments. "It's a huge thing, and something I apologize for, but there's nothing I can do about it, because I can't take back what I believe."


Copyright 1997 The Ottawa Citizen