Wednesday 19 November 1997

Half of area ministers reject views of moderator

Some say issues too complicated to be answered with a yes or no

Bob Harvey with files from Leonard Stern, Stephen Smith, Mark Bourrie, Derek Puddicombe, and Leanne Yohemas Hayes
The Ottawa Citizen

Pat McGrath, The Ottawa Citizen / Rev. T.K. Ng of Ottawa Chinese United Church on Bank Street says he has been 'deeply disturbed and hurt' by remarks by the United Church moderator, Bill Phipps, doubting Jesus's divinity and whether the resurrection actually occurred.

United Churches in the Ottawa area are divided and some are angered by the controversy over remarks made by their moderator, Rev. Bill Phipps.

Half of 31 United Church ministers surveyed by the Citizen supported the traditional Christian view that Jesus is divine, and the resurrection actually happened.

Most of the other half refused to comment and some angrily condemned the Citizen for its coverage of the debate.

Three ministers supported Mr. Phipps.

The leader of Canada's largest Protestant church told the Citizen's editorial board on Oct. 23 that "I do not believe Jesus was God," and that "I do not believe he rose from the dead as a scientific fact."

Later, he explained that he believes that Jesus represents all of God that can be poured into a human being, and that "something absolutely stupendous" happened at the resurrection.

Among the moderator's Ottawa-area supporters is Rev. Peter Lougheed of Kanata United, who sees the resurrection of Jesus as a spiritual rather than a physical event and views Jesus as a spiritual guide rather than the only way to God.

The Ottawa Chinese United Church takes a much different view.

It has written the denomination's General Council to request Mr. Phipps's resignation not only as moderator, but also as a minister. Rev. T.K. Ng and other members of the local church's council say their church was "deeply disturbed and hurt" by Mr. Phipps's remarks.

The moderator's comments about his personal beliefs "could severely damage the unity of the United Church of Canada and undermine our ecumenical relations with Christian churches of other denominations," the Chinese United Church said.

Orleans United and other churches in Cobden, Renfrew, Cambridge, and Haliburton Ont.; Moncton, N.B.; and Lunenberg County, and Debert, N.S. have also requested his resignation. Southwood United, in Calgary, has asked that Mr. Phipps's home presbytery discipline the moderator for his remarks.

Governing elders at some Ottawa-area churches, like Dominion-Chalmers, MacKay, Parkdale, and Westboro, are also expected to formally discuss Mr. Phipps's views over the next month, and may adopt formal motions.

Other local congregations say they don't expect to take any official position on the controversy. Most have, however, discussed the moderator's views in Bible studies, through sermons, or during group study of a national church document, Reconciling and Making New: Who is Jesus for the World Today.

The 46-page study guide says many scholars now distinguish between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith. "No historical investigation can achieve certainty about what the earthly Jesus said and did, let alone what his motives were ... In the end, the 'real Jesus' escapes all our nets," it says.

Rev. William Smith, of Emmanuel United, said, however, that he believes Jesus is God, that Jesus rose from the dead, and that Jesus is the way to God. "It's too bad you even have to ask ministers that," he said.

About 7 in 10 Canadians and more than eight in 10 active United Church members also believe in the divinity of Jesus, according to surveys by Reg Bibby, a sociologist of religion at the University of Lethbridge.

Ministers with 14 other churches said they too believe in the divinity of Jesus and his physical resurrection, but, like Mr. Phipps, many of these ministers had trouble agreeing that Jesus is the only way to God.

Rev. Brian Copeland, of Glen Cairn United, said "I have a Buddhist daughter, so that makes it a question for me because I would not want to say to you at some personal level that she is outside of God's love." Others, like Rev. Andrew Stirling, of Parkdale United, said "that's a complicated question. It would need some further explanation." Most would say only that "for Christians, Christ is the way to God."

Where once most Christians would have said that Christ is the only way to salvation, today even the Catechism of the Catholic Church now says that God himself can lead non-Christians to salvation in ways we do not understand.

Mr. Phipps's views received general support not only from Mr. Lougheed, but also from Rev. Sharon Moon, of First United; and Rev. Brian Cornelius, of Northwestern United. When asked if Jesus is God, Mr. Cornelius said he believes that "in the Christ story, we have a divine revelation of God." As for the resurrection, he said "Christ is present in our world today." When asked if he believes Jesus is the only way to God, he said "No."

Thirteen other local United Church ministers refused to discuss their views. Some of these 13 hinted they might hold conservative views. "When I was ordained, I made a pledge that my faith was encompassed within the United Church's statement of faith, and I have kept that pledge for 40 years," said Rev. Lloyd Ivany of Eastbrook United. At least one of the 13, Rev. Bill Jay of McLeod-Stewarton United, hinted at a somewhat different view, that Mr. Phipps should not be condemned.

Others who refused to discuss their personal views included Rev. Glen Stoudt, of Trinity United, who said questions such as the divinity of Christ and his resurrection are too complicated to be answered by a simple yes or no. Rev. Anne McKnight, of Queenswood United, refused to answer because "it will only prove divisive." Others, like Rev. Douglas Heard, of Woodroffe United, said his views are his business, not the public's.

The debate has stirred up strong emotions, and many ministers strongly criticized the Citizen. Rev. James Christie, of Southminster United, mocked the Citizen in his Sunday morning sermon, and held up a book titled Does God Tie His Own Shoes?, saying "This is the sort of thing they're discussing these days in the Citizen." In an interview, Mr. Christie said he thought the Citizen was "involved in mischief-making."

Rev. Karen Niven-Wigston, of Wesley United, said the Citizen's coverage of the debate is "sensationalist journalism at its worst."

A few ministers simply hung up on journalists seeking their views.

Ministers who said they believe that Jesus is divine and that he rose from the dead include: Rev. Dale Burkart, Merivale-Fallowfield; Allen Churchill, Dominion-Chalmers; Brian Copeland, Glen Cairn; Ann Durant, Bethany-Hawthorne; Don Boyd, at Knox United in Nepean; John Moor, Bell Street; William Smith, Emmanuel; Joe Burke, MacKay; Andrew Stirling, Parkdale; Jim Crighton, Westboro; Bob Lockhart, Rideau Park; Jim Christie, Southminster; T.K. Ng, Chinese United; Valerie Faye, Rothwell; Daniel Bogert-O'Brien, Barrhaven.

Local ministers who refused to comment on their personal views include: Anne McKnight, Queenswood; Grant Dillenbeck, Bells Corners; David Kai, Orleans; Lloyd Ivany, Eastbrook; Meade Baldwin, Kingsway; Bill Jay, McLeod-Stewarton; Karen Niven-Wigston, Wesley; Douglas Heard, Woodroffe; George Marr, Riverside; Sam Wigston, St. Paul's-Eastern; Glen Stoudt, Trinity; Camille Lipsett, Britannia; James Lee, of Carleton Memorial.


Copyright 1997 The Ottawa Citizen