Lifted from the October 2007 edition of Concern, published by the Community of Concern within the United Church of Canada.

Who speaks for the Church?

By Rev. Dr. J. Ralph Watson

"Who speaks for the Church?" The individual member of the congregation, the Presbytery or Conference, or is it the General Council? "Who speaks for the Church?" is a question heard more and more often and more and more loudly in our church.

It is not, however, a new question for the church or for those in the Reformed and Protestant traditions. It was, in fact, a lively question in the Reformation, and one frequently raised during the long history of the church in Scotland. In Scotland, this question often brought with it acrimonious debate, turbulent reactions, and radical change. "Who speaks for the Church?" was at the heart of the controversy with the House of Stuart and their ambition to rule and govern not only the state but the church as well.

It was the same question in the bitter struggle between Episcopacy and Presbytery as to who should govern and speak for the Church. While these struggles and those which followed in succeeding centuries revolved around theological and doctrinal issues, always present and underlying the debate was the basic question, "Who speaks for the Church?" Ebenezer Erskine and his followers seceded from the Church of Scotland to form the Associate Presbytery, and Thomas Chalmers led half of the ministers, hundreds of elders, and thousands of members out of the Church to establish the Free Church in the Great Disruption of 1843. These secessions involved theological debate as to the congregation's role in the Body of Christ, and in particular its right to call its own minister rather than having one imposed on it by the General Assembly. Over and over again the General Assembly seemed "to develop a life of its own", and its will did not always reflect the will of the people. Eventually the church adopted the Barrier Act, which prevented the General Assembly from imposing any article of doctrine or polity until a majority of Presbyteries had given their approval.

Even the Barrier Act, however, was not able to remove the gulf between the people of the Church and the Assembly. An old highland minister expressed the feeling when, at a service of public worship on Assembly Sunday, he prayed for the whole Church, and for "all those meeting in the General Assembly down there in Edinburgh that they may do as little harm as possible to Your Kirk in Scotland."

"Who speaks for the church?" is a question very much alive today among members of our church across the country. There is a widespread feeling that issues are decided without their involvement.

Signs and sounds of unrest are evident everywhere. Mission and Service Fund givings go down, Observer subscriptions drop, loud cries of protest go up on any number of issues, but little if anything changes. There is a rising tide of anger in the Church against the General Council and those who are perceived as thrusting unacceptable decisions on the church.

There is much talk lately of "power" in the church, that the United Church is not a democracy but a conciliar church - as though the two are or should be mutually exclusive. We are not living in the Middle Ages under a tyrannical monarchy or a monolithic church, but in the 20th century in a democratic country and a free society. Understandably those who are elected or selected to represent others can become less and less representative the longer they hold their positions, the more knowledge they acquire, and the higher they go in the organizational structure. Under this kind of scenario the General Council and others working at this level can "take on a life of their own" quite separate from the views and wishes of ordinary members in the pews.

This separation has occurred in our day, notwithstanding the declaration of Project Ministry, affirmed by the 28th General Council [1980], that "It is as members of the People of God, as members of Christ's body - that all Christians share in His ministry. The Church as a whole, and every member of the church is called to participate in this ministry."

Is it possible that a church that struggles so hard to identify itself with justice for the peasants of the Third World does not hear the voice of the common people among its own members?

Ralph Watson was Secretary of Montreal Presbytery for 28 years. From the beginning of The United Church's troubles he has been a strong supporter of Community of Concern. It therefore gives us great pleasure to reprint his article, which is still timely 19 years after its appearance in the Observer the same year COC was born!