Moderator Mardi’s Blog: The unity of the United Church

There aren’t many news outlets with religious writers these days, so I’m grateful that the National Post has Charles Lewis on staff to shed light on the religious life and experiences of Canadians. I appreciate particularly that Charles seems intrigued by The United Church of Canada.

Intrigued but also seemingly puzzled by a church that refuses to enforce a single “orthodox” point of view. In his eyes, I suspect, we appear to be going out of our way to raise questions that ought not to be raised, or provoke arguments that should be nipped in the bud.

But this kind of questioning is in our very DNA—and has been from our beginnings. It’s one of the ways we express our faith. And, at our best, what may look like an argument from the outside is often nothing more than a family discussion where passions run high. (Okay, maybe sometimes it’s an argument. The point is, we make up and carry on because we’re a family of faith.)

Charles’ most recent article, “The split in the United Church,” takes the church to task for its “intense engagement with the surrounding secular world” and its “severe lack of orthodoxy.” From my point of view, frankly, I think the critics he quotes just don’t get us—which doesn’t mean that we can’t sometimes learn from our critics—but just that we should think carefully about how we respond.

This is especially important for our conversations with each other. For those United Church members who may agree with the critique and those who don’t, let’s take this as an opportunity to strengthen our capacity for a broad conversation about our faith and identity as the body of Christ, and as a national church, in this country, in this century.

Yesterday’s article could be a gift to those conversations. To that end, I’d like to contribute to the conversation by sharing a few of my “wonderings” in relation to the National Post article.

There are many points in “The split in the United Church” to which I could take exception. I am concerned, for example, that readers may be left with the impression that the United Church is not a Trinitarian church. When Charles asked me if our church is Trinitarian, I said “Yes.” Yet the article references only my personal belief as if it were distinct from my church’s belief. Not so.

I also wonder about this curious notion that there is a line between religion and society that must not be blurred. I don’t understand how anyone could read the teachings of Jesus and think that religion can remain detached from any aspect of life.

But rather than go through the article point by point, I’d like to focus on the nature of doctrine in our church, because I think that’s the nub of the issue.

Here’s a key paragraph from “The split in the United Church”:

“When asked what is the minimum a member of the United Church should believe before entering the faith, she pauses for a long while. She is reluctant to come up with a specific doctrinal answer, in the way a Catholic or even many Protestant denominations would.”

Let me say a little bit of what was going through my mind during that long pause.

I thought, briefly, about the affirmations we ask people to make in our membership liturgies. Strictly speaking, I suppose, naming those would have been the “correct” answer to the question. I decided not to go there. How could I possibly reduce belonging and community to the recitation of a few words?

I thought, at somewhat greater length, of many good and faithful United Church people I know:

  • young adults who have come for community and stayed to grow in faith
  • Catholics, Jews, Muslims, and people of other faiths who, for whatever reason, find from time to time a place of safety or nurture in our pews and join us in building the realm of God
  • people I think of sometimes, not flippantly but affectionately, as “the walking wounded”: people whose capacities do not fit them for success in the world but who are cared for in community, and in that same community are enabled to contribute—sometimes by setting up tables and chairs, sometimes by helping me to remember that we are all, at times, among the walking wounded

These people have “entered” the faith. They belong. Why would we ever subject them to a test?

And so, instead of answering the question directly, I talked about the way we engage with our understanding of faith. I told Charles that we regard scripture as our primary authority. I talked about the way we continue “renovating the house” of our faith as we have since our 1925 Basis of Union:

with the 1940 Statement of Faith
with our popular Creed, “We are not alone,” which was first produced in the 1960s and has seen revisions in 1980 and 1994
more recently, with our Song of Faith

These and other words and acts of heart and soul in scripture and beyond bring our faith in Christ alive to every generation.

None of this made it into the article. But that’s neither here nor there. What’s more important is how we as a church answer this question.

To me, the minimum requirement for “entry” into the United Church is a desire to follow the way of Jesus, to “do justice, show kindness, and walk humbly with God.” As evidence of that desire, I don’t need a recitation. I’ll take showing up, and living one’s faith.

So, now that I think about it, I was more than “reluctant” to come up with “a specific doctrinal answer.” In fact, I refused to accept that way of framing the question.

But my answer isn’t necessarily yours. What emphasis do you think our church needs to place on doctrine?

Let’s take this opportunity for broader, deeper conversation in the love of Christ. The kind of conversation that we see as healthy in the United Church.

Scripture sets a standard for us as people of Christ: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34–35).