I’ve been excited by recent conversations with friends and colleagues about how we see Spirit moving powerfully throughout The United Church of Canada these days. (Pentecost seemed to come early this year!) In her book The Great Emergence: How Christianity Is Changing and Why, Phyllis Tickle suggests that the best way to describe “the emerging church” is with the word “conversation.”
With that definition, the United Church is certainly an emerging church. My blog about the nature of faith, identity, and unity in our church in response to a National Post article was read by 3,500 people within a few weeks—and sparked all kinds of conversation. The profile of the Rev. Ruth Wood, published on the front page of The Toronto Star the same day, is another story of how God’s powerful Spirit is moving through our church, breaking down old boundaries in the way of Christian love.
These articles may be among the reasons other reporters have been so interested in speaking with me since. These include Steve Murphy of CTV in Halifax, with whom I had a widely viewed seven-minute live conversation on May 25. These interviewers sense, I think, that our way of being church may offer them some surprises.
Among the many, mostly enthusiastic, responses to this media attention, I was particularly taken with this e-mail comment:
I am a real admirer of the United Church, and your resistance to embrace a false orthodoxy. I find the UCC to have a mature and measured response to a complex world. I wish more institutions had that same inner strength. I definitely see my own life issues and questions reflected in your interesting and nuanced approach to theology and the world.
The writer went on to describe his interest in my spiritual approach to environmental concerns, a concern we share.
And then there was Raheel Raza’s letter to the editor of the National Post (May 19). Raheel was one of those who came to mind in what the reporter, Charles Lewis, described as my “long pause” after he asked about the “minimum requirement” for people to join our community of faith: “As a Muslim adoptee of The United Church of Canada (in what other Church would you see this?),” she wrote about the United Church’s warm, inclusive welcome to her and friends of diverse faiths, which she suggests epitomizes Canada. She also spoke of our church’s capacity to “think outside the box” and our commitment to religious literacy.
A recent article by Peter W. Marty in The Christian Century has had me thinking again about the inner strength that resists a false orthodoxy. Marty offers a comprehensive review of Rob Bell’s new book, Love Wins. Speaking of Jesus’ most exhaustive statement on who will get to heaven and who will end up in hell (in Matthew 25), Marty says the deciding factor “has everything to do with how others get treated. According to Jesus, it has nothing to do with an explicit declaration of faith in him.” Marty commends an approach to Christianity characterized more by “spiritual modesty” than “arrogant certainty.”
Throughout my travels in our church I’ve seen this kind of spiritual modesty and inner strength that resists false orthodoxy and attends to others’ needs as described in Matthew: offering food to the hungry, water to the thirsty, and, in the process, rediscovering faith, hope, and a vibrant love, in community.
There are many examples, and none better than amazing church housing and building projects in Maritime Conference, such as the Moncton Community Peace Centre, where the downtown congregation of Central United Church—which almost closed its doors not so long ago—has looked outward instead, to the community’s needs. As a result they will soon complete a facility to house dozens of community service organizations in 80,000 square feet of office and community space alongside its historic church building, and they have found renewed energy for their life in faith.
Others in Moncton told me, “The United Church has exemplified a commitment to this community—to the people of this community.” A social worker who directs a city counselling agency said, “I felt that it was the hand of God that moved things along,” and “This is a jewel in the city where people will want to come to find peace in their hearts.”
I admire the way builder Bob Nuttall renovated as the Peace Centre was being built, making sure the look and feel of the old wooden Methodist Sunday school doorframes were not destroyed. He preserved sections where teachers had scratched the ever-changing height of their students into the wood, marking their growth from year to year. If spiritual growth could be tracked on a doorframe, the witness of this congregation would require high ceilings—which it just happens to have!
Immersed in conversation and emergent as church, we come to know better the power of God’s Spirit that heals us, our communities, and the world.
“Arrogant certainty” might prevent us from modestly seeing that there’s so much we have yet to do in lively, emergent response to Christ’s call, helping to make all things new.
How do you see the United Church as an emerging church in the way of God’s healing Spirit?