Since my last blog posting, there are more reasons to thank Margaret Wente for igniting many lively and faith-filled conversations throughout my church. All of this is well timed as we prepare for the 41st General Council will will focus upon the identity and connectional nature of our church.
Late afternoon yesterday, Colin Robert Phillips was kind enough to copy me on his direct response to Wente. Colin is a remarkable leader of our church, and I found his letter to be a brilliant testimony to his faith: thoughtful, substantive, well organized and profoundly personal and prophetic. Colin has graciously given me his permission to share it with you here:
Dear Ms. Wente,
My name is Colin Robert Phillips. I am a 28-year-old doctoral student in the Policy Studies program at Ryerson University. For the past 3 years, I have served as Member-at-Large, representing youth and young adults, on the Executive of the 40th General Council of the United Church of Canada. I am honoured to be recommended for re-appointment to the Executive of the upcoming General Council.
I read your recent opinion piece about the state of the United Church with great interest. As our Moderator often laments, the mainstream media seldom pay attention to the life and work of the United Church. I would argue that this is symptomatic of the media’s propensity to only give heed to the “new” and the sensationalistic. Even by your own estimate, it would be a falsity to characterize the United Church as being new or engaging in anything newsworthy, so I was pleased to see that you chose to write about the upcoming General Council.
Your piece goes to great effort to detail the statistical decline of the Church’s membership and the ramifications of this on how the Church operates. I am certainly not denying that the picture you have painted is accurate in that regard. Indeed, to do so would controvene my responsibilities as a director of the organization. However, I must question the level of research you did in preparation for writing in three regards. This letter is an attempt to address these shortcomings and to suggest to you some reasons for thinking that version of the United Church that you lambaste makes the Church more relevant today then it was ever before.
First, it appears that you simply ignored (or failed to look for) actions taken by the outgoing Executive to acknowledge our new demographic and financial reality. The steps we have taken are most certainly not the final solution, but for you to suggest that Church leadership has been blissfully ignorant is simply wrong. For example, we have come to see that our processes and procedures were geared towards a time when we had more volunteers. We have therefore simplified these administrative elements in order to allow members to do the work of the Church (i.e., staff members are now overseeing what were previously volunteer positions). The success of these internal initiatives is perhaps why we have started several new ministries in Quebec’s francophone communities- something else you forgot to mention.
Though these new French ministries are a sign of new life, you are right to say that we have an aging demographic. However, in my role as a young leader, I must ask you why you neglected to mention the vibrant and passionate youth contingent of the Church. Over the last three years, I have been able to meet with many of my peers and I have to tell you that the future of the Church is strong. We are a theologically and intellectually sophisticated group. While you suggest that our theological thinking can be reduced to Rotary Club Membership, the young people of the Church see a deep call to practice the radical hospitality of Jesus.
In a secular culture of instant gratification, and I would extend this to argue instant and overly simplistic relationships with God, the youth of the United Church are actively seeking alternatives to what we see as the destuction of creation, and are genuinely practicing theism. This brings me to my third point. I quite frankly found it offensive for you to question the theological beliefs of United Church members, particularly since there is no evidence that you read statements of our faith such as “A Song of Faith” (2003). If you had, you have found that our faith is as deep as the early Church. Yes, it is nuanced. Yes, it is consciously intelligent. Yes, it is inclusive. But it is grounded in Biblical scripture and the supremacy of the Trinity. You question if an inclusive faith can be a faith at all. As a openly gay man with severe disabilities who is in a leadership role in the Church, I have to say that true faith- a faith that reflects Jesus’s ministry- must be inc lusive.
As I said, I am a doctoral student. You will undoubtedly know that PhD studies are a tough slog. I am often asked what keeps me going and it is my faith. True to my Calvinist roots, my work is my worship. I may not need to overtly proclaim my faith but it is the foundation of who I am, and the vessel through which I practice my faith – loving my neighbours, seeking a just world, and walking humbly with my God (Micah 6, 8)- is the United Church of Canada.
Again, thank you for your interest in the life of my Church. May I suggest next time you actually get to know us before writing our obituary?
Colin Robert Phillips