Saturday 17 December 2011

Canada needs more United Church

You may be familiar with the Chapters-Indigo campaign to promote Canadian authors: "The World Needs More Canada." Well, in an absolutely shameless bit of borrowing I want to declare that Canada needs more United Church of Canada. I'm not suggesting more United Church of Canada congregations - although that might not be a bad thing. Certainly not more United Church buildings. But at this point in its history Canada desperately needs more of what the United Church once brought to our nation.

Few people know better than an historian about the dark days of our story and the various ways we betrayed the unique song that God wanted to sing through those Protestants who were prepared to identify themselves as liberal-evangelical at the turn of the 20th century. Heaven and history know that, particularly in our desire to identify ourselves as part of the cultural mainstream we actively supported - or remained silent in the face of - various trends and events which were contra-gospel in nature. For some of those we have repented and for others we need to continue to repent and lament. However, there are so many bright moments in our story as well, by God's grace. (To get a good view of that story read Don Schweitzer's newly published: The United Church: A History).

Every appearance is that 2012 will continue the trend of "structural meanness" in Canada. That means that, while Canadians as individuals, and even some corporations and companies, continue to increase their support of worthy causes, our society and governments seem increasingly dedicated to making that support increasingly crucial. As a pastor, particularly at Christmas, I am witness to tremendous outpourings of generosity. For instance, the youth group at our church raised over $400 to support a couple of local families and, during the break when many teens would be doing other things, the gathered to do the shopping wrapping and delivering. All across Nova Scotia and the rest of Canada, scenes like that were played out in gift giving, special meals, collections for particular causes and so on. That's individual generosity. However, at the same time, we know that in a very few days the CPP increase that seniors will see will be more than swallowed up by inflation and increases in electrical rates and corporate tax rates will drop from 16.5% to 15%. That's an example of structural meanness.

The "liberal-evangelical" vision that formed the United Church was, of course, limited in scope by the late Victorian era in which it emerged. But it can be updated without major distortion. "Liberal" here predates the appropriation of that title by more narrow political aspirations. It means open to a variety of viewpoints and the creation and maintaining of spaces in which those perspectives can encounter one another in openness and respect; a space in which diversity of opinion and commitment need not necessarily lead to hostility. Canada needs that: not just between Christians but as a society that is changing in ways the United Church's founders could never have imagined. That "liberal" commitment gives us the tools to overcome our vast fear of the other.

"Evangelical" has been stolen by a much narrower view point that leaves many United Church folk (and those who think like us) quite cold. Instead of a behaviour that echoes "one hungry beggar showing another where to find bread" it has become synonymous in many people's minds with lobbing the "gospel goodies" that I have from my solitude into yours because you need what I have. So United Church folk have often morphed their evangelism solely into action, telling one another that our deeds will attract others to ask about our motivation. Unfortunately, that doesn't happen too often (if at all). Our service to society and individuals is accepted as yet another form of good deed. Praiseworthy perhaps, but not pointing to God. The "evangelicalism" of the founders of the United Church was unashamedly oriented towards God's praise and, for many, the realization of God's rule in the social structures and systems of this world. (You might check out )

That's the sort of United Church I think Canada needs more of. But that means that those of us who call ourselves "United Church" need to do a better job of letting our particular sense of God's light shine. Our country needs us. Our God calls us.

Friday 16 December 2011

Finding a Home

After considerable prayerful reflection and debate the General Council Executive decided that the new home for the United Church (I always prefered the term "Church House" to "Head Office" - although one of my seminary profs loved to refer to it as "The Head Shed") will remain in Toronto. From talking to GCE members that was not as much of a foregone conclusion as some might cynically claim. Apparently there was a very strong case made by Winnipeg as well as an attractive suggestion from Ottawa.

I wasn't part of the deliberations so I can only observe from the outside. I remember when we moved from owning our own building (85 St. Clair) to renting space at 3250 Bloor. There was much concern expressed about the appearance of "corporatization" presented by the move. Having bought and sold more than a couple of family homes I know it's always easy to Monday morning quarterback such actions. Could we have sold earlier for more money? Could we have retrofitted and stayed on? Would more land further out of town have been better? And I'm just talking about houses not offices!

What factors would you consider?

Obviously land/rental costs Need to be a factor. I can't imagine that the overheated real estate market of Ottawa would be more congenial financially, either for office space or for staff locating there to live. Besides which, locating in the second furthest north national capital on the planet loses its appeal when the tulips fade! More seriously, the days are long gone when physical proxmimity to seats of power is particularly relevant. It's not as if the Prime Minister organizes a "getting to know you" dinner for the newly elected moderator (as happened up into the 1960s). Nor do we really want to get caught up in the hordes of lobbyists that swarm around Parliament Hill like so many . . .

I imagine transportation - particularly by air - was a factor. After all, getting anywhere other than Toronto Pearson can be a major hassle. From most places in the Maritimes, for instance, we often end up routing through Toronto after reaching Moncton or Halifax. The same is true for many places in the nation.

On a more positive note, I am encouraged to see that the GCE wants to work with downtown congregations that want to develop their locations. Being connected to a church may not change the way we do our business - but then again it might. I have no illusions that work is done in a more Christ-like fashion" just because it's conducted in or near a church building. However, to commit ourselves to a more visibly United Church presence in the downtown of Canada's largest, most multi-cultural and multi-faith community is a significant step of faith. It is a ray of hope.

To get to anywhere in Canada pretty well, from halifax we have to go through Toronto. The same holds true for many international destinations. And I know the challenges are mutiplied from other Canadian communities.

Friday 2 December 2011

A Christian Nation?

Not so long ago I received an invitation to attend an information and fundraising event for the Christian Heritage Party. For $35 I could get a "delicious roasted breast of chicken dinner with gravy and blueberry cheesecake." Now, if truth were told, I've paid more for far less at other fundraising meals. The letter also informed me that, although the Christian heritage Party is better known in Ontario and points west, they wanted folk to know they were alive and well in Halifax and region.

I'm not sure that is good news. They want to "preserve our precious Christian heritage." I could salute that flag if only I imagined we agreed on what that precious heritage is. They identify themselves as strongly pro-life and believe "in strong, traditional family values." They were willing to mail me a leader's portfolio with information on the separation of church and state; the church's role in the public square; and "how your church can be a powerful force for righteousness in Canada and stay within the law."

To be fair, I probably should have gone and engaged in the discussion. Excuse number one: I was attending Truth and Reconciliation Hearings in Halifax and those seemed more relevant. Excuse number two - I feel like I've had these conversations before and they don't get me very far. So I am stuck with evaluating the CHP from what I remember from living in Ontario and the material they mailed me. The topics in the "leader's portfolio" were enough to scare me off. They give every evidence of promoting the further Americanization of Canadian social life.

The church and Christianity have a far different role south of the border. That's an historic and contemporary fact dependent on a variety of social factors. In the United States the doctrine of the "separation of church and state" is an established constitutional reality, although scholars debate what the original crafters meant. There's a lot of evidence to suggest that they meant to protect the church from the state. Most folk who invoke the phrase today in the Untied States want to protect the state from religious interference. Quite a shift. Nevertheless, there simply is no such concept in Canadian history. Most of the early European immigrants to Canada were not fleeing religious persecution. Churches and church-run institutions played an important role in developing modern Canada before being (largely) peacefully surrendered to the community (think of universities, hospitals and schools). To talk about the separation of church and state in Canada is to create a ghost of a conflict that has no substance and never did. It should set off alarm bells. Perhaps some folk look south of the border and viewing the prominence of civic religion in American politics think it would be good for Canada. Down there, identifiable blocks of voters with definite socio-religious commitments are a big factor. Perhaps some would like to create that kind of presence here in order to advance their agenda.

Call me cynical but I don't imagine that the laws that I might want to "stay within" would be the same as the ones the CHP authors are concerned about when we think about the church as "a force for righteousness". I'm more likely to be found supporting an Occupy movement or protesting nuclear armed warships in Halifax Harbour than picketing a hospital that provides safe medical procedures that are legal under the Canada Health Act. And as for "traditional families" - whose traditions and whose families?

I have to compliment the CHP folk though. They have convictions and they are not afraid to take them into the public square. For instance, ask the average Canadian about the Christian position on abortion and they are likely be far more aware of the strongly "anti-" stance that characterizes the CHP, the Evangelical Alliance of Canada and the Roman Catholic Church. If that doesn't represent the majority of Christians - or even all within those three groups whose fault is that? There is currently an important court case addressing physician assisted suicide underway in British Columbia. Chances are, if you asked the same average Canadian for a "Christian" viewpoint on that subject you'd get the one that characterizes the same three players. That's only partially because of the huge spill-over of American broadcasting from a context where these are often polarizing issues for people who self-identify as Christian and non. The largest responsibility lies with Canadian Christians and churches who have been overwhelmingly silent on these subjects - at least in the public sphere. There may be good reason for the reticence: we know what happens to people who take public stands and we have traditionally been more respectful of freedom of opinion by believers. But as long as we remain silent, or talk only to ourselves about these subjects, it's not surprising that the average Canadian thinks that the "heritage" that the CHP promotes is the same that everyone who calls themselves by Christ's name might claim.

So, what might we do? Well, for one thing, the liberal-evangelical churches (the historic mainline) need to do a better job of helping Christians think like Christians – rather than merely as good, law-abiding folk who happen to attend worship. We need to help one another identify idolatry and anti-Christian behavior. Instead, our primary identifications are as consumers or partisans or taxpayers or . . . For instance, how many church members use some form of active, intentional spiritual discerning when they cast a ballot? We might not agree on the results, but at least we should actively consider whether the candidate or the party seems consistent with my understanding of God’s call in Christ to love my neighbour before myself.

A simple antidote presents itself. Christianity Today is not my normal reading, but I was caught off guard by the headline: “Frequent Bible Reading Can Turn You Liberal.” In the States, frequent church attendance seems to correlate with conservative views. But a Baylor University survey suggests that frequent bible reading raises opposition to increasingly repressive federal security actions and the death penalty, and raises concern levels for social and economic justice. Wow!! Now that’s a Christian Heritage I could support – even without the chicken dinner.