Monday 13 August 2012

Day Two in Ottawa

General Council 41 has launched in worship and prayer, music and celebration, laughter and greeting.  For some of us who have served in various places it's like "Old Home Week" as we reconnect with friends and colleagues from coast-to-coast-to-coast.  Truly we are a national family!  The General Council is trying to live-into our commitment to be an intercultural church reflective of the great diversity of Canada.  of course, that sometimes means that folks from the dominant English-speaking group are now experiencing what those in linguistic minorities know as a lived fact: you don't always understand.  Words in French, English and a variety of First Nations tongues have graced our time together.  The first evening, Moderator Mardi Tindal preached in English and French - setting a high bar indeed.

The General Council takes time to gel - table groups are made up of commissioners from different conferences and so there are times to build relationships so that we can speak honestly with one another.  As well, the General Council as a whole has to understand its own processes for doing its work.  Each GC is about 1/3 brand new folk who have never attended a GC; 1/3 who have attended GC's but not the previous one (2009); and 1/3 whose prior experience includes 2009.  These are rough numbers  and commissioners are elected by conferences according to formulae that include divisions of lay and ministry personnel and a determined percentage of youth commissioners.

We have been blessed by the presence and wisdom of former moderators.  We are grieving the death of the 27th moderator, the Very Rev George Tuttle, who served from 1977-79.  But it was wonderful to hear folk like Anne Squire, Marion Best, Marion Pardy, Stan Mackay, Peter Short, Bill Phipps and David Guiliano.  They are our elders.

We have done some important work around the greater inclusion of First Nations.  The changes in the historic prologue to the Basis of Union and the Crest are good steps in my mind.

The work continues today.  Decisions bathed in worship, payer and hope.

Wednesday 8 August 2012

The Challenge of Surveys

United Church clergy across the country are receiving mailed copies of a survey jointly commissioned by The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs and Faithful Witness (the latter is a group headed by my colleague Rev Andrew Love).  The survey seeks to influence commissioners to the General Council and purports to demonstrate that a strong majority of United Church members and affiliates oppose the recommendations of the working group on Israel Palestine whose report commissioners will be considering.  A copy of the survey and a letter to General Secretary Nora Sanders is also on the GC41 website.

This particular issue - one of many on the General Council agenda - has generated considerable attention in the media and even prompted a letter from nine Canadian senators.  It has also led to a steady stream of emails and letters from various organizations and individuals both in support and opposition (a sampling of those can also be found on the GC41 website).  There's no question that, for this commissioner anyway, the various pieces of input add depth and texture to a very complex question and provide insight into how some would balance the many and varied conflicting interests and passions.

One aspect of my personal sifting and sorting of responses is trying to determine whether or not the writer has actually read the report or is working from an already established bias or a summary provided by someone with such a predisposition.  A second aspect is recognizing that some writers clearly have no idea how the United Church of Canada in general, or a General Council specifically, actually functions.  For example, correspondents urging the General Secretary or the Moderator to "direct" the Council to decide in one way or another do not understand the way things work. 

Which brings us to the survey in question. I would strongly urge fellow commissioners to read the full survey - particularly the questions asked -   before deciding on its validity <<CIJA__Faithful_Witness _  UCC_Survey_Report_Responses.pdf>>  I have no doubt that, regardless of the intentions of those who commissioned or authored it, that the survey will be in the media in short order.  So, some clarifying questions about the poll seem to be in order.

It is worth noting that the General Council commissioners are always asked to take many factors into consideration in deciding.  But they are specifically called "commissioners" rather than representatives because the opinions of those "back home" are not the only - and sometimes not the decisive - element in voting.  The United Church does not govern itself by polls.  Many of our most courageous decisions (back to the one to ordain women) would probably not have been popular with a majority at the time.  So public opinion (even within the Church) is a factor, but not the only one.

The survey is based on 501 people who are identified with the United Church and attend worship at least once a month.  I have no idea of the statistical validity of such a sample nor does the report indicate it.  That is unusual for publicly reported polls which usually give a measure of statistical validity.   Interestingly, there are no questions about whether respondents have actually read the Report of the working group.  In other words, they are responding to questions, purportedly about the report, but without any context or explanation for the proposals offered.  Therefore, the framing of the questions becomes even more important.  Nor is there any effort to gauge awareness of the issues in question.  For instance: "Do you consider yourself to be well-informed about issues of peace in the Middle East?"  Further, one can't help but wonder if the responses about the proposal to boycott goods produced in the settlements in the Occupied Territories would be different had the question been prefaced by the acknowledgement that under international law and Canadian government policies the settlements are deemed illegal and/or a barrier to a just peace.  What if there had been a question about how we ought to respond when Christian brothers and sisters ask us to speak out on their behalf?  What if, instead of asking if the United Church should get involved in Middle East politics the question had asked about United Church involvement in issues of peace and justice?

There is no question that these issues are complex and passionate.  The survey is another element in decision-making.  As we try and determine its significance, pondering its validity on the basis of method and bias is also important.