Sunday, August 9, 2015

What is the Future of the United Church of Canada?

The United Church of Canada is holding its General Council this week under the theme of "behold I make all things new." On the agenda are many issues, but the most important is the future of the 90 year-old denomination—what new things can it do to survive a decline in funding and membership? What does the future hold? That's the question I raised in my Aug. 8 Free Press column.

United Church of Canada members from across Canada are gathered this week in Corner Brook, Newfoundland for the forty-second General Council—a week-long assembly that could potentially re-shape and re-imagine the 90 year-old denomination.

While there, they will discuss and vote on almost 200 proposals. Many are procedural, but others deal with substantial issues like missing and murdered indigenous women, nuclear proliferation, the arms trade, the treatment of prison inmates, fossil fuel divestment, climate change, proportional voting for Members of Parliament, and the Trans Canada Pipeline.

Delegates—called Commissioners—will also elect a new Moderator out of 12 nominees. This time, none of the nominees are from Manitoba .

But the major issue on everyone’s mind will be the future of the United Church .

The need for a new vision and structure for the Church has been brewing for some time, fueled by declining membership (down 26 percent between 2002 and 2012), declining attendance at worship services (down 38 percent), and the closing of churches (565 churches closed or merged).

All this has resulted in a decline in donations—in 2012 the church had an operating deficit of $7.1 million for its general fund. At the Council, Commissioners will be asked to vote on a proposal for the Church to “live within its means,” which will mean cutting $11 million from its $30 million budget.

Before the Council began, I asked two local United Church members what they hoped might happen in the coming week at the Council.

James Christie, who attends Westminster United Church and teaches at the United Centre for Theological Studies at the University of Winnipeg , hopes that the Council will focus on the strength of the denomination.

“We have forgotten that lifeblood of church is in local congregations,” says Christie, who will not be attending this Council.

A proposal to eliminate one level of government in the church is “a hopeful sign,” he says. But he hopes Commissioners will go further by reducing the national office to “a ceremonial function” and emphasize the importance of the regions and congregations.

Christie hopes the Council will “start to break down the inward-looking hidebound denominationalism to which we have drifted over the past 40 years. What does it mean to be a liberal protestant Christians in North America in twenty-first century? What part of God’s mission can the United Church do? Where is God taking us?”

Jeff Cook, pastor of Memorial Transcona Memorial United Church, is going to the Council—although unlike last time, he isn’t a candidate for Moderator.

For him, the big issue is the need to restructure the denomination.

“If we don’t do something, it will decide itself,” he says of the declining donations and falling membership.

For Cook, the big question is what it means to be the church today, and “what kind of staffing levels, and how many levels of church governance,” are needed to accomplish that.

He also sees the need to support local congregations.

“Jesus invited people to the table,” he says, and local congregations “are our table.”

I also spoke to David Wilson, editor and publisher of the United Church Observer.

Wilson, who has read all of the over 1,000 pages in the Council workbook, says that if  the proposals for restructuring are accepted it could “drastically alter the shape of the Church . . . it depends on the willingness of Commissioners to recognize that the United Church of today is very different from the Church in 1925 [when it was created].”

From his vantage point as editor of the national publication, he says “there’s not much unanimity” going into the Council, but there’s one thing there’s no disagreement about: Declining membership and donations means doing things as usual is “unsustainable.”

“We need a new vision for the future,” he says, adding that a big question for him is how the Church can “re-capture the attention and imagination of an increasingly secular society.”

Whether or not the United church can do that is a big question. But, as Cook notes, the future of the United Church isn’t just up to the Commissioners.

“God is the wild card,” in all of this, he says. “It may look like the ship is going down, but we are a resurrection people.

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