So, the United Church of Canada is making headlines with it’s resolution calling for a boycott of Israeli goods made in the “settlements” established in Palestinian territory. Good for the United Church, say I. The UN has been calling those settlements illegal for years so surely it’s about time their products should be illegal.
Sure, I know, I know. The cry is that the church shouldn’t be messing in politics, but this isn’t politics – it’s social justice. And when the church quits striving for social justice it may as well throw in the towel and quit absolutely. Of course there are those who believe a church should confine itself to preparing our souls for heaven and keeping our flesh from hell but the United Church used to have the more primary objective of freeing our minds. At least, up until a few years ago, that had been my impression. But it seemed to me it had been losing the old zest for liberal theology and, two years ago, I accused it of betrayal.
Here, for your edification or mortification, is that accusation as expressed in an article that was published in 2009 in the newsletter of the Canadian Centre for Progressive Christianity. It’s rather long and I was thinking of editing it, but what the heck, you might find it interesting. And if the United Church is reaffirming its position in the realm of social justice just maybe it’ll be reafirming it’s position in the realm of the spiritual. Besides, a new Moderator has just been elected with a variety of challenges already facing him, so what’s one more. And I do wish him well.
THE GREAT BETRAYAL
An essay, for the sake of argument
by Munroe Scott
It is my charge that in the quest for hearts and minds the clergy of The United Church of Canada, the custodians of a theologically liberal tradition, have for many years betrayed both themselves and us, their people.
For most of my adult life we Canadians have been searching for our national identity and for many years a clue was in open view without being recognized. It lay in the area of “hearts and minds” (today’s holy grail of global politics) and it was deeply rooted in religion – specifically, in Christianity.
Consider. The largest Protestant denomination in the United States, the Southern Baptists, is extremely theologically conservative, whereas the largest in Canada, The United Church of Canada, has been noted (some might say notorious) for being “theologically liberal.” The United Church has, in the past, played no small part in creating Canada’s unique national character.
It is not accidental that in referring to the influence of the United Church I have used the past tense. It is my charge that in the quest for hearts and minds the clergy of The United Church of Canada, the custodians of a theologically liberal tradition, have for many years betrayed both themselves and us, their people.
I find myself thinking back half a century to when, as a young man, I regularly sat in a pew in my father’s church (he was a U of C minister) and contemplated the inscription that adorned the arch embracing the choir loft. “The truth shall make you free,” it proclaimed, echoing the words of Jesus as relayed in John, 8:32 . I accepted, of course, that there could be some problem in ascertaining “truth” but never questioned that once arrived at it would certainly make one free – free from misunderstandings, misconceptions, self delusions, foolish fear, and other impediments to a rational life. It is my contention that United Church ministers had, at one time, a fingerhold on truth but have not only refrained from improving their grip but have been backing off from expressing it. By veering away from their concept of truth they have betrayed their people.
Before I tread any further down this perilous path let me make it clear that I am not writing as a theologian, an historian, or a scholar – none of which I am – but simply as a layman who happens to be a grandson of the parsonage, a son of the manse, and who as a writer has spent a great deal of time observing the activities of organized religion and has come to subjective conclusions of his own. And since these conclusions are indeed subjective, I submit them out of curiosity to know whether I am, or am not, in step with many other lay adherents of the once progressive United Church of Canada.
I say “once progressive”, and there’s the nub of it.
To illustrate, let’s go back some four decades and recall a startlingly vivid event that took place in an old church in downtown Toronto. It was during the evening of a weekday in1969 that members of an inner city youth group challenged a church’s affable young minister to clarify his beliefs. A series of seemingly unrelated incidents led to a highly emotional and volatile confrontation with the minister in which the youths accused him of intellectual dishonesty. The catalyst had been the discovery of his personal diary, with entries such as this:
“Managed to get through one more Christmas season. It’s always been bad enough with its singing angels, wandering star, and virgin birth but I swear it’s getting even more pagan every year. We’re all wallowing in supernatural tinsel. Someday I’m going into the pulpit and really unload. Maybe next Christmas.”
Such revelations resulted in a wild kangaroo court in the course of which the youthful “prosecution” read their minister the Apostle’s Creed:
“I believe in God the Father, maker of heaven and earth; and in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord, Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, Born of the Virgin Mary, Suffered under Pontius Pilate, Was Crucified, dead, and buried; He descended into Hell; The third day he rose again from the dead; He ascended into Heaven, And sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty; From whence He shall come to judge the quick and the dead.”
They then demanded that the minister either affirm or deny his belief in the literal meaning of the words. Apart from affirming his belief in “God the Father, Maker of heaven and earth”, the minister’s response became a litany of denials.
I refer back to this occasion not because of the scene itself. In fact, it never happened — other than as the climax of a 90 minute CBC-TV drama which, I confess, I had written and in which talented Donald Harron played the lead role of the progressive young clergyman, Rev. James Reddick. But was the fictional Rev. Reddick an apostate, a heretic, out of step with the Church? I think not, and I refer back to it now because of the remarkable happenings surrounding the play — out there in the real world.
While the play was still in production the senior communications people of the United Church of Canada, The Anglican Church in Canada, and the Roman Catholic Church had become aware of its content and had been actively promoting it! Quite independently of the CBC they not only promoted the programme but created study guides, and, on the night of its airing, in church basements across Canada TVs were set up so that people could gather to watch and discuss.
The reaction was instructive. Not only were there highly positive media reviews but there was also approving feedback from clergy and laity. The programme was broadcast in the States by PBS and in Britain by the BBC and a year later run again by the CBC – followed here by a sequel!
I describe all this because it seems to me that that was about the time when the churches had reached a high level of progressive thinking. (Please note: From here on I am not going to refer to either the Anglicans or the Catholics. Their own adherents will know best whether or not anything I say applies to them.) It was only two years earlier that the United Church had in fact adopted an alternative Creed, or statement of belief.
There were people who considered the “New Creed” to be heretical. A major American denomination charged that it proved the United Church of Canada was not even Christian! And the Creed certainly did manage to avoid any reference to the virgin birth, or to Jesus being God. Apparently at that time the upper echelons of the United Church, most of them ordained, felt it desirable to challenge some of the accepted popular dogma of Christianity.
In the 1960s, as a family man with three small sons, I taught Sunday School without too much angst. But I was aided and abetted by the Church’s “New Curriculum”, a progressive study series that cheerfully suggested, for instance, that there never was an Abraham — that he was much more likely a symbolic figure representing an entire tribe of migrating Mesopotamian people. The New Curriculum, like the later New Creed, also had some other denominations labelling the United Church as heretical. My mother, however, (by that time in her senior years), dutifully read the New Curriculum texts, after which she calmly reported to me she had seen “nothing there your grandfather would have objected to.” That statement is relevant to my current charge.
My Methodist grandfather was born in 1849 and ordained in 1879 – not exactly yesterday. And yet, in her own memoirs, Mother describes him as being quite progressive and in her later years she herself suggested to me that I should think of the Bible as “a story –” (she may have said “history” – memory fails) – “a story of man’s attempt to understand God.” However you wish to parse it, that is a far cry from accepting the Bible as the irrefutable Word of God. Was Mother voicing, I wonder, a view that was widely held among educated clergy of the United Church? My guess is yes, it was, but seldom as clearly expressed.
As for my father, he was born into a small-town working class family and subjected to strict Biblical indoctrination by two widowed grandmothers. In his teens, however, he had the hard edges of sectarian dogma rubbed off by the ecumenical experience of being a homesteader and a saddlebag preacher on the Saskatchewan prairie during the first decade of the 1900s. He was further educated by World War One before completing his Bachelor of Divinity degree at the theological college of Queen’s University in Kingston which had a reputation as a “theologically liberal” college. How liberal, you ask? Well, years later, in my first year in Arts at Queen’s, I took a credit course in new Testament Literature. It was taught by the head of the Theological College, and I learned to question the antecedents of just about everything from Matthew right through Revelations. Did the minds of all the United Church theological students treading similar paths remain unchallenged? I think not.
Father went on to acquire a post-graduate degree at Union Theological Seminary in New York, an institution that had already earned it’s non-conformist spurs ( after a heresy trial) and had made, in its own words, “– an irrevocable commitment to academic freedom, to higher academic and scholarly standards.” And while at Union my father acquired a Masters degree in History and Sociology from Columbia University — also a hotbed of intellectual liberalism.
At one time the United Church of Canada prided itself on such high educational standards for its clergy. Among that well educated clergy, how widely held, but seldom expressed, were progressive views?
Father was never a hell fire and brimstone preacher, but even so I pressed him gently one day as to whether there had not been a disconnect between what he actually believed and what he said in the pulpit. (This was highly unfair to an elderly man. I should have taken a run at it when he was younger and in good health.) After a considerable pause, he said this – “It is a very heavy responsibility for a minister to deliberately destroy the faith of his people.”
“It is a very heavy responsibility for a minister to deliberately destroy the faith of his people.” At the time I couldn’t bring myself to push any further along that path. But I do now. How many other members of the United Church clergy have, in recent years, hesitated to “destroy faith”? If we could take an honest poll I expect the answer would be astoundingly large. If I am correct, is their silence not a betrayal of leadership?
For many years my career as a freelance writer drew me into a variety of projects associated with the United Church and I found myself doing research on widely scattered mission fields – Angola, Northern Rhodesia, Trinidad, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Okinawa, Hong Kong, Thailand, Indonesia, Gaza, India, Sarawak, and remote areas of Canada. I met and talked with Christians of many stripes as well as with Hindus, Muslims, Taoists, Buddhists, Jains, Parsees, Jews, and Animists, and accepted that each, in their own way, had significant insights into the human condition — and all endorsed absurdities of dogma in the name of Faith. Paradoxically, in all my travels, I often felt our clergy abroad were more mentally liberated than were many of our United Church clergy at home. This is not a direct analogy, but at that time our doctors abroad could teach and disseminate birth control – at home they’d have been put in the slammer. Were the clergy at home wary of being too progressive?
I don’t believe that in those days they were being institutionally restricted. Not in the days of the New Creed, and the New Curriculum, and the active promotion of a radical play. Not in those days of my wanderings when two successive heads (both clergymen) of the Church’s Department of Stewardship and Information would invariably send me on my way with supplementary reading designed to knock the hard corners off any dogmatic residue in the brain. Not in the days when a layman, Dr. Bob McClure, was elected Moderator of the United Church.
As McClure’s biographer I got to know the surgeon-Moderator rather well. He was not a man enthralled by dogma. A belief in the virgin birth or, at the other end of the spectrum the physical resurrection, was not even remotely in his catechism. But McClure, who had never been reticent in voicing an iconoclastic opinion, had been elected by his peers as the head of the largest Protestant denomination in Canada!
McClure, as a missionary surgeon, had spent most of the first half of the 20th century in China, then several years in Gaza, fifteen years in India, followed by time in Peru, Zaire, and Canada. Moderator McClure expanded minds by speaking of Japanese self discipline, Arab generosity, Chinese resiliency, Hindu forgiveness, Confucian courtesy, Christian compassion, Buddhist humility, Muslim devotion, and Parsee honesty. His was not a faith that, in the words of poet F.R. Scott, built “walls round our love”. McClure knew whereof he spoke and when he spoke Canadians listened.
In my opinion the United Church has not lived up to the challenge and the promise of those heady years. And therein lies another betrayal.
In order to convey my impression of the theology of the United Church permit me to use the analogy of an iceberg. Among both clergy and laity, but under the surface, is a vast weight of progressive, one might even say radical, thinking. But very little of it surfaces. Oh there is the occasional protrusion into public view of someone like former Moderator, the Rev. Bill Phipps, who in 1997 was quoted in an interview with the Ottawa Citizen as saying, “I don’t believe Jesus was God, but I’m no theologian….I don’t think Jesus was that concerned about hell….I have no idea if there is a hell… Is heaven a place? I have no idea….I don’t believe Jesus is the only way to God….I believe that there is a continuity of the spirit in some way, but I would be a fool to say what that is…” and, as a clincher, “Your soul is lost unless you care about people starving in the streets.”
That entire interview contains the essence of the iceberg and, like Dr.McClure before him, the Rev. Bill Phipps was speaking as the elected head of the largest Protestant denomination in Canada.
It is my opinion that if the United Church clergy had been true to themselves and to their people they would have thickened the waters and hoisted the iceberg into full public view and in doing so would have liberated a large segment of the Canadian public from the bonds of mythology and questionable dogma. The opportunity was not seized, and therein lies another betrayal.
In these days when more literal, more ideological, more fundamentalist faiths are spreading like wildfire, where, on the public stage of beliefs, is the United Church of Canada? When a large and influential fundamentalist organization from the United States sets up a lobbying office within the shadow of our Parliament Hill in order to convince an already ultra-conservative government that the Bible, taken literally, holds all answers to all things, where is the mind-expanding influence of the United Church? If our M.P.s and M.P.P.s could only agree with Bill Phipps that their souls are in real peril not from denying divinity but from ignoring people starving in the streets, what an even better country this would be.
I take hope in my old age from a book like Tom Harpur’s recent The Pagan Christ, in which Harpur, an Anglican priest, former professor of theology at Trinity College of the U. of T., and a long time highly respected writer on matters of the spirit, describes how the New Testament as we know it was cobbled togther under Emperor Constantine in the 4th century more as an act of political craftsmanship to unify an empire than as an act of inspired faith.
But the real thesis of The Pagan Christ is that Jesus may never even have existed!
By his own confession it was not an easy journey for Harpur to make to arrive at the conclusion that the Jesus of the New Testament might well have been a figment of mythology and creative imagination. But the fact that a writer of Harpur’s stature wrote The Pagan Christ and was neither stoned, ostracized or de-frocked speaks well for the Canadian people, and I suspect that a large portion of his readership base is made up of adherents to the United Church. I do wish, however, that I knew how many of the United Church clergy have used the book in an educational way in the pulpit.
A more recent book comes from the pen, or keyboard, of a United Church minister, Rev. Gretta Vosper. I take hope from her. The iceberg is again, for a moment at least, floating higher. Ms Vosper, an active pastor of a city congregation, would obviously have as much trouble with a literal avowal of the Apostle’s Creed as plagued my fictional minister some 40 years ago. She would go even further, as the title of her book implies — With or Without God. She sweeps dogma aside while firmly clinging to the Christian message of love, compassion, forgiveness, and active stewardship within a natural world of which we are an intrinsic part and which demands our unadulterated awe and reverence – with or without God. But what really seized my attention was her charge – I don’t feel the word is too strong – her charge that for many years the progressive clergy have been fully aware, indeed have been educated to be aware, of all the half truths, untruths, distortions, mythology, and outright fabrications of the so-called Christian faith and have failed to exhibit that awareness in the pulpit. [Rev. Vosper followed it up this year, 2012, with Amen— What Prayer Can Mean in a World Beyond Belief, a superb book brimming with clarity and honesty.]
Over the years the United Church has taken some steps toward making that awareness public and I expect many of its adherents have absorbed it into their bones by osmosis, as have I. But I wonder if the desire to liberate people from ancient dogma and its supportive myths is still within us? In an era when the leader of the world’s greatest power launched an immoral and illegal war and got away with his claim to be personally instructed by God, when football players credit Jesus for a gridiron victory, when masses of evangelical Christians believe the Bible calls them to support Israel because the sooner the Israelites can be brought into the fold the sooner we can get on with Armageddon and the Rapture, and when the airwaves are saturated with this stuff, where is the liberal theological voice of The United Church of Canada? Are we being betrayed by an educated but silent clergy afraid to “destroy faith”?
Perhaps I am wrong. But out on the streets and in the news I have detected little evidence of an enlightened Church voice.
If I am wrong I can only offer a heartfelt apology and a sigh of relief.
If I am not wrong, and if Canadian hearts and minds ossify under the cultural pressure from the more conservative giant to the south of us and from its burgeoning followers in Canada, it may well spell the end of Canada as an independent and moderating influence on the international scene. And that may well be because the United Church clergy have not remained true to themselves and to their people. That certainly would be a betrayal of monumental proportions.
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Copyright © Munroe Scott 2008