The United Church of Canada – making the Anglican Church of Canada look like a bastion of orthodoxy.
The United Church of Canada, which was formed 86 years ago with the grand vision to bring Protestants together “in one glorious national church,” is undergoing one of the most precipitous slides in modern religious history.
In the midst of a breathtaking erosion in its membership, the church is undertaking what some call a great experiment to redefine itself through an intense engagement with the surrounding secular world; whether it be through advocating for the environment, fighting for the rights of homosexuals to marry or taking on the cause of the Palestinians, the church has attempted to blur the boundaries between religion and the broader society.
Supporters believe this strategy will eventually right the ship because they are following the word of God to engage in the world.
To others, though, the United Church is engaged in a self-destructive act, aiming to be so many things to so many people that it will morph into just another social advocacy group disconnected from 2,000 years of Christian tradition. Critics say there is a severe lack of orthodoxy, lax demands on belief and even too much latitude for ministers who can question the existence of God and the divinity of Christ.
Connie denBok, a United Church minister in Toronto, is among those who despair that the church has become so much of the world, so focused on popular issues, that it is evolving away from the core of Christianity.
“In the 1960s and ’70s we became embarrassed about Jesus. And so we distanced ourselves from Jesus, and the point is without Jesus there’s no point in having a church. iTunes has better music and the NDP has better policies; everything else we do now somebody else does way better. The only thing we can do is this Jesus thing,” she said.
“I would say that the United Church no longer has many unifying factors.”
In 1926, Congregationalists, Methodists and Presbyterians joined to create a church with 600,000 members — which rose to a peak of 1.1 million by 1964. Today, estimates put membership at around 500,000 and falling.
A recent issue of the United Church Observer, the official magazine of the United Church of Canada, had more than two pages of letters, many seething with indignation and spilling over with a frustration that has likely been building for years. The article that prompted the intense reaction was a look at a movement among some United Church parishes called post-theism, a moving away from God and Jesus and the Bible, and toward, as the article put it, “intellectual satisfaction and nurturing and inspiration … the traditional format fails to offer.”
“I have come to the conclusion the United Church has finally lost it,” one letter writer said
“When I read your story … I said to myself, ‘No wonder the United Church is fractured,’ ” said another.
The article centred on Reverend Gretta Vosper, an avowed atheist and minister in Toronto, who wrote a popular book about her disbelief a few years ago called With Or Without God.
Rev. Vosper, who would be considered a heretic in any other denomination and likely dumped out on her ear, is tolerated in some quarters of the United Church, even to the point of enthusiasm.
“I celebrate Gretta and others like her who cause us to think more deeply about the nature of our faith,” said Ms. Tindal, the church’s Moderator.
“One of the things we’re seeing is a greater tolerance for paradox. What Gretta has done has ignited a fresh conversation and invigorated the discussion. This is in the DNA of our Church: to invite this open, deep broad conversation to be the body of Christ.
“Besides, you can’t talk about post-theism without talking about God,” she explained, pointing out the positive side of having a minister who is an atheist.
Rev. Vosper has not been the only point of theological controversy within the United Church.
In 1997, then-moderator Bill Phipps, said the divinity of Jesus and the reality of heaven and hell were irrelevant.
“I don’t believe Jesus was God, but I’m no theologian,” Rev. Phipps said at the time.
In 2008, then-moderator David Giuliano said of Ms. Vosper: “I don’t remember Jesus requiring anyone to subscribe to a doctrine before he healed them. To suggest that one needs to subscribe to a narrow understanding of who God is and who Jesus is seems antithetical to the understanding I have of Jesus revealed in the Gospels.” He also suggested the term Christian was outdated.