It's past midnight, and General Council commissioners are still in fierce debate, still in line at the microphones, still worried about holding their church together while voting their conscience. It's 1988 in Victoria and the church is deciding to approve gay and lesbian ordination and commissioning.
Often in the life of this denomination, General Councils provide distinct turning points. You can look back and say: "When we made that decision we changed the course of this church."
But what about the times we didn't make a clear-cut decision, the times we put off a tough call and sent it to a new task group? What about the times we just about set new priorities but then got cold feet? You can look back years later and say: "That's when we went into this policy drift."
That's something to remember as our once-in-three years General Council approaches this August. When Council commissioners hold up their yellow voting cards on a contentious issue, the results may have a profound effect on our future -- though maybe we won't know we've taken a new trail until we look back, long after the turn.
There is no question in the mind of Moderator Rt. Rev. Peter Short that this is a critical General Council. He has asked every congregation in the United Church "to seek spiritual guidance to name its identity" and then bring that identity face-to-face with what is crucial in the world today.
He has asked all commissioners to come to the Council in Thunder Bay, Ont., prepared to listen for God's voice.
Large blocks of time will be devoted to spiritual seeking, because, for Short, finding out what God wants is the most important business of the United Church. The moderator's gathering in Arnprior, Ont., last November (Cover story, January) was, in a way, a practice run at putting God's will before church planning agendas.
I hope it works. It is clearly the right idea at this crossroads time. It makes good sense that we should take care of the soul before remaking the United Church for a new generation. But sitting still and listening will be a big change for this talkative, meeting-loving, policy-savouring church.
And just as we are being asked to be still, so much is going on around us. On one side, we see the world changing swiftly and we want to try the fresh ideas coming our way. We long for connections with new generations. We're feeling a new energy as a church. And society badly needs to hear us talk about justice, peace and creation.
But it is also true that many of our congregations are tired, our leaders stretched, our resources limited. We want to survive, traditions intact, and be able to pass on what we treasure.
We want to walk with God.
There is more.
This is a General Council with some life-changing issues before it. Commissioners will have to decide if the church should commit itself to a full, honest effort to welcome people between 30 and 45 years of age who might be interested in giving our church a try. And commissioners will have to decide if we are ready for a new statement of what we believe.
Is all this compatible? Can we sit together with so much on our minds and listen for God? At the very least, we should try not to get in God's way.
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