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An image problem

By David Wilson

The United Church has an image problem - actually two image problems. One it shares with all mainline churches. The other is homegrown. Interestingly, they've come to be related.

A generation or two ago, the word "church" stood on a pedestal. It evoked goodness and decency, charity and moral certainty. It inspired. It had status. It is no accident that it was usually spelled with a capital C.

The pedestal was knocked over by the excesses of U.S. televangelists in the 1980s, the sexual abuse scandals in the Roman Catholic Church during the 1990s, and the rhetoric on the extreme edges of the debate over gay ordination and same-sex marriage. Research, including studies commissioned by the United Church's Emerging Spirit campaign, clearly shows that our increasingly secular society is now rather suspicious of that word, church.

Of course, the bad rap is unfair. Park yourself in a pew in almost any mainline church and you will meet some of the finest people you'll ever encounter anywhere. I know it. You know it. But the world beyond the vestry doesn't.

So what do you do? It seems to me that you roll up your sleeves and do more of the things you do well -- the things your faith calls you to do because others don't or won't do them.

Historically in the United Church, this has meant advocating for justice. If this church is known and valued for anything, it is its championing of the marginalized, the forgotten and the forsaken at home and abroad. Think of the grape boycott in support of migrant farm workers in the 1970s. The anti-apartheid campaign of the 1980s. The refugee accompaniment movement in Central America in the 1990s. The ongoing struggles for the rights of Aboriginal peoples, gays and lesbians, refugees, the poor. Canadians outside the United Church may not always grasp the finer points of the theology behind the church's justice work. But they understand that the theology embraces the realities of our time and place, and on the whole, they admire and respect the United Church for it. The Emerging Spirit research proves that, too.

Which brings us to image problem number two. Last summer, decision-makers on the General Council Executive met behind closed doors to consider budgetary shortfalls and to act on a series of priorities they had developed a couple of months earlier. The result was major program cuts that affect most areas of church work but hit justice advocacy particularly hard. From now on, the United Church's justice work will have more of a congregational and local slant.

As Mike Milne reports in the Observer this month, an after-the-fact movement opposing the cuts emerged over the summer. Its ranks include a former moderator and veterans of justice battles past and present. Rightly or wrongly, the perception is that the United Church has been pointed in a new direction without the kind of open debate major policy shifts normally entail. Emotions are running pretty high. When you talk about justice advocacy in The United Church of Canada, you're talking about identity.

The United Church is working hard and spending a lot of money to project a positive image to non-churchgoers. How can we expect others to come to know the real "us" when we seem to be having trouble knowing ourselves? Is there any way the justice program cutbacks can be unpacked from everything else and viewed in the broadest possible context? It's worth considering.

Author's photo
David Wilson is the editor-publisher of The Observer.
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