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Survey says

Where the United Church's course will lead remains to be seen, but this much is certain: there will be no going back to the church of our forebears

By David Wilson

My colleague Patricia Ingold is accustomed to opening a lot of mail, but she will not soon forget the deluge that flooded her desk this past March.

March was the month we published a four-page survey designed to better acquaint us with you and your relationship with the United Church. We identified the issues we wanted to explore, then left it to professionals to polish our questions and make sense of your responses.

We waited for the first surveys to arrive. What began as a ripple the first week of March escalated into a tsunami by the second. Canada Post resorted to making special deliveries, and Pat found herself slicing open envelopes for several hours a day. Eventually, other staff members came to her aid.

We would have been content with a response rate of one to two percent, which is average for surveys of this type. By the time the cut-off day arrived at the end of March, we had 2,096 completed surveys ready to send to the tabulating firm, representing a very robust sample of 3.6 percent.

Even after cut-off, Pat was still opening mail by the armload, and we were still making careful note of what respondents had to say. By early June the final tally stood at more than 4,100 — a response rate of more than seven percent, which is remarkable by any standard.

This month we report on the survey’s main results, which have a +/– 2.2 percent margin of error at a 95 percent confidence level. While there are plenty of juicy numbers to digest, the number that intrigues me the most right now is 4,100. Clearly, United Church people are passionately committed to their church (not to mention engaged with their denominational magazine). Not everyone feels the same way about things, but every reader who took the time to fill out and mail in a survey cares deeply about the United Church. You can be sure there are a lot more where they come from.

Let’s call them the committed core. They will be watching closely as decision-makers plot a course for the future at this summer’s General Council. Where that course will lead remains to be seen, but this much is certain: there will be no going back to the church of our forebears. Clinging to the old idea of church — preserving scaled-down versions of what used to be — will only bring discouragement. And from discouragement, failure is almost certain to follow.

Something in the number 4,100 also tells me that failure is not an option. The passion of the committed core is the foundation on which the church can reinvent itself for the 21st century. Becoming something new can be daunting. But I am confident those in the committed core will welcome change rather than resist it, especially if the process promises to inject new energy and relevance into the values of faithful tolerance and inclusiveness that underpin the church they love. They will be looking to the 40th General Council for signs of hope.

• Our coverage of General Council will be double-pronged. From Aug. 9 to 16, we will file regular reports on this website. Then, in October, after the dust has settled, we’ll put the actions and decisions of Council into perspective on the pages of the magazine. I hope this combined approach will paint as vivid a picture as possible of a Council that could be a turning point for the United Church.

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