UC Observer logo
UCObserver on SoundCloud UCObserver on YouTube UCObserver on Facebook UCObserver on Twitter UCObserver's RSS Feeds

Reflecting on the 40th General Council

Commissioners have confessed to the church’s brokenness and embraced the inevitability of real change

By David Wilson

The commissioner said he felt sheepish for even bringing it up. But he felt duty bound to draw the attention of his fellow General Council decision-makers to a problem in the proposal they were about to vote on: a comma was misplaced.

General Councils are a perplexing mix of big-picture thinking and obsession with detail. The 40th General Council in Kelowna, B.C., this past August was typical. Nearly 400 commissioners from every corner of the country considered tough, contentious issues such as a proposed boycott of cultural and academic ties with Israel. They also considered issues like “Adjourning and closing a meeting” and “Clarifying aspects of the grandfathering of Staff Associates.”

To no one’s surprise, the big issues generated the most thoughtful, passionate and faith-strengthening debate. The small stuff produced yawns and behind-the-scenes grumbling from commissioners who felt underutilized.

The business of General Council is largely shaped by proposals transmitted to it by other courts of the church. Often these involve minor changes to the Manual, the United Church’s book of rules and procedures. General Council has to deal with them because it is the only court authorized to do so.

Planners do their best to gather as many of these proposals as possible into a single item of business, but housekeeping still consumes a huge chunk of Council’s time. I estimate that about one-third of the 175 proposals before the 40th General Council fell into the category of minor tinkering.

There has to be a better way. General Councils are big, expensive gatherings that demand considerable sacrifices from the commissioners who attend them. More than half of the commissioners in Kelowna were laypeople, yet much of the housekeeping work they were asked to consider involved fine-tuning policies and procedures for ministers.

What if a specially appointed panel were to take care of housekeeping business before General Council even started? With housekeeping out of the way, commissioners might find they have more time and creative energy for dealing with major challenges.

I can already see the process police shaking their collective heads: a pre-Council housekeeping bee wouldn’t be allowed under the current rules. So maybe the rules should change.

From the opening gavel, commissioners in Kelowna signalled they were ready to roll up their sleeves and get to work. They were at their best when they were able to set aside the minutiae of church craft and focus on the big question of how God the Potter might be at work. By the end of a long week, the 40th General Council had confessed to the church’s brokenness and embraced the inevitability of real change. Now everyone is being asked to consider new ways of being the church. The General Council could set a good example by considering new ways of being itself — starting with the commas.

• From time to time, we offer advertisers an opportunity to communicate directly with readers through the mail. We manage these mailings ourselves, and you can rest assured we never reveal your name and address to another organization. But if you do not wish to receive mail from our advertisers, please write to Kirsten MacDonell, our circulation manager.

Author's photo
David Wilson is the editor-publisher of The Observer.
Readers’ advisory: The discussion below is moderated by The UC Observer and facilitated by Intense Debate (ID), an online commentary system. The Observer reserves the right to edit or reject any comment it deems to be inappropriate. Approved comments may be further edited for length, clarity and accuracy, and published in the print edition of the magazine. Please note: readers do not need to sign up with ID to post their comments on ucobserver.org. We require only your user name and e-mail address. Your comments will be posted from Monday to Friday between 9:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. Join the discussion today!
Promotional Image


David Wilson%


by David Wilson

If statues could talk

Promotional Image


ObserverDocs: Stolen Mother

by Observer Staff

The daughter and adoptive mother of one of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women share their story

Promotional Image


July 2017

From far and wide

by Various Writers

Meet 11 immigrants who are putting down new roots


June 2017

A suitcase for Cuba

by Christopher Levan

You’ll find more than giveaway toiletries and hand-me-downs in the writer's luggage. Each carefully chosen gift offers a glimpse into the lives of Cubans today.


June 2017


by Kristy Woudstra

Up to half a million people are living in Canada without official status. The ‘sanctuary city’ movement is growing, but the fear of deportation persists.


June 2017

Resisting genocide

by Sally Armstrong

In August 2014, ISIS attacked Iraq’s Yazidis, slaughtering thousands and forcing women and girls into sexual slavery. Today, the survivors are fighting for their ancient way of life.


April 2017

Dear Grandkids

by Various Writers

Six acclaimed Canadian authors write letters from the heart


March 2017

Called to resist

by Paul Wilson

Liberal Christians in the United States test their faith against a demagogue

Promotional Image