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A sense of history

Understanding the church's past is critical for moving purposefully into the future

By David Wilson

Very Rev. Lois Wilson looked up from an old issue of this magazine and shook her head. “Amazing,” she said. “So much history.”

As the United Church’s first female moderator, a former president of the World Council of Churches, a Companion of the Order of Canada and a member of the Canadian Senate for four years, Lois Wilson is herself a colourful chapter in United Church history. She visited our offices this fall to do some research. I hope she found what she needed. From our brief chats, I got the impression she was almost overwhelmed by the amount of history preserved in our collection of bound volumes.

These days, contemplating church history seems to take a back seat to worrying about the church’s present and future. Indeed, looking back is sometimes frowned upon as a distraction.

Clearly, dwelling too much on the past — idealizing it, sentimentalizing it — is counterproductive. While there is nothing wrong with thinking fondly of the past and even taking some pride in it, living there gets you nowhere. Thinking that assumes the future of the United Church consists in creating smaller versions of what existed in another time is thinking that will lead to discouragement and failure. The world the church inhabits has changed forever, and the church must change with it.

On the other hand, a sense of history is critical for moving purposefully into the future. It helps to know dates and names and events, but it’s more important to understand The United Church of Canada’s place in history. We need to remember that the United Church exists because people of vision a century ago responded creatively to a challenge history had presented them: too many like-minded churches and too few members to make them viable. When The United Church of Canada came into being on June 10, 1925, there was nothing like it anywhere else. Out-of-the-box thinking is in the United Church’s DNA. If we keep that in mind, we might take the fear factor out of solutions to contemporary problems that seem radical or intimidating, such as consolidating small, struggling churches into big regional ones.

At the same time, it’s important to remember what the United Church stands for. Since its inception, the church has been a force for conscience in our country. Canadians have looked to the United Church for faith-driven moral leadership on issues almost too numerous to catalogue: economic and social justice, the rights of women and minorities, peace at home and abroad. The church has not always been on the right side of history — its participation in residential schools is the most glaring example — but on the whole, Canada is a better country for the presence of the United Church.

For the past year, we have commemorated this magazine’s 180-year-long history with a monthly department called Looking Back (The Observer print edition, page 50). Next year marks the United Church’s 85th anniversary, and we will continue to keep an eye on the past but shift the focus from ourselves to the denomination. I hope this will help deepen your understanding of where the United Church has come from, so that you can more wisely and faithfully discern where it should be going.

• This month, you’ll find all sorts of articles and columns on a Christmas theme. I hope they enrich your experience of this holy time. Christmas blessings to you from all of us at The Observer.

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