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The United Church still matters

Symbolic decisions marked the 41st General Council

By David Wilson

Moderator nominee Rev. John Young of Kingston, Ont., began his address to the 41st General Council in Ottawa this past summer with a tale told to him by his father about the last time the General Council met there.

It was 1958, and the church was approaching its peak of membership and influence. Since the General Council was meeting in the nation’s capital, organizers reasoned it would be entirely appropriate for the prime minister, John Diefenbaker, to address the assembly. It may have been that Diefenbaker actually asked to come and speak. What is indisputable is that on a mid-September Friday evening at a packed Chalmers United Church, Diefenbaker, a Baptist, joined commissioners in worship before delivering a 25-minute speech entitled “The Christian and the Nation.”

Young related the story to remind commissioners that the world of his father is not the world of today. The United Church does not flex raw political muscle anymore, and liberal Christianity no longer shapes the cultural mainstream. But the 41st General Council that Young addressed proved that the United Church still has moral capital: what it does and says still matters.

The intense lobbying and media interest in the most contentious part of a church report on Israel-Palestine was proof positive. The call for church members to consider boycotting items produced in Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank was largely symbolic — there are only a few such products in Canadian stores. Yet the symbolism of the United Church’s stand was clearly seen as significant.

By approving the report, The United Church of Canada now joins Presbyterians and Methodists in the United States, as well as Methodists in Britain, who have voted for a similar boycott. Roughly two-thirds of the commissioners in Ottawa voted in favour of the measure. It’s pretty clear that the rank-and-file church membership is more evenly divided. Some say the General Council squandered some of the church’s moral capital by damaging relations with the Jewish community here and elsewhere. Others argue the church has a duty to address the suffering of people who have asked for help. Conservative Jewish organizations have condemned the vote as anti-Semitic. But other Jewish groups and individuals, including academics and liberal Zionists, applaud it. What the long-term impact will be is anybody’s guess. In the short term, the General Council’s action has succeeded in putting the Palestinian issue squarely on the church radar, and to a lesser but still significant extent, on the national radar.

The 41st General Council made another hugely symbolic statement. But this one was noteworthy mostly for what wasn’t said. Rt. Rev. Gary Paterson of Vancouver, the United Church’s new moderator, is the first openly gay person to lead a mainline Christian denomination in Canada and the world. Yet his sexual orientation was a non-issue in his election. A number of commissioners said privately they were unaware Paterson was gay until after the final results were announced. They also said it really didn’t make any difference to them; they were impressed by Paterson’s intelligence and tremendous preaching. And they felt he was the right person to lead the United Church through the daunting challenges of the next three years. In one quietly historic gesture, the 41st General Council closed the book on the most divisive issue the United Church has ever faced — and set an example for other churches around the world.

For years, commentators inside and outside the United Church have complained that the denomination was losing its prophetic edge. The 41st General Council issued a clear message: like it or not, the United Church is back.  

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