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Waiting for whispers, searching for signs

By Peter Short

The Arnprior Assembly began with no predicted outcomes. We had tried to create a setting of complete openness, trusting that honest dialogue would take us to a good -- though unknown -- place. In fact, in spite of all my curiosity, I had not even seen the list of participants before the assembly opened.

There were a lot of people to meet, and they came from all kinds of places. With no nametags to hang around our necks, the work of meeting one another was a work of remembering names, places and stories by heart.

I soon found that among us we spoke a dozen languages, from Russian to Japanese to Cree. We were musicians, potters, farmers, poets, people who knew how to field-dress a moose, grandparents, students.

Our purpose was clear: genuine dialogue and authentic conversation among people from the five "streams" of our ministry -- lay leaders in congregations, staff associates, lay pastoral, diaconal and ordained ministers.

We did our listening, our speaking and our praying in the presence of a question larger and more important than the interests of any particular group: What ministry will God require of the United Church in its third generation?

I had hoped that this big question would help us not so much to get over our differences as to get under them. I hoped we would find ourselves moving to a deeper place -- the home place of a ministry to which all are called. I didn't expect an answer on the spot.

At least two very good things happened.

First -- finding ourselves in the landscape of faith -- we proceeded together, some of us exhilarated, some of us frustrated, some of us fearful, into unprecedented conversation about our ministry. People of different ministries demonstrated that they have the heart for this. As one participant noted, "This is a question that every one of us in the United Church must answer -- every person, every church, every Presbytery.... And we must be the answer; we cannot simply put an answer to this question into words; we must put it into flesh and bone and relationship."

A second outcome is the recovery of the place of the elders in the church. The moderators sat in our midst and we listened to them speak from a depth and breadth of experience, a love of the church that poured out like a river, and a passion for all that we yet might be. In a spontaneous act of gratitude, Rev. Fran Ota of Newmarket, Ont., thanked them. Others asked questions. Others listened in silence. At one point Rev. Sung-Chul Choi of Carstairs, Alta., stood before them and in the Korean tradition, knelt with forehead to the ground as a mark of respect.

Gathering around the elders to hear them speak is not common practice in our national gatherings. It is remarkable that it has taken us so long to reach a conclusion that has always been so obvious to First Nations peoples.

One could ask, "Was there an `ah-ha' moment? Was the life of the United Church re-imagined?" The answer would be, "No. At least not that we are aware of yet." These moments of re-imagining the world cannot be arranged to arrive on schedule.

However, the assembly did begin a conversation that will undoubtedly have wide and deep effects on people in the church. No one knows exactly what has been planted, but one crucial stage in the task of deep reflection has begun.

This is critical if the church is to avoid the temptation to jump directly from identifying problems to strategic planning.

Now we are working to make this conversation possible for any group in the church that has the heart for it. This summer, the General Council in Thunder Bay, Ont., will devote a major portion of its time and energy to this work as well. What ministry will God require of the United Church in its third generation?

While the church must work diligently at the many issues that need attention, this is clearly a time to yield some place to the Word of God.

Rt. Rev. Peter Short is moderator of The United Church of Canada

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