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One faith, many shades of meaning

By Donna Sinclair

The people who gathered last October to discuss what the United Church believes met in a modern office building, not a basilica. There were no robes, no bishops, no interesting frescoes -- just people clutching their coffee cups and sometimes a microphone. And yet, in their passionate advice to the writers of a draft statement of United Church faith, you could almost hear the ring of ancient Christian Councils. Seventy-five people, clearly as consumed and delighted by theological argument as their ancestors at Nicaea centuries ago, disagreed (and sometimes agreed) brilliantly.

The writers have no easy task. Asked by the 2000 General Council to come up with the draft of a "timely and contextual" statement of what we believe, the national theology and faith committee plans to hand it to the church's highest court in Thunder Bay, Ont., next August. With their last revisions looming, they convened a symposium in Toronto to see how their work looks so far.

Rev. Alf Dumont of Alliston, Ont., responded that while First Nations people are "part of the fabric" of the church, they "walk a little differently" from it. While some participants wondered if the statement's use of "Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer" and "Mother, Friend and Comforter" fitted suitably into the broad Christian understanding of the Trinity, Dumont asked if Trinity is "the only Christian expression of the God who is revealed in the world."

For him, God is also known as "Mother and Father and breath and even holy emptiness." God is found "in the four directions of the Medicine Wheel, in the sacred Sun Dance, in the sweat that rolls down my face in the sacred lodges of my people." Trinity, Dumont concluded, is just "one expression of the mystery I know as God."

In fact, "God is Holy Mystery" is the first sentence in the draft statement. That, too, participants found highly discussable. While Rev. Hal Llewellyn of Trinity-St. Paul's United in Toronto said it is a good "non-exclusive" term for God -- and also provides an opening that emphasizes God before humanity -- Rev. Hugh Reid of Kingsway-Lambton United in the Toronto suburb of Etobicoke was wary of anything that seems to limit the deity. "Holy Mystery," Reid said, means you end up with "an ineffable God," one who doesn't get God's "hands dirty." That's the opposite of the One who came to us and died on a cross, who is "spring water to people dying of thirst."

But while Reid and others worried about precision of language -- to preserve the intent of those who developed the great doctrines like the triune nature of God -- some were more concerned with accessibility and timeliness. "What is the use of this document?" Rev. Gretta Vosper of Toronto's West Hill United wondered. "Is it to learn the rules in order to get in? Do people need to learn the language of faith for us to be about the work of changing their hearts?" If they do not, she went on, "then there is much in the document that needs to be de-theologized."

For Vosper, the draft statement should express the new understandings of our faith that are just breaking through. "It never occurred to me," she said, "that we are just trying to pretty up the language." Newness, of course, carries a price. The United Church of Canada is "already looked upon with displeasure" by some other Christian churches, she said. "What will it cost us to speak our truth?"

In contrast to Vosper's desire to be radically open, Rev. Connie den Bok from Toronto's Alderwood United called for a continuing compass in a societal terrain that has seismically shifted since 1970. "Our story is constant," she said, calling on geological metaphors to depict the way an earthquake can remove mountains and fill valleys. When the survivors of such a catastrophe emerge, they may need "new maps," but not another compass.

For the better part of two days, conversation flared brightly. Sometimes it had too many big words. Sometimes it was witty, metaphorical, and -- when personal testimony entered the discussion -- touching. Those who carved space in their schedules to participate obviously care deeply about what the church believes and how it expresses it.

And they don't think they are alone. Faith is a matter of very wide interest. "I have heard no reference to the public forum in which theology is being done," said Rev. Gordon Nodwell, who attends Eglinton-St. George United in Toronto, pointing to the speed with which laypeople snap up books by theologians John Dominic Crossan and John Spong from the shelves of his local bookstore.

Rev. Kevin Little of Toronto's Eastminster United explained that members of the seekers group at his downtown congregation are "not asking, `Do I believe in God. The thirst I hear is, what kind of God do I believe in?'"

And Rev. Orville James of Wellington Square United in Burlington, Ont., said that while the statement "may be too long for the average person in the pub," that's fine. "If you want to be a Christian, there is an element of commitment to stretch your brain a bit."

So participants tried hard to make sure the right questions for a 21st-century faith were on the table. Is this statement exclusive, or not? Can it speak respectfully to a world where our neighbours practise other faiths and follow other deities, but not sacrifice who we are? University of Toronto professor emeritus Rev. Alan Davies, for instance, likes the way the statement remains "rooted in the openness of the Reform tradition, not locked into the past," and he appreciates its "semi-creedal style." But the attempt to avoid exclusive language by using terms like "Godself" clearly makes him wince. "Something more elegant is desirable," he said, describing with some longing the "ringing quality that some of the great statements of the church possess."

The document is too short, he said -- "there are phrases not explained." And too long, because "in the anxiety to cover everything important, it touches every ethical concern today."

While "too long" was a phrase heard more than once, Rev. Brian Brown of St. John's Stevensville (Ont.) United thought the writers "don't need to worry about the length if it is well-done. Twenty-five million people have bought [Rick Warren's] The Purpose Driven Life." Others wanted more -- more stories, more emphasis on the ministry of laypeople as well as clergy, more on global concerns, on justice.

Which raises again that question of "timely and contextual." The majority of the symposium was male, clergy, and white, although black, lay, Asian and women attendees dotted the room. Their presence lent weight to a call from Rev. Wenh-In Ng, sharing the podium with Dumont, for "transformative diversity" in the church. Ng, who grew up in Hong Kong, envisioned a statement that "includes tradition, but is not confined to it," that is "open to symbols of four, as well as three, that asserts the incarnation of the Holy is everywhere."

The former co-ordinator of Emmanuel College's Centre for Asian Theology wondered aloud if the church is ready to be changed by the theologies of Asia and aboriginal culture and Africa. Because "diversity is more than adding something," she explained. "It changes the form of our God-thinking." And it requires more equality in "existing relationships," and the "courage to acknowledge it is possible to draw on all these riches."




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