Commissioners at the 2015 meeting of The United Church of Canada’s General Council will have to wait a little longer to see a highly anticipated series of recommendations that could prompt major changes to the way Canada’s largest Protestant denomination looks and operates.
But the commissioners signalled their eagerness for change by endorsing a motion that says the decisions eventually reached on a new look for the church will shape other decisions they will make during the week-long meeting.
A sessional committee that began meeting in Corner Brook, N.L., four days before the General Council officially opened, told organizers they had not finished their work and would not be able to present a package of recommendations for reform on the first full day of business, as originally scheduled.
“The work is going well,” said committee spokesperson Rev. Larry Doyle of Courtice, Ont., “it’s just really big.” The committee said it would bring its report to the court on the second day of the week-long gathering.
The recommendations are the centrepiece of the meeting, the United Church’s 42nd General Council since its creation in 1925. The denomination, facing declining membership and finances, has spent the past three years discussing options for a leaner future. A Comprehensive Review Task Group arrived at a series of proposals that would lead to the biggest structural reform in the denomination in its 90-year history, replacing four levels of governance with three new ones and introducing a new mechanism for overseeing and supporting ministers. The sessional committee appointed to consider the task group’s proposals also studied 142 pages of responses from various sectors of the church, as well as more than 90 related proposals.
Senior church officials urged commissioners to embrace change, rather than fear it.
In a Sunday morning sermon and later in an accountability address, Moderator Rt. Rev. Gary Paterson used the meeting theme — “Behold I make all things new” (Revelation 21:5) — to remind commissioners, guests and visitors gathered in the Corner Brook Civic Centre that transformation is central to the Christian experience.
Alluding to an emergency aboard her Air Canada flight from Toronto to Newfoundland late last week, General Secretary Nora Sanders declared, “There are some things I’m afraid of. But I’m not afraid of change in the church.”
This meeting of the General Council has almost 200 proposals to consider, many of which would be affected by the sweeping reforms proposed by the Comprehensive Review Task Group, should commissioners decide to adopt them, or a version of them.
The first test of the Council’s readiness for change was a motion from Sanders asking commissioners to declare that “any decision made by this General Council in response to the recommendations of the Comprehensive Review Task Group takes precedence over any other decision made by this General Council, to the extent that the two may be in conflict. . . .” The motion passed handily.
Commissioners will also consider a related proposal that would empower the church to change its legal status so it can reorganize according to the reforms likely to be approved by this General Council. The United Church of Canada is currently a legal corporation created by an act of Parliament in 1925. Changes such as those contemplated by the Comprehensive Review process would require parliamentary approval.
However, the church is hoping to be recognized under the new Canada Not-for-profit Corporation Act (CNCA), which has a process enabling federally incorporated corporations such as the United Church to reorganize without having to seek the approval of Parliament. “Governance under the CNCA would better align the church with the corporate realities of the 21st century,” the motion states.