After five days of well-mannered discussion and sometimes testy last-minute wrangling, The United Church of Canada’s General Council approved a new denominational constitution, adopting a three-court structure consisting of communities of faith, regional councils and a denominational council. It will take at least three years to put into place, after church-wide votes, negotiation with Canada’s Parliament, many more decisions and various pilot projects. But after 90 years, the church’s governing system of pastoral charges, Presbyteries, Conferences and General Council was headed for the history books.
Meeting at the Civic Centre in Corner Brook, N.L., the gathering of 348 commissioners included daily worship, an evening of local kitchen-party culture plus an afternoon of tours and attractions. But its main piece of work consisted of 17 resolutions that were passed as one omnibus motion, minutes before closing worship and the installation of a new moderator.
The heart of the decision was an outline of how the new three-court structure would work. At its base are communities of faith — including congregations and pastoral charges plus smaller groupings and related ministries — working through a combination of co-operation and oversight under regional councils. A denominational council will handle domestic and global mission and set overall policies.
The meeting of General Council, the denomination’s highest governing body, was preceded by more than two years of church-wide consultation and discussion by a nine-person committee that resulted in a 36-page report and seven proposals released last spring.
The committee, officially called the Comprehensive Review Task Group, was struck three years ago as the church continued to face decades-long declines in congregations, members and finances. It suggested changes that offered congregations increased autonomy in dealing with their clergy and property and direct representation on a national denominational council.
What emerged on General Council’s second day — from another, 16-member committee which compiled and melded suggestions from across the church — was a conciliar structure that will work much like the current one, but with three courts instead of four. The proposed direct representation from congregations was eliminated as commissioners expressed concerns about the costs of denominational council meetings that could potentially involve thousands instead of hundreds of commissioners.
In another key area, the oversight of ministers, commissioners rejected a proposed college of ministers that would enforce denominational policies at arm’s length from governing courts. Instead, a denominational office of vocation will be created, to set standards for training and accreditation of ministers and handle discipline, formal hearings and complaints.
Currently, Presbyteries or Conferences (working under a pilot project) are responsible for oversight and discipline of ministers. In the new model, regional councils are subject to policies set by the denomination on ministry personnel, pastoral relations and property. But their direct role is described as “providing support, advice and services” to communities of faith on human resources and property matters.
A decision on funding calls on the church to cut at least $11 million from the current $37.3 million General Council budget by 2018 and to “spend only what is received.” While church governance and mission activities are currently funded mainly from the voluntary Mission and Service Fund, commissioners decided governance in the new-look church will be funded through direct denominational assessments to communities of faith. The M&S Fund will be used solely for “ministry and mission activities.”
Although the task group and several proposals offered formulas for calculating assessments, commissioners asked the church’s top administrator to recommend a method which will go to the General Council’s Executive for approval. Like several of the changes included in the church’s new model of governance, the assessment model will be subject to a church-wide vote, called a remit, that will come back to the next General Council in three years for approval or dismissal.
It’s just one of several major tasks needed to flesh out the emerging model of a new-look United Church. Decisions also need to be made on the number of regions (suggestions ranged as low as six and as high as the current 12 Conferences), howtheir meetings will be funded and who will serve on their executives.
The church still has a long way to go, but outgoing moderator Very Rev. Gary Paterson told commissioners, “We have journeyed well together” and wrapped up the business of the meeting by paraphrasing the New Creed, a well-loved piece of church doctrine.
“Sometimes it had felt like we’re chasing the Spirit that is so far ahead that we’re not quite certain where the next turn in the road is, but we have never been abandoned,” he said. “We are not alone, we are in God’s world, this God who had created and is creating who has come to me in Jesus Christ and who works in us and others by the Spirit, who will continue to do so. So be brave, and be gentle with us all and with each other and with yourself.”
Mike Milne is The Observer’s senior writer.