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Intercultural interpreter Danielle Ayana-James (left) of Alberta and Northwest Conference shares the podium with Étienne LeSage of Montreal and Ottawa Conference. Photo by United Church of Canada/Flickr/Creative Commons

Navigating the fault lines

The 42nd General Council showed that polarities, not creaky structures, are the United Church’s real challenge

By Trisha Elliott

General Council commissioners carried the weight of the church as they converged on the Rock, knowing the magnitude of the decisions ahead. The energy in the meeting hall, strung with brightly coloured paper fish bearing the prayers of congregations across the nation, was electric with hugs, conversations and guitars playing in the background. General Council 42 turned out to be as monumental as Newfoundland’s mountainous vistas — just not in the way we thought it would be.

Remodelling the church was at the heart of this year’s General Council: rebuild the denominational ship before financial pressures sink it. That happened — more or less. The United Church has emerged from this Council possibly one court lighter, with a national office of vocation to exercise discipline, oversight and accreditation of ministers and a decision to live within its means.

But denominational shape-shifting is not the biggest story of this General Council. Nor is it the controversial decision to divest from fossil fuels, the proposal to merge streams of ministry into a single order of ministry or even achieving full communion with the United Church of Christ (U.S.A.). General Council 42 was monumental for the sheer number of divisions that surfaced.

Commissioners were split, for example, on the question of whether or not to review the Basis of Union and revisit ordination standards, which is really about what to do with Rev. Gretta Vosper. The United Church’s “out” atheist minister, Vosper has become a lightning rod for a deeper issue that the United Church has struggled with from its inception: whether and where to draw the theological boundary lines.

There was also significant debate about changing the church’s legal status and whether or not a middle judicatory (i.e., regional councils, the size of which are still to be determined) should exercise support, oversight or both. It’s really a question of power, authority, autonomy and ecclesiology: does the congregation or the collective steer the ship?

And we’re divided on justice issues, too, albeit the issues we choose are difficult and naturally divisive: discussions on Israel-Palestine, divestment and pipelines were understandably tense.

You could say that divisions on key issues have always been there, the inescapable genetic reality of being a denominational mutt. And yet, I sense that the divide is deeper now. Differences of opinion today span a number of core issues that the United Church is being forced to confront, both structurally and theologically.

Perched behind the media table at General Council, I spent most of my time writing or thinking about writing. Digesting and reporting the news, I missed the majority of worship services and had to ask commissioners which ones affected them most. Consistently, the two stand-out services involved a skit that envisioned the United Church as the Titanic and a sermon by Montreal and Ottawa Conference commissioner Rev. Étienne LeSage, a heartfelt love letter to the church brimming with possibility.

On the one hand a sinking ship, fearful and doomed. On the other, a community of lovers, adored and full of potential.  

Our divided reality was most thoroughly expressed in the final two candidates for a moderator: Rev. John Young, a pen-carrying professor and experienced church man; and the now-Moderator Rt. Rev. Jordan Cantwell, a punk-looking, fairly new ordinand, oozing with an earthy passion for justice.

You could argue that Young and Cantwell have much in common, but their energy and personality are as opposite as can be. If the moderator is elected based on what voters think the church needs, it’s clear commissioners had vastly different ideas about the kind of leader they wanted. Another split.

And here’s the irony: while the United Church doesn’t see eye to eye on major aspects of theology, ecclesiology, mission and leadership (or even at times on whether to vote by cutting-edge clicker or old-fashioned paper waving), we are in 100 percent agreement that we want others to join us.

The decision to partner with the United Church of Christ (U.S.A.) was unanimous. The court was on its feet, jubilant. Commissioners burst into The Star-Spangled Banner.

In the next three years, the United Church will be busy divesting, partnering with other denominations, honouring its commitment to reconcile with Indigenous friends and partners, and transitioning as a denomination.

Yet since General Council, I have wondered if the bigger challenge before the church is to address the divide beneath this busy, important work. The United Church has historically paid attention to affirming people who look, speak and love differently. If this General Council has revealed anything, it’s that the church now needs to bridge the profound divide between those who believe, lead and express justice differently.

The beauty of the Comprehensive Review report on governance had nothing to do with the structure it proposed but the values it sought to express. The idea of networks and clusters and the original vision of a “connective space” belied a desire for deeper relationships, trust and transparency — virtues that a polarized church desperately needs.

The decision to test drive a new proposal process at this General Council and to try out a consensus approach at the next one emerged not only because both of these processes are trendy, but also because on a gut level, we know we need to get it together.

As I watched the fault lines emerge across major philosophical streams at this General Council, I wondered if we aren’t at a collective tipping point — a point at which what happens next is unstoppable and irreversible. Will our divisions ultimately prove creative or destructive?

In an article for CultureUniversity.com, an online think-tank, author and corporate culture expert Larry Senn suggests that institutional transitions are thwarted by “too many disconnected initiatives, and lots of activity,” and a culture that is “not clearly managed as a strategy.”

The United Church is busy at all levels. Busy trying to keep the doors open. Busy trying out new programs. Busy trying to train, transition and (hopefully) transform.

The chairs and commissioners at General Council 42 performed time-warping miracles to deal with all the business before them. They couldn’t get everything done.

In fact, so many proposals and actions were deferred up the food chain that at the end of the meeting, general secretary Nora Sanders asked commissioners to prioritize from a bullet list of items. “We can’t do it all,” she said.

And maybe the church shouldn’t.

The first item of business might not be doing what the United Church is good at — drafting position papers and educational documents — but addressing the church’s weakness: figuring out how to maintain the passion at the ends of our spectrum while meeting creatively in the middle so that we can collectively move somewhere neither end has been. A church that makes uniting a priority has the potential to be a model in a divided world.

Tallying the fault lines at General Council 42 convinced me that the United Church is at a do-or-die moment. A moment of possibility where the church could do something far more meaningful than keeping the boat afloat and far more peaceable than pushing out those on the ends of the spectrum. In the words of 18-year-old commissioner Aidan Legault of Sudbury, Ont., who delivered perhaps the most electric speech of General Council 42, “This is how I see the future of the church: People across Canada, United in their own ways, giving thanks to God whether in a pew or not. We don’t have to be afraid. The future is bright and happy because we have the power to make it so.”

I pray he’s right. 

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