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United to the core

By Samantha Rideout

For all their differences, United Church people want to stick together. Four out of five of those surveyed agree that it’s better for their congregations to operate within a denominational structure. Why not go independent? Being part of a denomination “gives you perspective from other parts of the country,” says Fred Jones, 72, of Kingston, Ont. “It’s not just you in your little fishbowl.” He also points out that banding together increases church people’s political influence, which is important when it comes to social justice campaigns.

Independent churches “are accountable to no one but themselves — and there are dangers in that,” observes Rev. Georgia Copland, a minister with several churches in the Laurentian region of Quebec. “We’ll always need a system of checks and balances to help prevent extreme positions, and also the kind of [financial or emotional] exploitation that can happen in church settings.”

The United Church’s strong desire for unity doesn’t mean that it’s insular. Survey respondents are very interested in connecting with the global faith community; six in 10 want a greater emphasis on this, and only six percent want less. As a denomination, the United Church is already active in many interfaith and ecumenical organizations. But it may be smaller-scale, face-to-face interactions that are more important.

Rev. Jim Cairney knows how powerful and moving such collaborations can be; he recently presided over a multifaith memorial service in Toronto, with contributions from Muslims, Roman Catholics, Russian Orthodox members and United Church people. It took place at a Starbucks coffee shop, the deceased young woman’s workplace. When the lights and espresso machines were turned off and everyone stood in silence, a sense of consolation and solidarity emerged, he says. “In everyday life outside of church, people have friends and colleagues from various faiths, so there should be ways for the church to mirror this.”

Surveyed readers are also interested in strengthening connections within the United Church, with half preferring a greater future emphasis on this, and 40 percent wanting the existing level of connectedness to continue. Currently, several intercongregational projects are on the go. But here again, church people may be hungry for connections that feel more personal.

Copland has been encouraging partnerships in her region, where 10 tiny United Church congregations are geographically scattered. “Two of them hold alternating services at each other’s buildings. The next move is to get people on Skype so they can have services come to them from other churches during the winter,” she says.

It’s healthy for people to feel like they’re part of something bigger than a local congregation, Copland says, and the survey respondents agree. “We are not alone,” begins the New Creed; it appears that United Church people have taken this to heart.  

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