UC Observer logo
UCObserver on SoundCloud UCObserver on YouTube UCObserver on Facebook UCObserver on Twitter UCObserver's RSS Feeds
Photo by Neil Webb


What does it mean to be ‘in essential agreement’?

By John H. Young

The phrase “in essential agreement” has been part of the United Church’s history since church union negotiations between the Methodists, Congregationalists and Presbyterians began in the early 20th century. We have the Congregationalists to thank for it.

For those unfamiliar, the phrase appears in the United Church’s Basis of Union, the denomination’s “constitution.” It’s in Section 11.2, a passage about assessing candidates for ministry: “The Conference shall examine each Candidate on the Statement of Doctrine of the United Church and shall, before ordination, commissioning, or admission, be satisfied that such Candidate is in essential agreement therewith, and as a member of the Order of Ministry of the United Church accepts the statement as being in substance agreeable to the teaching of the Holy Scriptures.”

In the Manual, composed of both the Basis of Union and the church’s bylaws, it states that the Conference’s responsibility in examining candidates is to “satisfy itself” that the candidate is in essential agreement with the statement of doctrine and accepts that the statement is, in substance, agreeable to the teachings of scripture.

What is the purpose of such an examination? The answer flows from the reason we ordain, commission or recognize certain individuals as ministers. We set such individuals apart (not above!) to take particular responsibility for teaching and preaching the faith tradition and for providing pastoral care informed by the tradition. The Conference, through its examining committee, while also obviously concerned about a candidate’s general competency, needs to be satisfied that those whom it will authorize as United Church ministers are sufficiently within the faith tradition to be able to carry out those responsibilities. United Church ministers take on a role and responsibility different from the lay members of a congregation. For that reason, they are held to a different standard than lay members in relation to the United Church’s doctrine.

So why “essential agreement”? Why not “a literal adherence” to the denomination’s statement of doctrine?

The Congregationalists believed that a candidate for ministry (or anyone, for that matter) could be led by the Holy Spirit to new theological understandings or new insights about how to express things “eternal and divine.” Such new understandings or insights might be lost if the church required literal adherence to a statement of faith or specific answers to questions to which there was presumably only one “correct” response.

At the same time, the Congregationalists believed that the committee examining a candidate could determine whether, given any such new insights or understandings, a candidate’s theology fit sufficiently within the denomination’s understanding. 

Being “in essential agreement” does not mean there is some percentage of the statement of doctrine with which a candidate must agree. Nor does it mean that candidates self-determine whether they are “in essential agreement.” Rather, it refers to the examining committee’s need to conclude that the candidate stands sufficiently within the denominational tradition to be able to teach, preach and otherwise exercise the functions of ministry in a way reflective of that tradition.

When, and only when, the examining committee can answer yes to that question can it make a positive recommendation to the Conference about a candidate.

Rev. John H. Young is the executive minister of theological leadership for The United Church of Canada.

Readers’ advisory: The discussion below is moderated by The UC Observer and facilitated by Intense Debate (ID), an online commentary system. The Observer reserves the right to edit or reject any comment it deems to be inappropriate. Approved comments may be further edited for length, clarity and accuracy, and published in the print edition of the magazine. Please note: readers do not need to sign up with ID to post their comments on ucobserver.org. We require only your user name and e-mail address. Your comments will be posted from Monday to Friday between 9:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. Join the discussion today!


The author is baptized at Central United in Calgary. (Photo courtesy of Al Coe)

Why I got baptized in a United Church at the age of 42

by Jacqueline Mercer-Livesey

"I told myself that I didn’t need to go to church to believe in God. I found peace and the Holy Spirit in the things that surrounded me. But still, there was a nagging sense of something missing."

Promotional Image


Editor/Publisher of The Observer, Jocelyn Bell.

Observations: The rewards of letting go

by Jocelyn Bell

Editor Jocelyn Bell reflects on the upcoming changes for The United Church of Canada, the magazine and in her own life.

Promotional Image


ObserverDocs: Two nurses tackle Vancouver's opioid crisis

Richard Moore is a resident of Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. In this poignant interview, he explains the important work of nurses Evanna Brennan and Susan Giles.

Promotional Image


July 2018

250 United Church leaders have a message for Doug Ford

by Emma Prestwich

They're urging the new Ontario premier to remember those in need as he carries out promised economic reform.


July 2018

Tracing Nelson Mandela’s path a century after his birth

by Tim Johnson

A travel writer visits some of the places that shaped the anti-apartheid icon’s life.


July 2018

Jamil Jivani sheds light on why young men radicalize

by Suzanne Bowness

In his book 'Why Young Men,' Jamil Jivani talks about his own experience as a troubled youth.

Promotional Image