UC Observer logo
UCObserver on SoundCloud UCObserver on YouTube UCObserver on Facebook UCObserver on Twitter UCObserver's RSS Feeds

In search of a theology that fits

By Donna Sinclair

Soon after Carol Hatch moved to Ontario from Massachusetts eight years ago, she found her way to St. Stephen's-on-the-Hill United in Mississauga. She had recently "put God at the centre of my life, and accepted Jesus in my heart." But Hatch still didn't know much about the Bible or Christian doctrine.

She joined a mid-week Bible study group that helped her "appreciate the living Spirit that moves through the text." Then came Sept. 11, 2001. It unleashed a turmoil of questions, some about the country she had left behind, and some "about my faith, and other faiths and where God belonged in a world so diverse."

Soon Hatch took those questions to the Sunday-morning adult education group at St. Stephen's, where she discovered a Jesus who "never meant to create a religion of exclusivity." She also discovered she was not alone, even as she pushed at the edges of her faith: "I felt scared and somewhat alienated when I questioned certain Christian fundamentals. Finding others on the same search "has been most comforting."

All over the United Church, others are on the same path. Fired up by reading the ideas of John Spong, Marcus Borg and others, little groups are emerging to which members can bring questions they may have suppressed for years. According to Barbara Bell of Middle Musquodoboit, N.S., who attends a mixed lay and clergy "spiritual seekers" group "the traditional theology just doesn't fit for me any more."

Bell loves her congregation deeply, and serves as its treasurer. But she also needs a place where "I have the freedom to explore my concepts." That, she feels is the United Church way. "I am not being told what to think."

Some will travel a long way for that freedom. The group Bell belongs to is an offshoot of a gathering at Nova Scotia's Tatamagouche Centre several years ago. It meets at the home of Emily Kierstead and Rev. Don Murray, near Truro, N.S., central for members who may drive two hours to get there. "Some are well-connected with congregations, some only peripherally," says Murray, "but they all come because they need a place to talk where they don't feel judged for what they say."

At Metropolitan United in London, Ont., church librarian Barbara Graham leads a group of about 25 with the same hallmark. "It's very non-judgmental," she says. "Some of us think something one week, and we might change our minds next week. It's an inquiry group. You can say absolutely what you like, as long as it is respectful to the others." Saying what you like may mean acknowledging an inability to "accept the birth narratives as absolute fact." Some participants admit to having been "very reluctant to talk about these things," Graham says. "People think you are nuts."

Kierstead, in the same wide-ranging Truro group as Bell, agrees. Some members "feel like exiles in their congregations." But they are definitely not ready to leave the church.

Graham says their group is one where "they can say `I don't know if I really agree with that.' But they want to be in the church. They are searching for meaning." They find it by reading everything from Borg to The Man in the Scarlet Robe by Michael R. McAteer and Michael G. Steinhauser (UCPH). "McAteer's book, that was great," she says, "each chapter could represent a study."

At St. David's United in Calgary, Wayne Holst and Jock McTavish co-lead a similar group of people. Holst, a former Lutheran minister, now a member of St. David's, points to a longtime dilemma for many clergy. They are trained to interpret Scripture, but "are not always free to preach from those critical methods," he says. "There is still an unwillingness (in the pews) to look at the Scriptures critically."

Holst is emphatic that this kind of adult study does not replace the sermon, it simply "complements and supplements what cannot be provided elsewhere." And it offers "a chance to engage in dialogue."

An average of 35 attend the Monday night Holy Manners Book Group at St. David's. It's currently studying A New Christianity for a New World by John Spong (HarperCollins) but has ranged freely through the likes of Ralph Milton and N.T. Wright. The group continues electronically through the week at the congregation's online forum, where it is joined by others for a total of about 80. They "want to discover Jesus," Holst says. "They want a renewal of faith."

For many Christians, a group like this means they can stay in the church "without feeling like a hypocrite," in Bell's words. It means satisfaction for the people who say to Holst, "that's been an issue for me for 20 years, and I finally have some kind of handle on it."

"There's a shift, a reformation going on," says Hatch. "People are starting to talk about what Jesus meant in his words. They've been having these debates since Jesus' death: Is he God? Is he someone who reveals God? Does it matter? Jesus' message isn't so much about himself," she concludes. "It is to love each other, and love God."

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