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."
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