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Courtesy of University of British Columbia

Smoke from B.C. fires and controversy over boycott proposal loom over start of General Council (Friday, Aug.7, 2009)

By Mike Milne

Forest fires continue to rage on Terrace Mountain northwest of Kelowna. B.C., as about 700 commissioners, church staff, media and guests arrive in the hot, dry Okanagan Valley for the 40th meeting of The United Church of Canada’s General Council, the church’s top policy-setting and decision-making body. It currently meets every three years.

Lower temperatures and rain later in the week are expected to cool down area forest fires but contentious issues and difficult decisions promise to keep the heat turned up at Council sessions on the University of British Columbia Okanagan campus.

In the weeks leading up to the eight-day meeting, Jewish organizations sparked widespread media coverage and public interest in one of 173 proposals being considered – a call for a boycott of Israeli academic and cultural institutions as part of the pursuit of peace in the Middle East.

A Canadian Jewish Congress spokesperson labelled the proposal “anti-Semitic behaviour,” B’nai Brith Canada’s chief staffperson called it “ an obscene gesture” and an editorial in the Ottawa Citizen pointed to “anti-Zionist” content in the proposal’s background information. A small group of protesters demonstrated outside the United Church’s head office in west-end Toronto earlier this week.

In response to the criticism, United Church officials point to the church’s commitment to interfaith dialogue and human rights and note that both Jewish and Muslim representatives will take part in discussions.

Similar hard-line proposals in 2003 and 2006 ended in compromises and softened recommendations that didn’t include economic or cultural boycotts. The fate of the current proposal will be decided next week in one of three decision-making groups made up of General Council commissioners.

Other matters coming before the gathering are unlikely to generate broad media interest but could kindle heated reactions within church circles. They include:

• consideration of the $10.5 million Emerging Spirit welcoming and awareness program approved at Council’s last meeting three years ago;

• a proposal to launch at least five new French-language ministries;

• changes in regulations governing lay ministry;

• a review of General Council structure and  processes that could lead to less-frequent Councils;

• the challenges of living out right relations with Aboriginal peoples and becoming an intercultural church;

• electing a new moderator from among at least six candidates;

• dealing with rising church expenditures and falling membership and income.

Organizers have promised memorable worship, a lighter-than-usual load of background reading and a relatively relaxed schedule that includes mainly optional evening activities and one full afternoon and evening for exploring and enjoying Kelowna and the Okanagan Valley.

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