“We believe in and confess the Lord Jesus Christ, the only Mediator between God and man, who, being the Eternal Son of God . . . for our salvation became truly man, being conceived of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary . . . He offered Himself a perfect sacrifice on the Cross, satisfied Divine justice, and made propitiation for the sins of the whole world.”
If these words sound familiar, that’s because they are one of the articles of faith hammered out in 1925 by the founders of The United Church of Canada as a basis for union. Ordered ministers must be “in essential agreement” with them, but this requirement allows for interpreting them as metaphysical or spiritual truths rather than literal ones.
To approximately 13 percent of survey respondents, however, it is straightforwardly true that Jesus was born of a virgin, performed miracles, died to save humanity or individuals from sin and rose physically from the dead. “For me, Jesus is really the son of God,” says Dorothy Aimé, 65, of Brandon, Man. “I think that’s what the Christian faith is based on. He was the ultimate sacrificial lamb, like the lambs that were offered for atonement in the Old Testament. If we don’t have that, then what is Christianity?”
Respondents like Aimé — let’s call them “traditionalists” — are spread evenly among age groups and genders. They live all over the country but are represented most heavily in the Atlantic provinces, particularly Newfoundland and Labrador, where 57 percent of respondents fall into this category.
The traditionalists take their main inspiration directly from the Bible, which they see as the word of God, either dictated to human scribes or composed by humans but divinely inspired. The vast majority of them rate the Bible as “very important” to their faith. Nine out of 10 had read it at least once in the past month, and six out of 10 read it on the day they filled out the survey.
Rev. Nick Phillips, minister of Carman United in Sydney Mines, N.S., sees the Bible as a reliable account of the historical facts of Jesus’ life. “If Jesus did not rise from the grave, then why would the disciples go through all the trouble they went through?” he asks. “Why would they risk their lives? It would not have been worth it at all to face persecution and death at every turn.”
When it comes to creation, the group is divided between the 60 percent who believe the story as it is laid out in Genesis and the 40 percent who think that God created the world but that “seven days” is a metaphor. The traditionalists are also divided on the question of whether or not the major religions are all paths to God.
On other questions, there is better consensus. All the traditionalists in the survey believe that human beings have souls. Very few believe that animals, plants or rocks do. Seven in 10 believe heaven and hell are real places — not of this world — where our souls will someday go. Most see humanity as the “pinnacle of Creation” and believe we are descended from Adam and Eve.
One of the most pressing issues for traditionalists, according to Phillips, is bringing Christ back to the centre of the church and our lives. “I think the right after-effects will all flow out of that,” he says. To this end, some United Church people have organized themselves into “renewal” or “reform” groups over the past five decades. These groups include Church Alive, a registered charity whose purpose includes making “a clear, Biblical witness to Jesus Christ crucified, risen and exalted.”
Last April, leaders from the renewal movement shared their experience with a group of younger United Church people who were gathered at a conference in Burlington, Ont., to discuss their faith and inspire one another. Phillips was among them. “Being of this line of orthodox thinking is a tough place to be in our church at times,” he says. “We are starting to organize ourselves and let each other know we are not alone.”
Looking for such like-minded souls, Aimé flirted in past years with evangelical denominations that shared her core beliefs. But she found the churches she attended unwelcoming compared to her United Church home.
“In one of them, a lot of the church members were not accepting of my divorce even though the minister was supportive,” she says. “They would tell me in a judgmental tone of voice that they were praying for my husband to come back to me — ignoring that I had divorced him for a reason.”
Aimé places great value on her beliefs, which she says have helped her to gain a sense of purpose and self-worth, but she doesn’t mind being exposed to other beliefs and opinions. “Whatever anyone says, I know what rings true in my spirit,” she says. “I just hope the United Church will not drift away from the faith it was built on all those years ago.”
Samantha Rideout is a freelance writer in Montreal.
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