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The relationship between congregations and the General Council is . . . frayed

By Patricia Clarke

A cross the country we’re slipping into congregationalism. The local church comes first. Presbytery “interferes.” Conference is off the radar. As for the General Council, it seems less and less relevant.

I asked around, and that’s what I heard. From a two-point rural charge: General Council is not on our horizon. From a busy suburban church: We don’t know what’s going on. From a prairie city: We keep wondering what they’re up to. From an Ontario city: Nobody pays attention.

How could this happen? It isn’t true of all congregations, of course, perhaps not even of most. The work of the General Council is essential, and most people know it. But social trends are against it. National organizations of all types are losing influence, and their members are aging; society is more and

more fragmented; authority is questioned or ignored; faith becomes self-defined as what works for me. If these trends continue, we have to ask whether the structure formed to unite us in 1925 will still serve us well in 2025.

Those who have been involved with the church at the national level, clergy or lay, notice a change from even 30 years ago. Then, we had a firm national identity. Now the national church seems diminished, and so is the interest in it. I’ve heard some reasons.

Divisive national issues, for instance ordaining homosexual people, left some congregations feeling alienated, free to go their own way.

A change in leadership style from out-front to enabling may be the right style for the time, but plainly it is less visible.

Dwindling congregations and tight budgets make us insular. Local survival comes first.

The frequent restructuring of the General Council Office promotes confusion. “I don’t know who does what anymore,” one minister told me.

Our culture is increasingly splintered. Someone compared society today to a supermarket, where we go shopping along the shelves. There are lots of choices, and no need for commitment.

A blurring of denominational identity means that people look for a congregation that suits them. When a United Church near me closed its doors, many members moved in with neighbouring Presbyterians. A friend explained, “There’s no difference, really.”

The “mission” part of Mission and Service is less visible. “Missionaries” are out; partner churches are in. Congregations that want a more personal connection develop their own projects.

With less money, the General Council cut services that were helpful to congregations. As the role diminishes, so does the interest. As the interest falls, so does the money.

Even if many of the responsibilities of the General Council are not obvious parts of congregational life, that doesn’t mean they are optional. The national church is responsible for a $45-million yearly budget and some 4,500 ministry personnel, active or retired, in 2,000-plus congregations. It sets standards for ministers’ education and theological direction. It keeps in touch with other denominations and world faiths. It does things congregations can’t do on their own.

But with half of church members over 65, and only 18 percent under 50, will there be enough people in the pews by 2025 to support that structure? For everything there is a season, a time to be born and a time to die. For The United Church of Canada, the time to be born was 1925. Perhaps by 2025 it will be time to die, to be replaced by some new form of Christian witness that we cannot yet envision.

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