April 10, 2006

Do You United Church Folks Believe Anything?

A Sermon Preached on April 2, 2006.

Scripture Readings:
1 Corinthians 15:1-11
Acts 2:14-39
The Scripture readings we just heard are passages that I used in a paper during my first year of seminary. The paper was to identify the basic message of the early church as revealed in Peter's sermon on Pentecost and Paul's letter to the Corinthians. We continue to express our faith as we read together A New Creed, found on page 918 of Voices United.

We begin with a story. Several years ago, I was just starting a new job; it was probably my 3rd shift. I was working and my relief came in for shift change. As we were talking it came up that I was a candidate for ministry (not that I introduced myself "Hi, I'm Gord, I'm a candidate for ministry", I really have no idea how that came up). "Oh really, what church", came the response. "United". "Oh, the social club".

The social club, not really a proper church, just a social club. Many people across the country can tell similar stories about people's response to the United Church of Canada. And so we come to the question of the sermon title "do you United Church folks believe anything?".

At first I was tempted to stand up, ask that question, say YES and sit down. But I thought that might not be quite what you were looking for. I also think it might not be quite accurate. You see, as I have been asked that question it has tended to have 2 sides to it. One side is the accusation that we don't really believe anything, that we have no doctrine. The other is "are there any limits to what you believe?" Some of you may remember that about a year ago (February 2005) there was an article in the Observer about a movement called progressive Christianity. That article featured a United Church Minister by the name of Greta Vosper, who spoke in Thunder Bay this February as it happens.

Progressive Christianity includes a wide range of beliefs. But among that range is a belief that God does not intervene in human affairs. Also, at its extreme end, is a lack of clarity around Christ. In fact, when Rev. Vosper spoke in Thunder Bay in February a colleague of mine asked at the end where Jesus fit in (apparently she had not yet mentioned him). And the answer was that Jesus was a role-model, someone whose example we should follow. But, and here is the rub, there was no place for Christ in Progressive Christianity. One might ask if it is actually Christianity then. Do you United Church folks believe anything?

The answer is yes, we do have beliefs. And the answer is no, there are limits; we can't just believe anything we want. We aren't Unitarian-Universalists, although I believe some United Church folks may well be more at home in that faith community.

There are at least two real challenges in trying to answer today's question, in trying to distil what the United Church believes. One comes from our heritage. We have, in our roots of Methodism, Congregationalism and Presbyterianism, 2 very distinct theological threads. In W.O Mitchell's play The Black Bonspiel of Wullie MacCrimmon, which is set in the 1930's Saskatchewan, the local United Church minister visits the lead character, a proud Scots Presbyterian. The minister asks why Wullie hasn't been around much. Wullie replies that he was born Presbyterian, will die Presbyterian and now that the church has turned (shudder) Methodist. This scene strikes to the conflict between those two threads.

The Presbyterians and Congregationalists came from the Reformed theological tradition, the strand descended from John Calvin. Methodists came from a movement within the Anglican Church founded by John and Charles Wesley. The two traditions held some things in common but disagreed strenuously on others, especially around the doctrine of humanity and free will. The tension between those two streams still exists in many places within the United Church. And it is because of that tension that it can be hard to say "this fully contains what we believe".

The second challenge also comes from our roots, specifically from the Congregationalists. They were a denomination where each congregation was quite independent, which is where the name comes from. Many churches are what we call Confessional churches. That is to say that when you become a member you agree to adhere to a specific set of beliefs -- some even require you to sign a statement to that effect. The United Church is non-Confessional. The story goes that at the time of union the Presbyterians truly wanted to have all members of the Order of Ministry sign in agreement with the Articles of Faith but the Congregationalists said no, we don't want that. Instead we are required to be in essential agreement. Believe me, in final year classes in seminaries across the country there is a lot of discussion about what essential agreement actually means. I believe that it is good that we are non-Confessional. It is good because is allows us to lift up the diversity and inclusivity that is a hallmark of United Church faith.

Whatever else we believe, we believe that we don't all have to be the same. And so it is hard to determine what we believe sometimes. In fact we were talking about this at our Conference Communication Committee meeting last month. One of the goals of the Communication committee is to get the United Church's story out there. And we realize that what most of us do is say "I can't speak for the church, I can't say what we believe or what we think. Somebody might disagree with me." But we realized that what we can all do, especially those of us who are long-time members of the United Church, who have grown in this church, is say "this is what I believe!". We say that and trust that the church has shaped us, shaped our beliefs so that by saying what I believe I help lay out what the United Church believes. What I believe has been shaped by where I have grown. If I had been raised Catholic or Baptist I would believe different things. Certainly there are things that we share. We share that message that Paul shared with the church in Corinth. We believe with the rest of Christianity that Christ died and that Christ was raised, that this has something to do with the forgiveness of sins (even if there is debate about how that forgiveness is tied to cross and tomb).

In preparing for this sermon I did some research, looking at various ways we can find out what the church, as an institution says what it believes. This is the United Church Manual. It is our constitution as a church. At the beginning is the Basis of Union, the document hammered out almost 100 years ago to bring the United Church into being. Part of that document is the 20 articles of Faith, those things ordained and diaconal ministers are required to be in essential agreement with. They are in old language, they are hard to interpret at times, and there are things that we find hard to agree with -- which is why essential agreement comes in handy. For example, here is part of the first Article Of God We believe in the one only living and true God, a Spirit, infinite, eternal and unchangeable, in His being and perfections; the Lord Almighty, who is love, most just in all His ways, most glorious in holiness, unsearchable in wisdom, plenteous in mercy -- and then it goes on from there. As I said, it is 100 years old, not language that we use all that often anymore.

In 1940 the church issued a Statement of Faith. It's article on God begins: We believe in God, the eternal personal Spirit, Creator and Upholder of all things. We believe that God, as sovereign Lord exalted above the world, orders and overrules all things in it to the accomplishment of His holy, wise, and good purposes. And then it goes on from there.

Later we have the New Creed, first written in 1968 and updated in 1980 (when the language was made inclusive) and in the mid 1990's when the line to live with respect in creation was added. And the church is in the process of drafting a new statement of faith. It is 12 full pages long. One of the results of our diversity and inclusivity is that our statements of faith get longer. The new statement of faith's discussion about God covers 3 pages, as they try to cover the breadth and depth of our understanding of God.

So there are ways to find out what the church says. Why so many different ones? Because it is in our roots to say that in each new generation the church needs to restate the faith in the language and terms of that generation. As the preamble to the 1940 statement puts it: Christians of each new generation are called to state it afresh in terms of the thought of their own age and with the emphasis their age needs. In fact at the time of Union in 1925 there were already voices claiming that the Articles of Faith, then roughly 20 years old, were dated and inaccurate.

Other places to look would be what people have written about us. Both of these books, written as introductions to the United Church have a chapter on the faith. One is by Ralph Milton and is often used in confirmation classes This United Church of Ours, the other is by someone known to this congregation, Rev. Steven Chambers, it is called This is Your Church. They are good ways to look at who the United Church is.

We need to believe things to be a church. We believe in God who created the world, who was made known in Jesus of Nazareth. Some may remember about 10 years ago when then Moderator Very Rev. Bill Phipps was being interviewed by the Ottawa Citizen and made some relatively controversial statements about Jesus -- specifically that he did not believe Jesus of Nazareth was God. We debate how God worked through Jesus the man but we believe that God was revealed in Jesus. WE as a United Church of Canada believe that the cross is important. You can't always tell by looking at many United Churches on Good Friday but the cross is important. We believe talking about injustice is important, and the cross is a part of that discussion. WE also believe that Easter Sunday is important. We believe, as the New Creed says, in life, in death, in life beyond death God is with us. We are people of hope.

We also believe that it is important to take account of ourselves. It is important to ask ourselves how we express our faith and how that does or doesn't shut out people. And to ask if it should shut out people. We ask about shutting people out because our ethos, our way of living together says that we want to be seen as welcoming and open. We want to recognize diversity and welcome it. We want to recognize that the breadth of God's love expands human barriers, it is not set by human barriers. And so we believe that we had to take seriously question of gender equality, and human sexuality, and race relations. We don't always agree on where we get to, but if we take seriously a belief that diversity and inclusivity are valuable then we have no choice but to accept disagreement. And that disagreement and diversity continue to make it hard to describe this church in a sound bite, or in one article, or in one telling.

The answer, I believe, is to return to story. I don't think we ask for one over-arching statement. I think we start talking about what we as individuals believe and how the church has shaped that. Yes, sometimes that shaping happens because the church says something with which we disagree, and so we are pushed to put into words why we disagree. One of the things I have learned is that nothing pushes us to say what we believe as having friends and colleagues who will debate them with you. In debate we can grow -- when we don't engage our faith we run the danger of growing stale. We need to tell the stories of how the church has comforted, challenged, and led us as we grow in faith. The debate is not a sign of falling apart, it is a sign of honest, engaged Christians who take their church seriously. And as we tell enough stories we will start to get a picture of who the United Church is and what we believe.

The United Church does believe things. The United Church doesn't believe just anything. We are a diverse lot so it seems that we are fuzzy in our faith. But we believe in the God of love who is working in the world to change it. We believe that the faith we have inherited needs to be our own, which means that it will grow and change with the world. Our strength is in our diversity. Our witness is in our stories. Do you United Church folks believe anything? YES! Yes we do. Thanks be to God who challenges us to name and explore our faith.

Available On the United Church Website:
Summary of United Church Beliefs http://www.united-church.ca/ucc/summary.shtm

Important Statements of our Doctrine http://www.united-church.ca/ucc/webelieve.shtm

The 20 Articles of Faith from the Basis of Union (also available in every copy of the United Church Manual) http://www.united-church.ca/ucc/basisofunion/

The 1940 Statement of Faith http://www.united-church.ca/ucc/faithstatement.shtm

The New Creed (Voices United p.918) http://www.united-church.ca/ucc/newcreed/home.shtm

The New Statement of Faith (Draft) http://www.united-church.ca/ucc/faithtalk/pdf/faithtalk2.pdf

Books Worth a Look
Chambers, Steven: This is Your Church: A Guide to the Beliefs, Policies and Positions of the United Church of Canada ©1993 The United Church Publishing House.

Milton, Ralph: This United Church of Ours ©2000 Wood Lake Books


  1. I found your article interesting. The one thing I am still not sure of is whether or not you believe the bible to be the Holy word from God. Isn't that what your faith should stand on? Not to grow and change with the world. Diversify with the truth not with what the world wants? I think the diversity of the united church has caused confusion.The confusion as to what you really believe. I am disappointed to see that scripture isn't mentioned once as your base to faith.

  2. THe Bible is not the WORD. THe Bible contains the WORD. OR is words about the WORD if you prefer.

    WHile some UCCan folks are Biblical literalits they are few. ANd our diversity is based in the quest for the truth. ANd our quest is based on our understanding of how GOd is speaking to us both inside and outside Scripture.

    ALso, as mentioned, we are not a creedal church. We don't require everyone to agree on our doctrine. This can be seen as a weakness but I believe it to be our greatest strength.