There's almost always something to be learned from critics, so I welcome Margaret Wente's July 28 Globe and Mail column entitled "The collapse of the liberal church" as an opportunity for learning.
I think there are several important lessons to learn, and I'll come to them in a moment. But first, if I may, none of these lessons has to do with the specific proposals that the church will consider this August in the report of its Working Group on Israel/Palestine Policy. That report rejects the call for a boycott of Israel and affirms Israel as a Jewish state, and so to suggest, as Wente does, that the United Church is "kicking Israel around" is disingenuous at best. The full report, along with a selection of responses to it, is available on the 41st General Council website.
What, then, is to be learned? At least three things.
First, there is a deep spiritual longing in us all. If there were not, people would not be so disappointed when they believe church leaders have fallen short. Most people active in the United Church (and, for that matter, in other faith groups) are engaged in daily and weekly practices of spiritual discipline, and have perhaps been too shy about publicly claiming this dimension of our lives. Our worship and prayer life simply don't get the attention that a few of our other concerns get. We must learn how to better communicate all dimensions of our living faith.
Second, spiritual longing notwithstanding, society has a deeply ambivalent relationship with the church, and any blind trust in church leadership is a thing of the past—as it is in so many other spheres of leadership including business, politics, and policing. The erosion of blind trust is healthy, but we have a responsibility to show how the church is working to earn a renewed trust.
Third, when we engage with complex issues, such as conflict in the Middle East or the moral imperative to address climate change, we need to take a long view. Historically, great social changes that came from the leadership of people of faith—William Wilberforce on abolishing slavery, Nellie McClung on getting women the vote in Canada, Martin Luther King Jr. on civil rights—took time. These people were not merely social reformers. They were motivated by faith, and it was their faith that inspired them in the first place and sustained them in the face of overwhelming opposition.
Today, groups like Youth for Eco-Justice are inspired by Jesus' claim that he came so all might have abundant life. These young adults know that climate change has been responsible for thousands if not millions of deaths already, and that growing food insecurity puts millions more at risk, particularly in the global South. They are indeed youth for Christ in their passionate commitment to whole Earth justice. But again, it takes some time and patience for this work to come to fruition.
One final lesson. Critics make new conversations possible. During my term as Moderator, I've found it difficult to get the attention of the so-called mainstream media on any of the urgent spiritual and moral matters of our day—other than Israel/Palestine, on which the media come to us.
And so, thank you, Margaret Wente. I expect your rather dismissive critique of the United Church will spark new conversations in my church and elsewhere. I don't presume to know where such conversations may lead. But when conversation is rooted in the love of God, I have no doubt it will bear fruits of the Spirit.
The United Church of Canada
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