The question was recently asked, why are we in The United Church of Canada really going through a process of restructuring? Is it to enable a resurrection or is it to enable a resuscitation of the church? I must confess it took me a few minutes to come to terms with the import of that question. The resuscitation of the church implies we are seeing things declining and so we seek to apply life support systems to prolong life. Resuscitation talk occurs when we are wanting to go back to the so called “good old days.” The thing about resuscitation is that there is the tacit acknowledgement that death will eventually happen, and we are only seeking to prolong what we have for a little longer.
Resurrection, however, points to a different reality. The church in proclaiming the resurrection of Jesus, for example, holds that resurrection is about new life. It is about putting away the old and inhabiting a new reality and way of being. Yes, resurrection implies that there has been a death. The only way to get to the Festival of the Resurrection (also called Easter Sunday) is to pass through the experience of the commemoration of the Crucifixion of Jesus (also called Good Friday). Holding the question initially asked about restructuring in mind, we must ultimately ask what in the present church must we allow to die if we are to experience resurrection?
The month of November began with the issues of life and death held before our consciousness. On November 1 we celebrate the Festival of All Saints and on November 11 we paused to observe Remembrance Day. In both events we acknowledged the fragility of life and the reality of death. Yet as a Christian community when we do this we are also acknowledging that “…in life, in death and life beyond death, we are not alone.” So like Paul, our faith leads us to proclaim that death holds no terror for us.
With all of that in mind I go back to my original question. What are we after, a resuscitated church or a resurrected church? If we are to have a resurrected church, then what must we allow to die? Could it be that there are some issues within The United Church of Canada which have served us well since union in 1925, but if we hold on to them any longer they will simply impede our ability to grow? It would be easy, too easy, to focus this discussion on the rate of church closures occurring now in Canada. It would be just as easy to point a finger at those congregations which are barely making ends meet and who may be living off their investments to stay open. Yet, let us not be too quick to point the finger.
To be clear my concern is neither about the proposed elimination of structures such as presbyteries or Conferences. No, I am going to try my best to stay clear of those issues right now. You see I believe that many of the things which we need to allow to die are some of the attitudes and ways of thinking which we may have in being church today.
I would not presume to be a know-it-all about The United Church of Canada. So, from the onset, let me issue the disclaimer that my statements are tempered by my limited observations and experiences in the church. As such I would not presume to have the authority to offer answers to all the issues which confront us. Yet from where I sit may I humbly offer the following issues which I think we need to look at again. Although many good reasons may be offered for why they are present, the real issue is should we continue to keep them.
The attitude that people no longer want to come to church, so let’s not invite them. While I was serving in Cold Lake, Alberta, I asked the congregation to join me in a “Invite someone to church Sunday.” I heard many reasons why people were uncomfortable to do that and why some would not even consider it. But some did it and those who came were happy that they were invited. I noted that another colleague did a similar thing recently in Kittscoty, Alberta and the results were amazing. Whether these people who were invited continued to attend is quite immaterial. You see the important thing learned was that we cannot assume all those outside of church want nothing to do with church. The thing is that if we invite people to come to church then we in the church must be willing to change some things to meet the needs of those who come. Could part of the reason for the reluctance to invite people to come to our churches be that we like what we have, and we do not want to change?
The attitude that assumes The United Church of Canada is an all-white or mostly white community and we will try to make space for the Indigenous and people of colour. This is a condescending attitude which is usually accompanied with the feelings that the foreigner or newcomer is welcomed if they want to come but we will not extend ourselves to invite them. The recent report from Statistics Canada reveal to us that one in every five persons in Canada was born outside of Canada. It is estimated that within the next 20 years it will be one in every four persons. If The United Church of Canada understands itself as the “last bastion of whiteness in Canada,” then this church will be out of step with the very country whose name it bears. This change in attitude goes beyond simply proclaiming that we are an intercultural church. It means that we must address those areas of systemic racism that exist in our systems, processes, and congregations. It means that we must put aside our defensiveness about xenophobia, racism, and white privilege in the church and do something about it. It means that we have work to do to help all who are in Canada know that there is a genuine and authentic welcome and space for them within our communities of faith.
The attitude of suspicion about every church structure beyond the congregation. Sometimes I have listened in despair as I hear people speak about the work of the presbyteries and worst yet about the General Council Office. You would swear at times, by what is said, that the people who function in presbyteries, Conference committees, and General Council Office and committees are either oblivious to the reality of church or are just simply clueless. Now I will acknowledge mistakes may have been made. Yet the atmosphere of suspicion is not helpful for anything good to occur in the church. When will we get it that we are one church and that in this one church everybody will not get everything they want? Where is the trust that we need to have in those who faithfully work with us and for us? If we carry this over into any new structure, then I dare say it will not be good. I wonder too if we need to look again at our language. We speak, for example, of “our church” (meaning congregation) and “the wider church” (meaning everything else). Yet have we noticed that the reference to the so-called “wider church” seems to suggest that this thing is really something external to us in the congregation? My work for presbytery, Conference, and General Council committees is as much work for the church as it is my congregation work.
The attitude where bureaucracy always trumps faith. Recently I sat in a meeting at the General Council Office and was told that the polity of The United Church is found in both the Manual and the handbooks. As many of you know, there are a great many handbooks in currency and one could get a doctoral degree trying to study them all. This coupled with the reality where it seems that people are more comfortable to remember that a motion must be made when dealing with financial issues than they are to be called upon to offer an impromptu prayer. It is the attitude that the things of the faith are secondary or not as important as ensuring that we are as business efficient as we can be. At the heart of this concern is the question of our identity. Are we a community of faith or are we simply a community of people seeking to do good things? The former is called a church, the latter is called a service club. No, I am not suggesting that we sacrifice efficiency on the altar of “holding hands and singing Kumbaya.” Instead I am suggesting that our faith in God should be seen in how we do business and in how we do church. It is our faith, more than our bureaucracy, which should show who we are as church.
Yet even as I hear those words, “what are you willing to let die to enable resurrection?,” I cannot help but realize that the words are also directed to me personally and to each person in the church. Personally, what are the attitudes and ways of thinking that I must let go of if I am to be truly part of a resurrected church? Now the question begins to lead me into some uncomfortable places. But they are places that I must go if I am to be authentic to myself when I look at the issues of the church. I dare say the same applies to every one of us.
—Paul Douglas Walfall is the ministry personnel in the Fort Saskatchewan Pastoral Charge in the Yellowhead Presbytery, Alberta and Northwest Conference.