If we were talking about our human lifetimes, on June 10th we would say our church is marking a milestone birthday – 90 years.
When a baby is born, there is so much hope, anticipation, expectation, excitement, rejoicing, sharing of the news and possibly trepidation that, as parents, would we be up to the task? I am sure there were all of those feelings as folks gathered in the Mutual Street Arena in Toronto 90 years ago. Talks had been ongoing seriously since 1908 between the Methodist, Congregational and Presbyterian denominations about forming a new church, and even as they celebrated a new Basis of Union, there were Presbyterian congregations who just could not commit to the new entity and stayed as they were.
The Basis of Union states clearly the “freedom of worship in the negotiating churches shall not be interfered with”, and today the wide variety of formats and styles of worship speaks to a fulfilling of that statement. Most United church services in the early days focused on preaching, with communion being offered 4 times a year. By the 1930’s the new identity was clearly formed, the first hymnal, The Hymnary, was published in 1930, and the unique perspective on social justice and intergenerational work was evident in its collection of gospel and children’s hymns, its social gospel texts and prose psalms.
The United Church was always active in public life and the depression of the 1930’s saw us giving aid to those in need and also the progressive step of recognising the role of women in ministry through ordination. World War II saw some members as pacifists while others enlisted. Our ministers either worked for peace or became military chaplains. Discussions with the Anglicans led to new partnerships – the Canadian Council of Churches in 1944, and the World Council of Churches in 1946. In the 1950’s, the UC led the way in welcoming divorced members into the full life of the congregation, at a time when other denominations refused them the sacraments.
The stability of the 1950’s, turned into social turmoil in the 60’s as members were active in support of social change both within and outside Canadian borders. Theologically liberal and conservative members were vocal and the more conservative group formed the United Church Renewal Fellowship. Issues of language, theology, and liturgical experimentation as well as discussions with the Anglicans about union were causing division within congregations and some people left the church or moved to another congregation that they felt held up their ideologies more comfortably. Out of that chaos came a new statement of our faith – The New Creed was developed and accepted in 1968, and The Service Book for the use of the people was published in 1969. In it, the lectionary and liturgical calendar are much more evident and it led to a greater congregational participation.
In 1962, the WMS and WA united to form the United Church Women, with a new purpose – to unite the women of the church. While many organisations fade and/ or reorganize after 25 years, this one has lived into maturity and at 53 years still brings women together in many different ways.
Ecumenism reached its height in the early 1970’s and as we moved into hopes of a union with the Anglican Church and the Disciples of Christ, another new hymnary, The Hymn Book, was published. The lifespan of hymn books is generally recognised as 25- 30 years, so The Hymnary was certainly past the best before date, but the new hymnal did not meet with much approval, and the Anglicans decided to pull out of negotiations. However there was an agreement on accepting the mutual recognition of baptism between the United, Anglican Lutheran, Presbyterian and Roman Catholic churches, which made interdenominational marriages much easier.
Worship styles were changing, contemporary music of the secular world was penetrating the stone walls of the sacred and new hymns and rhythms were penetrating our senses. Rev. John Ambrose was working at Church House as Special Assistant – Worship and seeing the variety of worship resources that he was receiving from across the country, he created Getting it All Together, a magazine to provide fresh resources for congregational worship and an outlet to share the creative things congregations were doing. In 1983 it became Gathering.
In the 1980’s there were many issues to give us food for thought -the women’s liberation movement had a definite impact on the United Church and beyond; inclusive language became the buzzword of the day. The election of the first woman moderator, Rev. Lois Wilson, in 1980, then the first laywoman – Anne Squire in 1986, increased lay leadership in worship, and then the issue of human sexuality – that big decision in 1988, our relationship with First Nations people, apartheid in South Africa – many of us had never given much thought to any of these things, yet they were now not just about church, but rather Canadian society as a whole, shaping us as a people, not just a denomination, and in many cases our United Church was a leader in public opinion, and paid for it in the press and also the pew. Our disenchantment with the RED hymn book, saw us embracing a western Canadian supplement Songs for a Gospel People in 1987, and a growing sense of ecumenism saw the Geneva gown being replaced by seasonal stoles and vestments.
The diversity of Canadian culture brought a diverse population to our doors. The Ethnic ministries was inaugurated in 1996. Stanley McKay was our first Aboriginal Moderator, establishing the Healing Fund in 1994. The first openly gay minister, Tim Stevenson, our present moderator’s partner, was ordained in 1992. Work was commenced on producing a new hymn resource, and in 1996 the world embraced Voices United. Its inclusive language, prayers from across the theological spectrum, breadth of classic and contemporary texts and tunes and its order based on the Revised Common Lectionary made it an instant hit across denominational lines. In 2000, the service book, Celebrate God’s Presence was published giving us a huge resource of liturgical material to draw from for all occasions. As intercultural elements in worship spread through the churches, in 2007, More Voices opened us up to hymns and rhythms from around the world as well as keeping us up to date in more traditional music with new words.
We still believe we are stronger “United” than apart, and continue to witness through work on environmental and human rights issues, embracing those in the margins of society – the homeless, the poor, refugees, First Nations and transgendered individuals. Our theological perspective has been updated through the years with the 1940 Statement of Faith, the 1968 New Creed, and A Song of Faith in 2006. Freedom to worship with diversity and tolerance of differences have been the hallmark of the last 90 years, where everyone is welcome at the table of Christ.
I want to acknowledge the article in the current Gathering by Teresa Burnett-Cole of Glebe-St. James United Church in Ottawa for much of the historical information I have just shared with you.
With all this history behind us, it is with trepidation that we await the convening of this year’s General Council. We know that while we are a religious order, we have a responsibility to manage our affairs in a worldly manner and to be fiscally responsible. Forecast deficits of $5 - $9 in each of the next three years, have shaken us into the reality of a changing world. The world where life stops on Sunday morning and we all go to church, is long gone. We live in a world where relationships are no longer a handshake, but a tweet. A world that is changing
faster than we want to admit. Yesterday’s news is history almost before we hear about it. We have to reorganize, and quickly. The task is monumental, but essential. Out of the meeting will come questions for us to consider – remits, they are called, and we will have to vote on them. They will not change our beliefs, just how we carry out our business. Having heard the chair of the Comprehensive review task committee, Rev. Cathy Hamilton speak a couple of times, I have felt something of the spirit that was present in the 1920’s, a feeling of optimism, mixed with uncertainty; a feeling of hope for positive change mixed with a wish for things to stay the same; a feeling of God at work to maintain our church as a community of faith, alive and visible in an uncertain world. The work this committee has done deserves our thanks. Cathy spoke of the scripture which seemed to always be in front of them – Jesus telling the disciples to fish on the other side of the boat. This committee has put together the hull, it is up to us to build the deck and keep the engine running smoothly and move ahead as a church. As a congregation, we will probably have more responsibilities, with less oversight from Presbytery or whatever new body emerges to replace it. The financial adjustments to keep our national boat afloat will need our prayers and understanding. For those who undertake the preparing of these documents, we must pray for patience and vision, and through it all we will feel the Spirit at work to enable us to be united for many more years to come.
I attended the Montreal & Ottawa Conference at the end of May. The theme was “On Holy Ground”, with the story of Moses and the burning bush as scripture. Rev. Brian Copeland was the theological reflector, and in his closing reflection he gave us the image of a window blind – when General Council initiated the Comprehensive Review, the blind was down, the view through the window was blocked, but with that faint glimmer around the edge. As their ideas began to circulate and be examined by the Presbyteries the blind began to lift a little, letting in some of the light from outside. The weekend conference had helped to lift the blind a bit more, with some steady and determined work – that’s what lifting needs. Next month when General Council meets in Newfoundland, the blind will hopefully lift up enough for us to start to see the view outside the window. Over the next year, as the blind rises, we will see more of the outside light coming in and in time, we will have the whole view. That view will be a new, refreshed United Church, rejuvenated, repurposed and revitalized. It will be on a firm, but flexible financial footing able to bend and adjust through whatever the future holds.
Could our forefathers and mothers have foreseen the future when they went forward with faith in their hearts and formed our church 90 years ago? No. Did the baby grow and flourish? Yes. Were they good parents, grandparents and great-grand parents? Yes. Can we see the future? No. But is the God we serve the same – yesterday, today and forever. A resounding – YES. As Paul said to the Corinthians – we walk by faith, not by sight. Therefore, if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away, all things become new. May that be your prayer for our church and its commissioners in the days ahead.
Let us pray:
We give thanks for the United Church – 90 years of prayer and praise centred on the Holy one. 90 years of receiving the Word and living its challenge. 90 years of support and joy in so many different communities of faith. 90 years of justice and reconciliation with Christ at its centre. 90 years of striving and searching for a faith that is authentic and has integrity. We give thanks for this United Church of ours, and give thanks for 90 years of receiving the Spirit’s blessing, and being a blessing in Canada and far beyond our shores. Amen.Type your paragraph here.
Download pdf of "This United Church of Ours" by June MacMillan.