This coming Sunday, June 10th, the United Church of Canada turns 93 – an opportunity to look back and celebrate our beginnings, when in 1925, Canadian Methodists, Congregationalists and 70% of the Presbyterians came together to create the first union of churches in the world to cross historical denominational lines. It was an event that sparked international interest, and since that time churches in many other countries have followed a similar pathway, including the United Reform Church in England, the United Church of Christ in the States, the Uniting Church of Australia.
We are a progressive church, and are committed to justice…. We were one of the first denominations to ordain women (1936); and the first to welcome LGBT people into full membership, including the possibility of being ordained (1988). And, while there is still so much to do, we were one of the first churches to recognize our complicity in the Indian Residential School system, apologizing in 1998 and actively participating in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Recently, however, as with most mainline, liberal Protestant churches in the west, times have changed. Our membership peaked at 1.1 million in 1964, but since then has been shrinking. In 2014 there were 413,717 members; and in 2016, it was reported that, on a regular basis, 132,459 people attended services in 2834 congregations. Members are getting older, and numbers continue to decline; as do our finances. At this summer’s General Council, we will be wrestling with ways to change our structure and organization in order to facilitate new ways of being church.
I love the United Church, even as I realize that churches and denominations come and go. But while I am working on being okay with the United Church becoming ever smaller, I remain incredibly keen that the “progressive voice” our church embodies does not get lost. In these secular times, when so many people are caught up in “rootless consumerism” or “wingless fundamentalism,” we have a responsibility, a calling, to offer a different vision of God –
God who is Holy Mystery, not a “Person” no matter how supernatural, but about whom it makes sense to talk of God’s desire to be in personal relationship with each and every one of us;
God who invites us to recognize and participate in the deep interconnectedness which is at the very heart of the universe;
God who is not the dominating, all-powerful controller of everything, but the God who has been revealed in the self-giving love of Jesus;
God who calls us forward into the work of loving the world, into a way of life that is joyful, compassionate, and committed to justice.
I want what happens in church on a Sunday morning to be full of urgency… where we know that something important is happening. I want to recapture an experience of Holy Spirit energy — not caught up in the theology and practices of the so-called “Pentecostal Churches,” but to feel alive, excited and changed. I want to engage in a way of life that is rooted in following Jesus — in joy, prayer, mysticism and action.
I want to acknowledge this 93rd birthday of the United Church with gratitude and with a renewed commitment to its vision of faith and love. My dream is that we will continue to discover what this means for those us who are in so many different ways, part of the community of St. Andrew’s-Wesley United Church.
Happy Birthday, United Church, happy birthday to you.