Wednesday, March 26, 2008

On the side of the angels?

I have fond memories from the 15 years I spent in the United Church of Canada -- unlike the fundamentalist churches, no one really cared about doctrinal orthodoxy, they didn't dump big guilt trips on people, didn't have trivial scruples about things like alcohol or "approved" entertainment, and they actually tried to grapple honestly with the results of Biblical scholarship and modern science (that, and I loved being in the choir). It was a good place for a refugee from fundamentalism to have a community and think things through. In the end, of course, I thought myself all the way out the back door into atheism, but that's another matter.....

So, for nostalgiac reasons if nothing else, I'm pleased to hear two items about the UC of C that came to my attention this week.

Item #1: The denominational magazine The United Church Observer is helping sponsor the travelling Darwin exhibit that opened this month at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. From the official press release:
"We were dismayed to learn that the exhibit had been unable to secure corporate sponsorship in Toronto or in any of the other North American cities where it has been mounted," said Editor/Publisher David Wilson. "Our support is modest but symbolic. If a small church-based operation such as The Observer doesn't fear a backlash from those who oppose Darwin's theory of evolution, then secular corporate entities with much greater resources shouldn't fear it either."
Good on them, I say; and shame on all the chicken-$#!* big corporations that were afraid of bad PR. (BTW: the Humanist Association of Canada, of which we are members, is also a sponsor).

As to the Darwin exhibit itself: we saw it at the Field Museum in Chicago, and highly recomend it. We may even make the trip to TO to see it again, if say there were to be a get-together of like-minded folks, with beer....

Item #2: Some of the most liberal folks in the UC of C seem to be trying to do away with God:
There is no authoritative Big-Godism, as Rev. Gretta Vosper, West Hill's minister for the past 10 years, puts it. No petitionary prayers (“Dear God, step into the world and do good things about global warming and the poor”). No miracles-performing magic Jesus given birth by a virgin and coming back to life. No references to salvation, Christianity's teaching of the final victory over death through belief in Jesus's death as an atonement for sin and the omnipotent love of God. For that matter, no omnipotent God, or god.
In place of all that, Vosper wants to rework the traditional language and ritual into very human, down-to-earth values:
She wants salvation redefined to mean new life through removing the causes of suffering in the world. She wants the church to define resurrection as “starting over,” “new chances.” She wants an end to the image of God as an intervening all-powerful authority who must be appeased to avoid divine wrath; rather she would have congregations work together as communities to define God – or god – according to their own worked-out definitions of what is holy and sacred. She wants the eucharist – the symbolic eating and drinking of Jesus's body and blood to make the congregation part of Jesus's body – to be instead a symbolic experience of community love.
Of course, this does prompt me to wonder why they don't all just go off and join the Unitarians, whom it seems to me have been there for years. Or even more: it sounds a lot like secular humanism dressed up in traditional religious language.

Nonetheless, if they keep this up, I might have to rejoin the place in about 20 or so years ;-).


bPer said...

Hi EK,

My father was a minister in the United Church. Regarding "the United Church of Canada ...didn't have trivial scruples about things like alcohol", well yes, that's more-or-less true, but I always thought it was prudish and petty to serve grape juice as 'wine' at communion. It was, however, the only times we ever had grape juice in the manse - we got the leftovers! :)

Your second item was a real eye-opener for me. A while back, my mother and I had a chat about the wide variety of doctrine in Ottawa UC congregations. She never mentioned this issue (admittedly Vosper is in Toronto). It was clear from her comments that there is a lot of discussion going on about the great variety of doctrine locally, but all of it is under the radar. If Vosper's approach becomes a movement within the church, I think the UCC is in for a very divisive schism. There are still a good number of doctrinally-conservative members of the church (although they're slowly dying off) and I doubt they'd put up with such a watering-down of church dogma. I imagine they're still sore over the whole gender-neutrality movement of the '70s and '80s, and the whole gay issue, and this might be the last straw that drives them to take a stand.

I've been an atheist since university days, but I still have a soft spot for the UC. They have been powerful advocates for progressive social change, and have clearly tried to shoe-horn what parts of Christianity that they could into that progressive world-view. This was readily apparent to me as a teenager and I've always wondered why they couldn't see it that way too.


Jonny_eh said...

Sounds like Humanistic Judaism, only Christian.

monado said...

Growing up, my cousins were UC and we were Anglican (and our other cousins were Catholic). The grape juice was explained to me as the "church didn't want to tempt a reformed alcoholic." But it was disappointing to me as Communion wine was the only taste of wine I got as a young teen and I liked it. I believe it was some sort of sickeningly sweet Mogen David.