Magazines 2019 Jul - Aug A splash of fresh water

A splash of fresh water

03 July 2019 By John G. Stackhouse

Atheist pastor Gretta Vosper doesn't define the United Church

Behold – a room full of unicorns!

I recently got to spend time with a group of people many Canadians thought had vanished from the face of the earth – United Church pastors who not only believe in God, but resolutely and enthusiastically put Jesus Christ in the centre of their work.

Previous renewal movements in the United Church were as conspicuous for what they were against (a more liberal Sunday School curriculum and women’s ordination in the 1960s, homosexual ordination in the 1980s) as for what they were for – orthodox Christianity.

This group Cruxifusion ("the Cross as their unity") by its own definition is "a network of United Church of Canada leaders proclaiming Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour."

Remarkably the older renewal movements – and there were several in a denomination as large and variegated as the United Church has been – have voluntarily closed up shop and handed over their assets to this new movement. (That in itself is a remarkable story.) They all agree – Jesus should be the centre, and He is.

At the Toronto conference I attended – and there were travel subsidies available to make attendance possible for pastors across the country – I did meet some of the people I expected to meet at a United Church event – middle-aged or older graduates of United Church seminaries who held to what they themselves called liberal theology, openness to same-sex marriage and a passion for social justice.

I also met, however, young people just graduating from seminary and not quite yet ordained. I met graduates of schools across an impressively wide spectrum – Redeemer University, Carey Theological College, Regent College, McCormick Theological Seminary and Harvard Divinity School.

I met pastors who like process theology and pastors who like The Gospel Coalition – movements that normally would be allergic to each other. I met pastors of tiny fourpoint charges (responsible for multiple small rural congregations) and pastors of significant metropolitan churches.

And I met the moderator of the United Church, Rev. Dr. Richard Bott, one of the main speakers at the event and a previous conference attendee. I spent a pleasant half hour with him, in fact, celebrating the United Church’s heritage of doctrine and piety focused on Jesus, and rooted in the Bible as, yes, the Word of God.

Bott spoke of how he enjoys helping United Church people trace the various statements of faith of their communion, creeds each one of which put Jesus Christ squarely in the centre.

Here is the New Creed, for instance, of the racy, radical 1960s:

We believe in God: 
who has created and is creating, 
who has come in Jesus, 
the Word made flesh, 
to reconcile and make new, 
who works in us and others by the Spirit.

That sounds orthodox to my ears. And here is what the Basis of Union says from way back at the origin of the church in 1925:

Article VII. Of the Lord Jesus Christ. We believe in and confess the Lord Jesus Christ, the only Mediator between God and man who, being the Eternal Son of God, for us men and for our salvation became truly man, being conceived of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary, yet without sin. Unto us He has revealed the Father, by His word and Spirit, making known the perfect will of God. For our redemption, He fulfilled all righteousness, offered Himself a perfect sacrifice on the Cross, satisfied Divine justice, and made propitiation for the sins of the whole world. He rose from the dead and ascended into Heaven where He ever intercedes for us. In the hearts of believers He abides forever as the indwelling Christ; above us and over us all He rules; wherefore unto Him we render love, obedience, and adoration as our Prophet, Priest and King.

You might want to tweak a phrase or two, but this doctrine is clearly in the Great Tradition of the Church.

Clearly while these Cruxifusion folk are not all evangelical or conservative (or even, by their own profession, orthodox), what they are instead is centred on Jesus Christ – not just God, or Spirit or Whatever You Like, contrary to the stereotypes of the United Church held by secular and conservative Christian critics alike.

And, it should be noted, their distance from Gretta Vosper’s noisy nonsense is absolute.

Is the United Church over? Oh, not yet.

And now I can point to at least 300 reasons why not.