Canadian Christianity: The United Church of Canada — Part Three

The previous articles in this series on the United Church of Canada can be found here and here.

Today I’m pleased to welcome Rev. Nick Phillips to the blog. Nick is a pastor in the United Church of Canada and lives and ministers in the Maritimes. He also blogs at maritimers.ca

Welcome Nick. Could you start by telling us a little bit about yourself? How long have you been pastoring? How long have you been a part of the UCC, and maybe a bit of how you found yourself becoming a pastor in the UCC?

Thanks for having me. It’s great to get to know our brothers and sisters in the Canadian blogosphere better!
I’ve been a pastor for 3 years after joining the United Church of Canada in 2002. I did not grow up in the church, but getting involved while working in Ottawa I discovered the awesome love of God shown to us in His Son and joined the church. From there my involvement grew into the realization God had a place for me in formal leadership in the church. Through prayer and discernment (and trying to talk myself out of it), God spoke to me in a service on January 12, 2003 that I was going to be a pastor. That was it. End of discussion. After going through “the process” I was ordained in 2009.

How is God working in your congregation? On the flip side, what are some the challenges that your congregation faces in ministering in the Maritimes?

The challenges to the mainline churches are no secret to anyone. We are battling age. Our old, expensive buildings. Our aging membership. Declining membership. Declining finances. My church is not all that different than what seems to be the norm these days. The struggles we face are not unique to the Maritimes or the United Church of Canada, but we seem to be the face of it these days according to media reports.

However, I can say that God is very much at work in our church. My congregation has experienced spiritual growth over the last few years, and while it may not be reflected necessarily with more bums in the pews, we are working at discovering what God has in mind for us as a church in the community we serve. I am very excited to see what God is preparing us for in the next few years.

The UCC has been in the Canadian news quite a bit because of its General Conference meeting that met earlier this month. The biggest headlines were two resolutions that were passed: a statement regarding the Northern Gateway Pipeline, and a partial boycott of products made in Israeli settlements. What impact will these actions have on the UCC community? Several commentators have said that the UCC is functioning more as an activist/lobbyist group than a church. What do you see as the relationship between religion and social justice?

The UCC is made up of wonderful people from all walks and stages of life. Some of us are comfortable working at the grassroots level, providing ministry and care to our local communities. Others are passionate about global issues and work at the national level to bring about the changes they think are best.

While there are people across the church who are in opposition over these particular decisions made by the church, the effect on the local community is varied. There will be some in local church members who feel strongly one way or another about these decisions, others don’t see how it will affect us at the grassroots level and won’t pay too much attention to it. So the impact is dependent on the passions and concerns of the people in the local church.
Now, are we a church or a lobbyist group? That’s a good question. Jesus certainly addressed justice concerns at times in his ministry, so there is a definite connection between religion and social justice. As I mentioned above, there are people who are passionate about global justice issues and will bring their concerns to a national level. This may, or may not, reflect the values of the whole church, but we will debate and decide actions to take with the people we elect to meet at the General Council. What is often lost in these debates is what may have initiated the action, which I hope is a response to an urging of the Holy Spirit.

The people in our local churches are seeking a relationship with God and meaning for our churches. We are hungry for experiences with our living God. But we also exist in a religious structure which can often behave more politically than spiritually. I hope that as people in the UCC, we do our best to find an appropriate balance of healthy spirituality which prompts our political actions.

As well, the UCC made history by electing its first gay moderator. Could you explain the role of the moderator in the UCC? I find it interesting that the moderator does not have to be an ordained pastor to hold the post (e.g., outgoing moderator Mardi Tindal)

The role of the moderator is a “spiritual guide” for the church. This person is elected at General Council, and it can be any member of the United Church, ordained, commissioned or lay.
The moderator holds a three year term in which they use their gifts to move and inspire the church. Some focus on spiritual matters, others on environmental issues, or care for a certain segment of the church (such as clergy health and support). The moderator does not have any ability to direct any changes in the church, but will spend the three years travelling across the nation (and Bermuda which has churches in the UCC) meeting with and speaking to members about issues we are seeing in the church. He or she will also be our national representative to other churches and international organizations.

What strengths and gifts does Rev. Paterson bring to the role of moderator? What does the election of Rev. Paterson mean for conservative congregations within the denomination? How is the election of an openly gay pastor to the leadership of the UCC going to impact relations with other Christian denominations?

I won’t deny the fact there will be people in our church who are upset at the election of a gay moderator. What my hope is though, is that people will be more focused on Jesus and the theology and spiritual nature of our moderator and base their opinions of him on those qualities, not his personal lifestyle. I do not know a lot about Rev. Paterson aside from what I’ve seen in the lead up to his election. Looking at his responses (http://cruxifusion.ca/rev-gary-paterson/) to the questions put forward by Cruxifusion (a network of Christ centred clergy in the UCC) he would seem to represent a fair match to the national church. That is, he lists a reasonably wide theological spread of authors and would overall appear to not be too out of line with the general ethos of the UCC. In watching the videos of when he spoke to the General Council, it is also quite apparent he is a charismatic speaker who helps draw people in through story telling. Following his election I did find some of his sermons online that I read and must confess that, as a conservative in the UCC, some of his theology troubles me. It will be very interesting to see what impact he has on the church over the next three years. What I think I can say is that he has a passion for faith, and I hope it relates strongly to a faith in Jesus Christ as the Son of God and it spreads throughout our denomination.

As for the impact on relations with other denominations? Again, I would hope personal lifestyle would be trumped by working together in the name of Jesus Christ.

Many of the conservative, and small “o” orthodox pastors, members and even entire congregations left the UCC in the 80’s. Faith Today, a Canadian magazine recently had an article about renewal movements in mainline churches including the UCC. But alongside the renewal movement there are also congregations in the UCC that are practically non-Christian. Gretta Vosper, an ordained pastor has declared that she is a non-theist and pastors a church whose vision and purpose of ministry statement says nothing about Jesus in it. Is this tension between two very different understandings of what “church” is able to hold within one denomination? Is it healthy?

One of the great things about the UCC is that we are accepting of many different views and with that comes wonderful discussions. However, it is also one of our greatest challenges as we often lose sight of what our core values are. The good news, from my point of view, is that with the emergence of Cruxifusion, we are seeing a good number of people express a deep desire for a closer walk with Jesus Christ in the church. I believe we are seeing a much greater desire for this, especially in our younger leaders, than interest in post or non-theism.
What are some of the challenges facing the UCC denomination over the next decade?

The challenges we face are around what the church will look like in the next 10 years. With the financial struggles and declining membership, how will we effectively provide ministry and what will it look like? Can we continue to support our national structure? If not (and we already know we can’t), what will it look like? Also, where will we be theologically? As you indicate, there is tension in our understanding about what “church” is, and it will be interesting to see this play out over the next decade. No doubt we will see lobbying and attempts to move the church in different ways, and how will it evolve or turn out? This we can only place in the hands of God and trust in His guiding Spirit.

Are there any things that Canadian Christians can pray for in the UCC? How can we lift you and your congregation up in prayer?

Like all mainline denominations in Canada, we need to pray for God’s wisdom and courage to be bold in expressing what we believe, namely Jesus is our friend, our guide, our protector and most importantly our Saviour. We need to pray together as we discern the future of the Christian church in a rapidly progressing secular society for ways in which to provide ministry through offering the hope, peace, joy and love of God to the local communities in which we serve.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

I want to thank you for inviting me into this conversation and may God bless you and all your readers.