Saturday, August 31, 2019

Book Review: Church Reformed

The Barnabas Agency was kind enough to send me a review copy of Church Reformed, by Tim Bayly (Warhorn Media, Bloomington IN, 2019, 166 pages) - it is available from Amazon in Canada and the United States.

I was intrigued by the news release, which says:

In the newly released Church Reformed, (published July 2019, Warhorn Media) Pastor Tim Bayly draws on over 35 years of ministry to address the failures of the American evangelical church. As he exposes the lies Christians have believed, he shows how the Church is at the heart of what it means to be a Christian.

Evangelical publishing has had a field day presenting solutions to the modern crises in our churches. As church attendance falters, books multiply—books on growth, strategies for reaching millennials, new models of doing church to appeal to youth, and on and on ad nauseam.

Too many of these models take their cue from the very trends and ideas that have caused the problems. But what if there was a way to climb out of the hole we’ve dug? What if the church found the power to attract people we thought we’d lost—just by returning to a humble, biblical pattern of church life?

Church Reformed is a call to embrace what we see modeled for us in the Bible and by our fathers in the faith across church history. It's a call to be committed to the Church that Jesus Christ bought with his own precious blood. As Tim says,

"Jesus loves the Church, and we should too."

I certainly agree that there is a veritable publishing industry built up around books, strategies and models for church growth and "getting the young people back in." I'm also of the firm belief that decline in church attendance and influence in North America is the result of demographic and cultural changes that no one model or strategy is going to reverse. So I was interested to read what Tim Bayly, who is senior pastor at Trinity Reformed Church in Bloomington, Indiana, has to say.

Bayly begins by stating that "one of the legacies Evangelicalism has bequeathed to Christians today is growing separation between becoming a Christian and becoming a member of the Church of Jesus Christ." I wholeheartedly agree, although with the caveat that I also encounter lots of people who claim membership in the Church while not having been active in the Church for years. But as Bayly says, the Church is no longer viewed as essential to Christian growth as, for instance, conferences, Facebook groups, music, podcasts, Christian books, and so on. The age-old temptation of believers - one we find reflected even in patristic writings, 15 centuries old, not to mention C.S. Lewis' Screwtape Letters and many other works - is to think that people will come to faith more easily if they can avoid all the drama of the Church: infighting, hypocrisy, abuse of authority.

Church Reformed is, in Bayly's words, a call to return to our Mother the Church and love her - to put it another way, to commit ourselves as disciples of Jesus to involvement in a local community of faith and to the authority, accountability, deep relationship and, yes, even discipline that comes with it. "Jesus loves his sheep. He expects His servants to love them also. How can we claim to love Jesus while turning our noses up at the smell of His flock?"

Bayly goes on to look at who is the Church, grounding his own writing in the words of scripture and the Reformers, specifically Martin Luther and the Westminster and Belgic Confessions (coming from a Reformed tradition myself, I appreciated this). He follows this with one of two very helpful chapters on sacramental theology, this section dealing with baptism, how we enter the Church. The book then moves into its second part, what does the Church do, with four devotions (found in Acts 2:44-47) that were the priorities of the apostolic church: the teaching of the apostles, fellowship, the breaking of bread, and prayer. Each has its own chapter, with that on the breaking of bread, the Lord's Supper, being the second in the book on sacramental theology. Bayly proceeds in the book's third part to examine threats to the Church: naiveté, hypocrisy and "gathering goats." This last chapter critiques the modern Christian emphasis, at least in North America, on money and numbers as measures of church growth and "success"; "what we're really saying," Bayly comments, "is that we want to do whatever we can to add people without having to discipline, feed, rebuke, clothe or love them."

So I appreciated Church Reformed, with its grounding in scripture and the Christian, specifically Reformed, tradition, and its call to commitment to the local faith community with all its blemishes and joys. But at a few points Bayly's writing irked me. One of his main points is his preaching against schism; the local church may have many defects and sins, but the believer must remember that while the Church has never been perfect, Jesus owns her, and He is the one who says He came for sinners. Bayly says in one moving passage about the experience he and his wife had one local church, "that church was beautiful, and it was as weak and needy and sinful as we were. (It) loved us despite how weak and needy and sinful we were, and we loved her back."

But a few pages prior to this story, he writes in criticism of readers who say that "no church should ever be given up on and that's the reason you're still in your pro-abortion, pro-feminist, pro-gay church of Satan." So what is the dividing line? When is a church too "weak and needy and sinful," in his view, for followers of Jesus to continue to be members? Bayly himself admits that he and his spouse attended a church that had women elders, even though he is a strong complementarian, writing in the chapter on apostolic teaching about the issue of women elders and staff in congregations, and stating that "the real test of our devotion to the teaching of the apostles is whether we use the pulpit to call the women of the congregation to submit to their husbands."

His disdain for mainline Protestant churches is evident throughout, even for denominations that come from the same Reformed tradition. He was in the Presbyterian Church (USA) at one time, which he describes as having "deeply wicked" pastors and elders who endorse "the slaughter of the unborn" and "fornication, adultery, sodomy, and every other form of sexual perversion." Elsewhere he claims that "it is true that mainline churches have abandoned all pretense of fidelity to Scripture," and introduces his writing on prayer during worship by saying that "I'm not talking about liberal churches, but conservative congregations who would see themselves as committed to the Bible and to the Lordship of Jesus Christ."

Being ordained in what he calls a "church of Satan," a denomination with a Reformed heritage which has had women and LGBTQ people in leadership for decades and at one time saw itself as "liberal evangelical," I have to push back. Bayly may not think that mainline churches have any commitment to the Bible and the Lordship of Jesus, but I am surrounded by clergy and lay colleagues with a deep love for the Trinitarian God, who proclaim that Jesus is Saviour and Lord, and who invest many hours in studying, pondering and praying about the Biblical text so they can preach in a way faithful to the Reformers who made the sermon the centrepiece of worship. I utterly reject that mainline Protestants have abandoned fidelity to scripture - in fact, I am so tired of hearing this that whenever I come across it on social media I ask for details. Did the person making this criticism hear this directly in a sermon or read it in a publication? If so, how is it unfaithful? Are they simply repeating something they believe, or do they have evidence for this claim?

And I was struck that Bayly devotes six pages of his chapter on prayer to the elements of Reformed Lord's Day worship from the 16th century: call to worship, prayer of confession, assurance of pardon, the Ten Commandments, psalm or hymn, prayer for illumination, scripture reading, sermon and closing prayer, pastoral prayer and Lord's prayer, psalm, Lord's Supper, and blessing. He calls on modern evangelical pastors and elders to study the order and wording in worship during the Reformation and how the Reformers returned practices to those of the early Church. But who uses this liturgy today? Mainline Protestants. The service outline he presents is basically the one I use every Sunday, and very similar to that set out in The United Church of Canada's worship resource Celebrating God's Presence as a pattern of worship common to all Christians. Bayly would find that "churches of Satan" like ours, the United Church of Christ, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and other mainline churches are the most faithful to Reformed liturgical practice.

Bearing this in mind, any Christian, whether or not they are in church leadership, can benefit from reading Church Reformed in order to orient themselves to loving and participating in Christ's Body through the local church - remembering that in some instances the author assumes that his own interpretation of scripture and tradition is the correct, and only, one.

Monday, June 10, 2019

94th Anniversary of Church Union

The United Church of Canada was formed on June 10, 1925, 94 years ago. From C.T. McIntire's chapter, "Unity Among Many: The Formation of The United Church of Canada, 1899-1930," in The United Church of Canada: A History, edited by Don Schweitzer:
A rousing worship service in Toronto on the morning of Wednesday, June 10, 1925, formally inaugurated The United Church of Canada. In a flash, nearly all the Methodists and Congregationalists of Canada, as well as most Presbyterians and many independents, blended into one vast new nationwide body. The heat wave of previous days broke during the night of the ninth, just in time to help make the event 'an hour of palpitating joy.' Eight thousand people filed inside The Arena, a wrestling palace and professional ice hockey venue, transformed for the occasion into sacred space. Thousands of others in Toronto and across the country attended parallel services, and thousands more listened to the proceedings broadcasted live on the radio. Still more saw exhaustive reports in the newspapers the next day. The venue and the numbers spoke volumes. The United Church of Canada aspired to be Canada's church, a church of the people.
And from Phyllis Airhart's A Church with the Soul of a Nation: Making and Remaking the United Church of Canada:
The church that was ceremonially born in Canada on 10 June 1925 is usually cast as a new and youthful player on the international religious stage. Critics often panned it as modernist and depicted its founders as innovators who had been captivated by the novelty of church union. There was within the uniting traditions a strong progressive element, to be sure. Canadian churches were not the first to propose 'organic union' between rival confessional families, but such a proposition had never actually been consummated elsewhere on such a large scale.

Personally, I can't think of anything more fitting for a Canadian church than being founded in a hockey rink.

Sunday, April 28, 2019

The Body of Christ: Sermon, April 28, 2019

Then, the same day at evening, being the first day of the week, when the doors were shut where the disciples were assembled, for fear of the religious authorities, Jesus came and stood in the midst, and said to them, “Peace be with you.” When He had said this, He showed them His hands and His side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord.

So Jesus said to them again, “Peace to you! As the Father has sent Me, I also send you.” And when He had said this, He breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

Now Thomas, called the Twin, one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. The other disciples therefore said to him, “We have seen the Lord.”

So he said to them, “Unless I see in His hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe.”

And after eight days His disciples were again inside, and Thomas with them. Jesus came, the doors being shut, and stood in the midst, and said, “Peace to you!” Then He said to Thomas, “Reach your finger here, and look at My hands; and reach your hand here, and put it into My side. Do not be unbelieving, but believing.”

And Thomas answered and said to Him, “My Lord and my God!”

Jesus said to him, “Thomas, because you have seen Me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

And truly Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name.
John 20:19-31, New King James Version

We have read every word of the story in John’s Gospel of the death and resurrection of Jesus, beginning on Good Friday with his trial, execution and burial, through his grave being found empty on Easter morning and his appearance to Mary Magdalene. And today we pick up right where we left off in the Easter Sunday service, and we are now at the evening of Easter day. Remember that morning two of the male disciples had seen that the tomb was empty, the body of Jesus was not there, and then Mary Magdalene had come and announced to all of them that she had seen Jesus.

Now, here they are, still in hiding, for fear of the authorities who might be coming for them next. They must have been anxiously debating what this empty tomb and Mary seeing Jesus could mean. And Jesus himself comes and stands among them, even though the doors are locked, and greets them: “Peace be with you.”

So much of this Easter story deals with Jesus appearing in his resurrected body that I want to talk about this. On Easter morning his body isn’t in the grave. The cloths in which his corpse were wrapped are lying there as if the body just vanished. John is making the point that the risen Christ encountered by the disciples is the same as Jesus of Nazareth who they followed until his death. He shows them his body. He speaks. He can be touched. In other stories he holds things, he starts a fire, he cooks, he eats. He isn’t a ghost, or a reanimated corpse like a zombie. These were common in stories told at that time, and the Gospel writers want to rule this out. He is the same person as before.

But he is also mysteriously different; he can appear and disappear, he can go through or around locked doors, he isn’t always easily recognizable to friends who have known him for a long time. So Jesus is alive, but changed somehow.

On this evening of the first Easter, Jesus shows his disciples his hands and side, still bearing the wounds of his crucifixion. He does the same a week later, when Thomas is there. This means more than just proving that he is indeed the same man who was crucified. The body of Jesus is important in Christian thought, because we believe that, as we say in A New Creed, Jesus is the Word made flesh. John expands on this at the beginning of his Gospel: the Word, the divine, became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. The Word became flesh. The divine became human, in the body of Jesus – the body that is raised from death by God’s power.

And that resurrected body continues to carry the wounds of the nails and the spear, suffered for us. This is a powerful image for all of us. But it is tremendously meaningful for disabled people that the Word made flesh, the divine incarnated as human, has physical impairments. The Christ is disabled. His resurrected body, which presumably could have been without blemish, remains broken. For disabled people, who bear the marks of disability in their own bodies, this is truly liberating.

When we talk about the body of Jesus, we may not be speaking literally. We may be following the Apostle Paul, who calls the churches to which he is writing “the body of Christ.” The church is the continuation of the risen body of Jesus. In Scripture the church is born when the Holy Spirit is sent upon the followers of Jesus, as Jesus promised. In another story, in the Acts of the Apostles, the Spirit comes at Pentecost, after the final appearance of Jesus following Easter. Here, in John, it is on this Easter evening, as Jesus breathes on his disciples, an act of creating, just as when the world was formed, God breathed life into the first human. Jesus says, “receive the Holy Spirit.” He gives them the authority to forgive sins. The church has begun. This is an in between time, after the resurrection but before Jesus ceases to appear to his followers in his risen body. This is a transition period, from being able to see and touch and hear Jesus physically, to Jesus being present in the Holy Spirit. The church is to continue as his body.

We have been hearing a lot about churches lately. Church is guaranteed to get on the TV news twice a year, Christmas Eve and the Good Friday and Easter weekend. But there were also the terrible attacks on Easter worship services in churches in Sri Lanka. And the week before, the fire at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.

There was much emotional reaction to that fire, from people who have been to Paris and visited the cathedral, and from those who have never been there. Crowds of Parisians stood watching the fire and singing hymns. I think the response to the fire tells us something about the church as the body of Christ. We know, in our minds, that the words of the song are true: "the church is not a building, the church is not a steeple, the church is not a resting place, the church is a people." Church can be anywhere, for God can be anywhere. The psalm says, if I could fly on the wings of the dawn, to the farthest side of the ocean, even there God would be with me. Church can be outside. It can be in a house. That’s where the first churches were. Before our ancestors could build churches on the Canadian frontier, they worshipped in houses and outdoors. I have a drawing of Presbyterians in Upper Canada celebrating communion outside. In Beijing, China, I was told that there are 100,000 worshippers on Sunday, but only 21 Protestant church buildings, so many people attend at 500 affiliated meeting points in houses or offices or warehouses.

And yet, although we don’t need dedicated church buildings, we want sacred spaces. Every major religion has some kind of building for worship: a church, a synagogue, a mosque, a temple, a gurdwara. We can trace this progression through the Bible: God was worshipped at rough open-air altars, then at dedicated holy sites outdoors, and in a tent traveling with the people of Israel. King Solomon built a small temple; it was destroyed by invaders. The temple was rebuilt; it was destroyed. And the Jewish people continued to worship in synagogues.

Sacred buildings speak to us. They can be beautiful in their simplicity, like the Methodist chapel at Upper Canada Village. They can be lovely in their ornate art and exquisite architecture, like Notre Dame. They embody the body of Christ, with memories of generations who have gone before, and artifacts of the long-dead but remembered faithful. We are devastated when we lose them. Also last week, the United Church at Pacquet, Newfoundland, burned, and the members of that community were as much in grief as the people of Paris. In both places the heart, the centre, with all of its memories and associations, is gone.

And yet there is resurrection. The body of Jesus, which was broken and died on the cross, was raised from the grave. The body of Christ, the church, burned and blasted and broken in fires, in bombings, in floods, in scandals and decline and doubt, will rise again, as sure as springtime returns to bring new life to the barren land. The body retains the wounds it has suffered, but it still brings peace, forgives sins – and celebrates God’s presence, lives with respect in creation, loves and serves others, seeks justice and resists evil – and proclaims Jesus, crucified and risen, our judge and our hope. For in life, in death, in life beyond death, God is with us. We are not alone. Thanks be to God.

Friday, April 26, 2019

Essential Agreement

I am one of the authors of a document, released by the Theology and Inter-Church Inter-Faith Committee which I chair, on the meaning of "essential agreement" for United Church of Canada candidates for ministry and ministry personnel. This work was done at the direction of the last General Council (the 43rd, meeting in 2018) of the United Church. The document itself is on the United Church Commons - here is the summary statement.

From its beginning, The United Church of Canada has required persons entering ministry to be in “essential agreement” with the denomination’s Statement of Doctrine and to see that Statement of Doctrine as in substance agreeable to the teachings of Scripture.

The Statement of Doctrine currently consists of the Preamble and Twenty Articles that formed the original Doctrine section of the Basis of Union (albeit as that section has been amended on a few occasions since 1925), plus three other United Church faith statements adopted by various General Councils: the 1940 Statement of Faith, the New Creed (also known as the United Church Creed) in 1968, and A Song of Faith in 2006. Each of these documents expresses the substance of the Christian faith, as understood by the United Church, in the spirit and context of the time in which it was written.

Two common misconceptions exist about essential agreement. Some persons think that essential agreement means that a candidate must believe and accept each and every word of the United Church’s Statement of Doctrine. Others have concluded that because the denomination does not require “literal subscription” (i.e., literal agreement) to its Statement of Doctrine, a candidate for ministry, and ministry personnel themselves, can believe whatever they like and still claim to be in essential agreement. Neither understanding is accurate.

Essential agreement means that the examining committee must be able to find that a candidate they are interviewing stands sufficiently within the Christian tradition, as expressed in the United Church’s Statement of Doctrine, to be able to carry out ministry in the United Church faithfully, intelligibly, and with integrity. The examining committee must be able to reach this conclusion because those whom it agrees to recommend for authorized ministry must be able to teach, preach, do pastoral care, and provide outreach and service to the wider community in continuity with the Christian faith as expressed in the doctrine of the United Church. In carrying out the ministerial office, ministers re-present the Christian tradition and the United Church to those with whom they interact, both inside and outside the particular communities they serve. They need to be able to carry out those functions of ministry faithfully and with integrity.

Monday, January 07, 2019

Wise Men and Holy Innocents: Sermon for The Epiphany, January 6, 2019

Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him.”

When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born.

So they said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it is written by the prophet:
‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
Are not the least among the rulers of Judah;
For out of you shall come a Ruler
Who will shepherd My people Israel.’ ”

Then Herod, when he had secretly called the wise men, determined from them what time the star appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the young Child, and when you have found Him, bring back word to me, that I may come and worship Him also.”

When they heard the king, they departed; and behold, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came and stood over where the young Child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy. And when they had come into the house, they saw the young Child with Mary His mother, and fell down and worshiped Him. And when they had opened their treasures, they presented gifts to Him: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

Then, being divinely warned in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed for their own country another way.
Matthew 2:1-12, New King James Version

We have the Epiphany story so many of us love – wise men from the East come searching for a new king who has been born. They are guided by a star to the child Jesus and his mother, and they present gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. This is the story with the crowns because the wise men are traditionally called kings, the rich robes, the camels and the bright star overhead. We see it on Christmas cards and in nativity scenes.

But we stopped reading at verse 12, as the wise men decide not to tell King Herod where the child is. And after that the story takes a much more sinister turn. There are already hints of this, as Herod and his court are troubled that the wise men claim that a new king has been born. Herod tells them to go and find the child and bring back word, so that he may also go and worship him, and it seems that he may not be entirely sincere. Here is how the story continues in Matthew’s Gospel:

Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying, “Arise, take the young Child and His mother, flee to Egypt, and stay there until I bring you word; for Herod will seek the young Child to destroy Him.”

When he arose, he took the young Child and His mother by night and departed for Egypt, and was there until the death of Herod, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying, “Out of Egypt I called My Son.”

Then Herod, when he saw that he was deceived by the wise men, was exceedingly angry; and he sent forth and put to death all the male children who were in Bethlehem and in all its districts, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had determined from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet, saying:

“A voice was heard in Ramah,
Lamentation, weeping, and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children,
Refusing to be comforted,
Because they are no more.”
This is a much more disturbing story than the wise men’s visit. We would rather not sing about it, although there is an old Christmas song, the Coventry Carol, with the lyrics:
Herod the King, in his raging,
charged he hath this day,
his men of might, in his own sight,
all children young, to slay.
The Church, though, continues to tell this story, called the Massacre of the Innocents. These holy innocents, the boys of Bethlehem killed by Herod, are often considered to be the first Christian martyrs.

This seems very long ago and far away. So exotic and so upsetting. Or is it so long ago? Is it so far away? Who are the Holy Innocents of today? Are they the children of Yemen, victims of the ongoing war launched by Saudi Arabia and its allies? In Yemen 394,000 children under the age of five are suffering from severe acute malnutrition. Millions more barely have enough to eat, while the war has resulted in a lack of safe water, the spread of disease, and the destruction of hospitals. Are the holy innocents the 15 percent of Canadian children, one in seven, who live in poverty? Are they the Indigenous children who account for nearly half of all children in foster care in Canada? What are the causes of such a disproportionate number of Indigenous kids being removed from their homes? Are the holy innocents the children taken from their parents at the American border with Mexico, in many cases never to be reunited with their families again? Families from Central America have been arrested by the American authorities, the children taken away, placed in cages and then in tents in camps in the desert, and often put up for adoption after their parents have been deported. We don’t know what happens in these camps as journalists and even elected representatives aren’t allowed in. We do know that here you can’t work with children in hockey or Sunday school or any other setting without a police check, but there is no screening for the private contractors who operate these detention facilities. There are stories of babies taken from their mothers who are just given to teenage girls in the camps to look after, without diapers or formula. We do know that two children have died in detention.

Now, people try to explain all this away. Don’t try to sneak into the country illegally, they say, if you don’t want your kids taken away. But these families are usually applying at a border crossing for asylum as refugees, which is perfectly legal under American law. And having your children ripped away and placed for adoption is a disproportionate and cruel punishment, although the cruelty is probably the point to deter refugees and immigrants from coming.

This Epiphany story shows that Mary, Joseph and Jesus were refugees. Now, people deny this too. Calling Jesus a refugee is very controversial. Refugees may have left everything behind to escape persecution and violence, but people see them as fakers, as undeserving, as potential terrorists, so there’s no way Jesus could have been one. But it’s right in the story. Verse 13, “Arise, take the young Child and His mother, flee to Egypt” – in Matthew’s Gospel the Greek word translated as “flee” is pheuge, which is the root of the word “refugee.” Jesus and his parents were fleeing political violence. They were refugees. My Loyalist ancestors who fled the American Revolution, like the ancestors of a lot of us here, were refugees. People still quibble, saying the Holy Family was traveling within the Roman Empire, not across an international border, so they weren’t refugees, but of course borders as we understand them today are a recent development. This kind of nitpicking can’t change the story, or the broad story of the Bible, which tells a long story, several books long, of the people of Israel fleeing oppression, and then emphasizes again and again how God’s people are to welcome refugees and immigrants, for they were foreigners themselves in Egypt.

This story of the massacre of the innocents and a family’s narrow escape is still fresh, still unnerving. It is being acted out all over the world right now. Someone tweeted - and I agree - that Herod was a paranoid, narcissistic, authoritarian ruler who did not hesitate to destroy children when his power was threatened. Any resemblance to any political leaders today isn’t a coincidence. And the reaction to the refugee crisis shows how, as someone else said, some Christians may worship the name of King Jesus but they follow the policies of King Herod.

If The Epiphany is about Jesus being revealed to the world, then his being a refugee is as much a part of who he is as his being the saviour worshipped by the wise men. Jesus being a refugee tells the world that God coming among us in Jesus shares the experiences, the suffering, of the most marginalized and oppressed people. Jesus being a refugee underlines for us, who follow him today, God’s instructions in Scripture, to show love for foreigners, for God’s people were once foreigners in the land of Egypt. And may we ever see the splendour of Jesus, who so thoroughly identified with humanity that he was, indeed, a refugee in Egypt.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Letter to the Editor of the Cornwall Seaway News

This letter to the editor was published in the November 21 issue of the Cornwall Seaway News. I was writing in response to a column in the previous edition of this weekly newspaper, mentioning the case of the Rev. Gretta Vosper and the settlement of the review of her fitness for ministry in The United Church of Canada. Columnist Claude McIntosh wrote:
In Toronto, a United Church minister who says the Bible is a fairy tale and God doesn't exist, will continue to deliver her non-Christian message from the pulpit with the blessing of the folks who call the shots in Canada's second largest Christian denomination, the United Church of Canada. Instead of giving her the heave-ho, the United Church moderator (aka big cheese) has asked members to pray for the atheistic pastor and her congregation. Sounds like we should be praying for the United Church...

So I responded:

November 16, 2018

To the editor:

I always enjoy reading Claude McIntosh’s column, and he fits a lot of material onto the page. His November 14 discussion of a United Church of Canada minister did not include important parts of the context which are necessary for readers to understand what is happening in this case.

People who attend United churches are at many different points on their faith journey, but clergy are held to a standard of being found to be in essential agreement with the Church’s statements of faith before they can be ordained or commissioned. As Claude noted, a minister in Toronto who professes to be an atheist was placed under review. He says that she will continue to serve “with the blessing of the folks who call the shots,” but this is not the case. In the United Church, discipline of ministers is the responsibility of local jurisdictions, just as in Canada the federal government and the provinces have different areas of responsibility. Toronto Conference of the United Church was conducting the formal hearing into her ministry and then settled the case with her and her congregation, which does allow her to continue in ministry. Legal actions often end in settlement, so this hardly represents a “blessing” by any part of the Church; this resolution was not made by the national Church, does not affect any other minister or any other jurisdiction in the Church, and does not imply any acceptance of atheist beliefs as being in agreement with what the Church believes. Claude mentions that the Moderator of the United Church (as he puts it, “the big cheese,” which is a good way to explain this position) asked for prayer for this minister and her congregation, which I believe is entirely appropriate. Claude omits that this call for prayer came at the end of the Moderator’s letter which states explicitly that as a Christian church, we continue to expect that our ministers will offer their leadership in accordance with our statements of faith. This follows a statement by The United Church of Canada that the resolution of this case does not alter in any way the Church’s belief in a God must fully revealed to us as Christians in and through Jesus Christ. The Church’s statements of faith have all been grounded in this understanding.

Claude says that we should be praying for the United Church, which I appreciate. Please pray for us as we try to be faithful and loving followers of Jesus, and for all of the churches and faith traditions ministering to the people of the Seaway Valley.

Sincerely yours,

Rev. Daniel Hayward UE
Minister, South Stormont Pastoral Charge
(Ingleside-Newington United Church and St. Andrew’s-St. Mark’s United Church, Long Sault)
The United Church of Canada

Sunday, November 18, 2018

60 Years!: Sermon, November 18, 2018

In 1957 Ontario's electrical utility began constructing two New Towns to house people whose homes would be flooded by the creation of the St. Lawrence Seaway. Those towns became Ingleside and Long Sault, and both had United Church buildings: Trinity United Church, Ingleside (now Ingleside-Newington United Church), to which the congregations of United Churches in Aultsville, Wales, Gallingertown and Osnabruck Centre moved; and St. Andrew's United Church, Long Sault (now St. Andrew's-St. Mark's United Church), which became the home of congregations from Moulinette and Mille Roches.

The towns and churches all turned 60 years old in 2018. Trinity held its first worship service in the sanctuary on Easter Sunday, April 6, 1958, and its dedication service on May 25. The St. Andrew's dedication service was November 16, 1958. Both 60th anniversaries were marked in worship on November 18, 2018, just two days off 60 years since the St. Andrew's dedication and a week away from 61st anniversary of the November 10, 1957, laying of the Trinity cornerstone.

Every Jewish priest performs his services every day and offers the same sacrifices many times; but these sacrifices can never take away sins. Christ, however, offered one sacrifice for sins, an offering that is effective forever, and then he sat down at the right side of God. There he now waits until God puts his enemies as a footstool under his feet. 14 With one sacrifice, then, he has made perfect forever those who are purified from sin.

We have, then, my friends, complete freedom to go into the Most Holy Place by means of the death of Jesus. He opened for us a new way, a living way, through the curtain—that is, through his own body. We have a great priest in charge of the house of God. So let us come near to God with a sincere heart and a sure faith, with hearts that have been purified from a guilty conscience and with bodies washed with clean water. Let us hold on firmly to the hope we profess, because we can trust God to keep his promise. Let us be concerned for one another, to help one another to show love and to do good. Let us not give up the habit of meeting together, as some are doing. Instead, let us encourage one another all the more, since you see that the Day of the Lord is coming nearer.
- Hebrews 10:11-14, 19-25, Good News Bible

As Jesus was leaving the Temple, one of his disciples said, “Look, Teacher! What wonderful stones and buildings!”

Jesus answered, “You see these great buildings? Not a single stone here will be left in its place; every one of them will be thrown down.”

Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives, across from the Temple, when Peter, James, John, and Andrew came to him in private. “Tell us when this will be,” they said, “and tell us what will happen to show that the time has come for all these things to take place.”

Jesus said to them, “Watch out, and don't let anyone fool you. Many men, claiming to speak for me, will come and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will fool many people. And don't be troubled when you hear the noise of battles close by and news of battles far away. Such things must happen, but they do not mean that the end has come. Countries will fight each other; kingdoms will attack one another. There will be earthquakes everywhere, and there will be famines. These things are like the first pains of childbirth.”
- Mark 13:1-8, Good News Bible

So many stories over 60 years.

Someone told me once that before the St. Andrew’s building was finished, the United Church congregation in Long Sault met in the liquor store. Well, it wasn’t the liquor store at the time, but it’s still a great story. So I have the bulletin here for the dedication service of St. Andrew’s United Church, November 16th, 1958, 3 PM. The minister then was Rev. Wilfong and the guest preacher was Rev. Gordon Porter, superintendent of missions for Montreal and Ottawa Conference. Officiating was Rev. Lewis, president of the Conference. The bulletin tells me that the hymns were all from the 1930 Hymn Book: Ye gates, lift up your heads on high; I joyed when to the house of God go up, they said to me; Christ is made the sure foundation, which we sang today; and Rise up, O men of God. And the bulletin lists who donated the sign board, hymn books, hymn board, offering plates and guest book. We are going to give this bulletin, which is one of the few left from 1958, to the Lost Villages Museum.

Another booklet, A History of Trinity United Church, was published for the 25th anniversary in 1983. It tells me that before the manse was ready in 1957 the minister, Rev. Profitt, and his wife, lived on Pine Street, which was also the home of the Sunday school and youth groups. The booklet describes the Session, Stewards, Official Board and so on, so many groups. I learned that the original black choir gowns were replaced with red ones with white and yellow collars in 1980. Canadian Girls in There was Canadian Girls in Training, boys’ groups too, and Hi-C, a Mission Band, a Baby Band, Sunday school, a Women’s Federation with 90 members, which became the United Church Women in 1962, and the 50/50 or Couples Club. The booklet goes on to describe the 20th anniversary of Trinity church in 1978 and the 25th in 1983. I’m sure that these few sentences I’ve used to sum all this up have brought up a lot of memories for long-time members of both congregations.

And since then 60 years of worship, baptisms, Communions, weddings, funerals, Sunday school classes, meetings and more meetings, suppers, bazaars, soup and sandwiches, quilting and food bank collections and cards going out and more than I can mention.

So much has changed over six decades, but so much has stayed the same. The book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible says, “There is nothing new under the sun. Is there a thing of which it is said, ‘See, this is new?’ It has already been, in the ages before us.” There isn’t a lot that can happen in the life of the church that hasn’t already happened in the two thousand years the church has been around or even the 93 years of our denomination. I was reading Phyllis Airhart's great history of The United Church of Canada, A Church With the Soul of a Nation, and there is a story of a United church deeply in debt that was saved by the women fundraising to cover the payments, and another congregation whose finances were straightened out by the women’s group, in, the story says, a mysterious way known only to the ladies. The book says that when money was needed to install new lighting, improve the sanctuary, or purchase new hymn books, collection plates, or Communion sets, the ladies were there. And this sounds like the last few years, but this was the 1930s. So much has changed, but so much has stayed the same, and all of us know that the Trinity and St. Andrew’s buildings would not have made it to 60 years without, in particular, women organizing and working, and we are grateful.

So much has changed. I want to talk about something that would have been unthinkable 60 years ago, and still seems strange to many of us now. You may have heard that in the United Church there is a minister who is an atheist. Well, her beliefs are more nuanced than that (this is her congregation), but that’s what it boils down to. Her ministry was being reviewed by Toronto Conference in a formal hearing, but she has good lawyers, and last week it was announced that Conference had settled her case. So she is back in ministry. The details of this settlement are confidential, but it is based on process, not theology, and it doesn’t apply to any other minister in any other conference. This hasn’t stopped her supporters, and she has lots, claiming victory, and many, many other United Church people being very upset. It just doesn’t make sense to most folks that an atheist could be, would even want to be, a minister in Christ’s church. It just doesn’t add up. It’s my impression that she wants to stay in the church because she genuinely sees herself as evangelizing the church, converting us to her way of believing, or not believing. This brings to mind for me what Jesus says in our reading today, “Watch out, and don’t let anyone fool you. Many claiming to speak for me will come and say, ‘I am he,’ and they will fool many people.”

I would add here that we are a church that doesn’t believe in what is called creedal subscription – we don’t make members sign off on a specific faith statement. People in the pews, over the last 90 and 60 years and today, have believed lots of things – they have been at different points on their journey of faith, and that is expected, and encouraged. But those who are called to paid, accountable ministry are set apart, and to be ordained or commissioned or admitted they must be found to be in essential agreement with the doctrine of the church.

Both the national church and the Moderator responded to this development. The statement from the national church office says that this settlement with one minister does not alter in any way the belief of The United Church of Canada in a God most fully revealed to us as Christians in and through Jesus Christ. The church’s statements of faith over the years have all been grounded in this understanding. The most recent statement, A Song of Faith, begins with the words “God is Holy Mystery,” recognizing that as humans we will never fully understand the nature of this mystery.

The Moderator, the Right Rev. Richard Bott, adds that as a Christian church, we continue to expect that ministers in The United Church of Canada will continue to offer their leadership in accordance with our shared and agreed upon statements of faith and celebrating the sacraments. He says, I believe that God continues to call us to be people who love, and in that love, to be communities of faith where all are welcome, whatever you believe or don’t believe.

And that, I think, is what we have tried to be here, for 60 years. We have tried our best to do what the letter to the Hebrews tells us to do: to come near to God with a sincere heart and a sure faith, purified from guilt and washed clean in baptism, to hold on firmly to the hope we profess, because we can trust in God’s promises, to be concerned for one another, to help one another to show love and to good, to meet together in worship, to encourage one another on our journeys of faith, today and for another six decades, and for six more and more until all things are made new.