Scripture Reading: Psalm 32 & Luke 10:1-11, 17-20
“Church Governance and Polity” or “Our United Church, the Old and the New!”
Most of us probably know what to expect when we read “governance”, but I suspect that many of us (myself included) are somewhat confused about what “polity” means!
So I looked it up. My dictionary says that polity is the form or system or structure of organization of any institution.
And the form or structure of this church of ours is in the midst of a major transition: fueled by falling membership, and diminishing funds, our church has been forced to radically re-think its organizational structure in the last few years.
But lets back up a bit. In the early 1900’s there was a church on every corner – the Protestant church had many expressions, and in some areas, especially rural, there were not enough ministers, so smaller churches were sharing. Denominations were beginning to come together informally to share resources – especially ministers.
So formal talks aimed at consolidation of the fragmented body of Christ began in earnest, culminating in church union and the formation of the United Church of Canada by an Act of Parliament in 1925. This Union involved the Presbyterian Church, the Methodist Church, the Congregational Union of Quebec and Ontario, and the Association of Local Union Churches (mostly on the Prairie Provinces). In 1968 the Canadian Conference of the Evangelical United Brethren Church joined the UCC.
Membership peaked in 1964 at 1.1 million, and has been declining ever since.
Polity – or organizational structure. The UCC has a “council-based” structure. Each council (congregational, regional, denominational) has certain responsibilities with some areas of overlap. You will notice I mentioned only three areas. Originally there were four courts of the UCC: General Council (national), Conference (provincial), Presbytery (regional) and Congregational. The re-structuring necessitated by our falling membership and revenues has resulted in the elimination of one of the four courts: basically the Conferences and the Presbyteries have been combined with some reductions to form broad geographical Regions. So as of 2019, we have Communities of Faith councils, Regional councils (16) and General Council (the denominational face of the UCC).
So how does this work? Congregations send delegates to Regional meetings. (Our region is Pacific Mountain and covers all of BC and the Rockies) Delegates are sent from each Region to General Council meetings every 3 years, where broad issues of the church are discussed and voted upon. General Council also elects the Moderator for a 3 year term, and provides direction for the Manual which lays out in detail the polity of the church: how things shall be done and by whom. The Manual was first produced in 1925, and is updated on a regular basis.
The Moderator can be an ordained person or a lay person. There are no restrictions of gender, age, marital status, race or sexual orientation. This person is elected by the delegates at General Council, and is the spiritual leader and public representative of the church for the three year term. The current Moderator is the Right Reverend Dr. Richard Bott of North Vancouver, who is the 43rd Moderator of the UCC.
The clergy of the UCC are called “ministers” and there are presently 3 streams of paid accountable ministry: ordained, diaconal, (ordered),and designated lay (recognized). There are also staff associates, lay worship leaders, music directors, sacraments elders, and congregational designated ministers. There are no restrictions on gender, sexual orientation, age, or marital status for any branches of ministry.
The crest was designed for the new church and is in Latin a “vesica piscis” an early Christian symbol reminding us of an upturned fish. The initials of “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour” in Greek spell icthyos, which means “fish”. In the centre is the Greek letter chi – first letter of the word for Christ. Three of the four quadrants display symbols of the founding churches: the burning bush (Presbyterianism), the dove (Methodism), and the open Bible (Congregationalism). The symbol for the Alpha and Omega is in the 4th quadrant representing the Living God (Revelation 1:8). The motto “Ut omnes unum sint” means “That all may be one.”
In 2012 a Mohawk phrase “Akwe Nia’tetewa:neren” which means “All my relations” was added in the perimeter ribbon, and the quadrant colours were changed to the traditional colours of the First Nations Medicine Wheel.
The ordination of women in the UCC remained a contentious issue until 1936 when Rev. Lydia Emelie Gruchy of Saskatchewan Conference became the first woman to be ordained in our church. In 1953 she became the first woman to receive an honorary Doctor of Divinity degree.
The Second World War proved a divisive issue within the church as many supported the war effort, but many also took a pacifist stance. On the West Coast ministers and missionaries were very opposed to the treatment of Japanese Canadians, and formed an Emergency Japanese Committee to advocate for the rights of dislocated people. The UCC continues to supply Chaplains for the armed forces in Canada.
The UCC has been in talks with the Anglican church regarding amalgamation since 1943, but this has not happened yet. We were also one of the founding bodies of the Canadian Council of Churches in 1944, and the World Council of Churches in 1946.
By 1971, the possibility of Anglican – United church union was still alive, and the joint Hymn Book was published. But by 1975 the Plan of Union was deemed unacceptable by the Anglicans. However, the Anglican, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Catholic and United churches did all agree to recognize the validity of baptisms done in any of these denominations.
As part of the agreement to Union in 1925, the UCC inherited participation in and responsibility for some native residential schools which were designed to assimilate native children into Canadian culture. By the 1940’s thinking around this issue had changed significantly, and in 1949 the UC began to close those schools in its care. However it wasn’t till the 1990’s that the church faced the legacy of cultural assimilation and child abuse in the residential schools that it had once helped to run. In 1992 the first Native Canadian Moderator, Rev. Stan McKay, a Cree man, was elected. Two years later, a “Healing Fund” was established, followed in 1998 by an official Apology made by the church to former students of the residential schools.
In 1980 the first female Moderator was elected, the Rev. Lois Wilson. She faced a great deal of opposition, as the problem of the inequality of women in the church persisted.
Also in 1980 a paper titled “In God’s Image” was released at the 28th General Council. It dealt with sexual ethics and recommended the admission of homosexuals into the ministry and tolerance of premarital sex. Abortion was to be accepted under certain conditions, but not abortion on demand.
At the 32nd General Council in 1988, the commissioners passed a statement called, “Membership, Ministry, and Human Sexuality”, which stated that: “all persons, regardless of sexual orientation, who profess their faith in Jesus Christ are welcome to be or become members of the United Church of Canada” and that “all members of the United Church are eligible to be considered for ordered ministry.” This meant that openly gay men and women were now able to join the ministry.
1988 was a watershed year for the UCC. Membership fell by 78,184. Many congregations were split right down the middle on this issue. Many churches now undertake a mission to become an “Affirming Congregation” – a congregation that works at understanding what its biases are and consciously strives to be more loving, more accepting, more tolerant of human diversity. In 2005 the UCC urged the government to pass same-sex marriage legislation, and encouraged it after it passed, to refuse to reopen the issue.
In 2012 the 41st General Council elected the first openly gay Moderator, Gary Paterson. At this same meeting, the Report of the Working Group on Israel/Palestine Policy was adopted, calling for a boycott of all goods produced in the settlements. This remains a controversial and divisive policy and is opposed by several Canadian Jewish groups.
In 1996 our modern hymnary “Voices United” was published, and its supplement, “More Voices” was added in 2006.
In 2001 in the face of continuing decline in church membership and revenues, General Council offices were reorganized to reduce costs.
In 2005 the church continued in good faith to welcome the Agreement in Principle of the Government of Canada and the Assembly of First Nations, outlining a comprehensive resolution package for former students of the Indian residential schools. In 2006 we agreed to sign the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement.
By 2015 at the 42nd General Council, it was decided to reorganize the structure of our church from a four-court to a three-court model. Arbitrary settlement of new ministers was abolished, the whole process of finding and training new ministers was changed, and a new funding model introduced. All these changes were approved by local congregations and presbyteries and then ratified at the next (43rd) General Council in 2018.
Members of our church are modern day disciples of Jesus. To be a member a person must be baptized (most often as an infant) and then after a course of study called “confirmation” at the age of 12 or so, the person is admitted to full membership in the church after making a profession of faith before the congregation. Membership is national, being recognized in any United Church across the land.
When Jesus sent his disciples out to serve others, I’m pretty sure he had no idea what that would look like in 2020! But here we are, our faith unshaken, and our resolve as strong as ever. The United Church of Canada is the largest Protestant denomination in Canada. According to Wikipedia we minister to over 2 million people in about 3000 congregations. Our history is very closely entwined with the history of our country Canada, and we continue to be a socially progressive and forward looking church of which I am proud to be a member.