Sunday, February 09, 2014

The Future is...

Like many faith traditions, the United Church of Canada is, well, struggling.  Not all of a sudden, the first signs of the trends that led to where we are now were visible decades ago (as a percentage of the Canadian population the UCCan has been declining since World War 2, only the baby boom bulge allowed our gross numbers to continue to swell until the early 1960's).

Like many faith traditions, changing the culture and structure of the UCCan to meet these changes has been roughly akin to the captain of the Titanic trying to back up when the iceberg was sighted--with about as much success.

It is very easy to argue that the UCCan as we have known it is not only dying, it is essentially dead, with even life support no longer being a viable option.

As a denomination our latest attempt to plot a new path forward was formed at the 41st General Council Meeting in 2012.  That gathering authorized the creation of the Comprehensive Review Task Group, and said that "everything is on the table".  The CRTG will bring forward recommendation to GC42 in 2015.

I'll admit to being more than a little bit skeptical about this work, particularly the "everything is on the table" line. Call me cynical but I truly expected something along the lines of deck chair shuffling.  Or possibly a revisit of an idea from 12 years ago that would have us move from a 4 court (Pastoral Charge, Presbytery, Conference, General Council) to a 3 court model that essentially combined the 2 middle courts and divided the church into a number (40 was one of the numbers suggested) of districts.  That proposal went to a remit, a poll of presbyteries and (in this case) congregations where it failed to garner enough support [this was the first time I had to explain a remit to a congregation--I fear I did not do a great job of doing so without influencing the vote].

Lately the CRTG has released 2 documents.  One was a summary of results from the congregational consultations they held Spring-Fall of 2013. I scanned that one but it was really a "what we heard was" type of report with some analysis.  I should probably find time to read it (very dry reading) more carefully.  The second was far more important and thought provoking.

This document is a Discussion Paper that the CRTG wants all 87 Presbyteries to respond to by June (note it is now February, some of us only have one meeting in that interval and have our own business to take care of--the timelines are far from great--especially since they did not even ask for time until January).

Well I take back some of my skepticism.  Everything indeed is on the table.  This discussion paper suggests a move to a 2 court, essentially Congregationalist, non-connectional polity.  (the .pdf of the paper itself is here)

There is some good in here.  There are also a whole lot of questions.  As a discussion paper it is short (very short) on details.  Partly because this is not yet a fully-formed proposal.  This is a "this is where we are thinking of going, tell us what you think" piece.  And I get the logic behind that.  Why go to the effort and time and expense of crafting a full proposal if the constiuency thinks you are heading the wrong direction.  This round of consultations allows the Presbyteries to weigh in, to raise questions, to give some more direction to the CRTG.  Then they can add more flesh and details as they prepare a recommendation that is set to be released with plenty of lead time before GC42.

When I first read the paper (I got a draft a bit earlier than the public release because I have found myself in a position where I will be helping facilitate this Presbytery's review of it) my first reaction was very negative.  As indeed will be/has been the reaction of many.  This paper simply does not describe the United Church as it has been since 1925.  Indeed I suggest our Presbyterian and Methodist forebears would be aghast at this proposal.  With such major changes a strong reactionary response is to be expected.

Then I read it again.  And I considered it.  ANd yes there is good here.  From a survival point of view (and I do believe this is a survival document with the possibility that it will help some thrive) this is the level of change that is needed.  The structure we have inherited is simply unworkable and unsustainable from both a monetary and a labour point of view.  This document takes seriously problems that have been raised over the years.  It tries to find ways to liberate folk to be the church without being handcuffed by rules and policies.  This document tries to find a new way, to be inventive rather than innovative or improving what is already there.  Tweaking (major or minor) the old simply WILL NOT DO ANYTHING.

There are also grave concerns here.  The document, as it stands, puts ministry personnel in a very vulnerable position.  The document, as it stands, removes all ongoing oversight of congregations from the picture.  The document, as it stands, will increase the isolation felt by some Pastoral Charges and some clergy.  It will also increase the chances of Pastoral Charges going "rogue" (which could be a good thing or a bad thing depending what "rogue" is I suppose).

Big picture, I think I support the vision.  I think there are a lot of details that need to be added.  I think there are things that need to be changed.  I think there needs to be more on how we continue to be a denomination in partnership with each other rather than a collection of churches that share the name "United Church of Canada" (even as I acknowledge that the church seems to be moving into a post-denominational reality).  But I think something is missing.

Structural change WILL NOT SAVE THE CHURCH.  At the congregational level, the regional level, or the denominational level structural change will not save the church.  It might help of course but it is not the "solution".  People catching fire is what is needed.  People on fire for the mission and ministry of that part of the Body.  People with a vision.  People ready to be salt and light, ready to love God, Neighbour, and Self in a full and active way.  People who have been infected and are ready to contaminate the world.

Until we can light the fire we are only shifting deck chairs.

And maybe part of the fire-lighting will be to start telling the stories of our successes?  Maybe part of it will be to stop trying to predict the future, to stop blaming ourselves/each other for the past, to stop trying to understand fully and just be the people God has called us to be?

Can we do those things?

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