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The United Church of Canada Hosts Its 43rd General Council
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Experience Another World Without Leaving Yours

Late July 2018, The United Church of Canada gathered at University of Ontario Institute of Technology, Oshawa, Ontario, for its 43rd General Council (July 21–27, 2018), bringing together over 350 commissioners (delegates) from across the country to make some of the most important decisions in the church’s history. Among the important issues was the decision to form a new equal partnership with Indigenous members.

The Council was asked to ratify earlier decisions on a massive restructuring to a smaller and simpler governance structure that reflects the church’s changing place in Canadian society. As well, Commissioners choose a new Moderator from a field of 10 candidates. The Moderator is the spiritual leader of the denomination for a three-year term. The Right Rev. Richard Bott, was selected and installed as the new Moderator of the United Church.

As it continues to conform and learn from its past and fulfill its commitment to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the church voted on whether to enter into a new partnership with Indigenous members. A report to the church by The Caretakers of the Indigenous Circle, which included Indigenous elders, states, “We, the Indigenous ministries and communities of faith of the United Church, declare that we will tell our own story of what ministry means for us. We will decide for ourselves who we are, who constitutes our ministries groups and practices.” The Rev. Maggie Dieter, Executive Minister of Aboriginal Ministries and Indigenous Justice explains, “The Indigenous church seeks deeper, more meaningful, relationships with the church. It seeks to ‘braid’ Indigenous knowledge and ways of being into the fabric of the church, so everyone will be transformed and grow together.”

Created in 1925 through the union of the Methodist, the Congregational, and two-thirds of the Presbyterian churches, The United Church of Canada has a White, English-speaking majority in the midst of a country that is increasingly diverse racially, culturally and linguistically. Two major themes challenge the Commissioners to look at the church’s identity and vision in the 21st century as well as its lack of diversity. “Those of us who are White people need to examine the conscious and unconscious ways we cling to power and control. All of us are made in the image of God, and the church needs to belong to all of God’s beloved. For too long, White people have acted like it belongs only to us,” says the Rt. Rev. Jordan Cantwell, the church’s past Moderator.

Under the theme of Risking Faith, Daring Hope, the 2018 General Council began with its first-ever two-day Festival of Faith (July 21‒22), bringing together artists, musicians, activists and authors, each offering their take on progressive Christianity in the 21st century. It’s a wide-open event across the Durham College campus with a mix of serious workshops and fun activities for families. “We want people to see that the church is much more than buildings,” says Nora Sanders, the United Church’s General Secretary. “Laughter, play and celebration are a genuine part of experiencing and sharing our faith.”

The Right Rev. Richard Bott, the newly installed Moderator of the United Church, opened the final worship at General Council declaring that he is the “epitome of privilege” in a time when the church is hungry for change and needs to fully embrace racialized and marginalized people. “I stand before you tonight as a person who is a White, middle-class, middle-aged, cis, university-educated male. I don’t know what my blinders are even keeping from me, let alone the things I don’t want to look at because I am too scared,” said the Moderator.

Moderator Bott was acknowledging the emotional period of personal sharing that came at the close of business today. “When I came into court I heard the voices of this community, racialized and Indigenous folk, people who spoke with courage and vulnerability to me.”

Then he picked up the bundle of ashes that was presented at that time to the General Council by the All Native Circle Conference Speaker, Cheryl Jourdain. He said, “All I can say right now is … that I have to learn and pick up this bundle until it is gone from char to ash. The grace is that I am not the only one who is going to pick this up. I pray that you are going to pick them up with me—that we might be changed by God’s grace.”

The Rev. Evan Noodin Smith had given Jourdain the ashes from the Sacred Fire at the 43rd General Council. The bundle also contained ashes from the last fire of the All Native Circle Conference. “I couldn’t believe what they felt like,” said Jourdain. “They were all crunchy. They were not ashes. They haven’t burned long enough.” She added, “These are not mine to carry.”

After his opening remarks, Moderator Bott preached on John 6:1–14 (Jesus Feeds the Five Thousand), a passage that Worship Coordinator barb janes had chosen. In this gospel, we see the doubt of Jesus’ disciples, Philip and Andrew, and witness a miracle unfold through a simple gift from a child.

The Moderator reminded General Council that the famished crowd listening to Jesus was “hungry in so many ways … For freedom. For deeper connection with each other and with God ...” And Jesus’ followers did not think they had enough to offer; a solution was impossible.

There are distinct parallels to the place we find ourselves today. “These hungers are apparent in the streets, in the news stories, in our social media, in our families, in the loneliness and brokenness of so many people’s lives,” noted Moderator Bott. There are also parallels to the marginalized voices that spoke of racism and discrimination and the urgency of change in General Council today. “Think of the child from the crowd. This child was hungry and was not part of the inner circle,” he said. “The child offered what they had, knowing that they might stay hungry …

“The child is us at our best, and the child is the world at its best; when we are ready to offer without having any idea what the end result might be—trusting that what God does with the gift, and with us, will be enough to satisfy the hunger, the hunger of all the world, and more. We could risk and we could dare and see those hungers satisfied. Risk. Dare. Thanks be to God.”

Click above video to watch the newly elected Moderator’s full address in the Closing Worship livestream on the 43rd General Council website.