Text: John 17:1, 2, 17-21 (“that all may be one”)
The Anglican Church of Canada first floated the idea of uniting Canada’s Protestant churches in in 1885. In the decades that followed, five denominations discussed the idea, leading to the birth of the United Church of Canada. In 1925, Canada’s Methodist, Presbyterian and Congregationalist churches merged to create a church that was second in size only to the Roman Catholics.
Today, I believe that union with other churches might again be on the horizon. But today, the path to unity looks different than it did 100 years ago.
A moment ago, we heard a prayer for unity offered by Jesus on the night of his betrayal. A phrase from that prayer — “that all may be one” — was adopted by the United Church as its motto 92 years ago. And today as we prepare for our Annual General Meeting, I reflect on how we might pursue unity in changed times.
Today’s annual meeting will be the fourth one at which I have been the minister here. But the run-up to this one has been different than the first three.
In May 2014, we were dealing with a lot of changes. Following a year in which most staff positions had been unfilled, the church had a new minister (me), a new Music Director, a new Child, Youth and Family Worker, and some money in the bank.
In May 2015, we had come through the changes of 2014 with a modest financial deficit and a reasonable amount of energy in leadership and membership.
Last year in May 2016, we were happy that a projected large deficit for 2015 had turned into a surplus. But we were perturbed by difficulties in finding people to take leadership roles.
Today, we are pleased that the financial deficit of 2016 was small even as we are alarmed at financial projections for this year. A congregational meeting in February rejected a budget with a large deficit. Because of this, one of the items at the meeting today will be passing a revised budget. With some cuts and some ideas to generate more energy for the church, Council is now confident that the congregation can survive for much longer than the 104 Sundays our Chairperson, Brian Sampson, projected in a letter sent to all members in April.
More importantly, I believe, the decisions made at today’s meeting will give us time in which to discuss new ways to sustain our ministry. Uniting with other faith communities might form part of those discussions — and not just with United churches, but with other denominations and even non-Christian faith communities.
Mill Woods United has many strengths. Despite our modest size, we carry out a lot of outreach and justice work. The staff provide a spine of administrative, spiritual, musical, and educational leadership. But the efforts of staff are dwarfed by all the hours of dedicated, creative, and joyous work offered every week by you.
The congregation’s strengths were evident at the 40th anniversary celebrations last November. And so, I am confident that we will find the spiritual, financial and human resources to survive and thrive for many years.
The aftermath of our February financial meeting presented some challenges for me. As I finish my sixth year as an ordained minister, I have a new awareness of the role of the minister not only in spiritual leadership on Sunday mornings and in pastoral occasions of celebration and mourning, but also in helping to corral the financial and personal resources of our members.
With a letter on Time and Talents in April and some one-on-one conversations, I have taken a more active role in finding leaders for the Council and new members for committees. Of course, this does not mean I am opposed to others identifying and nurturing talent or to people who volunteer without being asked — things which happen all the time, thankfully.
As for finances, I am grateful to Kathryn Hofley, the Financial Development Officer for the Prairie Region of the United Church. She met with me in March to promote United Church stewardship resources. After talking about this at Council and the Worship Committee, we decided that Nancy Siever and I will lead a five-week stewardship campaign in the Fall, which I am confident will yield good results.
But even if a renewed focus on finances and leadership is successful this year, our longer-term future may lie in uniting with our neighbours.
We are a mainline, liberal congregation, which is not an easy thing. The high-water mark for denominations like ours was in the early 1960’s. Since then, we have all been in steady decline, with the decline among children and youth being almost total.
On Wednesday, I found a history book in the Work Room. Called “Brief Halt at Mile 50,” it was published in 1975 to mark the 50th anniversary of the founding of the United Church of Canada.
When it was published, this congregation was gathering on Sundays in Grace Martin School and working towards becoming an official pastoral charge of the United Church, something that occurred the next November.
The book praises the men and women who founded and built the United Church through its first 50 years. It also notes that between 1965 and 1975, membership had declined by five percent and Church School attendance by 60%.
Since 1975, Sunday attendance has declined by two thirds and church school attendance by another 80%.
As members of the United Church, we might feel humiliated by these declines. We love God and neighbour, and we find joy in the work we do as a community. But we grieve the absence of our children and grandchildren in church.
Happily, humiliation has its consolations, as the stories of Jesus remind us. My prayer today is that from our humiliation will flow the virtue of humility.
Many things could follow as we grieve our losses and become humbler. For one, we might lose certainty in our beliefs and traditions and become more open to the practices of our neighbours in this intercultural neighbourhood and city.
Certainty was not lacking in the 1880s when church union was first discussed. In 1889, Anglicans, Baptists, Presbyterians, and Methodists gathered in Toronto to discuss union, and newspapers reported that “there was absolute agreement on all essential doctrines” (p. 10 of “Brief Halt”).
Today if this same group of churches gathered, there would probably be a lot of disagreement on doctrines. If the circle was widened to include Catholic, Pentecostal, Muslim, Hindu or Sikh communities, the disagreements might look like an unbridgeable gulf.
But from humility might flow a willingness to abandon doctrinal certainty in favour of love for broken and blessed people everywhere.
My prayer is that we and other faith communities will rise from humiliation to humility and so accept the changed conditions in which we work. This may open us to work with other communities who have been similarly humiliated and who like us want to continue serving in love.
For the foreseeable future, I assume we will continue to be Mill Woods United. But 15 years from now, it may be that we will have found ways to pray and work with other faith communities. With Grace, we may have moved closer to the dream of unity for which Jesus prayed.
Over the last 50 years, congregations of many denominations have been shrinking and closing. This is cause for anxiety and grief. But decline can also spark joy and hope that something new is coming, something we can hardly imagine, but which Jesus promises will be glorious.
In the reading we heard this morning, Jesus says that he is about to be glorified. By this, he means he is about to be crucified! He also prays that his glory will be shared by his friends so that they might be one.
The unity sought by Canadian Protestants 100 years ago was based on secular notions of glory. The five denominations that discussed union, and the three that eventually united, were all products of Christendom, the long era that ran from the Fourth Century to the 20th. They were churches of Empire, and so they reflected earthly power and glory.
But the glory that Jesus talks about requires death before resurrection. It is a path of ultimate humility, which also means it is a path that leads to a deeper unity than the one achieved by our forefathers and mothers in 1925.
As we follow Jesus on paths of death and resurrection, may we unite with other people of good will so that we can continue to live out the humble truths of Easter — that the crucified One is Risen, that death has been overcome, and that Love is both our Source and our sure destiny.
May it be so. Amen.