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‘Why’ of church more crucial than the ‘how’

The Right Reverend Gary Paterson, Moderator of the United Church of Canada. - Barry Coulter photo
The Right Reverend Gary Paterson, Moderator of the United Church of Canada.
— image credit: Barry Coulter photo

The Cranbrook United Church was packed full on Sunday, April 27, with regular congregation members and visitors from all over the East Kootenay, to meet the Right Rev. Gary Paterson, Moderator of the United Church of Canada.

The Moderator is the voice, face and spiritual leader of Canada's largest Protestant church. He or she is elected to three-year terms. Rev. Paterson, from Vancouver, is halfway through his term.

Rev. Paterson, who is also the first openly gay Moderator in the Church's almost 90-year history, sees his mandate as helping the church deal with the challenge and change of the times — such as aging congregations, declining attendances,  and increasing secularism. As Moderator, he sees these challenges close hand in his travels around the country.

"You can almost choose what narrative you're going to privilege," he told the Townsman in an interview after Sunday's service. "Clearly there are challenging times right across the country.

"I'd say about 20 per cent of our congregations are looking to the future and saying, 'We're probably going to close.' But there are another 20 per cent that are saying, 'Actually, we're growing and thriving, and we're really excited about our future.' There are 60 per cent in the middle, and they have a choice. Some will probably find different ways of being church, and others will thrive and grow."

Paterson, who took the pulpit Sunday in Cranbrook, touched on the subject in his sermon, which was based around Isaiah 43 ("Behold, I am doing a new thing"), along the way referencing E.E. Cummings, Mark Twain and Leonard Cohen. It was couched in a pseudo-mathematical equation — MC = FP x FV x FS (motivation for change equals felt pain times future vision times first steps — "if any one on the one side of the equation is zero, the 'MV' will be zero too").

One of the key points comes from the Scriptural verses (Isaiah 43:15-21), which in essence calls one to remember the past but not dwell upon it, instead looking to the future with new ways of doing things.

“I’m seeing people willing to experiment and to look at different ways of being church,” Rev. Paterson told the Townsman. “I’ve gone around and told people I’m more interested in the ‘why’ of church, rather than the ‘how.’ The ‘how’ changes depending on context, times, what have you. The ‘why’ — why we gather together — that’s crucial.”

Churches, of course, are feeling pressures from a number of sources. Rev. Paterson was asked about the split between some Christian churches’ increasing tendency towards more liberal viewpoints and other churches who are more evangelical and conservative.

“Whatever that tension is — however you described it, between liberal and conservative — it’s still going on,” he responded. “We’ve seen that expressed in our own home government, and still within the church.

“But if you actually look at the statistics of every denomination in North America, every one of them is in decline. The mainline liberal Protestant tradition — United Church, Anglican, Lutheran, Presbyterian — they’ve been declining for about 30 or 40 years. The evangelicals, though, are actually noting a small dip that started in the year 2000. The Southern Baptists — the biggest evangelical conservative denomination in North America — have had to cut national staff twice because of a decline in givings.

“Which isn’t to celebrate. That’s tough news for everybody.”

Again, a point can be made in Isaiah.

“Our society is going through a real sea change,” he said. “And the challenge now for churches now transcends liberal/conservative. It says what is a way of taking good news and actually making it relevant, or find a way to make it connect with people who distrust institutions, who say ‘spiritual but not religious,’ and I need a new metaphor, a new language, to tell the old, old story. Same story, different way of telling it.”

Rev. Paterson was elected in August, 2012, as the United Church of Canada’s 41st Moderator — also the first openly gay moderator in the church’s history. He told a news conference at the time that his sexual orientation was a non-issue. On Sunday he was asked if that statement had been confirmed, and he agreed.

“It’s one of the wonderful things in the United Church — last August we celebrated 25 years since our historic decision in 1988, when we said all people, regardless of sexual orientation, are open and welcome to full membership, and that includes the possibility of being ordained.

“We had a lot of struggle with that — some people excited, some people very apprehensive, some disagreed. But over that last couple of decades, I think we’ve said, ‘No, that really is a statement of gospel, that God loves all of us, challenges all of us to live responsibly with our sexuality and faithfully, in a life-giving way.”

Rev. Paterson said that when he was elected, the subject “seemed to be a complete non-issue within our denomination.

“It’s problematic for other denominations around the world,” he said. “And that’s sometimes been a place for conversation and dialogue. I got three letters or emails in total after I was elected — people expressing some worry, that was primarily ‘you’re not going to make that the key issue of your being moderator, are you?’  And I said no. I’m called by the spirit to address a number of issues. Primarily I’ve seen the mandate of my time as helping us wrestle with these challenging, changing times.

“But I’m excited to be part of a church that says we offer radical welcome, hospitality and inclusivity.”

Sunday’s service was attended from people from all parts of the East Kootenay, and also broadcast to Creston.

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