Texts: Mark 3:20-35 (a house divided); John 17:1,2,6,17-23 (that all may be one) — this service marked the 90th anniversary of the United Church of Canada.
Ninety years is not a long time in church history. The oldest books of the Hebrew Bible were written 3,000 years ago. Jesus’ death and resurrection was almost 2,000 years ago. The Roman Catholic Church was founded 1700 years ago. Against these figures, what is a mere 90 years?
But of course, in a human life 90 years is a long time indeed. Not many people now alive remember the creation of the United Church of Canada 90 years ago in 1925.
In 1925, church union was front page news. The United Church was an attempt to undo 400 years of splits within Protestantism. As a country of immigrants, English Canada had a wide spectrum of churches: Anglican, Baptist, Congregationalist, Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian, and so on. Canada was prosperous. It looked like a country of the future, and so why not try something unprecedented here?
The leaders who formed our church liked Canada, which is reflected in our name – “The United Church of Canada.” Contrast this with the name of one of our counterparts to the South. In 1957, a union of Congregationalist churches in the United States created The United Church of Christ. The U.S. denomination is a Christian church in the United States, but it is not of the United States.
In its initial high spirits, I think that our church succumbed to the temptation of nationalism. The second paragraph of our Basis of Union reads: “It shall be the policy of the United Church to foster the spirit of unity in the hope that this sentiment of unity may in due time, so far as Canada is concerned, take shape in a Church which may fittingly be described as national.”But Canada is a confederation of diverse regions. It also includes First Nations people and French Quebec. Perhaps we forgot that Christ’s call is universal. Nations come and go, but the God who is Love remains.
The church’s nationalism made it easier for it to run the Indian Residential Schools, whose genocidal intent was highlighted in the final report of The Truth and Reconciliation Commission released last week. For 45 years, we ran the schools we had inherited from the Methodists and Presbyterians. Most churches have terrible stains on their history. The United Church’s role in the Indian Residential Schools system is one of the worst in ours.
The United Church began as the largest Protestant denomination in Canada. After weathering the Depression and World War II, we grew rapidly in the 1950s.
Growth gave us the confidence to tackle difficult issues such as the role of women, sexuality and economic justice. But the result of our progressive stance was ironic. We began as a united and uniting church. But by 1990, the United Church looked so radical to outsiders that it was shunned. 25 years later, this isolation is lifting as other churches go through the same debates and turmoil that we lived through from 1960 to 1990.Except now both we and other churches are much smaller.
Starting in 1965, most churches in Canada began a steady decline. Even as the population of Canada has doubled since the 60s, the number of United members has shrunk by over 50%, from a high of just over one million to well less than 500,000 today.
The United Church began in a huge gust of enthusiasm and spiritual fire, which has led it to give generous service to millions of Canadians. And now we have also been humbled and tempered by 50 years of decline.
Life is a spirited and future-oriented endeavour.But it is also soulful and marked by the wounds of illness, ageing, and failures.
Both of today’s Gospel readings contain worlds of ideas and inspiration. I will focus on two threads as they relate to church – division and unity.In the reading from Mark, Jesus says “a house divided against itself cannot stand.” This is a pretty accurate description of world Christianity, would you not agree?
When the first followers of Jesus spread out from Palestine in the first and second centuries, the church was diverse. The Christians of every town or city had their own Bible, their own traditions of worship and service, and their own teachings. This changed 300 years after Jesus.
In 312 Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity. In 381 Emperor Theodosius outlawed all religions but Christianity. The Empire created the Roman Catholic Church with one approved Bible, one creed, and one style of worship. This was a high-water mark for Christian unity but a low point in world history. The imperial church united its predecessors through book burnings, arrests, and executions.
The unity of the Roman church was broken when the Greek-speaking Eastern Church broke from it around the year 1000 and when the Protestant Reformation began in Europe 500 years ago. The latter created national churches like the Anglicans, Presbyterians, and Lutherans. Today, there are thousands of different Christian denominations, and the diversity of their teachings, worship styles, and mission programs is almost as great as the diversity of the first Christians in the 300 years before the founding of the Roman Catholic Church.
The fractured state of the world’s churches presents a stark contrast to today’s other Gospel reading from John. In it, Jesus prays that his followers may be one as we are all one in the grace and love of God.
The United Church was supposed to make this prayer a reality. But by most measures, it has failed. We have fewer members today than we did 90 years ago when Canada’s population was barely 25% of what it is today. Today, the fastest growing groups in Canada are people with no religion and those from non-Christian religions. The Christian church is weaker and more fragmented than 90 years ago.
At a deeper level, however, we experience the unity for which Jesus prayed. All churches and religions are made up of people with a common sacred spark. Communion takes us to those depths, I believe. At the Table, we remember the death of Jesus, which could also remind us of the death of our idols and illusions.
In communion, we also express our hope that Christ will come again. When Christ comes – in a moment of crisis for an individual today or in an awesome moment of social transformation tomorrow – he comes not as a Methodist, Lutheran, Catholic or Pentecostal. Jesus does not even come as a Christian, I believe. He comes as the healing presence of the God who is Love.
The communion table does not belong to the Christian church. It is the table of Jesus, who is a symbol of new life after death and of liberation from all traditions. Jesus’ table is for everyone – Christian and non-Christian; religious and non-religious. In communion, we experience the truth that at the depths we are already one. Our house is no longer divided against itself. Love has birthed us. Love continues to call to us. Love leads us home.
My prayer is that as we rise from the Table this morning we will do so having tasted again the unity that is God in Christ; the truth that God is our Source and Saviour; and the grace that Love is our deepest calling and destiny.
This Good News doesn’t give us a blueprint for next year, the next 40, or the next 90. The religious landscape remains fractured. The future of the church is not clear. But regardless of these facts, we are already one. We can worry about practical steps another time. For today, I pray that we will simply experience the truth that Jesus’ prayer has already been answered. We are all saved. We are all embraced by the God who is Love. We are already one.
Thanks be to God. Amen