Every three years the United Church of Canada gathers as a church, bringing elected delegates called commissioners together to make decisions of significant importance to the denomination. This year, the 42nd General Council met in early August in Corner Brook, Newfoundland and Labrador.
You didn’t hear a lot in the media about General Council. It didn’t attract as much attention as previous meetings have, like 1990 when the church reaffirmed there was no barrier to suitably qualified members becoming ministers, no matter what their sexual orientation. At the same time, major and significant changes are being proposed, which will affect the United Church and how it works, right down to the local congregation.
Since the denomination’s founding 90 years ago, there has always been a complex, four level governance system in place. The General Council is proposing, and local associations called presbyteries and local churches will be asked to approve a new, three level structure. All boundaries are on the table and the structure which was, will not exist in two years if two thirds of those voting approve.
In addition, the United Church’s Mission and Service Fund, which is supported by individual church members, will be used to fund the outreach work of the church alone. 10% will be dedicated to aboriginal ministries. Another 10% will be dedicated to new ministries and new, innovative forms of ministries.
In the past, money from the Mission and Service Fund has been used to support church governance funding, including staff salaries. No more. Denominational staff will be reduced significantly and governance and administration will be funded from congregational assessments. Congregations are currently assessed for some governance functions, but it was suggested in one pre-council report that such assessments will increase by 25%.
Of more importance was that the United Church made a long term commitment to reconciliation with First Nations in Canada. This, along with the commitment to First Nations ministries, is seen as the United Church’s way of living out the denominational apology first voiced in 1986 and responding to the calls to the churches and religious organizations by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission this past spring.
The General Council also directed the denomination to divest all holdings in fossil fuel stocks, totalling over 5 million dollars.
Perhaps of more long term significance were three unique agreements. The General Council approved Mutual Recognition agreements with the United Church of Christ in the Philippines (UCCP) and the Presbyterian Church of Korea (PROK). These agreements will allow, among other things, greater facility of denominational pastors to serve immigrant congregations under the umbrella of the United Church of Canada.
The third agreement is to be in Full Communion with the United Church of Christ in the United States. Ratified in July by United Church of Christ’s denominational gathering, the agreement allows for mutual recognition of each denomination’s ministers and opens the door to co-operation at many levels from local to international.
The main item of General Council business was to elected a Moderator, or presiding officer of the General Council. The commissioners, in five ballot rounds, elected The Right Rev. Jordan Cantwell of Delisle-Vanscoy United Church, near Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. In her first press conference she said, “We are fundamentally a people of hope. Our story is one of hope. We have something to offer the world. We as a church need to tap into the hope that is at the core of our faith. It’s easy to get lost in the business and in the fear [of change].”
Cantwell is a graduate of St. Andrew’s College, Saskatoon and was ordained in 2010. She is married to Laura Fouhse, a diaconal minister. They have one daughter.
The next meeting of General Council is in 2017, which may meet electronically, and then in 2018 in Oshawa, Ontario.
Rev. David Shearman is a retired United Church minister in Owen Sound and the host of Faithworks on Rogers TV - Grey County.