Home » UCC Critique » Bermuda Trial

 

Bermuda Trial

 

The case concerns a small congregation in Bermuda which has sought to withdraw from The United Church of Canada on the basis of the UCC’s deviation from Christian doctrine. The congregation wished to sever association with the UCC while retaining title to church property. The deed to the property states that it must be used for the worship of God in accordance with the doctrine of the Methodist Church as articulated in the Twenty-Five Articles of Religion of John Wesley. Favorable outcome for the Bermuda congregation therefore hinged on evidence that The United Church of Canada contradicted the Twenty-Five Articles of Religion. Expert testimony given by Dr. Victor Shepherd demonstrated that the UCC has intentionally and repeatedly contravened its own Basis of Union in its formal theology as well as its day-to-day operative theology.

The judgement of Madam Justice Wade ruled in favour of the congregation. The United Church of Canada has appealed this ruling.

Dr. Shepherd was accepted by the court as an expert witness based on his theological scholarship, particularly in the theology of John Wesley and Methodism. His testimony outlines the United Church’s deliberate deviation from its own Basis of Union in documents and pronouncements since 1988:


Testimony of Dr. Victor Shepherd

Dear Mr. Outerbridge,

You have asked me to compare the theology and doctrine of The United Church of Canada today (1998) with the theology and doctrine of the Methodist Church as exemplified by the Twenty-Five Articles of Faith of John Wesley and the doctrinal beliefs and practices of the Methodist Church of Canada in 1925.

Preamble

(1) The listing of the twenty-five articles of the Methodist Church is prefaced by the statement, “The Doctrines of the Methodist Church are declared to be those contained in the twenty-five Articles of Religion, and those taught by the Rev. John Wesley, M.A., in his Notes on the New Testament, and in the first fifty-two Sermons of the first series of his discourses, published during his lifetime.” Here the Methodist Church of 1925 (Canada)and 1930 (Bermuda) demonstrates its oneness with its predecessors and its continuity with classical Methodism in the era of Wesley himself, for the standards of doctrine were defined as Sermons and Notes on five occasions:

1. in the conference of 1773,

2. in the conference of 1780,

3. in the conference of 1781,

4. in Wesley’s letter to the conference of 1783,

5. in the conference of 1784.

This point is most important, for in the event of any seeming theological lacuna in the Articles themselves, judgement will have to be reserved pending an examination of Wesley’s Sermons and Notes. Methodist churches have always included these three items in their standards; i.e., the Articles of Religion alone have never exhausted the standards of Methodist bodies.

(2) Lest confusion arise concerning the meaning of “doctrine” (particularly in The United Church of Canada today), it should be noted that in scholarly theological discourse “doctrine” and “theology” are not co-terminous. In order to promote clarity it should be noted that the church catholic customarily speaks of dogma, doctrine and theology.

Dogma is the received apostolic faith. It consists of the unalterable “building blocks” of the faith arising from the developments in salvation-history. (E.g., creation, fall, the election of Israel, incarnation, atonement, resurrection, etc.)

Doctrine is the consensus of a church about its faith at a given time. Such a consensus has normative significance for a church at that time and until such time as the consensus is formally altered. Doctrine is embodied in confessions, catechisms, and liturgies. In those liturgical churches where liturgies are prescribed by the church and admit no deviation, liturgy is not merely the vehicle of public worship but is also a confessional standard. The church acquaints its people with normative doctrine by means of an unvarying worship-pattern.

Examples of doctrine are The Augsburg Confession (for Lutherans), The Thirty-Nine Articles (for Anglicans), The Westminster Standards (for some Presbyterians.) In light of the reference to liturgy in the preceding paragraph, it should be noted that John Wesley, as an Anglican clergyman, upheld the Anglican Church’s subordinate standards (i.e., subordinate to scripture): The Thirty-Nine Articles, The Book of Common Prayer, and The Edwardian Homilies. When he seeks affirmation of a scriptural point in extra-scriptural sources, he quotes the Prayer Book (i.e., the liturgy) first. Accordingly, Wesley cannot be accused of theological dereliction simply on the grounds that a theological item is missing from his Articles. It would have to be shown (first) that the same item is not found in the Prayer Book, and then as well in the remaining subordinate standards.

Theology is contemporary interpretation and articulation of the church’s faith. While creation and incarnation, for instance, are dogma and therefore non-negotiable, the church engages in theological exploration of such in light of the history of the church’s thought and in light of contemporary developments in science and philosophy, all of this in the thought-forms and language of modernity. Any “church”, however, that explicitly or implicitly repudiated creation or incarnation as such would be deemed heretical and be considered to have written itself out of the church-catholic.

(3) With respect to Methodist uniqueness, it must be understood that John Wesley abhorred theological novelty. For him novelty amounted to heresy. He affirmed as theologically sound only what he found in “scripture and antiquity”; i.e., in scripture and in the Church Fathers (Patristics.) Wesley was always at pains to show that Methodist Christians were neither heretical nor sectarian. They exemplified the Vincentian Canon (from Vincent of Lerins, first half of the fifth century): Consensus veterum: quod ab omnibus, quod ubique, quod semper creditur or “the ancient consensus: what has been believed by all [Christians], everywhere, always.” (See p. 324, Vol I, Wesley’s Works, Bicentennial Edition) In 1742 Wesley published his Character of a Methodist. It expounds what Wesley regarded as the distinguishing features of his people. What appears is a description of biblical Christianity that would equally pertain to any Christian of any persuasion. This is but another confirmation of Wesley’s insistence that Methodists are non-sectarian. It should be noted that when Wesley published Plain Account of Christian Perfection twenty-three years later (1765), which document sets forth that for which Wesley said God had raised up Methodism and that by which Methodism has been identified historically, the much shorter Character was largely reproduced in the much fuller Plain Account. When Anglican bishops accused Wesley of importing novelty into his churchmanship through his doctrine of Christian Perfection, Wesley turned the accusation back on them. Had they not that very morning prayed the collect for purity in the liturgy for Holy Communion (“…that we may perfectly love Thee”), and had they not been sincere in so praying? Then why should he (Wesley) be faulted for magnifying what Anglicanism endorsed in its liturgy and “antiquity” had always affirmed?

The point here is that while it is undeniable that Methodism admitted distinct emphases (e.g., sanctification or perfection as surely as Lutheranism underlined justification), Methodism was not doctrinally bizarre in any sense or programmatically unbalanced. Methodist churches, therefore, cannot be faulted for appearing non-catholic. Wesley believed that God had raised up Methodism, with its strong emphasis (amounting to a uniqueness in the period of classical Wesleyanism) for the sake of restoring to the church-catholic what the latter had traditionally upheld but had allowed to attenuate; in other words, Methodism was to be the means whereby the “savour” of the church-catholic’s “salt” would be recovered.

A COMPARISON OF THE UNITED CHURCH’S TWENTY ARTICLES OF FAITH (BASIS OF UNION)
AND
THE METHODIST CHURCH’S TWENTY-FIVE ARTICLES OF RELIGION

Concerning the Incarnation

BU II: “God has perfectly revealed himself in Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, who is the brightness of the Father’s glory and the express image of his Person.”

Comment: The language here (e.g., God’s “brightness” [“reflects the glory of God” RSV, Heb. 1:3] and “express image of his Person” [the very stamp of his nature”, Heb. 1:3]; see also Col.1:15 for Jesus Christ as the “image” of the “invisible God”), together with “Word made flesh” attest unambiguously the apostolic confession of the incarnation.

BU VII: “…the Lord Jesus Christ…who, being the Eternal Son of God, for us men and for our salvation became man….”

Comment: The language here is that of the Nicene Creed, and can be read only as unambiguously attesting the apostolic confession of the incarnation.

25Ars II: “The Son, who is the Word of the Father, the very and eternal God, of one substance with the Father…so that two whole and perfect natures, that is to say, the Godhead and manhood, were joined together in one person, never to be divided, whereof is one Christ, very God and very man….”

Comment: This statement, in borrowing more exactly the wording of the Nicene Creed, also affirms the singularity of the incarnation.

The words “never to be divided” are most pertinent, for UCC spokespersons have, for the past several years, insisted that the two natures can be divided, even must be. Former moderator Dr. Bruce McLeod, for instance, in a television interview immediately following that with Mr. Ian Outerbridge (Jan. 1998, CTV), insisted that “Jesus” has to do with the first-century man from Nazareth, while “Christ” can be attached to anyone (or any development) and appear anywhere at any time. McLeod’s assertion, typical of many latterly in the UCC, explicitly denies what the apostles mean by “the Word become flesh.”

Concerning the Mediatorship of Jesus Christ

BU VII: “…the Lord Jesus Christ, the only Mediator between God and man….”

25Ars VI: “…everlasting life is offered to mankind by Christ, who is the only Mediator between God and man.”

Comment: Both standards agree perfectly — and both will be seen to say that Jesus Christ, as sole Mediator, is known as surely under the economy of the Old Testament as under that of the New. (See below)

Neither standard admits of any suggestion that humankind can be saved by anyone or anything other than or in addition to Jesus Christ.

Concerning the Sovereignty of Jesus Christ

BU VII: “…above us and over us all He rules; wherefore, unto Him we render love, obedience and adoration as our Prophet, Priest and King.”

Comment: The explicit statement “He rules” is reinforced by the implicit meaning of “King.” It is the function of the king to rule. Not only is Jesus Christ the incarnate Son of God; not only is he sole Mediator and Saviour; he is also sovereign in that he has been installed as the rightful ruler of the cosmos. There is nothing in the creation that is beyond his jurisdiction; and there is no aspect of human existence that he doesn’t claim for an obedience rightly owed to him.

25Ars III: “…He ascended into heaven, and there sitteth….”

Comment: In biblical symbolism to be seated is to be in a position of authority. (E.g., Jesus begins to deliver the Sermon on the Mount only after he has “sat down.” Matt. 5:1) The Twenty-Five Articles, borrowing the pithy language of the historic creed, regards “He ascended into heaven, and there sitteth…” as encapsulating all the church has said and continues to believe about the fact and significance of Christ’s session.

Concerning Judgement by Means of Christ

BU XIX: “…the Son of God, who shall come to judge the living and the dead….”

25Ars III: “…until He return to judge all men at the last day.”

Everywhere in scripture judgement is God’s prerogative, and his alone. Here, that which is exclusively God’s has been assigned to Jesus Christ. This is plainly another instance of the apostolic discernment of the incarnation.

Concerning Scripture

BU II: “We receive the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, given by inspiration of God, as containing the only infallible rule of faith and life, a faithful record of God’s gracious revelations, and as the sure witness of Christ.”

Comment: (i) Old and New Testaments are alike authoritative. (ii) They are “given by inspiration of God”. This vocabulary is not used of other Christian (or non-Christian) literature. Herein the Basis preserves the uniqueness of scripture.

(iii) They “contain” the only infallible rule. They contain it but are not it, since Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, alone is this. Here the Basis carefully avoids positing scripture (rather than Jesus Christ) as Saviour and Lord. The Basis cannot be faulted for a theologically naive biblicism. (iv) They are “infallible” in that they unfailingly fulfil that purpose for which they have been inspired and given. They are neither defective nor deficient with respect to their aim and its accomplishment. (v) They are the only infallible “rule of faith and life” in that they promote true faith (where the nature of faith is always controlled by the one who is the author and object of faith, God-incarnate) and the conduct or discipleship appropriate to true faith. (vi) Scripture is “the sure witness of Christ.” In other words, Jesus Christ, the sole Mediator (and therefore sole Saviour), is attested in both testaments and is the substance of both testaments. Here the Basis repudiates any form of Marcionism, whether ancient or modern, wherein the Old Testament is said to attest a deity different from that attested by the New (and be or cease to be authoritative for faith and life.)

25Ars V: “The Holy Scriptures contain all things necessary to salvation….”

Comment: The 25Ars uses the same vocabulary (“contain”) with the same intent as the Basis. Note that scripture contains all things necessary to salvation; scripture does not require supplementation. It should be noted here that while the Twenty-Five Articles do not use the word “infallible”, Wesley himself customarily did: rarely does Wesley speak of God’s being the author of scripture without speaking of infallibility. He customarily underlined the conviction that scripture can be trusted to deliver that of which it speaks: our salvation in Jesus Christ.

25Ars VI: “The Old Testament is not contrary to the New; for both in the Old and New Testament everlasting life is offered to mankind by Christ….”

Comment: (i) Old and New Testaments are not contrary; i.e., the substance of both is identical. In both “everlasting life” (i.e., salvation) is offered by Christ, “who is the only Mediator between God and man.” The same Christ known to the apostles is known to the prophets and their people (albeit under the economy of the Torah.) To say anything else would reproduce Marcionism and deny the claim of the Decalogue, for instance, on Christians today.

25Ars VI: “Wherefore they are not to be heard who feign that the old fathers did look only for transitory promises.”

Comment: Jesus Christ does not cancel the Old Testament but rather fulfils it and therein preserves it as a normative witness to Him. To say anything else would (i) deny that “the law and the prophets [i.e., the Old Testament] bear witness” to Jesus Christ (Romans 3:21) and to say instead that law and prophets contradict Jesus Christ (ii) posit two wills in God, as if God suffered from a Dissociative Identity Disorder (“multiple personality”.) (“Old” and “New” Covenants are the one covenant of God renewed.)

Concerning Moral Law

BU XIV: “We believe that the moral law of God, summarized in the Ten Commandments, testified to by the prophets and unfolded in the life and teachings of Jesus Christ, stands for ever in truth and equity, and is not made void by faith, but on the contrary is established thereby.”

BU VI: “We believe that God…gave to His Son a people, an innumerable multitude, chosen in Christ unto holiness, service and salvation.”

Comment: The moral law of God is not undermined by faith (i.e., salvation by faith includes obedience); on the contrary, faith upholds the law in that faith recognizes the rightful claim of God the “salvager” (saviour) upon those whom he has rescued.

With respect to “chosen in Christ unto holiness”, it should be noted that while holiness cannot be reduced to matters of sexual conduct, as a matter of fact virtually all discussions of holiness in the New Testament occur in a context of sexual conduct.

25Ars VI: “…no Christian whatsoever is free from the obedience of the commandments which are called moral.”

Comment: It should be noted that Wesley dreaded antinomianism (the notion that the moral law had been relaxed for Christians) as he dreaded little else. His denunciation of antinomianism and his caution to Methodists concerning it are found in his Works passim. One particular instance of his concern here is illustrated by his three sermons printed consecutively in his Fifty-two Standard Sermons (numbers 34,35, 36):

The Original, Nature, Properties, and Use of the Law,

The Law Established through Faith, I,

The Law Established through Faith, II.

Note his insistence in the lattermost tract, “`We establish the law’…when we so preach faith in Christ as not to supersede but produce holiness: to produce all manner of holiness, negative and positive, of the heart and of the life.”(p.38, Volume 2, Wesley’s Works.) It should be noted too that Wesley everywhere regarded “enthusiasm” (the elevation of experience above scripture) as the godless parent of its godless offspring, antinomianism. It is no surprise, then, to see him follow his three sermons on the Law of God with The Nature of Enthusiasm.

Conclusion

The Basis of Union (Twenty Articles) is entirely congruent with Wesley’s Twenty-Five Articles. The latter are a condensation and simplification of the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England. In using the doctrinal basis of the Church of England Wesley sought (i) to bring to sharper focus the doctrinal core of Methodism, (ii) to demonstrate Methodism’s doctrinal continuity with the Church of England. Had Methodism been doctrinally dissonant with the Church of England Wesley would have had to conclude that Methodism was sectarian and schismatic; i.e., not Christian and therefore not part of the church of Jesus Christ. His Twenty-Five Articles attests Methodism’s catholicity. Wesley’s emphatic insistence (1767) must be heard and honoured: “But whatever doctrine is new must be wrong; for the old religion is the only true one; and no doctrine can be right unless it is the very same `which was from the beginning.'” (Wesley, Works, Vol. I, p.324; italics his throughout)

The Basis of Union (1925) is congruent with the theology of Wesley in all respects. There is nothing that he deemed essential to the catholic faith, nothing that he regarded as an emphasis characteristic of Methodism, that fails to be included in the Basis. Careful readers have noticed that Wesley’s Twenty-Five Articles contain no particular Methodist emphasis. This observation is correct. So eager was Wesley to avoid the slightest suspicion of heresy that his Twenty-five Articles set forth an understanding of the Christian faith that is evangelical, Protestant and catholic. The more specifically Methodist emphases were to be found in his occasional writings and his Sermons. It should be noted in this context that all of the particularly Methodist emphases are recognized in The UCC’s Basis of Union: e.g.,
– holiness: Christians are”…chosen in Christ unto holiness.” BU VI: the Holy Spirit dwells “…in every believer as the spirit of truth,of power, of holiness.” BU VIII
– the universality of the offer of salvation: God “…freely offers His all-sufficient salvation to all men.” BU VI (Many Presbyterians, for instance, maintained that God offered salvation to some only; namely, the elect.)
– assurance as a concomitant of faith and love for God as the essence of sanctification: “…full assurance of faith whereby the love of God is made perfect in us.” BU XII Historic Wesleyanism was not denied in any respect when the Methodist Church became one of the ingredients of The United Church of Canada.


Membership, Ministry and Human Sexuality:
A New Statement
of
The United Church of Canada
by the 32nd General Council

(Page 1, d) The document quotes approvingly Gift, Dilemma and Promise (30th General Council, 1984), and affirms a three-fold purpose of sexual intercourse while omitting any reference to procreation as one such purpose. In view of the extremely controversial document that preceded MMHS, Sexual Orientation, Lifestyles and Ministry, wherein a theological rationale was developed for homosexual liaisons (i.e., homosexual intercourse, where procreation is inherently impossible), the omission is very telling. According to the creation sagas in Genesis procreation is not the only purpose, or even the chief purpose, of intercourse between husband and wife (not between any man and any woman.) While the uniting of husband and wife is put forward as the chief purpose (therein overcoming “aloneness”), to omit any reference to procreation is (i) to deny the plain meaning of the scriptural text and the totality of the narrative, (ii) to imply that sexual activity can occur legitimately where procreation is inherently impossible, (iii) therein to lend to sexual activity that meaning which any societal context (the society as a whole or any sub-group within it) endorses.

From a biblical perspective, the promotion of marital intimacy and the engendering of children exhaust God’s purpose for intercourse. It should be noted that Jesus himself endorses this. Genital intimacy for any other reason is sin. The question can be asked, “If non-procreative sex within marriage is good in itself, then why is non-procreative sex between adults of the same gender also not good in itself?”, only if it is first denied that God has a purpose for sexual activity in creatures who are sexually differentiated by God’s ordination. (See below.) The special pleading of SOLM (which report was “received” while MMHS was “approved”) to the effect that scripture prohibits same-gender genital intimacy because Israel needed children to ensure the survival of the nation; this pleading remains unconvincing given (i) scripture’s abhorrence passim of same-gender genital intimacy (ii) scripture’s prohibition of bestiality, the indulgence of which would not yield nation-sustaining children.

It is to be noted too that nowhere does MMHS state (i) that marriage (and the faithfulness essential to it) is the commonest metaphor in scripture for faith (and the faithfulness to God essential to it), (ii) that the model for marital self-giving is the self-giving of Jesus Christ for his people. (Ephesians 5:21-33) The absence of a theological/Christological basis to the UCC’s understanding of marriage highlights the UCC’s variance with the understanding of the church catholic.

(Page 1, f) “We recognize the commitment that is present in many relationships other than Christian marriage….” The subtext of this statement is to be found in SOLM, where it was argued that the intensity of the commitment legitimated assorted relationships. Intensity, however, does not overturn the law of God; there can be relationships of unspeakable intensity that are illicit nevertheless. (Many illicit relationships are possessed of such intensity, and for that reason are not readily relinquished.)

(Page 2, 8) “We confess our inability at this time, given our diversity in our understanding of the authority and interpretation of Scripture, to find consensus regarding a Christian understanding of human sexuality, including homosexuality.” “Confess” is used ecclesiastically of (i) confession of the faith, (ii) confession of sin. It may be acknowledged that someone is unable to find consensus, but it cannot properly be said to be confessed, for (i) such inability is not an item of the faith, (ii) such inability as such is not sin, finitude or creatureliness not being sin. Furthermore, while The UCC may lack consensus concerning homosexuality, the church catholic manifests no such lack. In addition, scripture is unambiguous in its condemnation of homosexual behaviour. The reference to “our inability at this time, given our diversity in our understanding of the authority and interpretation of scripture” is in fact a blatant denial of the authority of scripture. Nowhere is scripture vague or ambivalent concerning the sin of homosexual behaviour.

(Page 2, 1) “We confess that God is the Creator of the earth and all that is, including humanity in all its diversity.” God is not the Creator of all that is; sin and evil “are”, yet God is not their Creator. (At present they contradict God; he opposes them and ultimately will not tolerate them.) God is not the Creator of every aspect of humanity’s diversity. In fact God is the Creator of but one: gender specificity. All of the distinctions that differentiate people (poverty and wealth, learning and ignorance, deprivation and privilege) are products of the Fall, not gifts of the Creator. They can be overcome and are mandated to be overcome: by means of the redistribution of income (Year of Jubilee, Lev. 25), the prohibition concerning interest on a loan advanced for life’s necessities, the learned instructing the ignorant. The diversity of language, for instance, is the result of God’s judgement (Genesis 12). The one “diversity” that is not the result of sin/judgement but is rather built into the created order is therefore a diversity that cannot be transcended. Any attempt to transcend it is eo ipse sin. This diversity (male-female distinctiveness, specifically genital distinctiveness) is to be affirmed. Here The UCC has contradicted once again the faith of the church.

(Page 2, 10) “We agree that God’s intention for all human relationships is that they be faithful, responsible, just, loving, health-giving, healing and sustaining of community and self.” God’s first intention (and determinative intention) is that relationships be God-ordained; i.e, not inherently sinful, not a violation of the law of God. No relationship that upholds what God forbids and endorses what God deems illicit can ever be just or responsible. No Christian can exalt a relationship that God condemns; no Christian can pretend that it is loving or responsible to confirm someone else (or oneself) in sin. While “faithful” is mentioned first, it ought not to be thought that faithfulness within an adulterous relationship, for instance, exemplifies God’s intention in any respect. Sin can never be healthy. So far from sustaining the self, sin destroys it.

(Page 3, 1) “(Council declared) [T]hat all persons, regardless of their sexual orientation, who profess Jesus Christ and obedience to Him, are welcome to be or become full members of the Church.” In light of SOLM, “sexual orientation” undeniably includes “sexual activity”. (This equation was the occasion of the furore in The UCC in 1988). Unrepented and unrepudiated behaviour arising from sexual orientations other than heterosexual orientation expressed in the context of marriage is a contradiction of “profession” and a denial of “obedience.” (See Acts 15:20, I Cor. 6:9-11.) Discipleship does not accommodate illicit sexual behaviour.

(Page 3, 2b) “All Christian people are called to a lifestyle patterned on obedience to Jesus Christ.” Certainly obedience (an aspect of faith) is always obedience to the person of Jesus Christ, not conformity to a (non-person) text. At the same time, obedience to Jesus Christ always takes the form of obedience to the apostolic witness to him. When Jesus Christ commissions the missioners he states, “Whoever hears you, hears me.” (Luke 10:16) This must not be weakened to, “Whoever hears you also hears me” or “may hear me.” Clearly Jesus Christ cannot be collapsed into the apostles, cannot be reduced to those whom he calls and equips to testify to him. None the less, he is not heard (obeyed) apart from them. Our coming to hear, heed, love and obey the Lord always takes the form of hearing, heeding, loving and obeying the testimony of his witnesses. They are not to be equated with him. None the less, unless their testimony is acknowledged as authoritative (which testimony is now scripture), he cannot be obeyed. In disregarding scripture with respect to sexual conduct The UCC has denied the logic of “Whoever hears you [apostles], hears me.” In (i) ordaining self-admitted, practising homosexual persons, (ii) seeking to place such in pastoral charges, The UCC has contradicted its assertion purportedly extolling “a lifestyle patterned on obedience to Jesus Christ.”

It should be noted in this regard that John Wesley explicitly condemned homosexual behaviour in his longest tract, The Doctrine of Original Sin (1757). The “pederasty” of which he spoke includes homosexual sodomy between adult males as well, more specifically, that between adult and juvenile males. In his Notes on the New Testament (one of the standards of Methodism) Wesley comments on the reference to homosexual behaviour in Romans 1:26-27, “Receiving the just recompense of their error — Their idolatry, being punished with that unnatural lust, which was as horrible a dishonour to the body, as their idolatry was to God.” Concerning the “base fellows” of Judges 19:16-30, men who were bent on homosexual indulgence, Wesley, following the English text of the Authorized (King James) Version of the bible, speaks of “sons of belial”, and adds, “Children of the devil, wicked and licentious men.” With respect to Jude 7, “Even as Sodom and Gomorrah, and the cities about them, which in the same manner with these gave themselves over to fornication…” (“the surrounding cities, which likewise acted immorally and indulged in unnatural lust…” RSV), Wesley comments on “fornication”: “The word here means unnatural lusts: are set forth as an example, suffering the vengeance of eternal fire — That is, the vengeance which they suffered is an example or a type of eternal fire.” The passage from the “Holiness Code” of Leviticus (“You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination” — Lev. 18:22) Wesley addresses by referring the reader to his comments on Romans 1:26-27. He does as much with a similar passage in Lev. 20:13. He plainly thought that a point he had made unambivalently once he could make thereafter by referring the reader to it without the bother of rewriting it. Several points need to be made here:

(i) While Wesley says relatively little about homosexual behaviour, scripture as a whole says only enough to remind readers of what everyone is supposed to know: homosexual behaviour is an abomination to God and is to be shunned by men and women. (Jesus nowhere comments on spouse-abuse. No one would conclude, given the silence of Jesus on this matter, that he was in favour of it. Everything that Jesus says in the course of his earthly ministry militates against it. In other words, the explicit teaching of Jesus himself, together with his endorsement of the wisdom of Israel (he said he came not to abolish the law and the prophets [the Old Testament] but to fulfil them), provides the context that interprets not only what Jesus says but what he does not bother to mention in that it is indisputable. It cannot be imagined that in the primitive Christian communities a spouse-abuser could expect to be exonerated on the grounds that his Lord had not explicitly forbidden it.)

(ii) In Wesley’s era it would not be contested that homosexual behaviour was immoral, even perverse, falling outside what God pronounces “good”, and therefore to be eschewed.

(iii) Wesley’s civility and good taste (deemed desirable in an Oxford-educated, 18th century Anglican clergyman) would prevent him from amplifying a matter in which he knew everyone in the church catholic to agree with him in any case.

(iv) There is nothing in Wesley’s theology or hymns or correspondence that suggests he approved in the slightest or regarded as permissible same-gender genital contact.

(v) As someone ordained in the Church of England (and as someone whose Holy Orders were neither revoked nor surrendered), and as someone who always insisted that the theology, liturgy and governance of the Church of England were the finest to be found in Christendom, Wesley would unquestionably have rejected as a candidate for ordination or as a leader in local congregations anyone who engaged in homosexual behaviour.


The Authority and Interpretation of Scripture

(34th General Council, 1992)

This document fails utterly to acknowledge Jesus in conformity with the apostles’ confession of him: Lord, Saviour, Judge, Son of God, Incarnate Word, Messiah of Israel. “Jesus as mentor and friend”, something that could be predicated of anyone, is as much as the document will say. Since “Jesus is Lord” is the most elemental Christian confession, its omission is telling. The document nowhere speaks of the nature, uniqueness and significance of Jesus Christ. In what it says and in what it refuses to say the document is a stark violation of the whole of BU XII.

On p.3 the document states, “We have always sought to be deeply engaged with the realities of God’s world and the people and institutions in it.” From a biblical perspective world, people and institutions are not realities but actualities. As actualities they are concrete, not mythological or imaginary. Yet they are not reality, since reality, for prophet and apostle (i.e., according to scripture’s self-understanding)is the living, personal presence of God himself (or as the sixteenth century Reformers put it, the effectual presence of Jesus Christ.) If anything besides God is described as real, then God has to be fitted to this reality, accommodated to it — and this is a tacit denial of the reality of God. To speak of world, people and institutions as possessing reality (rather than actuality) is to acknowledge them as revelatory. Undoubtedly the document wants to do so (as is evidenced by the jejune comment, “Jesus is mentor and friend”); i.e., the document tacitly affirms that world, people and institutions bespeak God in a way that Jesus Christ does not. Here the document violates BU I and II.

On p.3 the document presupposes what scripture everywhere denies: the capacity of humankind to ask the right questions concerning God and humankind. Unquestionably humankind asks questions of scripture. Scripture itself, however, discounts all such interrogating, and contradicts human presumption and pretence by posing its own questions. The logic of scripture is exemplified by the questions scripture puts to humankind as through it God interrogates humankind, thus exposing the falsehood and illusion of the latter’s starting point. Briefly, scripture is the vehicle of God’s calling into question (disallowing) all such pseudo-questions and therein correcting them. It cannot be denied that as often as Jesus is asked a question, for instance, he refuses to answer it; instead he puts his question to the questioner. Humankind’s confidence in addressing its questions to scripture is (according to scripture) a groundless confidence. Such a confidence betrays a distorted (i.e., sin-warped) perspective of which the questioner remains unaware. Scripture everywhere indicates that humankind’s understanding with respect to God has been “darkened”, even darkened so as to have become “futile”. (Rom 1:21) Humankind’s questions about the substance of scripture (rather than the deployment of scientific tools of investigation) are in fact its disdain for God’s self-disclosure concerning God’s nature and purpose and provision. All such questions God disallows as God radically transfigures humankind’s questions by means of the questions God addresses to it. The questions humankind brings to scripture may be humanly or humanistically significant; they are not, however, the normative context or interpretative key to scripture. The latter is God’s ongoing contending with all that opposes him, that spiritual conflict which seethes everywhere and which has victimized even the (self-)understanding that humankind brings to scripture.

On p.5 the document confuses authority with authoritarianism. The latter, foreign to scripture, is arbitrary claim or coercion or tyranny. In the “world-view” which the document prefers, “authority” is understood as “power with.” Scripture, however, insists that the authority of Jesus Christ is primary, unique, and never delegated or shared. His authority is never “power with” humankind. Since the authority of scripture arises from its service to Jesus Christ (“the sure witness of Christ” BU II), the authority of scripture can never be “power with”; i.e., the authority of scripture can never be the authority of “scripture-and-humankind.” The “world-view” that the document rejects (“power over”) is what the church catholic acknowledges in recognizing Jesus Christ as Lord. However, it must be recognized instantly that lordship in the sense of tyranny Jesus contrasts with his own lordship. Jesus Christ exercises his lordship by humbling himself, identifying himself with sinners (those meriting the judgement and condemnation of God), and giving himself up for humankind. Christ’s authority, while never delegated, shared or surrendered, is also never authoritarian, never arbitrary, never tyrannical. He is Lord but never by “lording it over” humankind. His authority, rather, is the legitimate claim upon humankind as the one who has been condemned “in our place”; his claim is the rightful claim of the salvager upon the salvaged. The document misunderstands the nature of Christ’s authority, and thereby misconstrues the consequent authority of scripture, and thereafter rejects the genuine authority of scripture. Herein it violates BU II formally and BU passim materially.

In the same vein, on p.7, the document’s utilization of traffic-officers as the illustration of that authority we recognize and assent to is not merely unhelpful but even misleading. Admittedly, the document is correct in seeing that it is the community that confers authority on traffic-officers. This is but to say that the community itself is the ultimate authority with respect to the regulating of traffic. But when the church catholic acknowledges scripture as authoritative it is not saying that the Christian community has conferred authority on scripture; it is not saying that the church is the ultimate authority for regulating the church’s faith and conduct. To say this would mean that the church is self-authoritative with respect to its knowledge of God; i.e., “God” is but a projection of the church. Herein the document violates all of BU XX.

There occurs a similar confusion amounting to a doctrinal inversion regarding the place of the church, the community of faith, in the economy of God’s revelation and the place of scripture within that economy. When scripture is said to be the foundational story for us (without any acknowledgement that what is foundational must also be paradigmatic, normative, lest the “superstructure” {i.e., denominational pronouncements} come to contradict the “foundation”), which story is “hallowed by the continual use of the ongoing community (p.9), it is therein asserted that the community renders scripture holy (hallowed.) Scripture is holy, rather, in that it uniquely attests the incursion and ongoing activity of the Holy One of Israel in the person of his Son. Similar confusion is evident again in the assertion,”God’s historic self-revelation in Jesus Christ is crucial in establishing what has legitimate authority in Christian community.” (p.10) Throughout history, however, the church has confessed not that Jesus Christ is crucial for establishing this or that as having legitimate authority for the church, but rather that Jesus Christ is the authority for faith since he is the church’s sole sovereign. In other words, “God’s historic self-revelation in Jesus Christ” can never be “crucial” in establishing the lordship (authority) of something other than the Lord. Furthermore, what is granted with “God’s historic self-revelation in Christ” is taken back on the same page (10) with “interactive sense of authority — scripture as power with us.” “Scripture as power with us” does not reflect the nature of Christ’s authority, for the Incarnate One is never “lord with us.”

On p.8 the document commits egregious errors in its reading of history. The theology of John Wesley is denied concerning the normativity of scripture. The document speaks of “at least four sources of Christian faith — heritage, understanding, experience and the Bible.” (p.8) Under “understanding” it is said that “the work of biblical scholars and reflections of members of the community” are “methods of understanding” that are “seen as more consistent with the Methodist and Reformed traditions….”(p.10) This is patently false. Both the Reformed tradition (Calvin) and Wesley speak of scripture as “the oracles of God.” Both Reformed and Methodist traditions acknowledge scripture as authoritative precisely because it uniquely attests the One in whom “the fulness of deity dwells bodily.” (Col. 2:9)

False too is the document’s discussion of Wesley’s notion of “experience.” It states that Wesley’s “experience” includes the notion that “part of the authority of scripture is found in its `givenness’ — the fact that the story has been passed down from generation to generation.” (p.11) For Wesley, “experience” was two-fold: (i) the private confirmation of believers’ faith in the gospel and their inclusion in God’s salvation, relieving doubt and anxiety concerning their favour with God and future blessedness, (ii) the public signs of the gospel’s efficacy: by it the drunkard is rendered sober, the wife-beater kind, the gambler compulsion-free, the indolent industrious. The document states that according to Wesley the trans-generational transmission of the church’s story lends scripture partial authority. First, the church catholic does not recognize partial authority concerning scripture; secondly, what is attributed to Wesley he explicitly denies; thirdly, no support is adduced for the (illogical) assertion that mere transmission constitutes even part of scripture’s authority. Wesley abhors any suggestion that human experience is the measure of scripture. While he undoubtedly emphasized the experience of salvation (rather than the bare notion of it) in the course of the revival, he also cautioned Methodists against relying on that experience rather than on scripture. They were “to be tried by a farther rule, to be brought to the only certain test, `the law and the testimony'” — i.e., scripture (Wesley, Works , Vol. XIX, p.73)) Any elevation of experience above scripture constituted one an “enthusiast”, and enthusiasm, he does not hesitate to say, gives rise to “wild, ranting antinomians.” (Wesley, Works, Vol I, p.324) Unnormed experience was “the mere, empty dreams of an heated imagination.” (Wesley, Works, XIX, p.296) The document is illogical in its juxtaposing “God’s historic self-revelation in Jesus Christ is crucial for establishing what has legitimate authority in Christian community” (p.10) with “part of the authority of scripture is found in its relevance to our experience.” (p.11) How is Jesus Christ related to that human experience which is said to confer (part-)authority upon scripture?

Confusion and contradiction abound in the section, CONVICTIONS. (pp.39-42) Six affirmations are emphasized in bold-faced type; e.g., God calls us to engage the bible as a foundational authority as we seek to live the Christian life. Each of the six begins, “God calls us to engage the Bible….” But how do we know that God calls us to do this, since the document nowhere relates scripture to a doctrine of the knowledge of God? (Here its departure from Wesley and the BU is obvious.) Now we are told that God calls us to engage the bible as a foundational authority. Before it was the foundational authority. Plainly other “foundational” authorities are to be accommodated. The document states that “the Bible continues to be the predominant witness to belief in God’s liberating and transforming activity.” But the church catholic acknowledges scripture to be normative, not merely predominant. Furthermore, the apostolic testimony attests in the first instance not belief in God’s activity but the activity of God himself. In the first instance scripture attests God’s self-disclosure and only in the second instance a human response thereto. The contradiction of the Basis of Union and of the Twenty-Five Articles is glaring in the document’s placing “God calls us to engage the Bible as a church seeking God’s community with all God’s people” ahead of “God calls us to engage the Bible to experience the liberating and transforming Word of God.” (p.40) The document fails even to reflect familiarity with the text of scripture in its assertion, “legitimate authority in every case enhances community”; after all, when Jesus Christ acted in the course of his earthly ministry, John indicates repeatedly that division ensued. (E.g., John 9:16)

It is obvious that naturalism is the presupposition of the document: that is, that human reason, assessing scripture, can discriminate between wheat and chaff, between what must be heard and heeded and what not. There is no recognition that human reason, with respect to knowledge of God, has been impaired by the Fall and now cannot, of itself, yield knowledge of God. (Wesley insisted that no reasoning about God provided acquaintance with God. The Doctrine of Original Sin, 293) There is no recognition that revelation (which is never merely ideational but is rather the redemptive/restorative action of God upon us as God includes us in his self-knowing) is necessary if reason is to regain reason’s integrity; no acknowledgement of Wesley’s tirelessly quoted text, “…that holiness without which no one will see the Lord.” (Heb. 12:14) Not confused but problematic nonetheless are such statements as “Transformation is the activity of divine grace with us that changes individuals….For Christians these activities are uniquely personified in Jesus of Nazareth.” (p.40) What did Jesus Christ change from? change into? The addition of “For Christians” denies the truth-claim of the gospel. Moreover, Christians confess Jesus to personify nothing but rather to be the Word Incarnate. Despite much talk about transformation, there is no mention at all of transformation concerning holiness. Here alone the document fails utterly to reflect the spirit of Wesley.

Wesley’s laconic comment must be heard: “I allow no other rule, whether of faith or practice, than the Holy Scriptures.” (Wesley, Works, Vol. XIX, p.73)


Voices United
The Hymn and Worship Book of The United Church of Canada

It should be noted that for John Wesley, hymns were the vehicle for acquainting people with the theology of Methodism. Methodists, then, do not regard a hymn book as a collection of songs; it is rather that which delivers the theology of the denomination, acquaints people with it and enables them to absorb it. Treachery in a hymnbook, then, is never merely or even primarily a matter of music; it fosters unbelief in those who are victimized by it, putting their eternal wellbeing at risk.

It should be noted additionally that Voices United is subtitled the “worship book” of the denomination. Lex orandi lex credendi is a truth that has reconfirmed itself in every era: what is prayed (or sung) is what is actually believed.

Anthropologists are aware that whenever a goddess has been worshipped as the arch-deity, wherever “Mother-god” has been exalted, one outcome has always been prostitution and widespread sexual promiscuity. Israel knew its own mind in refusing to call God “Mother” and in refusing to speak of the deity as “goddess.”

Throughout history goddess-worship (Mother-god-worship) has been associated with the worship of fertility of all kinds: agricultural, animal, human. A key element in such worship, part of the chain of events, has been “sympathic magic.” Sympathic magic means that when humans are sexually active the god and goddess are too. The sexual activity of god and goddess in turn ensures the fertility of animals and crops.

In calling God “Father” Israel was not ascribing gender-specificity to God. In insisting on “Father”, however, Israel was knowingly refusing to call God “mother”; Israel was deliberately repudiating everything that the surrounding fertility cults associated with female deities. Repudiated together were the notion that the deity is sexually active, the notion that human sexual activity is sympathically magical, the notion that the entire enterprise is sacramentally abetted by sacral prostitution, the notion that the concomitant promiscuity has any place in God’s economy.

Israel did occasionally use female imagery to describe God. In scripture God is said to be like a mother or nurse or even a she-bear not to be trifled with. But while God is said to be like a mother, God is never said to be mother, never called “mother.”

Voices United disregards the aforementioned and names God “mother” and “goddess” in six hymns and three prayers. Two of the prayers name God “Father and Mother” (as in the rewritten prayer of Jesus, “Our Father and Mother….”) This notion dovetails with the myths of Canaan and the Greek myth of Aphrodite where sexual intercourse among the deities creates the universe. (In the creation stories of scripture there is no suggestion anywhere that the universe came into being as the result of sexual activity among the deities.) It also supports the old notion that when a worshipper is sexually joined to a religious prostitute, worshipper and prostitute themselves become the god and goddess. In brief, to speak of “Our Father and Mother” transports the church into everything that Israel’s prophets fended off on account of the character of Israel’s God. Hymn #280 exclaims, “Mother and God, to you we sing; wide is your womb, warm is your wing.” (It should be noted that when God is called “Father” there is no reference at all to male reproductive organs.) In this regard the hymnbook is a sustained denial of the holiness of God.

Voices United denies the transcendence of God, the biblical conviction that God is radically different from his creation, radically other than his creatures. Scripture never compromises this distinction. While God’s creation is good (at least as it comes from God’s hand, even though it is now riddled with sin and evil) it is never God. The creation is never to be worshipped; idolatry is horrific to the people of God. Human beings are summoned to know God; they are never summoned to be God. (The temptation to be God, to be our own Judge and Saviour, is the arch-temptation.) Any suggestion that humankind can render itself divine (as with sacral prostitution) is a denial of God’s transcendence. The old hymn known as “The Doxology” (“Praise God from whom all blessings flow/ Praise him all creatures here below”) reflects God’s transcendence. In Voices United, however, “The Doxology” has been altered to “Praise God from whom all blessings flow/Praise him all creatures high and low.” “All creatures here below” affirms the truth that God transcends us; “all creatures high and low” denies it.

The loss of God’s transcendence is reflected in the psalm selections of Voices United. Of the 141 psalm selections in the book, only nine retain the name LORD. (When LORD is spelled with every letter capitalized, it translates the Hebrew word YAHWEH, “God”.) Voices United has virtually eliminated “LORD” from the Christian vocabulary. According to the hymnbook committee it has done so because “LORD” is hierarchical and therefore oppressive. Unquestionably “LORD” is hierarchical; God is “high and lifted up”, transcends us infinitely. But so far from rendering him oppressive (see earlier note on scripture where the humility, even humiliation, of “hierarchy” is discussed) God’s transcendence is the condition of his being able to bestow mercy upon us. Only if God is free from us is he free to act for us. It should be noted that the loss of God’s transcendence condemns humankind to hopelessness. The God who is unable to judge us is eo ipse unable to save us. Only the “hierarchical” God can finally be for us. The God who isn’t LORD has been handcuffed; i.e., not God at all. (The “God” espoused by the hymnbook violates the Basis of Union at all points.)

Voices United undervalues the doctrine of the Trinity, the elemental truth of the Christian faith. God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In The Hymnbook (1971) the Trinity is referred to in over 50 hymns out of 506. In Voices United the Trinity is referred to twice only out of 719 hymns. The Trinity has virtually disappeared. (If God cannot be called “Father”, plainly God will not be known as “Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”) Overlooked in this undervaluation is the fact that the question, “Who is God?” is a question scripture never answers directly. In “replying” scripture directs us to two other questions: “What does God do?” and “What does God effect?” The former question refers us to God’s activity on our behalf; the latter, to God’s activity within us. In acting for us God incarnates himself in Jesus of Nazareth. He redeems his creation in the death of Jesus, restoring its access to him. He raises Jesus from the dead, vindicating Jesus and declaring him to be Messiah and Lord. In acting within us God visits us with his Spirit and seals within us all that he has done outside us, for us. He steals over our spiritual inertia and quickens faith. He forgives the sin in us that he had already absorbed for us on the cross. He brings us to submit to the sovereignty of the One whose sovereignty he had declared by raising him from the dead. What God does for us in the Son is known as Christology. What God does within us through the Spirit is known as pneumatology. Christology and pneumatology together add up to theology. God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

In place of the Trinity Voices United speaks of “Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer.” The two expressions are not equivalent. “Father, Son and Holy Spirit” speaks of God’s being, who God is in himself eternally, as well as of God’s activity, what he does for us and in us in time. “Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer”, on the other hand, speaks only of God’s function, God’s relation to the world in time. The doctrine of the Trinity is essential in preserving the truth that what God is for us and in us in time he is in himself eternally; conversely, what he is in himself eternally he is for us and in us in time. To abandon the doctrine of the Trinity is to violate BU I, II, VI, VII, VIII, XVI, XVII.

Voices United denies the biblical conviction that someone’s name bespeaks that person’s nature. A change of name always reflects a change of nature. To change the name of God from “Father, Son, Spirit” to anything is to disavow the nature of the true God and to pursue a false god.

Voices United disregards the unalterable jealousy of God. When scripture speaks of God as jealous it does not mean that God is insecure and needs to be flattered, nor that God craves what someone else possesses just because God lacks it. To say that God is jealous, rather, is to say that God insists on our undivided love and loyalty, and does so for two reasons: (i) since God alone is God, he alone is to be worshipped and obeyed, (ii) since we can find our wholeness in him alone, we are to seek it nowhere else. In other words, God cares too much for us to allow us to fragment ourselves. Exclusivity is of the essence of faith, worship and wholeness as incontrovertibly as it is of the essence of marriage. Voices United contradicts the characteristic logic of the biblical revelation of God.


Mending the World
An Ecumenical Vision for Healing and Reconciliation

This document was “affirmed” at the 36th General Council, 1997. It announces its agenda forthrightly on page 1: “We hold the conviction that the world is at the centre of God’s concern.” Nowhere, however, does “world” have the meaning it has in John’s gospel: the sum total of disobedient, rebellious men and women resolute in their defiance of God. While MW speaks of “God…who loves the world”, therein obviously borrowing from John 3:16, it does not go on to quote or allude to the remainder of the well-known verse: “…that whoever believes in him [i.e., the `only Son’ that God’s love `gave’] should not perish but have eternal life.” (p.3) Instead, because God loves the world (“world” understood as per MW but never explicitly defined) and works for its mending, God “calls the church to make this work its first priority.”

The section, “An Affirmation”, amounts to an inversion of “the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints.” (Jude 3) In this document the six paragraphs beginning, “We believe” displace Jesus Christ as the author and object of faith and substitute the church’s adoption of an agenda of social/political/economic transmutation, many items of which are highly debatable. Concerning the lattermost point, for instance, MW states, “We believe that God calls the Church…to discern and celebrate God’s Spirit in people of other religions and ideologies.” (p.4) The earliest church regarded Jesus Christ as the unique bearer and bestower of the Spirit. Scripture simply does not predicate “Spirit” of other religions. (Prophet and apostle do not thereby imply that God has abandoned people of other religions, but it is to say that “Spirit” has a precise content, which content — if MW is aware of it at all — has been illegitimately transferred where prophet and apostle do not speak of “Spirit.”) As for “ideologies”, ideology, according to contemporary understanding, is not merely a system of values and concepts that are deployed as tools for effecting an all-encompassing societal end, but rather (as the French Enlightenment thinkers of the 18th century understood the word they had invented) a system that legitimized any and every means to such an end. “Spirit” and social engineering are presuppositionally disparate.

In the same section MW states, “We believe God calls the Church”, and immediately refers to six tasks of the church, only to conclude with “[and] to trust in God.” (p.4) Readers cannot help contrasting the “ideology” here with Psalm 20:7 where the psalmist differentiates between those who “boast of” (i.e., trust in) chariots and horses with those who trust in God, concluding that the former will “collapse and fall.”

Puzzling throughout is MW’s assumption that Christians today are facing sheer novelty. Repeated references to religious pluralism, however, call to mind the fact that the people of God came to birth and thrived in the midst of such pluralism: Israel amidst Canaanite religions, the church amidst gnosticism, mystery religions, emperor-worship. In the same way MW emphasizes (by means of italics), “in the world in which we live, we are faced with urgent moral issues.” (p.7) No era of the church (or the world’s existence, for that matter) has ever lacked urgent moral issues!

Presupposed everywhere is a common understanding of key terms when in fact no common understanding can be assumed. When MW states that “the Church will often need to work with other communities of good will”, no definition of the latter term is offered. MW assumes that good will can be readily identified either in the church or in the world, when in fact no such identification is widespread. (And of course theologically informed readers of “good will” will recognize that throughout the history of Christian thought “good will” refers to that human will which has been freed from bondage and renewed by Jesus Christ so as to give it the freedom and the desire to will the godly.)

The ideological nature of MW is evident in the bold declaration, “We are called to set as priority for The United Church of Canada God’s work of earth-healing….” (p.8) “Earth-healing (throughout MW the term is freighted with a particular socio-political agenda) has never been the priority of the Christian and community and never will be, for Jesus Christ himself delineates the church.

The section, “Theological Foundations”, introduces itself by quoting the first two lines of The United Church’s “creed”:

“We are not alone; we live in God’s world

We believe in God, who has created and is creating…”

Needless to say, the “creed” is no creed at all, since it has failed to find ecumenical consensus (in the historic sense of “ecumenical”, meaning the church throughout the world.) Moreover, since a creed is the pithiest declaration of faith (compared to longer confessions and still-longer catechisms)

it is difficult to grasp how there came to exist a creed whose first sentence is, “We are not alone.” It is puzzling as to what faith is being confessed here.

The Christology sections of MW are as highly tendentious as they are heretical. MW speaks for the reader’s putative bewilderment with, “How do we get to Jesus?” — when, in the gospel of John, for instance, it is the function of the Holy Spirit to “floodlight” Jesus Christ. (John 15:26; 16:14) God’s Spirit overcomes any problem with accessing Jesus Christ. While MW states, with respect to Christology, “Jesus was fully human”, the most it will say of his deity is, “The tradition of the church affirms the deity of Christ.” While it says, “Jesus was a Jew”, it never says what scripture confesses: Jesus is the Messiah of Israel. While it acknowledges that “Jesus is the one affirmed as God’s child”, the statement means nothing in light of the denomination’s speaking of all men and women as “God’s children.” With respect to how God has reconciled the world, it avoids committing itself to the historic understanding of the cross and instead takes refuge in, “tradition responds by saying that Jesus died to save us from our sins.” (p.14) The section, “Jesus, representative of God”, exudes heresy. Jesus is not a representative or even the representative of God; Jesus, the apostles insist, is God: God-with-us, Emmanuel. The proffered rationale, “The nature of a representative is to face two ways — to be capable of mediating the concern of one party to the other, and vice versa”, is theologically incorrect. While in labour- negotiations, for instance, a mediator between two parties is neither, Jesus Christ as mediator is both: both God and human.

Shocking in its shallowness and illogical as well is the quotation from Dorothee Soelle, brought forward as a rationale for all of the foregoing: “We have to give up obedience and find solidarity….As Eckhardt says, we become quit of a God who commands and dominates.” (p.14) Christians are never released from obedience, since obedience is an aspect of faith! (Paul states “the obedience of faith” is the purpose of his apostleship! Rom. 1:5) Furthermore, the God who commands does not dominate: he submits himself to us and gives himself up for us. Overlooked completely is the logic of scripture at this point: invitation or permission is always the form of the divine command. This point is illustrated profoundly in “Come unto me…and I will give you rest.” (Matt. 11:28)

Questions are begged throughout MW. When it states approvingly the “pluralist” notion that “all authentic religions can mediate salvation”, no definition of “authentic” is offered. One is left guessing as to what inauthentic religion might be, and for whom it might be inauthentic, since its devotees would never pronounce it such. Admittedly, the next sentence speaks of “the life-transforming encounter by which we turn from life centred in the self to life centred in God.” But the “ideologies” embraced earlier in the document do not do this, qua ideology. Furthermore, in view of the errors in Christian theology throughout MW to this point, it cannot be assumed that “self” and “God” continue to have any meaning common to Christians. In the same vein reference is made to “lifting up the image of Christ as present in and to all of life” while there is no reference to lifting up Christ himself. (p.17) The same skew is seen in “as humans we are driven to give priority to ethics….” (p.19) The apostles do not; they give priority to Jesus Christ in the totality of his reality.

MW contradicts the theology of John Wesley at virtually every point. While Wesley would agree with MW’s approval of job-creating investment (p.20), Wesley’s motivation for doing so and his understanding of the place of gainful work (in a capitalist economy) within the kingdom are different. When MW states, “One of the criticisms levelled against Western Civilization is that we have put ourselves at the centre of things”, Wesley would agree only to stand amazed before a report that endorses a blatant anthropocentricity. Upon hearing “God calls the Church to make this work [earth-healing] its first priority” the tireless evangelist would shout, “No!” Any notion of “Spirit” other than that which is borne and bestowed by Jesus Christ Wesley would pronounce “enthusiast” and “antinomian”. The implicit denial of the incarnation Wesley denounced thoroughly in his sermon, “Catholic Spirit”, insisting he could never countenance any indifference concerning the foundation of Christian faith. Where MW is content to speak of “the image of Christ”, Wesley summarized his work repeatedly in four words: “I offered them Christ.” Upon reading, “The signs are clear that without a change of behaviour, humankind may not be long for this world”, Wesley would assume that God’s apocalyptic judgement had been pronounced against sin, the end-time disaster being not ecological pollution but the exhausting of God’s patience with human unbelief. At his most pointed Wesley would see MW as a whole as an illustration of the statement used as a rationale for “Our Ecumenical Journey”; namely, “Spiritual betrayal on the part of one of us affects the faith of all of us.” (p.7) Wesley would deem MW to be such a betrayal. Absent a forthright espousal of the incarnation, that Word-made-flesh which entails a new creation, Wesley would find MW’s reiteration of “new world” groundless.


Executive of General Council Response to Issues Raised
by the Interview of the Moderator,
the Rt. Reverend Bill Phipps, with the “Ottawa Citizen”

The correspondence directed to various persons and offices connected with the administration of The United Church of Canada resulted in a statement from the Executive of General Council that intended to identify the role of the moderator and to describe the manner in which The United Church theologizes.

The document herein referred to, in section 1, Continuity, maintains that “our membership in the World Council of Churches today links us to a fellowship of churches `which confess the Lord Jesus Christ as God and Saviour according to the Scriptures.'” While such a position has remained that of The United Church officially, in light of what has been analyzed to this point and detailed within this submission it can be said that The United Church of Canada does not “confess the Lord Jesus Christ as God and Saviour according to the Scriptures.” In other words, two contradictory principles are upheld at the same time. While the former is the stated theology of The United Church, the latter is its operative theology, and of course operative theology, per definitionem, is the ascendant ingredient in forming and informing the belief and conduct of its people. The next sentence in the same section states, “Above all, we trace our continuity in faith to the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament, whose witness is the ultimate standard for Christian faith and life.” While the denomination has never formally rescinded its subscription to scripture as unnormed norm, materially the denomination has done just this, as attested heretofore.

In section 3, Diversity, it is stated, “we do not believe that faithfulness consists in assenting to particular statements.” Category-confusion is evident here, for faithfulness never consists in such by definition; i.e., faithfulness is always fidelity to the person of the living God, not to a verbal description of God’s act and being. (In the same way faithfulness in marriage is loyalty to a person — the spouse — and not mental assent to propositions about marriage.) While faithfulness, then, pertains to a relationship and not to statements about the relationship (“doctrinal standards”), any refusal to assent to doctrinal standards renders the use of “faithfulness” inappropriate. (In the same way the refusal to voice and sign a marriage vow renders becoming married impossible, and therefore renders pointless any differentiation between assenting to vows and faithfulness to the person who would have been spouse.) While it is correct for the Executive of General Council Executive to say that faithfulness does not consist in assenting to particular statements, it means nothing in view of the fact that no one ever said it did; i.e., assenting to statements has never been sufficient for “faithfulness”, even as, however, such assent has always been necessary. It is this lattermost point that the document fails to grasp and reflect. While assenting to doctrinal standards and a living relationship with the living God are categorically distinct, they are none the less intrinsically related; the doctrine to which one assents cognitively and volitionally describes the God to whom one is related personally. To say anything else is to render “God” devoid of any content and to deprive doctrinal standards of any truth-claim.

The next sentence in Diversity is similarly problematic. It states, “Rarely, if ever, do we use doctrinal standards to exclude anyone from the circle of belonging.” It has to be admitted that “we” (i.e., The United Church) do this all the time. In the previous paragraph of Diversity it was stated without qualification that ordination and commissioning require that a candidate for same be in “essential agreement” with the Articles of the Basis of Union. In other words, if a candidate withholds agreement from the aforementioned doctrinal standards, ordination or commissioning cannot proceed. Plainly, then, doctrinal standards are used to exclude (i.e., are used as a test of admission), and are so used not “rarely” but in every request for ordination or commissioning. Furthermore, when The United Church speaks of doctrinal standards it means standards and not suggestions or possibilities. For otherwise the church would be left saying that ordination can be conferred on someone who espouses what contradicts the church’s raison d’etre, and even on someone who espouses what can only damage and threaten the church. If this in fact is the position at which The United Church has arrived, then its position must be tested by means of a remit.

Confusion is evident once more in the next sentence of Diversity: “Rather, we lift up Jesus Christ and his way….” To contrast “Jesus Christ and his way” with “doctrinal standards” is to say that a denomination’s doctrinal standards have no more than an accidental relationship to (no intrinsic connexion with) the unique status of Jesus. (“Christ” means “anointed one” and is fraught with a plethora of meanings reaching back into Israel’s centuries-long engagement with God.) It is also to say that a denomination’s doctrinal standards have no intrinsic connexion with discipleship (“the way”). If this is the case, then what can be meant by “lifting up Christ”? — and by “lifting up the way”? If the aforementioned contrast is allowed to stand, then the words “Jesus Christ” and “way” are utterly devoid of content (or at least utterly devoid of Christian content.)

When, in section 3, Diversity, it is stated, “our grasp of the truth of God is finite and fallible” (i.e., doctrinal formulation is provisional), the assertion is unexceptionable. However, to speak of “finite and fallible” in such a way as to keep open the possibility (even the necessity) of doctrinal reformulation is to invoke the Manual of The United Church wherein a remit is prescribed for any proposed doctrinal reformulation.

The document clearly assumes that “essential agreement” means “more-or-less agreement”; the kind of agreement needed to proceed with ordination or commissioning is approximate or “loosely interpreted.” However, the accepted meaning of “essential” is actually “indispensable” or “constituting the essence of a thing.” (See O.E.D.) “Essential agreement” does not mean “partial agreement.” Once again, since “essential” means “indispensable”, then non-compliance with “essential agreement with the Basis of Union” can only mean that doctrinal standards must exclude “from the circle of belonging.” And once again, if “essential agreement” has in fact come to be understood as “partial agreement”, then the doctrinal standards are no longer the standards of the denomination, and a remit must be deployed.

In summary, the Response of the Executive of General Council to issues raised by Rev. Phipps’s interview with the Ottawa Citizen reflects considerable confusion and inconsistency in the role of doctrine within The United Church of Canada.


January 28, 1998
Response of the Executive of General Council
K. Virginia Coleman, General Secretary
Anderson Appeal

Having scrutinized the aforementioned document I must state my disagreement with K. Virginia Coleman on several matters. She writes, “Nowhere do I find an indication that the Doctrinal statements contained in the Basis of Union are the only place where the doctrine of the (sic) United Church is to be held, nor that the Articles of Faith are the only statements of doctrine which the United Church is permitted to have.” (sect. 2, underlining hers) Her statement confuses doctrine and theology (see pp. 1-2 of my submission). Moreover, “Articles” has a peculiar force for at least those members of The United Church who were Methodists prior to the union of 1925. “Articles” has a weight and normativity not applicable to subsequent theological assertions. When KVC speaks of “subsequent statements of doctrine” she appears to speak inconsistently (albeit unknowingly, perhaps), for if doctrine is stipulated subsequently then according to the Manual a remit is unquestionably necessary;if such subsequent theological statements are not doctrine, then they have no standing within The United Church. KVC has not indicated which position she wishes to adopt.

In section 2 of her missive KVC quotes the Manual, reminding readers that the Twenty Articles are a “brief summary” of our common faith. (underlining hers) KVC then opines, “there is nothing in the polity of the United Church which prevents further expressions of our doctrine and faith.” Confusion arises here once more, for “further expressions of doctrine” and “further expressions of faith” are not categorically similar. For one could exercise faith in a matter consonant with the truth of Jesus Christ (and therefore such faith would be genuine faith) when the same matter might not be included in the doctrine of a denomination.

In section 5 KVC asserts that since the Twenty Articles merely summarize the agreements of 1925, “The General Council is empowered to make statements which expand these summaries but do not contradict the Articles or the Holy Scriptures.” Even if it is granted that the Twenty Articles are summaries only, they are normative summaries and therefore are not to be contradicted by subsequent doctrinal developments. In fact several recent (post-1988) positions adopted by The United Church do contradict the aforesaid summaries. Documents enshrining matters related to homosexuality, for instance, contradict the consistent teaching of the Holy Scriptures forbidding homosexual behaviour. In the same way the coherent testimony of scripture concerning itself lends no support to the view of scripture advanced in Authority and Interpretation of Scripture (1992).

KVC (sect. 5) insists that documents of 1968, 1978 and 1992 “are all in essential agreement with the Doctrine section of the Basis of Union.” Authority and Interpretation of Scripture, to cite only one, manifestly is not in essential agreement. KVC’s reiteration that all “further expressions” of doctrine (setting aside for now the fittingness of the word “doctrine”) does not spare her the obligation to demonstrate the point she is advancing, particularly in view of the widespread conviction throughout the denomination that such “further expressions” have not been in essential agreement.

In summary KVC has blurred crucial matters that must be carefully distinguished. At several places her argument is frequently not cogent, and her conclusions (e.g., with respect to the doctrinal force of United Church papers and positions even as it is denied that remits are necessary) are incorrect.

CONCLUSION

On the basis of my having perused both the Twenty-Five Articles of the Methodist Church (which articles were written by the late Reverend Mr. John Wesley) and the many documents The United Church of Canada has issued (the content of which documents became positions the denomination espoused as policy), it is my opinion that The United Church of Canada has, in its articulation of its formal theology and its fostering of its day-to-day operative theology, contravened the aforementioned Articles. Such infringement has occurred not once but many times, and not witlessly by inadvertence (as might be the case with a denomination that drifted doctrinally on account of theological naiveness); such infringement has occurred, rather, as successive positions and policies have been adopted intentionally.

It is my opinion that neither in its formal theology nor in its informal theology can The United Church of Canada be said to be congruent with the doctrine of the Twenty-Five Articles of the late Reverend Mr. John Wesley. Any one of these documents published by The United Church standing alone is directly contrary to John Wesley’s theology and doctrinal statements as they are reflected in the Twenty-Five Articles. The documents on sexuality cannot be reconciled and would be rejected outright by Wesley. The New Creed and the amendments to the Hymn Book “Voices United” are non-Methodist. The authority of Scripture is totally offensive to Wesley’s Twenty-Five Articles and Mending the World violates the principal centrepiece of the Christian faith and therefore of Methodism namely the uniqueness of Jesus Christ. Finally, the whole exchange with the moderator of The United Church and the Executive of General Council brings into focus the continuing violation of the Twenty-Five Articles of faith down to the present day. The United Church in its interpretation of its own doctrinal statements is in conflict with the same Twenty-Five Articles.

Rev. Victor Shepherd, B.A., B.D., M.A., Th.D., S.T.D.