by Michael N. Jagessar
It was freezing cold when we arrived in Toronto. Changing wind direction encouraged by high rising condominiums lower the temperature further. In arranging my moderatorial visit to the United Church of Canada (a partner Uniting Church), Leonora and I expected an early spring experience. So much for predicting weather! The welcome and hospitality, though, from both the United Church of Canada and the many Canadians we have met generated a gracious and generous warmth to provide us with a joyful and fruitful experience. The sun did follow us from the UK and when we departed she was in full glow in Toronto!
My friend and colleague, the Revd Michael Blair (Executive Minister – Church in Mission), arranged and planned our visit which included a varied and full programme that allowed me to ‘taste, experience and become immersed’ in the United Church of Canada. The programme included: a roundtable conversation enabled by the Canadian Churches Forum on ‘Hospitality, Generosity and Radical Welcome’ (Toronto School of Theology); delivering a public lecture (“Dis-place Theologising: Fragments of Intercultural God-Talk”) at Emmanuel College, University of Toronto); preach at UCC Church House weekly worship; meet with the Core Management Group of UCC; lunch conversations with the General Secretary (Nora Sanders) and Moderator (Gary Paterson); conversations with the UCC’s Ecumenical Office (Gail Allan) and Formation for Faithful Leadership Team Leader (Steve Willey) on an upcoming conference for United and Uniting Churches we will be hosting in 2015; preaching at Bloor Street United Church and Emmanuel College communion service and meetings with staff at Tyndale Intercultural Ministries, and more conversations with colleagues working in the areas of Discipleship and Witness, Intercultural Ministry (Adele Halliday), Worship, Music and Spirituality (Alydia Smith).
A number of things struck me about the United Church of Canada. While a larger united community than the URC, current conversations on reviewing and restructuring, budgetary constraints, depleting membership, discerning new patterns of ministries and ways of being church, considering the relocating of its central office into a newly developed space at Bloor Street United Church, growing and active ‘migrant and language based’ congregations, and managing all sorts of diversity seem to resonate with some of our own conversations in the URC. Of interest are the UC’s United Future reports, especially the consideration being given to losing a layer of their current structure and advancing a case for a stronger congregational role and for ‘connectionalism’. I also found refreshing the level of engagement from colleagues with my presentations and with each other. But most striking for me is the level of investment placed on providing a range of excellent and very user friendly resources for local congregations. It was encouraging to learn of the eagerness of their General Secretary to get the uniting churches to make available/share their resources with partner churches. From an intercultural perspective, I think much of it can be adapted for our context and this may prove to be a fruitful way of collaborating.
While there were many high points, the ones that stand out for me are the communion service at Emmanuel College and my dialogue sermon at Bloor Street UC. I was greatly impressed with the way the college took one of my eucharistic liturgies and, with help from one of its doctoral student in Sacred Music, interspersed it with music from across the world accompanied by a choir that rehearsed just once and a community that loves singing. For a moment I thought the rocking floor would have collapsed. At Bloor Street, I was interviewed and shared in a conversation with one of the young people (Shintaro Tsukamoto) of the congregation as we reflected on aspects of the UCC’s Song of Faith. There was no script – just an open, lively, unpredictable conversation on worship, faith and the Holy Spirit. And She did move in mischievous ways to the delight of all of us!!
And lest you are wondering, we did find time to use the subway (it was warmer down there), dip in and out of a few of the numerous eating places, browse some antiquarian bookshops and visit museums and an art gallery. Our daily dose of the local Globe and Mail (compliment of our hotel) offered some fascinating read into current challenges Canadians are facing. Some of the headlines that caught my eye could apply to churches as well: “key steps to change corporate culture”, “when confusion breeds certainty”, “when consumer choice is a bad thing”, and “where the heart is”. The URC and the UCC may be located “across the pond” away from each other. My sense, though, is that we need each other and the distinctive experiences we bring to our common table. The world is still a small village and the gospel is larger than each of our distinctive contributions. Let us remember and pray for the United Church of Canada.