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Canada’s United Church divided by leader’s doubts about Christ

December 18, 1997

TORONTO (AP) _ The Christmas season has been a time of debate and division for Canada’s largest Protestant denomination, shaken by its new leader’s admission that he has doubts about the divinity of Jesus.

The Rev. Bill Phipps, elected in August as moderator of the United Church of Canada, has startled the faithful with frank comments questioning core Christian beliefs, including whether Jesus was resurrected.

``I believe that Christ reveals to us as much of the nature of God as we can see in a human being,″ he said in a newspaper interview in October. ``I don’t believe Christ was God.″

His words unleashed a torrent of reaction _ positive as well as negative _ from church leaders, members and the general public. Newspapers, magazines and radio and television stations across Canada have featured the debate.

``I’m willing to bet that in Canada there will be more talk about who Jesus is than for many Christmases for many decades,″ Phipps said in a telephone interview Tuesday. ``I think that’s wonderful.″

The United Church was formed in 1925 in a merger of Canada’s Presbyterian, Congregational and Methodist churches. Some Presbyterians remained separate.

Phipps has publicly apologized to the church’s 3 million members for any offense his comments may have caused, but reiterated his views in church publications and the news media.

Christ ``did not reveal nor represent″ all of God, Phipps said, calling Jesus ``a window to God.″ He said he does not know whether heaven and hell really exist and does not assume the Bible contains only literal truth and historical fact.

Phipps doubts the physical resurrection of Jesus, but emphasizes the profound spiritual impact that Jesus had after death on his followers and for centuries since.

Critics from across Canada have come down hard on Phipps. The 47 congregations in Halifax, Nova Scotia, voted to dissociate from his views. Half a dozen Ontario congregations called on him to resign.

The Rev. Alan Schooley, who leads a congregation in Calgary, Alberta _ as does Phipps _ charged the moderator is ``guilty of heresy″ and completely out of step with the people in the pews.

But many of the letters, phone calls and editorial comments have been favorable. Active church members, lapsed Christians and followers of other faiths have welcomed Phipps’s views as an opportunity to reconsider Christ’s significance in an increasingly multicultural society.

The United Church general council executive has responded to the furor by affirming that all church officers have the right to express personal views, but this freedom ``must be tempered by the need for congruence with stated policies.″

Phipps’s views were no secret before his election to the three-year position. The 55-year-old Toronto native is an anti-poverty lawyer and a lifelong advocate of ``social gospel.″

Nor is controversy new to the United Church. In 1936, it led the way in Canada on ordaining women, and its 1988 decision that homosexuality should be no impediment to ordination caused deep divisions.

The Rev. Peter Wyatt, general secretary for theology, faith and ecumenism, said the United Church’s commitment to diverse interpretations of Christ’s message is a valuable alternative to the divisions unleashed by fundamentalist passions worldwide.

``We’ve been in the news for years over sexual orientation,″ he said. ``Now we’re in the news over Jesus rather than sex.″

Phipps hopes to turn the attention away from his views and toward the social implications of Jesus’s teachings.

Next year the church will launch a program entitled ``Christ and the Moral Economy″ that quarrels with the worldwide emphasis on market competition and focuses on reducing the gap between rich and poor.

``It’s an absolute obscenity that there are homeless people in the city of Calgary _ one of the most booming economies in the world,″ Phipps said.

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