“Ah yes, I remember it well,” Maurice Chevalier warbled in the musical Gigi. And then immediately proved that he didn’t remember it well at all.
I remember a gathering of about 30 people at am Anglican retreat centre north of Toronto, to thrash out the policies that would guide a United Church committee for the next few years. Like Chevalier, I remember it, but not well.
I know we had representatives from every region of the country. A mix of male and female, lay and clergy, young and old. There might have been at least one black or Asian representative. I think we sat in circles, on folding chairs. I think we closed with Eucharist, celebrated by an Anglican archbishop.
But I don’t remember a word of the policies we debated.
The one thing I remember for sure was the summation by Terry Anderson, then professor of ethics at the Vancouver School of Theology. Terry had been brought in as something called a “theological reflector.” His job, he explained, was not to influence us. It was to identify the theology he observed in our discussions and debates.
And what he said has stuck with me ever since:
“What the United Church really believes in is not any statement of faith or doctrine. What the United Church believes is that if it follows the right process, if it brings together the right mix of individuals, from the right mix of regions and interest groups, they can’t help coming up with the right answer.”
Faith in process
Until then, it had never occurred to me that people could believe in a process. In a person, yes. In an ideal, yes. But not in a process.
Since then, I’ve seen it proven time and again.
Corporations (of all sizes) chronically declare their faith in a process. They insist that their mining operations, their accounting practices, their labour policies, conform to all applicable laws and regulations. They followed established norms every step of the way, did everything they were required to do. Therefore they can’t be wrong.
Governments put their faith in democracy -- especially for other nations. Whatever the conflict, letting people elect their own leaders will solve everything. Ethnic conflicts. Trade deficits. Resource exploitation. Poverty. Illiteracy. Chronic diseases.
Introduce democracy, and all will be well.
Except that it won’t. Not even in the home of democracy.
What justifies what?
I think that the “theology” Terry Anderson identified is a valuable process. It’s a lot better than having policies determined by a single strong-minded individual -- even a saintly one. And it has enabled the United Church to pioneer policies that other denominations have taken decades to follow.
But following a process doesn’t always produce the right answer. The United Church followed its defined processes in challenging the ministry of Gretta Vosper, a pastor who calls herself an atheist, until the national church realized that the process itself was doing more harm than good.
It’s always worth remembering that a process is a means to an end. If the process leads to an unsatisfactory end, the process needs amending. Regardless of the institution involved.
The means does not justify the end.
Nor does the end justify the means. Ruthless dictators cannot achieve peace and harmony by slaughtering dissidents.
Means and ends are conjoined twins. Unless they can work together, both will suffer.
Copyright © 2019 by Jim Taylor. Non-profit use in congregations and study groups, and links from other blogs, welcomed; all other rights reserved.
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The computer somewhere that handles quixotic.ca has not played nicely this last while. Although it sends out these email columns without hesitation, it rejects your replies if the “Promotion Stuff” below contains too many URLs -- web addresses. So I have to go back to putting in “DOT” instead of “.” and “AT” instead of “@” to fool the beast. I hope you will check some of the sites I recommend, but please make the necessary substitutions.
In the meantime, you should be okay just hitting the “Reply” button to comment on anything in these columns.
In fact, three of the responses to last week’s column were queries about why their message had been “blocked.” Fortunately, the writers persisted, and wrote to me directly instead of just sending a Reply.
In the column, I had talked about the principles that govern flocks of birds, schools of fish, and herds of cattle. It involved both attraction and repulsion, at the same time.
Tom Watson commented, “It’s the challenge of all things in life -- balance.”
Isabel Gibson noted an apparent parallel between the column and the psalm paraphrase, and asked if it was “deliberate or fortuitous?” She went on, “In our lives together, it seems to me we do best (individually and collectively) by staying within reach, but not in lockstep.
“I've never seen as many birds as you describe, but I have seen smaller flocks obeying these two principles and it's a wondrous sight.”
The birds came after the berries on my mountain ash tree. Frieda Hogg’s came after “the ornamental crab apple trees in my front yard. The trees produced an abundance of apples about the size of cherries. While the waxwings weren't as plentiful as yours, there may have been 20 or 30 that I saw at one time (there may have been others around town at other trees); they made an appearance every winter and enjoyed the frozen crabs that they swallowed whole. I often thought the birds must have had little furnaces in their bodies to thaw those frozen crabs.”
As an afterthought, I was delighted that these letters enabled Bruce Thomas to reconnect with his friend and former minister Wayne Irwin.
The Psalms, as a whole, depend pretty heavily on agricultural images. In today's world, people are more likely to chart their prosperity by economic factors. So here’s a variant on Psalm 37:1-11.
1 Don't worry that others seem more successful than you are.
2 Their short-term gains won't last;
the market will turn against them.
3 For long-term confidence, invest in God.
Then you can count on continuing prosperity and security.
4 An unconditional investment in God can lead to everything you ever wanted, but could never afford any other way.
5 But your investment in God must be unconditional.
You can't hold anything back;
you can't hedge your bets.
First turn everything over to God -- then you will see how God acts for you.
6 You cannot manipulate God for your own gain.
Make God your manager, and free yourself forever from cycles of boom and bust.
7a Be patient. Wait until God is ready.
8 Avoid impatience or anger; they will affect your judgement adversely.
7b Do not envy those who glory in short-term gains, or who profit from crooked practices.
9 They'll get what they deserve, in God's good time.
10 In time, corrupt politicians will be voted out;
corner-cutting businesses will run out of room;
drug dealers will destroy their customer base;
unjust laws will be lifted from the books.
All these wrongs will dissipate like morning fog;
you'll wonder how they could foster fear for so long.
11 But those who put their faith in God will flourish;
They will live life abundantly.
For paraphrases of mostof the psalms used by the Revised Common Lectionary, you can order my book Everyday Psalmsfrom Wood Lake Publishing, firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Ralph Milton’s latest project is a kind of Festival of Faith, a retelling of key biblical stories by skilled storytellers like Linnea Good and Donald Schmidt, designed to get people talking about their own faith experience. It’s a series of videos available on Youtube. I suggest you start with his introductory section: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7u6qRclYAa8
Ralph’s “Sing Hallelujah” -- the world’s first video hymnal -- is still available. It consists of 100 popular hymns, both new and old, on five DVDs that can be played using a standard DVD player and TV screen, for use in congregations who lack skilled musicians to play piano or organ. More details at wwwDOTsinghallelujahDOTca
Wayne Irwin's “Churchweb Canada,”an inexpensive service for any congregation wanting to develop a web presence, with free consultation. <http://wwwDOTchurchwebcanadaDOTca>
I recommend Isabel Gibson’s thoughtful and well-written blog, wwwDOTtraditionaliconoclastDOTcom
Alva Wood’s satiric stories about incompetent bureaucrats and prejudiced attitudes in a small town -- not particularly religious, but fun; alvawoodATgmailDOTcom to get onto her mailing list.
Tom Watson writes a weekly blog called “The View from Grandpa Tom’s Balcony”-- ruminations on various subjects, and feedback from Tom’sreaders. Write him at tomwatsoATgmailDOTcom or twatsonATsentexDOTnet