If you were in downtown Courtenay this morning, you likely heard the unusual sound of church bells. This morning about 15 people from the St. George’s United Church community celebrated the 90th Anniversary of the founding of the United Church of Canada with a service of prayer, singing, and bell ringing. Each person got a chance to ring the bell (Ellen Wise was nearly sucked up into the bell tower due to the force of her tugs on the rope). It was a time of reflection and good humor punctuated by a rousing rendition of "Happy Birthday" United Church.
St. George’s, along with over three-thousand other communities of faith across the country were invited to celebrate by ringing their church bells 90 times to mark the special occasion. United Church Moderator Gary Paterson gave the invitation to "make a joyful noise unto the Lord!" the video below:
The United Church of Canada came into being on Wednesday, June 10, 1925 at the Mutual Street Arena in Toronto with an inaugural worship service held at 10:30am. The United Church was the union of three distinct Christian traditions: Presbyterian, Methodist, and Congregationalist churches. These churches believed that by putting aside some distinctive of their own tradition, they could focus on essentials they share. They believed that their venture would not only improve operational efficiency, but also create better persons, better communities and a better nation. There has been much by way of the last 90 years that is unique, and worth celebrating. St. George's was barely a dozen years old at the time of Union, having been a Presbyterian Church.
Nonetheless, while there is much to celebrate, this anniversary is also a time for deep reflection. United Church historian Phyllis Airhart asks if we "still believe that something vital is in the making?" as they did in 1925 while Toronto minister Michael Kooiman suggests seven reasons for a "muted celebration" this year. The changes in Canadian culture in the past 50 years have created many challenges in terms of meaning and relevance for the Christian Church. It is once again asking itself the same question posed to its founders 90 years ago as to what the “essentials” of following Jesus are in our present context. To a denomination that once saw itself as “Canada’s church” it must come to terms with existing in a now pluralistic and largely secular society with an increased sense of respect and humility. In many ways we are adrift in terms of what our mission and purpose is now that Canada is no longer culturally Christian. So we have some major rethinking, and re-tooling to do.
Yet, the good news is that long before the United Church was, God was. And long after the United Church is gone, God will be. And God is active and present today as ever. And I think we're discovering that as a community with the growth and signs of life we are experiencing right now. So we celebrate 90 years this year. Not just what we have done in the past, however. Rather, we as St. George's are celebrating our present and future hope in the God who brought us together in 1925. Together, we are looking forward constantly to where God is moving ahead of us, showing the way as the people of Jesus. This 90th year is an exciting time as ever to be "called to be the church, and to celebrate God's presence." In this same vein, we ended our celebration with the following prayer by United Church Minister at Dominion-Chalmers in Ottawa, James Murray:
Holy God, this day marks 90 years of our being The United Church of Canada.
We give thanks for the times when we have been communities of Christ Followers who have shared the gospel in word, sacrament and deed.
We give thanks for the presence of your Holy Spirit to guide us all of our days.
We give thanks for how your gift of salvation, reconciliation, healing and forgiveness has shaped our ministry to mend the world.
We confess those times when we failed to share your grace.
Forgive us for those times when we failed to live out your love for this world.
We pause to honour the cloud of witnesses, those who have gone before us in the faith.
We give thanks for our leaders, educators, preachers, administrators, caregivers, dishwashers, builders, bakers, storytellers, quilters, peacemakers, musicians and singers, who served you with their gifts of faith.
As we face an uncertain future, may we trust that you will walk with us.
Trusting in the Spirit’s guidance, may we share the joy of journeying together in hope. Amen.