In the post-election reaction in the US, I hear echoes of 1988 in The United Church of Canada.
The years surrounding the famous decision not to allow sexual orientation to be a determining factor in suitability for ordination were full of trauma for church leaders and congregations.
The surface signs were letters of protest and hundreds of petitions forwarded to Conference General Meetings and the General Council. Statistically, a few congregations left The United Church and membership declined. I was called to a congregation, in 1990, that had everyone in the congregation, save two people, stand and walk out one Sunday morning in 1988, never to return. The loss and grief were real and the human pain should not be glossed over or forgotten.
But, for many leaders and members, the harder reality could not be captured statistically. The trauma lay in hearing opinions voiced, often with bottomless anger and vitriol from surprising quarters.
In the privacy of hallways and offices, friends and colleagues voiced the pain.
“I just didn’t think we were that kind of congregation.”
“I’ve been a pastor to this family for 17 years, baptized their children and grandchildren, married and buried members of their family and I had no idea they held such awful opinions and could express them so violently.”
While many celebrated victory at the General Council meeting in Victoria, many others returned home with heavy hearts even though believing that a right decision had been made. Their view of the church, their congregations and many former friends would never be the same.
Reaction to the US election contains many of the same themes: the loss of innocence in the surprise that, not only is there such a range of conviction about certain matters but contrary beliefs can be ugly; that members of the same family and religion can easily downplay the presence of attitudes previously thought to be non-negotiable, like sexism, misogyny, racism and bullying; the willingness to target, even scapegoat, certain segments of the community; and the discard of fact (even though phrases likes alternate facts and post-truth were not in lexicon).
The events of 1988 deeply bruised the heart of many leaders for a generation. Not that our leaders were cowards, lost their faith or were afraid of conflict. They just did not have it in them to face another wrenching of heart and spirit.
For a variety of reasons, during the past thirty years, many of our leaders have quietly stepped back from engagement with the larger church to focus upon their congregations, working hard to develop cultures of honesty, respect and honest engagement.
Although these leaders did not follow a common master plan, they did, in essence, do what many say needs to be done on a national scale in the United States. Rebuild the grassroots, enliven the concept of citizenship (discipleship), hold up values of compassion and respect, engage foundational issues (theology, ethics, Biblical scholarship, governance), and engage surrounding neighbourhoods in ways that make a real difference.
The larger populace can learn from the life of the United Church during the past thirty years.