Very Rev. Bill Phipps. Photo from Observer files

Editor’s note: Twenty years ago, a sit-down with the editorial board of the Ottawa Citizen turned into a theological ambush for the recently elected United Church moderator, Rt. Rev. Bill Phipps. The board peppered Phipps with blunt questions about his personal beliefs, then published a front-page story that portrayed a church leader who doubted the divinity of Jesus, had no idea if there is a heaven or hell, wasn’t sure about the resurrection and did not view the Bible as a historical record. Phipps claimed his remarks had been taken out of context, but that didn’t placate conservative factions in the church who called on Phipps to resign or be removed from office. In this December 1997 piece, however, The Observer noted that others praised the moderator for sparking a conversation about what it means to be a Christian today. An unrepentant Phipps weathered the storm; a year later, he lead the church toward a historic apology for its role in the residential school system.

As predicted, it didn’t take long for the United Church’s new moderator, Rt. Rev. Bill Phipps, to make more headlines. But it wasn’t his outspoken justice concerns that landed him on the front page of the Ottawa Citizen, on CBC Radio’s This Morning and in other media across the country, but his plain-spoken faith statement.

It started in October with a freewheeling hour-and-a-half discussion with the editorial board of The Citizen when Phipps was asked about his personal beliefs about Jesus, the resurrection, heaven and hell, the Bible. He was frank and direct; so was the resulting story.

In the Citizen report, Phipps said he doesn’t believe Jesus was God; that he had no idea if there is a heaven or hell in some specific location; that he didn’t know if Jesus rose from the dead as a scientific fact; that he doesn’t think of the Bible as a historical record.

His views on poverty were also forthright. “Your soul is lost unless you care about people starving in the streets.”

Reactions were swift but mixed. Within a day, The Citizen was quoting well-known conservative Ottawa-area ministers distancing themselves from the moderator’s statements and noting he was not speaking for the church. Rev. Allen Churchill of Dominion-Chalmers United said the remarks "do not correspond at all to the historic faith of the worldwide church of Jesus Christ nor of the United Church of Canada.”

Two Ottawa Valley congregations called for Phipps to be removed from office. Community of Concern President John Trueman urged Phipps to resign and to repent, in light of his “reckless declarations.” Toronto lawyer Ian Outerbridge, who often acts on lawsuits opposing church-court decisions, said he believes there are grounds for disciplinary procedures.

They could be initiated by any member of the church and would be heard in the moderator’s home Presbytery.

That viewpoint was far from uniform, though. Mary-Frances Denis, publicist for the national church, said messages coming into Church House varied widely, with some people “upset and confused” and others excited about the congregational conversations on faith that the moderator’s comments have touched off. (A new document called Reconciling and Making New: Who is Jesus For the World Today? is now before congregations for study.) A number of thank-you messages came from people who had views similar to Phipps’. Some had left the church because they’d felt unwelcome, she said; others mentioned his “honesty and courage.”

Early letters to The Observer ran about two-to-one in opposition to the moderator’s views. Some defended his right to his own beliefs but were concerned they would be seen as representing those of the church. Phipps said he made it clear from the beginning that his views were his alone.

At the same time, the moderator’s statements resulted in a surge of discussion about the faith. Many ministers across the church preached on the issues raised by the moderator.

The original Citizen report was accurate with minor exceptions, Phipps said, although it didn’t capture all the nuance and subtlety of the long debate. He said nothing he said "is outside the broad mainstream of United Church belief."

"I believe my faith is well-rooted in Scripture and Christian tradition, although it is not frozen in the language of early creeds, for example.”

The moderator, who talked personally to many callers, also issued his own clarifying statement. “As a pastor, I never wish to hurt anyone, and I always respect the faith, experience and convictions of other people,” he said. “As a church leader, I hope I am able to challenge all of us in the understanding of our faith and its relevance to our changing and stress-filled society.”

Phipps is not the first United Church moderator to make headlines with his statements about key faith issues. Very Rev. Ernest Howse, as far back as 1964, caught media attention with his blunt statements, as did Very Rev. Lois Wilson and Very Rev. Bruce McLeod, among others. And the late Dr. Bob McClure, moderator from 1968 to 1971, said ascribing supernatural powers to Jesus detracted from the image he held. “I regard him as a son of man so much more than emphasizing that he is the son of God.”

For Phipps, the discussion with the Citizen editorial board was “part of evangelism, to get a credible faith to the public at large."

"This is a way to engage the larger public outside the church who are yearning for things spiritual," he said.

The frank conversation with editors and reporters is a style Phipps intends to continue, even though it leaves him open to misunderstanding, with ideas taken out of context. Since the answers reflect his views, alone, he said that he doesn’t want to stick to short, safe answers.

“I’d much rather explore things in some kind of depth. There is a danger in that but it’s a calculated risk that I will always take. Jesus is at the centre of my life and faith”

The Observer asked Moderator Rt. Rev. Bill Phipps to expand on the faith issues he discussed with the Ottawa Citizen.

Q: Who is Jesus to you?

A: Jesus embodies as much of the nature of God as you can embody in a human being. I see Jesus as coming from God, revealing part of the nature of God. But he did not reveal all of God. The God of the Bible is never completely known or understood yet is as intimate and compassionate as the most loving parent. If anyone says Jesus represents all of God, I think that’s heretical. Jesus had to struggle in his own time and place. The idea of the Trinity is quite good because it gives you the whole encompassing God. If Jesus and God were the same, you wouldn’t need the Trinity. We’re called to be disciples of Jesus. There is no question that Jesus is at the centre of my life and faith. Jesus represents what God wants us to be and to do.

Q: How do you describe the Bible?

A: First, Jesus is the Living word, not the Bible. The Bible is a whole combination of things; it does contain some history, a whole lot of mythology, poetry, letters, legends. The mythology expresses a larger truth than history can. I like the line: “I take the Bible seriously, not literally.” It is the story of faith written by believers. Each Gospel is different. For example, Mark had a different agenda than John; he wrote in a different time to a different audience.

Q: What does Jesus’ resurrection mean to you?

A: Without the resurrection, there would be no Christian community or Christian faith. After the crucifixion, the followers were afraid and bewildered. “It’s over, how do we get out of here with our lives?” But something clearly powerful happened where they experienced a living Jesus after he died. It motivated them to risk their lives and be willing to die for their faith. It wasn’t just a dream. I don’t have any idea what it was. The Gospel accounts each tell a different story. Paul, for example, in the earliest record we have, didn’t mention the empty tomb.

Q: Do you believe in a heaven? In a hell?

A: I believe there is an ongoingness to life after death. I have no idea what the nature of that is. I do not believe there are places called heaven and hell. That makes no sense to me at all. Heaven and hell are more here than in the afterlife. If your attitude in life is to get into heaven then I think that betrays the whole biblical story, it betrays the incarnation. It betrays Christmas, Good Friday and Easter. I’ve got enough problems trying to live faithfully here.

Q: To some, the Citizen article suggested you might favor salvation by good works or salvation by faith.

A: What does God require of us? Jesus continues to call his followers to “do justice, love tenderly, and walk humbly with God.” (Micah 6:8). The grace of God is essential. If you don’t understand the nature of evil, that every institution and person is subject to powers and principalities that twist goodness into evil, then actions can become arrogant and isolated from reality. You hope with all your energy that what you are doing is helpful but you don’t know. We need God’s grace. The good news is God loves us totally and unconditionally. Now we don’t believe it. If we really believed, then we could go out into the world and try to live as Christ did, knowing we’ll make mistakes, knowing God will love us anyway. I don’t like the word salvation, particularly. The purpose of all the good works is not to chalk up brownie-points; that’s why the word salvation bothers me. It’s not that I’d do this to be saved. Not at all. We are already saved in God’s love.

Q: How do you think Christians best grow in their faith and understanding of God?

A: God is not embarrassed by anything we think or do, by any questions we might have. We don’t have to protect God. We have to engage in honest and open struggle where any question is acceptable. We have a great opportunity now. People in our society are yearning for spiritual sustenance. The whole Christian church is in danger of hiding behind dogma and words that were written 1,600 years ago. I’d rather meet the living Christ than one wrapped up in language we don’t understand.

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