Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

U of W dean nominated for moderator of United Church

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In a time of declining attendance and diminishing influence, a Winnipeg minister and academic is showing his faith in the country's largest Protestant denomination by running for its highest office.

Rev. James Christie, dean of theology at the University of Winnipeg, and currently the president of the Canadian Council of Churches, has accepted a nomination for moderator of the United Church of Canada.

"I was invited to consider standing for moderator and it was put to me as a vocation. That the work I've done brings together the strands of the church's mission and the leadership I've exercised... is a gift that ought to be offered to the church," says Christie, whose term as president of the CCC, an ecumenical body of 21 churches, ends in June.

The denomination, which claims 700,000 members and regular attenders, elects a new moderator for a three-year term at its general council meeting Aug. 9-15 in Kelowna, B.C. The church's influence extends beyond its regulars, with 2.8 million Canadians identifying themselves with the United Church of Canada in the 2001 census.

If elected, the Quebec-born Christie, 57, would be the first Manitoba resident to hold the position of moderator since Rev. Stanley McKay, formerly of Beausejour and now living in Gladstone, who served as moderator from 1992 to 1994.

An ordained minister who has most recently served in churches in Toronto and Ottawa, Christie took on the job of dean of theology at the university in 2005. He expects to retain that position, although in a modified role, if elected moderator.

"This is about neither vanity nor ambition, but about a willingness to serve the complementary ministries of both the church and the academy," says Christie of managing dual responsibilities as dean and moderator. " It really is up to the church gathered and the spirit brooding to decide, and I will be very happy no matter the outcome."

Mardi Tindal of Brantford, Ont., the director of a United Church retreat centre, has also been nominated for the position, currently held by Rev. David Giuliano of Marathon, Ont. Giuliano was elected in 2006 and has indicated he will not run again.

Historically, six or more names are usually on the ballot for the job of moderator, says United Church general secretary Nora Sanders, and last-minute nominations from the floor are accepted before the vote. The winner must receive a majority of votes to be elected.

"It's a big shift in their life," Sanders says of the expectations placed on the moderator, seen as the spiritual leader of the denomination. "It's pretty much a full-time obligation."

The moderator is expected to travel widely across the country to visit congregations, as well as representing the United Church internationally.

The new moderator will have to address immediate challenges upon assuming office, including a declining attendance, donations that have levelled off, and questions about how the denomination is structured.

In a letter to congregations posted on the UCC website, Sanders points out that the number of donors to local and international causes in 2007 has decreased by half in 20 years.

That's worrisome, and means the denomination has to find new and different ways of engaging people, both theologically and financially.

"People are still really generous," says Sanders. "We want to say (to them) 'Here's what we're doing and do you want to be part of it?'"

Christie agrees that articulating a vision of the denomination, formed in 1925 with the merger of Methodist, Congregationalists, and most of the Canadian Presbyterians, is vital for its future.

"I think the big issue for the United Church is to remember what its vocation is," he says. "I think it is the idea of what the church might be, inclusivity in the best sense, a big tent that has plenty of space for a broad variety of theological perspectives."

Whoever gets elected in August, the long process of nomination and election has proven to be an effective way of finding the right leader to fill the position, says Bruce Faurschou of the Manitoba and Northwest Ontario Conference of the United Church.

"We do the moderator thing right in the United Church of Canada. There is something about the process that selects the person the church needs at the time."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 15, 2009 B8

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