Thoughts on Theology: Does the United Church Have a Theology

April 13, 2022
United Church crests

People both inside and outside the United Church have sometimes wondered whether the denomination has a theology. In reality, the United Church has a rich and vibrant theology. That theology is expressed in the denomination’s formal faith statements, but it is also expressed in hymns, liturgies, prayers, sermons, and church committee statements. I want to offer some brief reflections on the denomination’s formal faith statements and why they demonstrate the existence of a robust United Church theology.

T.B. Kilpatrick was a member of the committee that drafted the original Doctrine section of the Basis of Union. He wrote that the drafters of that first statement believed each subsequent generation had a responsibility to restate the eternal truths of the faith tradition in the language and context of its time. The fact that the church has perceived a need to do precisely this testifies to the importance the United Church has attached to formal expressions of its theology.

The original Doctrine section of the Basis of Union, most of it written between 1904 and 1908, was the first such formal expression of the church’s faith. The purpose was clear—the proposed church union required a statement of a commonly held theology as part of the basis upon which these denominations could unite. Relatively broad in its expression of the Christian tradition, the original Doctrine section represented well the general theological currents of the latter part of the 19th century.

By the mid-1930s, there was a growing sense that the United Church needed to restate its faith. Both World War I and the Depression had occurred since the drafting of the Doctrine section of the Basis of Union. The 1936 General Council authorized the preparation of such a document. The appointed committee brought a proposed statement to the 1940 General Council. That council approved the document, known since as the 1940 Statement of Faith. Unlike the theologically quite broad Doctrine section of the Basis of Union, the 1940 Statement of Faith focused on the contemporary context. It also reflected the theological emphases of the era. It was heavily used into the 1960s as a background document for church membership educational material and other resources designed to teach the faith tradition. Its very rootedness in that period now makes it appear more dated, theologically, than the original Doctrine section of the Basis of Union.

In the mid-1960s, the Committee on Christian Faith was asked to draft a brief, modern expression of the faith, based on new liturgical resources and the sense that the United Church needed a more contemporary expression of the Christian faith for use in worship than either the Nicene Creed or the Apostles’ Creed afforded. The result was the United Church Creed, also known as A New Creed. The 1968 General Council sent the initial draft back to the Committee on Christian Faith for further work. The resulting revision was approved by the Executive of the General Council later the same year. The language was modern, but the theology expressed was less tied to the era itself. This creed has been revised twice since 1968, in both cases to reflect a changing context. In 1980, the language of the creed was made gender inclusive. In 1995, the addition of the line “to live with respect in Creation” spoke to an enhanced concern for the created order and the impact of human activity on it.

In 2000, the Theology and Faith Committee began work on a new statement of faith. The result, A Song of Faith, was adopted unanimously by the 2006 General Council. This document sought to state the faith anew in the context of the latter part of the 20th century. It included attention to the environment and interfaith relationships, as well as the church’s changing place in Canadian life and culture. Like the original Doctrine section of the Basis of Union, A Song of Faith was relatively broad in its theology, even as it addressed specific aspects of the evolving Canadian context.

The 2009 General Council decided to test an addition of three statements of faith to the Doctrine section of the Basis of Union. This was precisely because of the view that the United Church not only had a theology but also that the scope of its theology was not adequately represented by the original Doctrine section as the sole expression of “official” United Church theology. The strong, positive response via the remit process to adding the three subsequent statements confirmed both these points.

John Young, Executive Minister, Theological Leadership, The United Church of Canada, wrote the introduction to The Theology of The United Church of Canada, edited by Don Schweitzer, Robert C. Fennell, and Michael Bourgeois (Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2019). This article is Young’s brief summary of that introduction and the first in a series that will feature contributors to the book. Purchase the book to explore in greater depth.