TORONTO — The United Church of Canada, the nation's largest Protestant denomination and one of the most powerful social institutions in the country, is on the verge of disintegration in a struggle over homosexuality.
Church leaders are considering a report that calls homosexuality "a gift from God," recommends the ordination of homosexuals as ministers and condones not only homosexual relationships but premarital sex between "committed couples."
The recommendations, which are the result of eight years of study, have generated extraordinary controversy for an organization that prides itself on its liberalism and is often in the forefront of progressive social movements.
Underlying the specific dispute over sexuality is a more profound disagreement over the role of Scripture in setting church doctrine: Do history, experience and social context have equal weight with the Bible in determining belief?
Figures on both sides of the issue say the United Church will be seriously affected no matter what the outcome of a vote on the proposals next August by clergy and lay delegates to the General Council, its final authority on policy.
"I have no idea as to how many would pull out," said Anne Squire, who, as the elected "moderator," is the day-to-day head of the 900,000-member church, "but it is a threat" to the church's survival.
According to the Rev. Hallett Llewellyn, the United Church's secretary for theology, faith and ecumenism, "the indications from across the country are of a very strong reaction against the recommendations. It may mean many would leave."
And so it seems.
"There is now quite a bit of polarization in the church," said the Rev. Tom vander Schaaf, minister of Southminster United Church in Oshawa, Ont. "If this report goes through, then that's it for the church."
The Rev. John Tweedie, a minister from Brantford, Ont., added that "we're at a fork in the road. There will be no choice for some of us but to take another path."
Even before the vote, Tweedie appears to have made his choice. He has formed a group called the Renewal Fellowship to explore establishing a separate church. He has attracted 3,300 members and 200 ministers and is seeking legal advice about keeping control of local church property when a split develops.
Tweedie and other conservative ministers are also threatening to withhold finances from the central organization, a move that moderator Squire calls blackmail.
Although the severity of the reaction to the sexuality report has caught Squire and other leaders by surprise and has set them on a frantic search for compromise, a split in the church seems inevitable--if not over this issue, then some other.
The United Church is a uniquely Canadian institution, existing nowhere else and not being connected to any worldwide denomination. Like Canada itself, it is an amalgam of many currents, often in severe conflict.
It was founded in 1925 when rural congregations of Congregationalists, Methodists and Presbyterians joined because, according to United Church chronicler Ralph Milton, in their isolation the little churches "had a choice; get together and have one church or have no church at all."
But from the beginning, the United Church was riven with conflicts. On one side were religious fundamentalists who believed in the literal truth of biblical script. On the other were liberals who sought political goals through a more open-ended interpretation of the Bible, particularly the social Gospel taken from their view of the teachings of Jesus Christ.
Although those favoring the liberalization of church doctrine and works eventually gained control of the national leadership, the church managed to keep the membership of conservative fundamentalists by decentralizing its organization and allowing individual congregations to set their own policies.
This approach was supported by a financial policy of funding local branches even if they disagreed with headquarters, a not insignificant expense for a church with a $33-million annual budget.
So while serious issues such as the ordination of women often threatened to divide the church, it managed to stay together even as the national leaders espoused liberal doctrines and politics and local ministers set their own, often conflicting, agendas.
This has produced a church in which some members say they feel they pray "to whom it may concern," or as an oft-repeated joke goes, the United Church is "the NDP at prayer," a reference to the socialist New Democratic Party.
But the dispute over the sexuality report has uncovered strains that are far deeper and more weakening than any problems of the past.
Although the church has been studying the issue since 1980, Squire said that "we have discovered that our assumption that homosexuality was not a bar to membership is not as widely accepted as we thought. . . .
"The church has moved quite a bit, but not as much as the writers of the report."