BOOK REVIEW: "Who's Minding the Story?"

Seaton, Jeff. Who’s Minding the Story?: The United Church of Canada Meets A Secular Age.
Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2018.
Paperback. 132 pages. ISBN: 9781532642456.

 

            My denomination, The United Church of Canada (UCCan), prides itself on its progressive, inclusive, and some might even say radical way of navigating the world. Yet as the church of Christ in the West comes head-to-head with ‘secularity’, competing views for the future of the denomination have arisen. In this revised edition of his doctoral thesis, the Rev’d Dr. Jeff Seaton (a United Church minister from British Columbia) explores and assesses two of the more popular ecclesial visions for the future of the UCCan: those proffered by the Rev’d Dr. John Pentland of Hillhurst United Church in Calgary and by the Rev’d Gretta Vosper of West Hill United Church in Toronto. Seaton masterfully employs the work of Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor in the latter’s chef-d’oeuvre, A Secular Age, as a conceptual framework for assessing each of the aforementioned’s attempt to respond to the challenges of ‘secularity’.[1]

            Using the work of United Church historians such as Phyllis Airhart and Kevin Flatt, Seaton gives an overview of the UCCan’s shifting understandings of ecclesiology and theology, particularly in their relations to culture, mission, and the Robinsonian “secular theology” of the sixties and its theological legacy. Seaton deftly argues that the UCCan’s current proposals for “being church” (to use a popular phrase) can be linked directly to the church’s espousal of secular theology, its voluntary diminution of denominational particularity, and its almost half-century focus on ‘being in the world’.

            However, Seaton opines that these approaches to ‘being the church’ – approaches which genuinely attempted to respond to a changing national context with faithfulness and sincerity – were perhaps based upon a misunderstanding of ‘secularity’ itself. Seaton solicits the wisdom of Charles Taylor in rejecting the notion that “secularization is an inevitable, inexorable part of the process of modernization” wherein “there is simply no place in a modern church for orthodox dogma or doctrine, or any place for the transcendent.” (33) To Seaton’s mind, were we to accept this (which, he argues, we have) this leaves the church scrambling to offer goods which are already proper to the world; in short, the “answer to this emptiness [which secularization brings to the fore] is not to be found in the world that causes the huger in the first place. For the church, offering more of what the world already offers (at better quality and for a lower price), trying to be more like the world is not likely to meet the needs of questers.” (34) Rather, Seaton and Taylor envision a countercultural, witnessing church with proposes “that the church’s role in the world might be best served by maintaining its traditions and practices, its peculiar language and story.” (34) (One might wish that had investigated more critically the confluence between the church and Canadian nationalism rather than simply ‘culture’ broadly construed, yet this investigation would have perhaps fallen outside the scope of this work and therefore must be left to others to explore.)

            Having constructed this framework, Seaton turns to investigate and assess the models of Pentland and Vosper; the former advocating for a continued ‘thinning’ of the boundaries between church and culture, the latter (a self-described atheist) promoting a vision of a ‘church’ without God – a social milieu of compassion, love, generosity, and service which is not dependent upon finding its grounding in a transcendent reality beyond that which is generated by its constitutive members. While I will leave the analytical detail to the book – for it capably speaks for itself! – Seaton uses Taylor to a) demonstrate how both visions implicitly embody a false narrative of secular progressivism wherein “each age is superior to what went before it” (48); b) expose each vision’s attempt to point the church (perhaps myopically, in Seaton’s view) toward what Taylor dubs the “immanent frame” to the exclusion of the transcendent which has historically given the church its unique specificity; c) suggest how both visions, in their goal to universalize the ‘Christian value system’ and thereby reach all people, perhaps unwittingly continue a tradition of Constantinain-style Christendom whereby the church seeks to hold on to the vestiges of its power, cultural influence, and prestige; and d) how both visions result in a ‘more worldly church’ without the tools necessary to offer that which the world needs, lacks, and is unable to offer but by the grace of God through the community called the church.

            Over against these visions, Seaton endorses a third: a “progressive orthodoxy” (111). Such a vision encourages the church “to recall [its] roots in the gospel’s story of the life, death, ad resurrection of Jesus Christ” (95) by (re-)claiming “the centrality of Jesus; a willingness to embrace the post-Christendom humiliation of the church; a willingness to assume a countercultural stance; and a willingness to engage the adventure of ‘being the church’” (113). This is not a call to retrenchment in some glorified and mythical church of the past, as though Seaton were promoting a Canadian ‘Benedict option.’ Rather, Seaton casts a vision of the UCCan wherein it would unabashedly claim its weird and wonderful faith in the Living and Triune God such that God, through that faith, might direct, inform, and shape the denomination to live out its charism of justice and inclusion with fidelity, vigour, and fortitude.  

            To be sure, Seaton is not the first to cast such a vision, but the precision and clarity of thought evident in his writing makes this book a critical read for any and all who sit in the ‘comfortable pews’ of The United Church of Canada. More broadly, however, Seaton’s work serves as an indispensable resource for all those across North America who grapple with the challenges the church faces in this 21st century context as they seek to carry their cross in obedience to Jesus Christ.

 

[1] Charles Taylor, A Secular Age. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007.