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A church for hard times looks to adapt

Beverly Brazier thinks the United Church should be rebuilt from the ground up. The threat of a declining number of parishioners, an issue often-studied within the church, shouldn't be ignored by the clergy, said Brazier, who became Whitehorse's new minister in September.

Beverly Brazier thinks the United Church should be rebuilt from the ground up.

The threat of a declining number of parishioners, an issue often-studied within the church, shouldn’t be ignored by the clergy, said Brazier, who became Whitehorse’s new minister in September.

The church should adapt to that reality head-on, she said.

“We need to take a long hard look at our buildings,” said Brazier, sitting in her office in Whitehorse United at the end of Main Street.

In downtown Fredericton, near her former congregation in rural New Brunswick, there are three giant stone buildings built for the faith-hungry masses of a bygone era.

Today, with their pews rarely filled to the brim on Sunday mornings, the stone behemoths are just sucking up energy.

“If declining numbers are going to be the reality for us, then we have to look at different ways of being the church in a physical way,” said Brazier.

The church is known for embracing change.

In the world of Canadian religion, the United Church has always been the uppity one.

An unapologetic advocate of social justice throughout the 20th century, the church has never feared dropping tradition for action.

In other words, living faithfully has more to do with your real context than old-fashioned customs.

In 1925, it became the first union of Protestant churches in the world. Methodist, Presbyterian and Congregationalist churches joined together, mostly out of necessity, to pool resources and serve as one.

The church began ordaining women as ministers in 1936. In 1988 it began allowing gays and lesbians to be ministers.

Universal health care, poverty, the plight of the Palestinians, gender and sexual orientation issues have all been mainstays at United Church pulpits.

“It’s a powerful heritage we’ve got and a lot of people don’t know that,” said Brazier.

Brazier, 55, sits cross-legged on a chair in her church office at Whitehorse United. In the middle of the room is a scented candle burning atop a South American cloth.

She lights the candle every morning and prays for someone.

“It’s part of my morning centering,” she said.

Brazier’s experience as a minister speaks to the United Church’s appeal in Canada.

“Jesus was presented to me as a social revolutionary who wanted my help,” she said.

Growing up in Sioux Lookout

in northern Ontario, Brazier’s parents weren’t “churchy.”

At 14, she agreed to join a friend who was being forced to go to confirmation meetings. The meetings would last from January to June, and if the attendees didn’t feel the church was for them, they could leave.

But Brazier found an answer to all the social and political problems she’d been wracking her brain over.

“It appealed to my intellect,” she said. “What if this story in the first chapter of Genesis, what if it’s not meant to be history - I mean, no one was there, right?”

“What if it was a poem—what would it say if it were a poem?”

The United Church hasn’t always been big on taking the Bible literally, but as a allegory or an intellectual exercise over ethical questions.

“It was scripture as something that a thinking person can engage,” said Brazier.

She first thought she would fulfill her faith in other work, like journalism, teaching and psychology.

But eventually she finished a masters in theology and began serving in congregations on the East Coast.

Since arriving in Whitehorse, she’s spoken in her sermons about the wisdom traditions, one of three perspectives on how faith is experienced.

The priestly tradition emphasizes habit and tradition as the highest form of faith, while the prophetic experience centres on revelation.

“The Wisdom tradition in scripture is from the point of view of God as experienced primarily through human action and rational thought, not so much God as dreams, visions and revelation,” said Brazier.

The minister finds that the rational approach suits her Whitehorse congregation.

“It seems to me, so far, that this church is a wisdom-based church,” she said during one of her first sermons.

Recently, she’s read from the Book of Ruth, a polemic against racist immigration policies in her view.

“It’s a political protest when Israel was taking a very protectionist stance,” she said.

There are usually around 120 people in Church on Sunday mornings.

A lot of energy is going into partnering with other organizations that focus on the same social justice issues as the United Church.

The church is also going online, leaving the stone buildings for the internet with web-based forums like Wonder Cafe and the Emerging Spirit campaign.

“We’ve always been very good at that,” said Brazier.

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