Former United Church of Canada moderator Very Rev. Bill Phipps died on Friday. He was 79.
During his tenure as the denomination’s spiritual leader from 1997 to 2000, he delivered the church’s second formal apology to Indigenous peoples in 1998, the first that specifically addressed residential school survivors.
“To those individuals who were physically, sexually, and mentally abused as students of the Indian Residential Schools in which The United Church of Canada was involved, I offer you our most sincere apology,” he said at the time. “You did nothing wrong. You were and are the victims of evil acts that cannot under any circumstances be justified or excused.
Phipps was an advocate for environmental and social justice throughout his life. While he served individual United Church congregations, he was also active in the larger work of the church. He co-founded the interfaith sustainability organization Faith & the Common Good, which grew out of cross-country consultations on religion and the economy that he held during his time as moderator.
He also represented the United Church in places of conflict around the world, including East Timor and the Philippines.
Brave and kind and fierce, humanity lost someone wonderful yesterday. If we could all aspire to do even a fraction of good, the world would be a better place. Rest in power, Very Reverend Bill Phipps. https://t.co/uFYF9Ypzaq
— Druh Farrell (@DruhFarrell) March 5, 2022
In an interview with the Ottawa Citizen in 1997, Phipps said that he didn’t believe in the divinity of Jesus, who he thought cared more about life on earth than hell.
“We’ve got enough problems trying to live ethically and well here, to have any knowledge or understanding of what happens after we die,” he said.
The interview generated a lot of controversy and spurred a vote from the General Council Executive to support Phipps’s right to express his beliefs, according to Maclean’s. One United Church minister told the magazine at the time that “the Christian thing to do would be to pray for [Phipps’s] conversion.”
Former United Church Observer editor Muriel Duncan calls Phipps a “longtime friend” who used to serve on the magazine’s board. She says he was a principled person who cared strongly about social justice.
“One of the things that he did say then — and lived — is that we have to take different risks. The Bible frees us from being afraid,” she says.
Duncan says she thinks that Phipps’s controversial comments to the Ottawa Citizen reflected the beliefs of a lot of people in the denomination.
“He was about the spirit of Jesus and what was expected of us if we’re going to say that we were followers of Jesus,” she says of his beliefs. He was kind of fearless.”
Former United Church general secretary Jim Sinclair, who served in the role from 2003 to 2006, describes Phipps as a “good friend” who supported him throughout his time as general secretary.
“He was very gutsy in addressing issues within the church and beyond the church,” Sinclair says. “I don’t think I’d be the only one to say that Bill was a touchstone and will remain that.”
Of his conversation with the Citizen, Sinclair says, “These weren’t knee-jerk reactions. They were born of a great conviction as a person of faith and as a spiritual leader.”
Before Phipps became a minister, he worked as a lawyer.
Phipps’s wife, Carolyn Pogue, was a longtime contributor to the Observer. A funeral will be held at Hillhurst United in Calgary on March 8 at 1 p.m. Mountain Time and livestreamed online.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was updated to include quotes from Former Observer editor Muriel Duncan and former United Church general secretary Jim Sinclair.
With files from Julie McGonegal
Emma Prestwich is Broadview’s digital editor.
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Sheldon LeGrow says:
Whether Jesus was divine or not is a matter of opinion. What he taught, however, is about how we live our lives here on earth in relationship with one another. That is practical advice and, for me that's what really matters. Thanks Bill for your courage to speak from your heart.