“I wish to speak the words that many people have wanted to hear for a very long time. On behalf of the United Church of Canada, I apologize for the pain and suffering that our church’s involvement in the Indian residential-school system has caused,” the Right Rev. Bill Phipps, United Church of Canada moderator, said in a historic statement in October, 1998. “We are aware of some of the damage that this cruel and ill-conceived system of assimilation has perpetrated on Canada’s First Nations peoples. For this we are truly and most humbly sorry.”
Decades of official United Church reflection and repentance preceded this public apology, which Mr. Phipps presented (and would present often) on behalf of Canada’s largest Protestant Christian denomination. More than 23 years later, Indigenous people are still waiting for a similar apology from the Catholic Church, which ran 90 per cent of the schools.
The United Church of Canada oversaw less than 10 per cent of Canada’s residential schools after a three-way merger formed the new denomination in 1925.
“We know that many within our church will still not understand,” Mr. Phipps continued the apology, “why each of us must bear the scar, the blame for this horrendous period in Canadian history. But the truth is, we are the bearers of many blessings from our ancestors, and therefore, we must also bear their burdens.”
Mr. Phipps spent his life stepping forward to share those burdens, first as a bearded, long-haired university student, and later as the white-haired progressive with a twinkle in his eye who helped found strategic organizations, who often spoke out as an ally with Indigenous peoples in Canada and around the globe, and who regularly put himself on the line to raise political issues.
For example, in 2002, Mr. Phipps was the federal NDP candidate in Calgary Southwest – and the only serious challenger to Stephen Harper, who ran to take his seat in the House as the newly elected Canadian Alliance Leader. Mr. Phipps talked about climate change and human rights, and won 20 per cent of the vote.
Mr. Phipps, whose tenure as United Church moderator ran from 1997 to 2000, died of pancreatic cancer at home in Calgary on March 4, at the age of 79.
Born into a comfortable, conservative family in North Toronto, Mr. Phipps “took a left turn” during his university years and chose to champion the poor and the disadvantaged. At first, Mr. Phipps set out to be a poverty lawyer, to the dismay of his family.
Then he turned to spiritual rather than legal remedies after spending his undergraduate summers counselling disadvantaged youth in Toronto, Brooklyn, N.Y., and in Chicago with activist Saul Alinsky.
“It wasn’t until I worked in Brooklyn in 1964,” he wrote in his 2007 book Cause for Hope, “that I witnessed the social justice dimension of the Christian faith. … I knew nothing of the church’s history of pursuing social justice for the poor, and for people of colour. … So that summer in New York opened doors to me that have never closed.”
Lived experiences changed his direction as well as his perspective. Mr. Phipps earned his LLB from Osgoode Hall Law School in 1965 and was accepted to the Law Society of Upper Canada in 1970. Meanwhile, he earned his divinity degree from Chicago’s McCormick Theological Seminary in 1968, and was ordained in 1969.
After ordination, Mr. Phipps served as co-pastor at Chapel-in-the-Park in Toronto’s Thorncliffe neighbourhood, while working as a community organizer, and helped establish the first poverty law service in Canada. Then he showed bold leadership from 1974 on, as minister at Trinity-St. Paul’s United Church, a progressive and artistic congregation in downtown Toronto.
In 1986, Mr. Phipps took a church administration post in Edmonton. As conference secretary, he travelled frequently to congregations in the Far North – a region he grew to love and respect – especially Yellowknife, where he met Indigenous and other leaders like René Fumoleau, George Barnaby, François Paulette and Cindy Gilday. In 1987, his first marriage dissolved. In 1990, he married writer Carolyn Pogue.
They moved to Calgary in 1993, when Mr. Phipps became minister at Scarboro United Church, where he served until his retirement in 2007. During that time he took three years’ leave of absence to serve as UCC moderator.
Controversy soon followed his election as moderator when a meeting with the Ottawa Citizen editorial board turned into a theological debate. “People are yearning for a strong moral voice again in public policy,” Mr. Phipps said, introducing himself to the board. He said that the UCC has been “a strong social conscience” among several others in Canada.
The anonymous response from the editorial board was, “The Promise Keepers said that the critical thing is not whether you beat your dog or have extramarital sex; the critical thing … is your relationship with Jesus.”
And the debate was on, with Mr. Phipps talking about God and social policy, and all the questions from the Citizen editorial board being about Jesus, reading the Gospel literally, and seeking clear and definite rules. When the editorial board asked, “Do you believe that Jesus is divine, that he was the son of God?” Mr. Phipps replied, “We could have a whole discussion about that.” The Citizen published a scathing editorial saying that Mr. Phipps did not believe in heaven or hell, or that Jesus was divine.
Published on Oct. 24, 1997, the Citizen piece launched a heated national debate.
A Manitoba professor called Mr. Phipps a heretic. An important Toronto cleric reassured the public, “There are still Christians in the United Church.” A local gospel preacher invited UCC members to come take Bible studies with him.
“Theologians and scholars are amazed by the fierce response to Phipps’s sentiments,” Maclean’s magazine reported at the time, quoting theological experts saying that many previous moderators and many in their profession “have said similar things for decades.”
The UCC General Council executive publicly affirmed its faith in Mr. Phipps, in response to letters from UCC members, some calling for Mr. Phipps’s resignation and others for his beatification.
In retrospect, Rev. Ted Reeves recently joked, “Bill and I were just launching Faith and the Common Good [which promoted energy efficiency and climate-change awareness to all faith groups], and the fuss about the editorial gave us a national platform to talk about our project.”
When not in the pulpit or other podium, Mr. Phipps was a father, grandfather, author, vegetarian, climate activist, a Northerner at heart, an Indigenous ally, a federal candidate, a peacenik and past international president of the World Conference of Religions for Peace (1999 to 2006.) He co-founded several non-profit organizations, including the Consortium for Peace Studies at the University of Calgary, EcoCommons (promoting co-housing), and Faith and the Common Good.
“Bill Phipps is the most moral and ethical person I have ever met,” said George Melnyk, an author and retired professor who was director at the U of C Peace Consortium.
Former Calgary School Trustee Julie Hrdlicka, who worked alongside Mr. Phipps in several capacities since 2000, said she admired his “fierceness, his unwavering commitment to do what’s right for the planet. His confidence [was] contagious,” she said. He wasn’t pious at all, she noted. “The first time he dropped an F-bomb, I thought, OMG, you’re a real person!”
William Frederick Allan Phipps was born in Toronto on May 4, 1942. He grew up in North Toronto with his accountant father, Reginald Phipps, his homemaker mother, Cora (née Stinson) Phipps, and his sister, Elda.
“My father was conservative, politically, theologically, morally, behaviourally, every way – and a very solid United Church member,” Mr. Phipps told a Maclean’s reporter in 1998.
Young Bill enjoyed the outdoors, soccer, baseball and canoeing. “Part of his love for cities grew from the freedom he had to explore his city on his bicycle: the ravines, the river, the streets,” Maclean’s reported.
Exploring appealed to him at any age, along with reaching out to other people. He continued to preach until late 2020, and to speak out about issues such as climate change and racism, often from the pulpit of Hillhurst United Church in Calgary.
“There are a lot of seniors in this world,” said Rev. John Pentland, lead minister at Hillhurst United, “but there are very few Elders. Bill Phipps [was] an Elder – someone who speaks from a place that offers wisdom, that offers perspective, that takes us to a higher way of looking at things in our individual and corporate lives.”
Mr. Phipps leaves his beloved wife, Ms. Pogue; their children, Sarah Phipps, Jeremy Phipps and Andrea Czarnecki; his sister, Elda Thomas; and four grandchildren.