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Canadian church leader shares insights on the World Council of Churches

Marion Best

Marion Best

The birth of her first child, her congregation’s merger, her daughter’s conversion to Judaism and five weeks on sabbatical in Tanzania influenced Marion Best’s journey into interchurch-interfaith involvement and to leadership in the World Council of Churches between its seventh assembly in 1991 at Canberra, Australia, and its ninth assembly in February at Porto Alegre, Brazil.

Marion will share elements of the recent assembly’s worship, music, symbolism, encounters, discussions and decisions at 7 p.m., Friday, Nov. 10, in the Seeley G. Mudd Chapel at Whitworth College as part of the 2006 Fig Tree Faith in Action Dialogue.

She will lead a workshop from 9 a.m. to noon, Saturday, Nov. 11, in room 206 of Dixon Hall at Whitworth, involving participants in small-group dialogue, taking turns as storytellers and listeners.

Marion lived in New Westminster, B.C., near Vancouver, through studies in nursing at the University of British Columbia, work at the Royal Columbian Hospital, 15 years rearing four children and eight years working part-time in emergency and intensive care at the hospital.

When she was 12, the fundamentalist church she attended did not answer her questions about faith, so she left church involvement and did not return until she and her husband, Jack, decided to seek baptism for their daughter at the United Church of Canada where his family was involved.

“I took the baptismal vows seriously.  In 1965, my husband and I began 12 years of team teaching church school, attending teacher training workshops and team teaching the children in groups with other adults.

We intensively studied biblical background to help us discern how to share the biblical stories with six-year-olds,” Marion said.

Some of that training was at Naramata Centre in the B.C. Okanagan, where her family went for two weeks each summer. 

Marion said the United Church of Canada—a merger of Presbyterian, Methodist and Congregational churches in 1925—started Naramata Centre for continuing education in 1947.  It started four others like it across Canada.  In the 1960s, the centre collaborated with Whitworth in Spokane on leadership development.

 In the summer, more than 160 adults and about that number of children and youth go for weeklong sessions.  The rest of the year, it offers leadership development programs for both church and community workers.

By 1970, Marion’s commitment to church led her to serve on national United Church of Canada committees on Christian development and on theology and faith.

In 1977, Naramata Centre invited Jack and her to join their staff, Jack as fund raiser and Marion in program administration and program leadership.  Jack retired in 1980. Marion continued working there until 1987.

“At Naramata Centre, I did human relations training, teaching community leaders, social workers and teachers, as well as church people how to do experiential education and leadership development,” Marion said.

Her interest in interchurch relations grew because Naramata’s only church was a United-Anglican congregation that had merged in 1968.  They formed a joint local ministry even though, after Canada’s United and Anglican churches conversed about merging for about 40 years, the Anglicans voted against a national union.

The shared ministry of the local church began about 1968.  It has one minister, a church common board and all worship together.  Anglican Eucharist is the liturgical form on first Sundays, and United Church communion on third Sundays. 

“The church was already together and decided to stay together even thought the national union talks had failed,” Marion said.

When her eldest daughter, then 26, converted to Reform Judaism after studying religion at the University of British Columbia, it was at first difficult for Marion.

Knowing that she did not want to be alienated from her child, Marion decided to learn more about and came to a new appreciation of Judaism.  She also participated in some Christian-Jewish, Christian-Islam and Christian-Buddhist conversations with the Interchurch Interfaith committee.

In 1985, on sabbatical from Naramata, she participated in a five-week Christian Lay Leadership Training offered by the World Council of Churches (WCC) in Tanzania. 

“I had never been outside North America.  It was life-changing.  After orientation in Dar es Salaam, we formed six teams of five people and spread to different parts of the country,” Marion said.

At that time, two-thirds of the population did subsistence farming with no money changing hands.  It was also sobering to see the effects of aid that did not help people, such as a chick incubator and a copy machine sent to an area with no electricity, tractors rusting in fields when the people needed oxen and plows.”

That stirred her interest in how the global economy is structured.

After leaving work at the centre in 1987, she began working freelance from their home in Naramata and continued to lead some programs at Naramata centre, worked with Vancouver School of Theology (VST) Centre for the Study of Church and Ministry and with hospital staff and community nursing staff.

Through VST she worked with 75 congregations in groups of eight for 18 months each, helping them discern their directions for the future.

Marion also trained nurses and hospital management in stress management, team building, conflict resolution and assertiveness training.

In 1988, she was elected as B.C.’s lay representative to the United Church of Canada’s General Council Executive.  She served on the executive until last February.

The United Church invited her to chair its Interchurch-Interfaith Committee, which led to opportunities to be involved in its conversations with Disciples of Christ and Roman Catholic-United Church dialogue. 

That responsibility also led to her being named as one of the United Church’s delegates to the WCC’s seventh assembly in 1991 at Canberra, where she was elected to serve on the Central Committee.  At the first meeting in Canberra, she was elected to the Executive Committee.

In 1994, the United Church of Canada elected Marion as its moderator to serve a three-year term.  It is a full-time paid position, working from the national office in Toronto and traveling 10 days a month to visit churches and church groups across Canada as well as some of their overseas partner churches.

An article in the November issue will present her work with the World Council of Churches.