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Secular shift

Mainstream denominations may be faltering, but don’t write off religion just yet. A new kind of liberal Christianity is emerging.

By Kenneth Bagnell

One afternoon in late 1965, I walked into a cluttered television studio in Toronto to discuss a book getting wide attention across Canada. The author was also the program host, journalist Pierre Berton. His book, The Comfortable Pew, was a critique of Canada’s churches, which he found wanting in ways that, taken together, made Christian churches “irrelevant,” he maintained. In subsequent years, that word defined an earnest quest of Canada’s major Protestant churches: to become relevant.

As I remember the exchange — part dialogue, part debate — neither of us fully recognized one fact: that quite outside the churches, their sanctuaries and seminaries, a broad cultural shift was reshaping society’s attitude toward Christianity. By 2000, its tide would be so strong that no matter how “relevant” the churches became, with contemporary services and imaginative programs, their institutional future was in question.

The tide is most often described by one word: secularization. It has numerous definitions and applications, but is often used to denote a loosening of ties between people and organized religion. “For many,” says Emmanuel College church historian Phyllis Airhart, now writing a book on the United Church, “belonging to the church is no longer central to their personal or social identity.” British historian Callum Brown writes in the introduction to his book The Death of Christian Britain, “What emerges is a story not merely of church decline, but of the end of Christianity as a means by which men and women, as individuals, construct their identities and their sense of self.” Its first page goes so far as to predict that what’s happening in Britain is the destiny of western Christianity.

The evidence of this trend gives no pleasure recording here. But we are morally bound to acknowledge the truth: in 1965, United Church membership hit its peak at 1,064,033. It then began a decline that has continued for 45 years; at last count, in 2008, membership was 525,673. The impact was reflected last May in a candid document from the office of the church’s general secretary. While expressing belief that the situation presented opportunity for renewal, the paper recognized serious facts: “They include declining membership, aging congregations and ministers, eroding finances, and a model of ministry and mission that has failed to engage the spiritual yearnings of many young people. Many Canadians find community in workplaces, book clubs, sports teams and Facebook, but church simply is not on their radar.” (Soon after, the General Council Executive was forced to cut the United Church’s three-year budget by a deep $9 million.)

Obviously the United Church is not alone in this circumstance. According to documents provided by the churches, Canada’s Anglicans had just over 1,343,000 on parish rolls in 1960; by 2001, the last year of available statistics, their numbers had dropped to just under 642,000. Presbyterians face an equally daunting situation: the denomination reports national membership peaking in 1964 at over 202,000. By 2008, that figure was roughly 113,000.

Most scholars trace secularization to the 18th-century Enlightenment, with its skepticism and rationalism growing in the 20th century. Other thinkers, including Brown, acknowledge the historical lead-up but point to the turbulent 1960s as the turning point. As historian Hugh McLeod writes in The Religious Crisis of the 1960s, “This revolution did not come as a bolt from the blue. The ground was prepared by earlier changes, some relatively recent, others beginning much further in the past.”

Naturally, historians look to the past. But others, particularly theologians, look to the future. Paul Tillich, regarded by some as the 20th century’s greatest theol-ogian, looked ahead early. In his 1948 book The Protestant Era, he wrote, “We do not know the destiny and character of Protestantism in this period. We do not know whether it will even desire or deserve the name Protestantism. All this is unknown.” United Church theological scholar Rev. Douglas John Hall reflected on this subject in his 1989 collection of lectures, The Future of the Church: Where Are We Headed? In one lecture, he’s concerned but hopeful, writing, “The times call for sober realism about the ending. But they also beckon, and pleadingly, to those who know that the best beginnings, real beginnings, always emerge at the point of real endings.”

Statistics aren’t the only way to track the growth of secularism and the accompanying decline of religious observance. There’s widening anecdotal evidence in the public culture, perhaps especially in universities, that religion’s prominence in society is waning. James Ron, a professor of international affairs at Carleton University in Ottawa, wrote last summer about how his global affairs students — many of them future diplomats or UN staff members — reflect the secular trend. “Canada’s finest global affairs students seem virtually illiterate when it comes to their own religion or to the religion of others,” he wrote in the Toronto Star. When he has raised international issues that have a religious dimension, his pupils seem almost indignant, some accusing him of trying to legitimize religion.

A dramatic illustration of the secularization of Canada’s public culture came in 2001 following 9-11, in which almost 3,000 Americans and 24 Canadians perished. In New York, a large interfaith service was held. But in Ottawa, Canada’s observance had no religious dimension. A man who knows this well is Rev. Joseph Burke, at the time minister of Ottawa’s MacKay United. He and his wife lost a nephew, Herbert Homer, in the tragedy. (Homer was aboard one of the planes that smashed into the towers.) “The reaction of our government to the tragedy of 9-11 was in keeping with our secular approach to all things,” Burke said. “In the religious community, there was some effort put forward to host a memorial service or a religious service to mark the tragedy and loss of life, but it was superseded by the government’s initiative to host a secular rather than a religious service.”

There is a slowly rising sense, as the unease of James Ron and Joseph Burke illustrates, that this trend is not entirely positive. Some serious-minded people are concerned that growing secularity fails to meet the fuller needs of humans. And this concern is sometimes felt not just by practising Christians but by people of little or no religious faith. Consider a gathering in Zurich during the spring of 1991, a service of commemoration for a scholar who had died. The scholar and virtually all his colleagues in attendance practised no religious faith, so he had stipulated that his service would have no clergy, no prayers, no Scripture, no blessing. But there was a considerable oddity: he’d chosen a church as the venue for his service, a decision that seemed contradictory. A friend at the service, philosopher Jürgen Habermas, sensed there was much more there than met the proverbial eye. In choosing a sacred setting for a totally secular ceremony, the scholar was deliberately making a point: secularism is incomplete, offering no truly fulfilling rite of final passage. Habermas was so intrigued that he subsequently convened a formal discussion with theological scholars to discuss faith and reason, the papers of which were published in a book, An Awareness of What Is Missing.

What’s ahead? A massive transformation — a Re-formation — that the United Church will be part of, one that will be gradual and profound. One expression used in many discussions about this future is “emergent.” It’s a comprehensive word, acknowledging the past we’re leaving, the present we’re experiencing and the future we’re pondering. In his book Emerging from the Dark Age Ahead, Prof. Charles Fensham of Knox College in Toronto urges us to prepare to look at our future in a totally fresh way: “To journey toward a sense of what it is to be a missional church in the 21st century, we have to map a path through several themes.” Inspired by the title of a famous painting by impressionist Paul Gauguin, he lists three “burning questions” for our time: “Where do we come from? Where are we? Where are we going?”

Some theologians take a skeptical view of our institutional past, calling it “Christendom,” which they disdain as mainly interested in status and self-interest. Indeed, our past had flaws. The United Church’s history (and that of its antecedent churches) includes the disastrous residential schools. But, respectfully, it also had virtues that helped shape life for the better, such as founding or helping to found several universities, including Mount Allison, Queen’s and Victoria; establishing public school education in Ontario; and helping to lay the foundations that led to medicare. One of the United Church’s harshest critics, columnist and talk show host Michael Coren, praises Methodism’s founder, John Wesley, whose legacy the United Church carried forward. “To a large extent,” Coren wrote in 2005, “John Wesley laid the foundations for the Canada we know and love.”

United Church minister Rev. Bruce Sanguin, of Canadian Memorial United in Vancouver, has authored books on contemporary Christianity and our church’s future, including The Emerging Church. He’s both sad and frank about what he regards as the United Church’s institutional errors, such as that the church has lost most of its members with business backgrounds. “This is because, in my view, we have trained our clergy to reject the achievist world view. Thereby, business people have suffered a subtle, at times not-so-subtle rejection. This is unfortunate because now, as we enter the emerging period, we could use their entrepreneurial gifts. They know a thing or two about adapting to changing life conditions. We need them.” In The Emerging Church, Sanguin conceives the church as a ship at sea: “Turning the ship, or at least redirecting it, requires every bit of available energy and more.”

Sanguin’s ship metaphor resonates with American Episcopal theologian Phyllis Tickle, author of The Great Emergence: How Christianity Is Changing and Why. “No ship, even a tethered one, can stay safely afloat and in place unless it has some ballast,” she says. “If the boat is not to tip and swamp, the ballast that forestalls too hasty a set of movements in a stormy sea must be there.” In Sanguin’s view, business people fulfilled the role of the “ballast.” But he perceives more than that. “If they are spiritual people,” he says, “they have a huge role in helping the church to its coming formations and expressions.”

What formations will the transformative period bring? Tickle quotes the Anglican Bishop Mark Dyer, who says we can’t grasp what’s happening unless we realize that every 500 years or so, the Christian church has a “gigantic rummage sale.” As she puts it, “The empowered structures of institutional Christianity, whatever they may be at that time, become an intolerable carapace that must be shattered in order that renewal and new growth may occur.” Out of this emerges, every time, a newly shaped and energized expression of Christianity, with new worship, fellowship and stewardship, she says.

Obviously, the cycle can be unsettling. Tickle chooses to describe it in delicate terms as “a usually energetic but rarely benign process.” In other words, it may not be soothing or gentle. The United Church hasn’t yet entered such turbulence, but there are anecdotal intimations we yet might: the pointed criticism in The Observer of United Church governance by former moderator Very Rev. Lois Wilson, who describes it with such words as “controlling,” “manipulative” and “deceptive”; the apparent discontent of many ministers considering unionization; and the abrupt resignation last spring of the staff of Bay of Quinte Conference.

Still, the emergence Tickle and others envision will be painful but, taking a long view, positive. For example, she includes a prediction of the “formations” Christianity may have in its future, illustrating them with a diagram of a quadrilateral. To simplify: draw a large square. Pencil it into four sections. In the upper left, write “Liturgical Christians”; in the upper right, “Social Justice Christians”; in the lower left, “Renewalist Christians”; in the lower right, “Conservative Christians.”

She writes, “One locates oneself or one’s faith community on the map in terms of that which is more, or most, important in one’s Christian practice.” An important detail: “Each constituency will almost always have some exercise in the other’s quadrant of concern.”

Hence, social justice Christians would intersect, contribute to and be enriched by others, likely renewalist and liturgical Christians. This is now happening, one sign being the numbers of people, including some United Church members, who journey from many parts of the world to share in spiritual renewal among the contemplative Brothers of Taizé in a village in Burgundy, France. The brothers, roughly 100 altogether, have already transcended borders. Some are Catholic, some Protestant, but all are part of a community given to prayer and meditation. Rev. Don Parsons, a United Church minister from Burlington, Ont., has made several week-long visits. “It has deepened my spiritual life,” he says. “But just being there with thousands of young people of all faiths from all over the world gives a tremendous sense of hope that you take home with you.”

So there’s more hope than the statistics would suggest if we lift our thoughts to another level. Almost as if provoked by high-profile atheists like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, many scholars now claim that humans are, to use the current expression, “hard-wired” for faith. This is the view of Rutgers University anthropologist Lionel Tiger and colleague Michael McGuire, a former UCLA professor of psychiatry and behavioural science. In their book God’s Brain, they claim that the brain has an inborn recognition of God. “If God is a creation of the brain,” they write, “then God’s brain is our brain.” They’re not alone. Neil Wiener, for many years a professor of experimental psychology at Toronto’s York University, takes their view seriously. “There is a growing body of scholarship examining in persuasive ways the idea that the brain is structured for belief,” he told me. “There are also studies indicating that in other ways people are predisposed to belief over unbelief.”

The emerging views of such social scientists are echoed in expressions of belief through the ages. A minister of my childhood often quoted a saying of Augustine that reflected theologically the innate sense scholars now examine scientifically: “Thou hast made us for Thyself and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee.” That’s still true, and it may well be our light and our guide as we move into a future that, quite clearly, is now upon us.

Rev. Kenneth Bagnell’s association with The Observer began 50 years ago this month. He lives in Toronto.

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