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Mainliners: 44 percent

By Samantha Rideout

“How’s it going, eh?” asks John Wilkey jovially. A member of Metropolitan United in London, Ont., Wilkey shares his thoughts with a smile that is audible over the phone. Like the largest chunk of our survey respondents, Wilkey, nearing 70, chose the terms of the United Church’s New Creed as the description of God that most closely represents his beliefs: “God has created and is creating. God works in us and others by the Spirit.”

“And I don’t think that excludes evolution,” he says. “He created and is creating, you know? You don’t have to choose either God or science; you can accept both.”

Like roughly 44 percent of the survey respondents, Wilkey holds beliefs that could be described as “mainline.” The expression originally referred to a group of Protestant denominations — including the United Church — that enjoyed considerable power and popularity in the 1950s and ’60s.

Although these denominations are now less influential than before, the word “mainline” is still used to describe the way of thinking associated with them in the popular imagination: a Bible-based theology with a concern for the practical implications of the Gospel, especially social justice.

Mainline thought takes its inspiration from a variety of sources, including critical biblical scholarship, which sheds light on the history of the Bible’s text and the cultural contexts in which its books were written, as well the insights of theologians from the Protestant Reformation to the present. Pat Macdonald, 63, of Virden, Man., describes her views this way: “I feel the Bible contains a lot of history and information about the faith and how it developed. But I’m not a literalist.”

Rev. Warren Vollmer, the minister of Lakefield (Ont.) United, thinks similarly and takes his lead from the Swiss theologian Karl Barth. “Barth and others before him had the idea that the Bible is the inspired word of God, but composed and transmitted by people,” he says. “There’s something true and divine behind it all, but it has human hands on it. This is why we recognize — and don’t find it troubling — that there have always been different interpretations of what the Bible means and who Jesus was.” These differences can cut straight to the heart of the Christian narrative: a little less than half of mainliners believe Jesus’ resurrection was physical, and the rest believe it was spiritual.

Like traditionalists (see page 20), mainliners generally consider themselves followers of Jesus. But one area where the two groups differ is in the nature of their relationship with him: while traditionalists mainly relate to Jesus as a personal saviour, 61 percent of mainliners see him first and foremost as a role model for living. “Jesus taught us how to treat people,” says Macdonald. “That’s one of the places where I see the United Church leading the way. Opening your arms to everyone like Jesus did is the Christian way.”

Mainliners are also more likely than traditionalists to believe in evolution, and 65 percent of them are open to the idea that all the world’s major religions are equal pathways to God. “If you send 40 kids on a field trip, you’ll get 40 different reports even though it was the same trip,” quips Wilkey.

Most mainliners like to pray. Nearly all think their prayers are received, but only 51 percent believe God responds to their prayers each and every time. They also like to read the Bible: seven in 10 read it at least once a month, and three in 10 had read it the same day they completed the survey. Two-thirds of the respondents in this group rate the Bible as important or very important to their faith.

When it comes to the afterlife, this group is largely unsure of what to expect. Humans have souls and so might animals, according to 70 percent.

A minority of one in three respondents in this group is sure heaven is a real place, out of this world. Only 10 percent believe concretely in hell. Meanwhile, half say that even though they are unsure of the existence of heaven, they are going to try to live like it exists. Says Macdonald, “At funerals and events like that, you hope souls do go on in whatever form.”

Note: Respondents to this question from Quebec and the territories were too few to be statistically significant.


Samantha Rideout is a freelance writer in Montreal.



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