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'Do we still believe that something vital is in the making?'

The United Church of Canada at 90

By Phyllis Airhart

Does The United Church of Canada have a death wish?

Has that question ever crossed your mind as you stewed over unflattering media coverage of one of its controversial positions? Or perhaps as you pondered the recent denomination-reshaping proposals of the Comprehensive Review Task Group? Is this a church that is willing and even wanting to die for its convictions?

If a reporter had put that question to some of the thousands leaving the Mutual Street Arena in Toronto on June 10, 1925, they might well have answered yes. Much of the publicity for the event they had just witnessed had billed it as the birth of The United Church of Canada. The sermon they heard that day, however, was a sombre reminder that discipleship demands sacrifice and sometimes even death.

The elegant 37-page order of service gave few hints about the sermon. Scheduled after the formal declaration of church union, it was tersely listed as “Communion sermon (by a Minister appointed).” As Methodist Rev. S.P. Rose from Wesleyan Theological College in Montreal strode to the pulpit, the audience perhaps expected to hear him preach on the lesson from scripture read earlier: a passage from John 17, with the words of Jesus’ prayer “that they all may be one” so often quoted by proponents of church union.

Instead Rose began by reading John 12:24-32. He then delivered a sermon that focused on one verse in particular: “except a kernel of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone; but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.” Challenging his listeners to embrace a willingness to die in order to “enter into a larger life,” Rose pressed the point that the grain of wheat that does not die will perish.

The image of wheat falling to the ground must have been a poignant one for those who just moments before had ceremonially relinquished their old institutional names, and symbolically bequeathed a prized feature of each tradition to the United Church as an “inheritance.”

The ritual captured the paradox that had brought them together: they intended to be a life-giving presence in communities across Canada in the future — and were willing to let their separate denominational identities die to make it happen.

Bob McClure, a former moderator, holds a United Church banner at a protest against nuclear weapons in Toronto in 1983. Photo by Ron Cole/Observer files

Seated on the platform that morning was Rev. George Pidgeon, soon to be elected as the new moderator of the United Church by delegates to the first General Council. Years later, Pidgeon still thought of the announcement of the biblical text for Rose’s sermon as “one of the great moments of church union.” Addressing those who gathered in May 1958 to watch him lay the cornerstone for the new church headquarters in midtown Toronto, he alluded to that same passage from John 12. He spoke of the treasures of the past as seed for the times ahead, harvested for present needs and then falling to the ground as new seed. “I think of the church I love,” he concluded, as ready to “sink” its identity into a “church that is yet to be.”

On the occasion of its 90th anniversary, the United Church finds itself at another historic crossroads best navigated with a clear understanding of where it has come from. Approaching this milestone is also an apt moment for reflecting on whether it has an “inheritance” of its own that is worth investing in a “church that is yet to be.”

The United Church has never shied away from putting its identity on the line. When the denomination was launched 90 years ago by Methodists, Congregationalists, most Presbyterians and a number of congregations already operating as union churches, its founders let go of some of their distinctiveness — their “peculiarities,” as they put it — in order to build a church united by what they held in common. They believed that their venture would not only improve operational efficiency, but also create better persons, better communities and a better nation. That conviction provided a positive rationale for the difficult decisions that followed, such as closing or amalgamating congregations in some places to open new ones in others.

In a sense, the founders succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. The early 20th century was a time when most Canadians still assumed the mutually beneficial relationship among religion, politics and culture associated with “Christendom.” The United Church adapted to that ethos by presenting itself as well suited to meet the spiritual needs of the young nation. Its claim to be “made in Canada” gave it a boost in the early going.

By mid-century, the United Church had met and even exceeded expectations. “Amazing” is a word that crops up often to describe its growth in the 1950s. This was a time marked by new church buildings, sanctuaries filled for Sunday worship and church schools bursting at the seams with children. These memories set the standard that congregations today can only wish to match.

Yet that era is called the postwar “revival” for a reason: the decades that preceded the boom had been fearful ones for most North American churches. The United Church had special cause for concern. Focusing on the 1950s obscures the anxious idealism of its founding generation of leaders and the very real challenges they faced. Ninety years later, it’s easy to forget that the existence of the United Church, let alone its survival, was far from certain. Church union had been discussed in other countries but never attempted on such an ambitious scale. A dissenting group of Presbyterians bitterly contested the decision to unite, and persuaded many congregations to vote to remain Presbyterian.

As the 10th anniversary approached, one can almost hear United Church leaders breathing a collective sigh of relief that the denomination had made it that far. Principal Edmund Oliver of St. Andrew’s College in Saskatoon placed “It has survived” at the top of his list of “Our Achievements” in a piece written for a commemorative pamphlet. Yet he could also point to many other accomplishments chalked up in a short period. Despite economic depression and war, more achievements were to follow.

A strong centralized structure laid the groundwork for some of those successes by co-ordinating activities across the nation and around the world. The United Church had come on the scene as a typical Protestant model of what critics now disparagingly refer to as “organized religion.” Harmonizing its administrative practices with those of similar denominations, it relied on a burgeoning executive staff, centralization of fund allocation and fundraising, and boards with specialized functions. Those who operated the denominational “machinery” used it to speak to congregations; and they also spoke for its members on moral and social issues at home and ecumenical affairs abroad.

Despite its claims to efficiency, this organizational culture quickly drew criticism. The emphasis on preaching and faith formation that was paramount for local congregations competed with denominational priorities that were regional or national in scope. After observing the dynamics first-hand during his term as moderator (1934-36), Very Rev. Richard Roberts warned that a church organized like a department store “was under sentence of death.” (And the United Church was barely a decade old!) He saw preoccupation with statistics as a worrisome sign, “as though it mattered very much how many of us there are, when the real matter is what kind of people we are.”

Roberts did not live long enough to witness the postwar boom in membership, but it’s not hard to imagine him warning that bigger is not always better — even in department stores. Looking back on the so-called glory days of mainstream Protestant churches in North America, Methodist church historian Ted A. Campbell, writing in the Christian Century last year, likened the statistical “bulge” seen at mid-century to “a precancerous growth constituted by a host of nominal church members.” What’s left today, he argued, is neither the myth of the mighty mainline nor a remnant of aging congregations, but rather a core of committed and active believers in durable institutions that remain “capable of transmitting church cultures across generations.”

For better or worse, the United Church’s “glory days” are behind it. Back in the early 20th century, geography and theology converged to create a church that sought to relate in a special way to communities across Canada. But by the end of the 1960s, the moral and cultural framework that the founding generation took for granted was collapsing in the wake of a cultural revolution that brought an end to Christendom in Canada. Even if the current government of Canada were to decide unexpectedly to recruit religious partners to unite the nation, neither demographic realities nor the political climate would favour the United Church to head the list. Most people assume its influence will continue to diminish as Canada becomes more religiously plural.

A vortex of complex forces has thrust the United Church off the centre stage of Canadian public life that it hoped to occupy. The connections between church and community that the founding generation took for granted are not so obvious now. Studies show that many Canadians approach religion as consumers with personal needs, rather than as citizens who see their involvement in a community of faith as both a religious and civic obligation.

Digital technology is upping the challenge, undoing boundaries, altering our sense of time and place, and complicating life for secular and religious organizations alike. Old ways of operating no longer work as they did in the past — for banks, newspapers, political parties or retailers, let alone churches. If such trends proceed apace, gathering in a building for worship at the same hour may someday seem as quaint to future generations as the notion of “Christendom” now seems to us.

The United Church — and Christianity in Canada, for that matter — has lost the reinforcement that a cozier relationship with the dominant culture once provided. It is no longer the fresh new face on the religious scene that it presented to the world in 1925; instead it appears to be headed for extinction if one interprets the downward slope of statistical trends as its destiny. It may yet reach a tipping point where such speculation becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. But it’s worth noting that the denomination has (so far, at least) defied statistical projections of its passing that have dogged it for half a century — including one from its own consultants in the late 1960s that showed it would have no members in Toronto within 15 years.

“Making” the United Church in 1925 was possible because its founders refused to be tied to a fixed view of the church or the world. What I describe in A Church with the Soul of a Nation as its “remaking” in the 1960s grew out of a similar conviction: that the church is not called to escape time and place, but to engage them more faithfully. The United Church that emerged after that tumultuous decade still resembled the church that had come into being in 1925. But it stepped toward the future with new models of worship and fellowship, a new creed and a new organizational design. A renewed emphasis on ministry in and to the world drove its agenda.

Another difficult but unavoidable conversation is now under way. The Comprehensive Review Task Group is inviting the United Church to consider another such metamorphosis. Its working document, United in God’s Work, does not mince words about the dramatic changes that implementing its recommendations would entail: “We would have to let go of things we have always done and things we cherish. We would have to live within our means and accept that we will be smaller.”

The report’s recommendations would accelerate organizational changes that are already under way, some made possible by technology, others the consequence of financial realities. The proposed new governance model modifies the conciliar model adopted in 1925. It involves changes to the Basis of Union significant enough to trigger a church-wide referendum.

I am probably not alone in mistyping “United” as “Untied” and wondering which of the two words more aptly describes the church. I suspect that resistance to becoming even more “untied” is reflected in criticism of an earlier draft of the task group’s work. Its final report addresses some of those concerns. Even so, the recommendations tilt the United Church toward congregational autonomy in exchange for different ways of distributing authority elsewhere in the system. It proposes to consolidate executive leadership both regionally and nationally, place responsibility for accrediting and overseeing ministers in a new and separate body called a college of ministers, and set up a different funding model for mission and service activities beyond the congregation.

Few will mourn the loss of one level of government that the report proposes. But if the United Church is to continue to think of its work in connectional terms, the challenge will be to discern which features of the conciliar model to shed and which to adapt. Denominational structures tend to function as repositories of collective wisdom, and thus shape identity. They invite those whose interests would otherwise be merely parochial to participate in a larger conversation. They push people to deal with those with whom they disagree. At their best, they facilitate rather than impede decision-making about personnel and programs. That said, United in God’s Work makes a compelling case for a serious discussion of new ways of working together as a church.

However, organizational change is rarely easy. It causes apprehension, even — perhaps especially — among those who care most about safeguarding the future of the group. To complicate matters, the impact is uneven: some people (and their work) are drastically affected, while others barely notice the difference. And what if taking apart the scaffolding leads to the discovery that there is little of genuine substance holding the organization together after all?

So there is risk — a word repeated throughout United in God’s Work (13 times, by my count). But risk is not new to the United Church. Those who founded it believed that they could risk leaving behind things that no longer served their present situation. That was the promise of the biblical text from John 12 chosen for the inauguration sermon: the crux of what the church has been will live on in what it will become.

I am a historian of Christianity. I know that past successes offer no guarantees about the future. I know that Christianity has all but disappeared in parts of the world where it once thrived, it has grown in other places despite attempts to suppress it and it has been revived in places where it was left for dead. A map of the Christian world looks very different now than in 1925. It’s a sobering reminder that we should not take the future of the United Church, or indeed Christianity in Canada, for granted. Things change; religious institutions disappear. So as a historian, I cannot predict how the United Church will fare in the coming years, with or without adopting the proposed recommendations.

But I am also a Christian and a member of the United Church. I find myself wondering if we still believe, as did those who gathered for the inaugural service 90 years ago, that something vital is in the making, even though we cannot yet see what that is or how it will turn out. Do we still believe that ultimately our hope is not in denominational structures or ourselves, but in God’s help?

I have a hunch that George Pidgeon would be pleased that the United Church at 90 is willing to shoulder the risks of change. Perhaps, like me, he would have misgivings about some of the details of United in God’s Work. But I think he would be glad to discover a church that is still grappling with what it means to face the future with a living faith.

That is, after all, what Jesus’ followers have been doing for generations — not only the multitudes meeting in the Mutual Street Arena in Toronto 90 years ago, but the little group that gathered in a much smaller venue in Jerusalem in the even more distant past. The Gospels present a frightened and uncertain group of disciples huddled together, unsure about their future, too emotionally drained to go “chasing the Spirit,” to borrow a phrase from United in God’s Work. Yet the book of Acts pictures those same disciples as boldly proclaiming the good news of Christ’s resurrection after the Spirit came to them as they waited.

Are we not like those first followers of Jesus — uncertain, not always quite sure who Jesus is, but occasionally finding the grace of our Lord’s presence in the midst of ordinary living? And are we not like the thousands who left the Mutual Street Arena not knowing whether anything or everything was about to change?

What we do know is that the Christian faith assures us that God is with us not only when we are most confident and most assuredly “amazing,” but even when we are not. The hope in the message of the Gospel is the promise of God’s presence in times of discouragement, confusion and even death. We are called to witness to that presence: a God who transforms fear and pain, and whose Spirit can infuse new life even in something that carries the whiff of death and decay.

For the past 90 years, the United Church has been making a difference in the lives of countless people in communities across Canada and around the world. Those of us who are a part of it have experienced something of the venture in faith that the inauguration of the United Church promised. It is that heritage that we celebrate and hope to pass on — sharing the faith in word and deed, willing to be candid about our failings but not immobilized by them, and working together in and for God’s world.

And as we face the uncertainties that lie ahead, we might do well to bear in mind the words of G.K. Chesterton, who wrote, “Christianity has died many times and risen again; for it had a god who knew the way out of the grave.” 

Phyllis Airhart is a professor of the history of Christianity at Emmanuel College, Victoria University, in the University of Toronto. Her 2014 book, A Church with the Soul of a Nation, was a finalist for this year's Canada Prize in the Humanities.




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