Made-in-Canada Faith

New books show the United Church’s distinctive blend of religion and politics

On June 11, 1925, the day after the United Church of Canada came into existence, Lucy Maud Montgomery, wife of a continuing Presbyterian minister, wrote in her diary, “in Nature the births of living things do not take place in this fashion … No, ’tis no ‘birth.’ It is rather the wedding of two old churches, both of whom are too old to have offspring.”

From the beginning the United Church has wrestled with its identity. What makes it unique? What are its core beliefs? Are they fixed and unmoveable, or have they changed and evolved over time? In A Church with the Soul of a Nation: Making and Remaking the United Church of Canada, Phyllis D. Airhart suggests that, from its founding, the church has had to make significant adjustments to its raison d’être. I am not an objective witness to this history: since the late 1950s I have been intensely involved with numerous issues that the church has struggled with.

Most Canadians are unaware of the United Church’s innovative beginnings. Except for a federated union of several Protestant denominations in early 19th-century Prussia, it represents the first major church union in the West, with underpinnings that can be traced back to a Victorian-era movement in the United Kingdom. The aim to create a united British church remained unmet. It was left to Canadian reformers to accomplish the goal, in a drive that involved Methodists, Congregationalists and Presbyterians. Right from the start there was a strong grassroots impetus, as hundreds of individual “union” churches in Western Canada leapt ahead of existing institutions to break loose from denominational constraints. If broader union were not achieved these churches were committed to creating their own united church for the new dominion.

For its promoters, church union would serve not just religious ends but a key nation-building purpose. As Airhart puts it, “the formula for building a united church mirrored the blueprint for building a united country. Unionists considered religious identity, like national identity, malleable; assimilation was a tactic for managing differences, whether cultural or theological.”

The common assumption was that a distinctly Canadian united church was bound to attract immigrants from a wide range of Christian faiths who were keen to rapidly assimilate. But first union needed to be achieved—no mean feat. Airhart describes the series of engagements, disappointments and rejections involving the two main institutional actors—Methodists and Presbyterians—in the union saga. While Methodists were almost unanimously in favour, a large minority of Presbyterians were not. When union did come, it meant a wrenching division, with a third of Presbyterian adherents choosing to continue in a separate church. To forestall battles around church property, unionist leaders ensured that an act was passed in Parliament as well as in all nine provincial legislatures to give legal imprimatur to the new church, while helping entrench its sense of itself as a truly national entity.

But disagreements remained, not least during the Great Depression. Some in the church took an evangelistic and pietistic approach; others believed the immediate economic crisis had to be addressed. The church’s leaders were on both sides of this abyss. Only with great difficulty could they communicate with one another, a division that threatened the church’s survival very early in its existence. But with the coming of the war, and post-war prosperity, these worries receded. While the initial hopes of making major inroads into immigrant communities never materialized, the church flourished, with expanding membership rolls as well as a prominent role in the religious and political life of the country. Starting in the mid 1960s, however, a major turning point was reached for all Canada’s mainstream Protestant denominations, the United Church included. Since then the church’s membership rolls have declined, the average age of members has inexorably risen, and its largely static ethnic composition increasingly sets it apart from Canada as a whole.

Although Airhart ends her narrative in the 1980s, her cut-off is late enough to allow her to deal with these recent trends in as much detail as she does the pre-union prelude and early years of the church. Her analysis is sharp in perceiving the strengths, weaknesses and contradictions of the church. While she is scrupulous in not taking sides, she lets her discomfort with the family fights, both theological and political, show clearly. She pays particular attention to long-running internal disagreements over the attitude toward fundamentalist evangelism, as the church’s official view about it grew distinctly chilly from the mid 1960s onward.

Her emphasis on key leaders rather than on institutional aspects is perhaps a problem. With a good eye for a story, she focuses on a handful of remarkable individuals who helped define the church’s first 60 years. These include first moderator George Pidgeon, influential theological thinker Ralph Chalmers and outspoken Observer editor Al Forrest. But it is the actual structure and organizational activity of the United Church that may be far more central to any analysis of what is unique and significant about the church and its history. It is one of the most centralized Christian denominations in Canada, with decision making and administration conducted at the church’s Toronto headquarters with its staff of well over 150. In addition there are 13 conferences, close to 100 presbyteries and about 3,000 congregations.

This centralization has helped make it possible for the church to constantly reshape itself and its mandate. Two overriding themes are visible in this evolution: a constant desire to be relevant to the times and, less consciously but with equal ardour, to be the custodian of the moral urgency of the day. In the church’s early decades, this meant a focus on issues that were holdovers from the political positions of the churches as separate entities, the fight against alcohol being the most public, though the stance of the new church could never match the ardour of Canadian Methodism during the decades before union. By the 1950s and ’60s attention had shifted to matters of gender and sexuality. The church had ordained its first woman minister in 1936, but it was not until the 1960s that a general policy of female ordination, which included both single and married women, was adopted. It was in the same decade that the church moved, although far from smoothly, to accept the legitimacy of abortion, based on individual choice, at a time when this stance was decidedly more controversial in Canada than it is now.

For many observers, the church’s public grappling with such issues—based on a distinctive form of congregationally based democracy—may seem a congenital weakness; for others they encapsulate the church’s strength as it boldly takes social risks. Even though Airhart ends her story 30 years ago, her account helps explain the roots and internal logic of these themes as the church today faces a set of challenges far different from the time when most Canadians were Christian, Anglo Saxon and primarily Protestant. The church no longer sees itself as having a specially ordained role in Canadian nation building, if it ever did, and in purely numerical terms it continues to shrink. But its moral urgency in the face of contemporary social challenges shows no sign of waning. This is exemplified by its decision, in the period immediately after Airhart’s history ends, to officially sanction the ordination of gay clergy, making it among the first large mainstream churches in the West to do so. Even though that decision caused a major rupture within the church, perhaps its most serious casualty was the further erosion of relations between its evangelical members and those preoccupied with social and moral concerns. In today’s world of aging and declining congregations, there is an increasing fixation with rescuing the institution itself while maintaining its religious and political relevance in the decades ahead.

Growing to One World: The Life of J. King Gordon highlights similar tensions between religious and political commitment, although from an individual’s perspective. Curiously, its subject, King Gordon, who had a long association with the United Church, goes unmentioned in Airhart’s book. That makes Eileen R. Janzen’s biography that much more welcome in featuring a figure who deserves to be far better known than he currently is.

By any standard, Gordon’s life was exceptional. Born into a family with strong Canadian religious roots, his Scottish grandfather was a Gaelic-speaking Presbyterian minister who soon after emigrating from Scotland settled in Ontario’s Glengarry County in the 1850s. Gordon’s father too entered the church, serving as a Presbyterian minister in Winnipeg and becoming a noted advocate of church union. Several years before Gordon’s birth, he also launched a writing career under the pen name of Ralph Connor, which made him a literary star in both North America and Europe, his 30 novels, marked by their spirited depiction of the hardscrabble settler’s life, selling more than five million copies.

Gordon’s home was at the centre of both church and society. With the obvious confidence that came from this background, he followed his undergraduate studies with a two-year stint in Oxford as a Rhodes scholar, where his time overlapped with that of Lester Pearson. Here his mind was stretched with the social and political turbulence of the period. Postponing planned theological studies, he accepted an invitation to serve a remote congregation in the logging country of British Columbia. The years he spent there and in a remote paper mill town in the Manitoban bush were equally formative, this time grounding him in the struggle for the basic necessities of life.

At the urging of his father, he enrolled in 1929 as a doctoral candidate at Union Theological Seminary in New York. The onslaught of the Great Depression meant his comfortable world was blown apart, and as with so many others he was deeply affected by this time. “The experience of those two years,” he would later write of his time at Union, “changed my thinking into that of a Christian social radical.”

He returned to Canada to teach at Montreal’s United Theological College and found himself at the centre of the turmoil of those years. His activism spanned three mutually supportive movements: the League for Social Reconstruction, the Fellowship of Socialist Christians and the Commonwealth Cooperative Federation. His political activity did not go unnoticed by the powers at McGill, with which United was affiliated, and within a few short years the position he had been hired to fill disappeared. Undaunted, Gordon threw himself into the political fray, running three times as a CCF candidate in Victoria. All to no avail, but with his enthusiasm for the cause undimmed.

In all these actions, Gordon received considerable paternal encouragement. His father also played an unwitting part in drawing him back across the American border. Upon his father’s unexpected death in 1938, leaving behind a half-finished autobiography, Gordon was invited by the publisher to come to New York to complete it. This led to positions as non-fiction editor for Farrar and Rinehart, then the managing editor of The Nation, the oldest weekly magazine in the United States and widely known for its progressive, if indeed not radical, point of view.

All of this was penultimate to Gordon’s leap into the unprecedented international diplomacy in the aftermath of the war. His associations in this new sphere were smoothed by past friendships cultivated in Britain and the United States, as well as his association with Canadian luminaries such as Pearson. When in 1947 he proposed to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation that the fledgling United Nations should have a full-time CBC correspondent based in New York, his proposal was immediately accepted. Two years later he was invited by John Humphrey, the primary drafter of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to set up the first Information Office for the Human Rights Secretariat at the UN, and was soon being seconded to take part in risky field assignments around the world.

It was a perfect match of person and duties—not only thanks to Gordon’s internationalist perspective and passion for the cause of peace, but his past exposure to survival in demanding conditions that allowed him to take in stride the new challenges thrown his way completely unfazed. He found himself dropped into hot spots of conflict: Korea in 1954, the Suez in 1956 and the Congo in 1960. All this time his commitment to peacemaking and peacekeeping deepened, becoming a central preoccupation to the end of his life.

Later, in reviewing his life, Gordon remarked, “Anyway, what is my career? I have done so many things. I suppose when I have time to review my life there will emerge great consistency in all my ventures—I was going to say choices but frequently the choice did not seem to be mine … Perhaps, it was not so inconsistent that I started in the church, went in to radical politics in the hope of doing something to make a better social order, and then went on into the one great movement that may make reality of the dreams of the great thinkers and visionaries.”

During his active retirement in Ottawa, Gordon and I became friends. We had much to share especially following my time in Ethiopia in the 1980s, given his own experiences there several decades earlier, and I was deeply honoured when the family asked me to conduct his funeral. His life speaks eloquently to the ways that religious faith can spur political action and nationally oriented ideals can give way to internationalism. Janzen’s meticulously researched biography also reminds us how Canadians of Gordon’s generation came to play such a major part in the global search for justice and peace in troubled parts of the planet. It is a legacy that we in later generations have a hard time matching.