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From the archives

The Trust Spiral

Restoring faith in the media

Dear Prudence

A life of exuberance and eccentricity

Who’s Afraid of Alice Munro?

A long-awaited biography gives the facts, but not the mystery, behind this writer’s genius

Without a Prayer

How Christianity is losing ground in Canada

Michael W. Higgins

Leaving Christianity: Changing Allegiances in Canada since 1945

Brian Clarke and Stuart Macdonald

McGill-Queen’s University Press

304 pages, hardcover

ISBN: 9780773550872

I didn’t like high school very much; in fact, I loathed it. Mine wasn’t a rough or mismanaged school. It ranked highly in Toronto, and many decades after graduating I was honoured with being included on its inaugural Wall of Fame. But the memory of unhappiness has never quite been expunged.

My grade school was a Catholic one nestled in the heart of the township of York and I loved it. But when I graduated from grade 8 and then entered grade 9 at the local public secondary, I was adrift, the surroundings so unfamiliar and the culture so strange I never succeeded in acclimating. The school was predominantly Jewish—-children of post-Second World War immigrants—and the teachers predominantly WASPs. The Catholic contingent was small and inconsequential, or so it seemed to me.

I was outside my tribe; the school holidays were Jewish high holy days rather than Catholic holy days of obligation. It was a foreign world.

Such was the school orbit of the late 1950s and early 1960s in Hogtown. We papists still resented the power and sway of the Orange Lodge (although it was well into its waning years), took pride in having one of our own daily communicants, William Allen, as chairman of the municipality of Metropolitan Toronto, and experienced the thrill of a surging triumphalism as our ranks grew with fresh immigrants from southern Europe. But that is the past. The present is very different, as meticulously, if colourlessly, chronicled by two church historians, Brian Clarke and Stuart Macdonald, in their collaborative work, Leaving Christianity: Changing Allegiances in Canada since 1945.

This is not a sprightly narrative account of institutional Christianity’s precipitous decline; nor is it an ecclesiological study of shifting church models. It is, rather, a detailed assessment of a decline in numbers, influence, and power networks of an institution that has been a major shaper of the Canadian socio-political reality since before Confederation. The Christian churches of Canada may not be on the fast road to extinction, but they are seemingly incapable of stanching the outward flow of their membership and reconfiguring themselves to reclaim something of the moral suasion they once held in the country. The authors solemnly intone in their introduction: “Not very long ago, Canada was a Christian country, or at the very least a country wherein the majority of individuals identified, in some way, with a Christian tradition. To understand the religious change that has affected the vast majority of Canadians, we need to look at what has happened among the affiliates and former affiliates of Christian churches.” And so they do, drawing mostly on the census and other Statistics Canada data, polling data from private organizations, church records, and the significant if not controversial findings of sociologist of religion and veteran commentator Reginald Bibby.

This is a serious, no-holds-barred report on the eclipse of the Christian churches in Canada, plummeting enrollments and institutional marginalization, as revealed in the charts, graphs, and numbers of statisticians and pollsters.

For instance, the number of United Church affiliates in 1971 was nearly four million and by 2011 it had dropped to just over two million; for the Presbyterians, the drop during the same time span was even more precipitous: 870,000 in 1971 and 475,000 in 2011. Although the Quiet Revolution reduced Catholic attendance in la belle province by an astounding percentage, the Catholic presence in the country at large was still dominant in relation to the other branches of Christianity because of immigration from traditional Catholic countries in Europe and the Francophonie, as well as the Philippines. The number of Catholics increased from ten million in 1971 to nearly thirteen million in 2011. But Roman Catholics as a percentage of the population of the country declined significantly from 46 percent in 1971 to 39 percent in 2011, the lowest share since 1921.

This is necessary work and the authors have acquitted themselves with distinction. But it has all the deficiencies of quantitative analysis, in that the deeper existential truths cannot be satisfactorily approximated by numbers, weight, and measure. Eschewing theological categories, confining the study to census data with only occasional forays into the area of speculation, may be a wise -methodological decision given the scope of the work under review, but it results in the privileging of banality over imaginative insight.

The authors function more as social scientists than as historians. They do the hard work of sifting through data in order to establish trends, differentiating the hard truths from the popular assumptions that have remarkable staying power (for example, the conviction that conservative sects have resisted the decline that afflicts mainstream Christian churches, which the authors demonstrate is not consistently true), and they digest the numbers with discrimination.

Up into the 1960s, the mainstream churches in Canada experienced impressive growth, their outreach was wide and their reputation in the community unassailable, and then in a twinkling of an eye it all unravelled. Admittedly, it was a protracted twinkling, but the results over the last half-century have been nothing short of staggering. And -mystifying.

Clarke and Macdonald are good at the staggering bit; they outline the raw reality of decline in sharp terms:

Among Canada’s largest Protestant denominations—the Anglican, Presbyterian, and United churches—membership peaked in the mid-1960s, slipped through the 1970s, and then plummeted in the 1980s and after…Other Protestant denominations tended to do well in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, but as a whole they have seen their growth stall. Even Roman Catholic identity is starting to fade. According to the Gallup surveys, the longest running survey we have, Roman Catholic attendance held steady at high rates in the 1950s, eased off slightly in the 1960s, slipped in the 1970s and plummeted in the 1980s. By contrast, [the number of Canadians with] No Religion has been growing at an astounding rate since the 1960s, decade in and decade out. What was once an identity for a tiny minority now describes over a quarter of Canadians.

How did we get to this state of affairs, especially when you consider the observation by the authors quoting Mark Noll that up to the 1960s Canada was a more religious country than the United States, with vital churches and an organic culture that flourished nationwide?

Undaunted by the waves of discouraging data regarding institutional vibrancy and credibility, Clarke and Macdonald provide chart after chart, graph after graph, telling a seemingly irreversible tale of slow dissolution. They refuse to soften the reality, sugarcoat the statistics, or proffer false hope for imminent recovery.

They are not unremittingly glum, however, declaring the astonishing growth of the Pentecostal Assemblies as “one of the great success stories among Christian traditions in the twentieth century.” For instance, its membership grew from 500 in the 1911 census to 430,000 by the 1991 census. Though their increase is not without blips, the authors see their exponential growth not only in terms of its Canadian iteration but in terms of its global success at recruitment and retention. But the authors, ever on the lookout for the dark thread that runs through their diagnosis, observe as well that this story of singular success has yet to be fully assessed as it plays itself out in the twenty-first century.

Faced then with an overwhelming drop in religious affiliation, diminishment of social standing, and a raft of failed efforts to stem the hemorrhaging of the youth, the mainstream Protestant faiths—with Catholicism no exception to the rule—seem powerless and demoralized.

Drawing on various theories of secularization, and fully aware of the corrosive discrediting of institutional authority in all its social manifestations, Clarke and Macdonald view the ominous landscape of the ever-porous, ever-changing Canadian reality with both alarm and befuddlement. Alarm in that little is being proffered as an adequate replacement for the evacuation of ecclesiastical authority in the country. Befuddlement in that no univocal explanation exists for explaining the rapid erasure of Christianity as a foundational pillar of the nation’s history and identity: “Today Canada’s churches are experiencing an entirely new situation since they were first planted in this country as part of settler societies from Europe and the United Kingdom. The number of Canadians who have had little or no contact with churches is growing. Many more have no idea what these churches are about and, what is more, have no inclination to find out.”

The authors conclude that surveys, and other instruments that gauge popular opinion, confirm the rise of interest in spirituality at the same time as the church qua church is fast approaching the status of a pterodactyl.

Distinguishing between the churched and the de-churched (those who have disaffiliated with the church they were reared in), the authors also argue for the use of a third category: the non-churched.

This group consists of those who have no familiarity with the church at all, no knowledge of its creedal formulas, its rites of passage, its sacred liturgies, its discourse and culture of meaning, its venerable history—in short, it is a mystery to them, not a source that generates animosity on their part; in fact, it doesn’t even generate curiosity. It is as if the church wasn’t there at all—absent on their horizon.

Whatever one means by spirituality—openness to self-transcendence, heroicity of virtue, cultivated interiority by means of meditation, centring prayer and mindfulness training—large numbers of people ache for meaning, for Paul Tillich’s “ultimate concern,” and if the number of self-help spiritual manuals are an indication, they are not looking for it in traditional quarters. Clarke and Macdonald don’t address this challenge, and that is surprising. They raise it—the now storied and clichéd distinction between being spiritual but not religious—and wonder why the churches, with an obvious history of nurturing spirituality, would be so cavalierly dismissed by the questers.

The opportunity to examine the extraordinary influence of Canada’s internationally recognized spiritual and moral voice, Jean Vanier, seems to be a natural point of entry into serious reflection on the spiritual versus religious dialectic. Vanier’s prominence, much attested to by his being awarded the Templeton Prize and numerous other platinum marks of accomplishment, his bestselling Massey Lectures, Becoming Human, his beautifully crafted correspondence with Globe and Mail features writer, Ian Brown, and his profile as a co-founder of the L’Arche movement, all provide ample ground for exploring the connections of the non-churched with a heroic spirituality that has inspired millions.

The fact that Vanier’s Christian heritage enriches his pan-spiritual reach by not being doctrinaire or situated on ecclesial safe ground, but by being a wide ministry of service to humanity at large makes him a natural figure for a spiritual revival.

Similarly his disciple, the psychologist and spiritual writer Henri Nouwen, an Ivy League professor who spent the last ten years of his life working at a L’Arche home in suburban Toronto, successfully negotiated the larger terrain of ecumenical and interfaith relations grounded in a deep humanistic spirituality that was also profoundly Christocentric.

Inspiring and charismatic spiritual leaders both, Vanier and Nouwen provide the portal through which Clarke and Macdonald could have entered. They chose, rather, to raise the tantalizing puzzle of spirituality’s ecclesial appeal only to shelve it. Too tough to graph? Outside the purview of their study? Perhaps. But a serious deficiency in their otherwise important study of Canadian Christianity’s unintended downward mobility.

The authors are not sanguine about the future; they doubt that the few isolated instances of growth are permanent, and they take issue regularly with Canada’s most popular sociologist of religion, Reginald Bibby. Although they recognize his expertise in polling, they frequently disagree with his interpretation of the data. In his much-quoted series of books tracking religious practice in Canada, Fragmented Gods, Unknown Gods, Restless Gods, Beyond the Gods & Back, and A New Day: The Resilience & Restructuring of Religion in Canada, Bibby inclines to a more sanguine view when compared to the authors of Leaving Christianity. Their summary judgment of his scholarly perspective: “Bibby’s insistence that ‘there is a market for religion,’ that ‘suppliers’ just have to let people know that they can answer ‘the life and death questions’ people are asking, ignores the wider cultural shift that we have observed hitting Canada’s leading churches in the 1960s and after.”

They are right to query Bibby’s “supply side theology” and his tendency to see signs of revival that are merely blips on the screen, but Clarke and Macdonald offer little in the way of a prognosis that takes into account Christian cycles of change and transformation. Although they make clear in their introduction that their study is not theological in its categories and discourse, by omitting from their analysis imaginative Canadian writers like David Adams Richards, Rudy Wiebe, Yann Martel, Maggie Helwig, Tim Lilburn and Pier Giorgio Di Cicco, the insights of visual and cinematic artists with a religious aesthetic, and thinkers of the encyclopedic capacity of Bernard Lonergan and Douglas John Hall, they impoverish their work. Christianity is about more than its structures; its institutions have their historical locus and mediate the tradition variously; and the reconfigurings of Christian practice and belief that do not follow the conventional orthodoxies—doctrinal and disciplinary—serve as harbingers of new ecclesiological thinking.

Charts, graphs, and bald statistics have their role to play—Clarke and Macdonald make a persuasive case that “we are now in a post-Christian Canada”—and when they say in their concluding chapter that as a society we “need to recognize that the decline in religious affiliation will see involvement in our country’s civic life diminish,” it is hard not to be dispirited.

Although conceived as a largely quantitative analysis, a deeper, more qualitative analysis would have provided an insight into future possibilities of church reconstitution in a radically changing landscape. But then that would have been a different book.

Michael W. Higgins is a Basilian Distinguished Fellow of Contemporary Catholic Thought at the University of Toronto’s St. Michael’s College.

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