UNITED CHURCH OF CANADA TIMELINE
1859 An Anglican priest made the first public call for uniting Protestant churches in Canada.
1874, 1881, 1886 Calls for unity were repeated and strengthened.
1888 The Lambeth Conference (of Anglican bishops) approved four theological points acceptable for use as basis of a merger.
1889 A conference on church union was convened in Toronto. Anglicans, Methodists and Presbyterians attended. Congregationalists and Baptists supported the initiative.
1906 Anglicans withdrew from church union discussions.
1908 The remaining denominations agreed on a “Basis of Union” document.
1910 Congregationalists approved the union.
1912 Methodists approved the union.
1916 Presbyterians officially approved the union, but the decision split the church.
1924 Parliament approved the United Church of Canada Act, clearing away legal obstacles.
1925 (June 10) The United Church of Canada was inaugurated. Local Union Churches joined the merger while the Presbyterians remained divided.
1930s The UCoC provided major depression food relief; approved use of contraceptives; ordained a female pastor; opposed hardline government economic policy; approved an international Peace and Disarmament declaration; and opposed anti-Semitism.
1939 Sixty-eight pacifist members publicly denounced the church for its support of the war effort.
1942 The General Council of the church declined to support the draft.
World War II The CCoC supported government intervention on behalf of striking miners.
1945-1965 The CCoC exerienced its “Golden Era” of growth, prosperity, and influence.
1962 A new and highly controversial Sunday School Curriculum was introduced.
1968 UCoC approved a New Creed that modernized ancient statements of Christian belief.
1970s The decade was one of intense support for inclusivity and social activism generally, both domestically and internationally.
1984 UCoC withdrew its official opposition to abortion.
1988 UCoC withdrew its opposition to homosexual clergy.
Late 1980s UCoC publicly recognized its own complicity in various social injustices and began a series of official apologies to those injured.
1992 UCoC approved of a report on Authority and Interpretation of Scripture that precipitated significant protest within the church.
2012 The General Council approved a selective boycott of Israeli products.
The United Church of Canada (UCoC) is unusual. It is a church founded on a vision and an ambition, both widely held at the time, rather than on the theological vision of a single founder or movement.
The merger of Methodists, Congregationalists, Union Churches, and most Presbyterians reflected the ecumenical impulse of the time, logistical concerns on the mission field, and a desire for a single, evangelical, national, Protestant voice sufficient to influence both the government and culture of the new country. This was considered urgent, especially in the face of immigration and expansion. These hopes were specifically expressed in the founding documents (Schweitzer et al. 2012:15-16, 20-21).
Ecumenism was a popular impulse in much of the 19th century, though usually within theological traditions. Indeed, each of the denominations that merged, with the exception of the Union Churches, was itself the product of several mergers within its own denominational tradition. (Schweitzer et al. 2012:20-21)
Canada gained independence in 1867 and was not fully settled. Much territory, especially in the North and West, remained a mission field. Duplication of effort and drains on resources led to calls for coordination or cooperation. The first publicly expressed interest in church union across denominational lines came from the Anglicans (Church of England) as early as 1859. This call was repeated more strongly in 1874 and 1881, and yet again in 1886, when the Anglicans called for formal discussions and appointed a committee to meet with other churches. In 1888, the Lambeth Conference (of the bishops of the Anglican Communion) produced the Lambeth Quadrilateral, a document offering four theological points that could be used as a basis of union across denominational lines.
This led to a conference on union in Toronto the following year that included Anglicans, Methodists, and Presbyterians. Congregationalists offered support; Baptists expressed interest. But by 1906, the Anglicans had developed cold feet and withdrew (Baptists backed off as well). This deprived the movement of the claim to inclusivity it had sought. But negotiations continued, and by 1908, a “Basis of Union,” outlining the theology and polity of a new church, was agreed to and forwarded for study (Schweitzer et al. 2012:16, 21; United Church of Canada 2013).
After two years of study and discussion, the Congregationalists approved the document in 1910 and the Methodists approved in 1912. The Presbyterians formally approved the document in 1916. Roughly a third of the Presbyterians refused to agree, and a sectarian schism occurred at the merger in 1925 (Schweitzer et al. 2012:17).
The document was widely distributed and had an unintended consequence, the creation of a fourth uniting denomination. Many small towns in the West struggled to support three (or more) mission churches. Often the congregations met jointly in whichever church had a pastor. The Basis of Union document soon became the basis for so-called local union congregations, not affiliated with any predecessor denomination. Eventually a denominational structure formed, including, by the time of union, about a hundred churches. All entered The United Church at formation (Schweitzer et al. 2012:7, 18-19; United Church of Canada 1925).
The Parliament of Canada adopted The United Church of Canada Act in 1924, clearing all legal obstacles to church union. On the morning of Wednesday, June 10, 1925, a rousing service in downtown Toronto formally inaugurated The United Church of Canada. Eight thousand persons celebrated in a wrestling palace and ice hockey venue. Thousands more attended parallel services across the country or listened to the live broadcast of the celebration. The union produced a church twice as large as the Anglican Church, the next largest Protestant denomination. Only the Roman Catholic Church was larger (Schweitzer et al. 2012:4-6, 9).
By the early 1930s, the church had largely consolidated its policy and finances and had begun to develop a unique character. Actions of the General Council during this period suggest this character. In 1931, a national emergency committee filled hundreds of rail cars with food for depression-era hungry. The church challenged the fiscal policy of the hard line government of R. B. Bennett, approved contraceptives, ordained a female minister and spoke out against anti-Semitism. In 1932, Council approved the International Peace and Disarmament Report and in 1934 the report on Christianizing the Social Order (Schweitzer et al. 2012:25, 31, 40, 46).
In 1942, General Council declined to support conscription, but once war began, the UCoC approached the conflict with “sober determination.” However, in October of 1939, a group of 68 United Church pacifists criticized the church for supporting the war effort. Their manifesto stated that the church had held that war was contrary to Christ’s will, and that the advent of war had not changed that commitment. A firestorm of controversy erupted. Newspapers across Canada denounced the signatories as traitors and questioned the loyalty of the UCoC. The general council sub-executive disavowed the signatories and proclaimed the church’s loyalty to Canada and king. Several signatories were forced from their pulpits. The church’s involvement in the war effort remained controversial, and the church itself actively supported several individuals for conscientious objector status (Schweitzer et al. 2012:59-66).
During this period, the church supported government intervention on behalf of striking miners in Kirkland Lake, Ontario, ostensibly in aid of the war effort. However, this intervention signaled what became consistent United Church support for organized labor. The church also began its long history of intervention and support of minority groups. UCoC agreed, on the one hand, to the moving of the Japanese-Canadians from coastal areas, but, on the other hand, then both established schools for the children of those moved and strongly opposing deportation. The church also participated with the Canadian Jewish Congress in helping to raise awareness of the European refugee crisis. Near the end of the war, a commission reporting to the General Council called for a postwar Canada as a full welfare state (Schweitzer et al. 2012: 66-70).
The church ended the war optimistic that it could continue to play a central role in transforming the country’s spiritual and social fabric. Indeed, the period from the end of the war to the end of the 1960s has been described as a golden age for the United Church of Canada. Evangelism drives, returning veterans, the baby boom, and the move to the suburbs all helped the church grow at a rate that astonished observers and officials. Hundreds of new churches, church halls, and manses were established. Membership support was generous in this optimistic period as well. A new headquarters building in 1959 reflected this optimism. Membership peaked in 1968 at about 3,500,000 (Schweitzer et al. 2012:72-83, 93, 98).
The 1970s saw continued involvement in inclusivity and social activism by the General Council and central office. Key issues were
abortion, women’s roles in the church (perhaps the most contentious), French-English relations, relationships with First Nations peoples, racism in South Africa and the right of the Palestine Liberation Organization to represent the Palestinians (Schweitzer et al. 2012:109-11, 129-35).
The study document, “In God’s Image…Male and Female,” received by General Council in 1980, and its 1984 follow up report, “Gift, Dilemma and Promise,” together created a media splash and controversy, especially over interpretation of scripture and homosexuality. In 1988, general council approved a statement that removed homosexuality as an obstacle to ordination. The church also began in the 1980s a continuing process of recognizing its own complicity in social injustice, resulting in a series of apologies to those who felt victimized or marginalized by those injustices (Schweitzer et al. 2012:141-47, 151-53).
Meanwhile, dropping numbers of members, congregations, and resources, plus growing mistrust and resistance to the central leadership, led to efforts at restructuring and maintaining the institution itself. These began to displace the social justice and sexuality issues, though the church continued to be active in various initiatives (Schweitzer et al. 2012:164-70, 174-77).
The United Church of Canada is today a considerably smaller organization than it was in the 1950s and 1960s. Further, both declines in membership and a much more secularized and multi-cultural Canadian society and government have reduced its influence. But pronouncements by its General Council continue to be widely reported and seem influential in public opinion, as witnessed by the 2012 General Council decisions to oppose a northern oil pipeline and to propose a selective boycott of some Israeli goods. These decisions were front page news in Canada’s leading newspapers (Lewis 2012).
Identifying the beliefs of the United Church of Canada (UCoC) can be complicated and sometimes frustrating for several reasons. On the one hand, the UCoC is a mainline, Trinitarian, Protestant, Christian church that holds, to some degree, most traditional Christian beliefs. On the other hand, the UCoC is one of only perhaps three churches formed across the lines of confessional tradition. Within its broad tent are sometimes conflicting theological views that are legacies of those earlier traditions. Further, the merger was driven by missionary and socio-political goals, the efficient Christianization of a new country, rather than by the imperative of a specific theological position. Thus, those legacy beliefs have not generally been abrogated (United Church of Canada 2006; Schweitzer et al. 2012:xi, 14).
The UCoC is often considered a “non-creedal” church, and a number of observers have considered this to mean that it has no theology. Yet, in fact, the UCoC subscribes to three creeds, two ancient and one of its own making, and the church website offers three fairly comprehensive and approved statements of belief. However, a policy of inclusiveness and freedom of belief within the church means that individual members (and even churches) may well hold contrasting views. The problem for observers is not that there is no theology, but that, as one writer has acknowledged, the church is “awash in theology” (Schweitzer et al. 2012:259-60; United Church of Canada 2006).
Conventional theology aside, the really defining characteristic of the UCoC belief is a passionate commitment to inclusion and what is usually called “social justice.” As noted in the “Group History” section above, this social concern began almost immediately after the formation of the church and has continued with proclamations and declarations. The inclusion of openly gay and lesbian clergy and acceptance of same-sex marriages are among the more notable contemporary examples (Schweitzer et al. 2012:291-94).
In terms of more traditional theological concerns, the church has accepted both of the ancient creeds and has produced a new one which shifts the emphasis more toward what is seen as God’s will in human interactions, though it remains fairly conventional. It is much loved and widely used. There are also the three statements of faith mentioned above: the “doctrine” section of the “Basis of Union,” the 1940 “Statement of Faith,” and the 2006 “Song of Faith,” all considered to be still in force. These are theologically similar, but collectively reflect “an ongoing and developing tradition of faith” (Schweitzer et al. 2012:259, 272; United Church of Canada 2006).
The primacy of Biblical revelation (both old and new testaments) is accepted in all three documents, though the value of other sources of revelation has grown somewhat over the three statements. Further, the need for interpretation, both scholarly and in community, is acknowledged. It is stated specifically that Scripture is to be taken seriously but not literally (Schweitzer et al. 2012:259-61, 272; United Church of Canada 2006).
Descriptions of God as being “a mystery” beyond full human understanding and transcending human categorization are essentially traditional, as is the belief in Jesus Christ as the ultimate revelation of God. The documents use terms such as “Son of God” and identify His life is as exemplary for human behavior (United Church of Canada 1940, 2006).
The role accorded to the Holy Spirit is also generally traditional, though this seems to have shifted somewhat. The Spirit is considered to be God’s continuing presence among believers and the source of Christian commitment. Earlier statements used Methodist terminology such as conversion, justification, and sanctification in discussion of the Spirit’s role in human life, but these terms are absent from the contemporary “Song of Faith” (United Church of Canada 2006).
The understanding of salvation (soteriology) also appears to be shifting. The original doctrinal statements of the “Basis of Union” make specific reference to salvation through conversion, repentance, God’s grace and regeneration, and include a paragraph on sanctification. The 1940 “Statement of Faith” omits much of this wording and places somewhat more emphasis on baptism. References to conversion are implied in the “Song of Faith” but not directly stated. Specific references to revival conversion on the Methodist model are absent from all three documents. Specific eschatological language is absent from all three documents. Without specific text, there is nevertheless a general acceptance of a post-millenialist theology (United Church of Canada 1940, 2006).
In contrast, the three documents present an increasing concern for the recognition of God’s love of all peoples and for ways in which the church can witness to that love. The “Song of Faith” is notably specific in its concern with inclusion, naming several groups that have traditionally been marginalized, and expressing the church’s remorse for its part in excluding or marginalizing of such people (United Church of Canada 1940, 2006).
One writer notes that, in choosing to emphasize social justice, “the United Church abandoned the notion of the self as needing conversion and formation, once central to its social imaginary, a belief that had formed the core of evangelical Protestantism for two hundred years.” Evangelical church historian Mark Knoll has argued that at the time the church embraced social justice as its chief mission goal, this left it “with little to offer by way of specific Christian content…” but this is clearly an exaggeration, as this review of doctrinal statements clearly shows (Schweitzer et al. 2012:291-92).
The primary rituals of UCoC are the weekly meetings for worship of the pastoral charges (congregations). In general, these worship services follow a pattern of music, prayer, scriptural readings, and preaching that would be familiar to members of most mainline, evangelical and non-liturgical churches. The UCoC, however, is the result of a merger across denominational lines of three pre-existing worship traditions, and practices a policy of “ordered liberty” regarding the form of services. As a result, each individual congregation is free to establish (or continue) its own form or order of service, and there is considerable variation among congregations. It is probably safe to say that experimentation in forms of worship is more common in the UCoC than in other mainline Protestant churches. Regular Sunday worship is already fairly informal (Schweitzer et al. 2012:xvi, 185, 188, 191).
Many congregations, perhaps most, use some version, directly or with local modifications, of the orders of service provided in the denomination’s recent hymnal, Voices United: The Hymnal and Worship Book of The United Church of Canada (Hardy 1996) or its even more recent supplement, More Voices (United Church of Canada 2009). The Voices United Hymnal offers a very wide range of music, both traditional and contemporary, and from a wide range of cultures. These resources also offer orders for special services such as baptism, induction of new members, installation of a new minister, weddings, and funerals. These also are open to modification. Scriptural readings from the Old Testament, the New Testament, the Psalms, and the Letters are taken from the Common Lectionary used by most mainline denominations (Hardy 1996).
Communion is offered at intervals, frequently once a month. The “wine” used is grape juice, and can be presented in several ways: with a chalice and platen at the altar, with small cups at the altar, or by passing around the congregation trays of small cups and plates of bread (usually in the form of wafers). Baptism may be of infants or of adults, and is usually by sprinkling of water. The Creed is usually the UCoC’s own New Creed. (United Church of Canada 1940, 2006).
The traditional black Geneva Gown, inherited from predecessor churches, is today often replaced by more colorful liturgical garments, though they do not necessarily follow the colors of the season as they do in liturgical churches (united-church.ca Worship Resources, Church Seasons and Special Sundays).
The UCoC operates on a “bottom up” system of government that begins with the individual congregation (called by the church a pastoral charge). The members of the congregation elect from among themselves a congregational board or council that makes or proposes policies. In critical areas (budget, pastoral changes, etc.), policies must be approved by a congregational vote. Clergy of the UCoC are called ministers. There are several categories, including ordained and diaconal ministers, and three categories of lay ministry (United Church of Canada 2010).
Each congregation calls its own pastor (as opposed to having a minister appointed or assigned by a church office). It is also responsible for all of its own day-to-day operations: raising money; constructing or maintaining buildings; hiring lay staff, such as musicians and caretakers; and deciding when to worship. It also establishes policy on candidacy for baptism and on marriages, operation of Sunday school, youth programs and outreach within the community (Church of Canada 2010).
Collections of 35 to 60 pastoral charges make up a Presbytery (there are 85). Presbyteries are made up of ordained and lay delegates and are particularly active, in an advisory capacity, at times of ministry change. Presbyteries, in turn, are members of one of thirteen conferences. Conferences are responsible for the training and education of candidates for ministry, for developing church mission strategy, and for electing Commissioners to attend meetings of the General Council (Church of Canada 2010).
The General Council is the church’s highest legislative body (or court). Every three years ministers and lay commissioners meet to set policy and choose a new Moderator (the highest executive and public face of the church). The inclusiveness valued by the UCoC is reflected in the Council’s choice of moderators. There have been female, First Nations and openly gay moderators in recent years. An executive committee and a sub-executive committee govern between meetings of the General Council. The General Council usually acts on questions or proposals (called “remits”) from conferences or on study documents produced by committees appointed by the Council. The church has recently considered reducing the system of four levels of governance (or courts) to three, but has taken no church-wide action (Church of Canada 2010; Moderators 2013; Schweitzer et al 2012:168-69).
Criticizing the United Church of Canada (UCoC is something very close to being Canada’s national sport. The criticism comes from both within and without the church. Numerous members, and even congregations, have left the church in fervently held disagreement. There are several factors involved in this criticism. One key factor is a division between a rapidly aging, often conservative, membership and a somewhat younger, vigorously progressive, leadership. A second is the UCoC’s policy of freedom of belief, growing from its history as a merger of churches across denominational lines. The church does not require even its ordained clergy to subscribe fully to any of its several statements of belief. These divisions played major roles in the controversy over the “New (Sunday school) Curriculum” and, more recently, in the church’s inclusion of gay and lesbian clergy and acceptance of same-sex marriage (Schweitzer et al. 2012:xi, xiii, 107-09, 125-26, 135, 142-43, 151-53, 155, 164-68).
There is another major factor in both internal and external criticism of recent policy pronouncements of the General Council. The leadership of the church and a large (but unquantifiable) portion of the membership see inclusiveness and action for social justice as a matter of God’s expectations for the church in this world and feel a continuing call to a leadership role in these issues. This thinking was implicit, even in the original urge for merger itself, an urge to use church resources as efficiently as possible to Christianize a new country. Some of the very earliest actions of the new church were toward fulfilling what was seen as God’s command to love others. This feeling of religious obligation to others less fortunate, to reflect God’s love for all people, led to whole trainloads of food for depression-era hungry, to criticism of a hardline conservative government, to support for organized labor, and to a very strong anti-war position in the pre-war era. That pacifism led to severe controversy as the country began to prepare for war, and much later, as the church sheltered Viet Nam War American draft dodgers. The church still supports the largest mission-to-the-homeless system in Canada, and actions of the General Council in recent years underlined very strongly the church’s commitment to the marginalized and the disenfranchised, to the underdogs, wherever these persons can be found (Schweitzer et al. 2012:24, 31, 42, 49, 60-63, 103, 112-13, 289; fredvictor.org/our donors)
The problem is that a significant portion of Canadians, especially older and more conservative Canadians, see religion and social activism as somewhat separate spheres of activity. As Canada has become more secularized, an increasing number of commentators have taken strenuous exception to the political stances that commitment to social justice implies. A common epithet refers to the church as “the NDP at prayer” (the New Democratic Party [NDP] is Canada’s left-wing political party. Aside from the controversy over issues related to homosexuality, the church’s commitment to various marginalized groups, such as First Nations and black South Africans in the era of Apartheid, have raised an outcry (Schweitzer et al. 2012:xiii, 126, 133-35, 163-64, 166, 173, 177, 281-83).
Another source of controversy has involved the church’s magazine, The United Church Observer, which has very strongly supported Palestinian aspirations. While the UCoC has a history of strong support for Israel and the Jewish community generally, recent actions in support of Palestinians, including a call for boycott of Israeli goods traceable to settler communities in disputed areas, has enraged a number of very vocal supporters of Israel. The church has been specifically accused in print of anti-Semitism (Schweitzer et al. 2012:239-57; Lewis 2012).
In the midst of this very public controversy, there have been outspoken calls for the church to return to religion, the very activity the leaders of the church (and many of its members) believed they were supporting with their actions. For the UCoC, actions for inclusion and social justice are seen as a matter of religious integrity. To many conservatives, the church’s actions are seen as a politically-motivated betrayal of religion (Lewis 2012).
Fred Victor. n.d. “Our Donors.” Accessed from http://www.fredvictor.org/our_donors on 28 February 2013.
Hardy, Nancy. 1996. Voices United. Etobicoke, Ontario, Canada: The United Church Publishing House.
Lewis, Charles. 2012. “Church at Risk Over Activism.” The National Post, August 16. Accessed from http://www.canada.com/nationalpost/news/story.html?id=d8fd2b6e-cefa-4065-849d-81da2532c83c on 28 February 2013.
Moderators of The United Church of Canada. 2013. “Timeline.” Accessed from http://www.united-church.ca/history/overview/timeline on 18 February 2013.
Schweitzer et al. 2012. The United Church of Canada: A History. Waterloo, Canada: Wilfrid Laurier University Press.
United Church of Canada. 2013. “Overview: A Brief History.” Accessed from http://www.united-church.ca/history/overview/brief on 9 January 2013.
United Church of Canada. 2010. The Manual. Accessed from http://www.united-church.ca/manual on 15 January 2013.
United Church of Canada. 2009. More Voices. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press.
United Church of Canada. 2006. A Song of Faith. Preamble, Appendix A and Appendix D. Accessed from http://www.united-church.ca/beliefs/statements on 9 January 2013.
United Church of Canada. 1968. “A New Creed.” Accessed from http://www.united-church.ca/beliefs/creed on 9 January 2013.
United Church of Canada. 1940. A Statement of Faith. Accessed from http://www.united-church.ca/beliefs/statements on 9 January 2013.
United Church of Canada. “Overview: The Basis of Union.” 1925. Accessed from http://www.united-church.ca//istory/overview/basisofunion on 9 January 2013.
United Church of Canada. n.d. “Church Union in Canada.” Accessed from http://www.individual.utoronto.ca/hayes/Canada/churchunion.htm on 9 January 2013.
John C. Peterson
28 February 2013