Article

Mark Noll


O Canada

Liberal evangelicalism: a case study.

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Figures for church adherence highlight the realities that forced the "making and remaking" of Airhart's subtitle. In the decennial federal censuses from 1931 to 1961, roughly twenty percent of all Canadians identified themselves as members of the United Church.[4] The church's own record of those "under pastoral care" reported lower numbers, but still a substantial 14 to 15 percent of the national population. In a country with a Catholic population of more than 40 percent, and where adherents to the Anglican church and the continuing Presbyterian church totaled close to 25 percent, the United Church enjoyed the support of proportionally more adherents than any other Protestant denomination in the United States or Canada. But after the crises of the 1960s, the downward trend began: 17 percent of the population in the census of 1971, 11 percent in 1991, and six percent in 2011, with the number "under pastoral care" sliding from about 80 percent of the census figure in 1931 to under 60 percent in recent years. For another comparison, where Canada's national population increased almost three and one-half times from 1931 to 2011, the most recent national census in 2011 tallied almost exactly the same number reporting United Church membership as in 1931. While numerical rise and decline frames the contours of Airhart's narrative, its great merit is the skill with which she exegetes the church's internal dynamics, rather than simply diagnoses apparent health in early decades and then obvious distress more recently.

In carrying out this effort, Airhart's book differs from other fine studies that have recently appeared. The United Church of Canada: A History, edited by Don Schweitzer of St. Andrew's College in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, an institution founded by Presbyterians in 1912 but then grafted into the United Church, contains a great deal of useful material. The book's authors, mostly United Church pastors or professors, provide eight chapters constituting a chronological survey with six others examining themes like worship practices, outreach to First Nations, and the church's self-image. The tone throughout ranges from dispassionately objective to cautiously defensive. Editor Schweitzer, for example, records the vacuum that developed when in the 1960s the United Church gave up its aspirations to serve as the national church, but specifies other developments that he considers positive, including an end to "assimilationist policies toward First Nations peoples, the repudiation of supersessionist understandings of Judaism, a new openness to other religions, … an increased recognition of the agency and autonomy of women, and the decision that in and of itself, sexual orientation was not a barrier to ordination."

By contrast, Kevin Flatt's After Evangelicalism: The Sixties and the United Church of Canada, which focuses on controversies of that decade as a key for the church's entire history, offers a definite "decline and fall." To Flatt, a historian at Redeemer University College in Ancaster, Ontario, the United Church from its origin in 1925 sustained a fragile coalition of leaders committed to modernist theology and church members sustaining the evangelical commitments of those who drafted the original "Basis of Union." For Flatt, this coalition came unglued in the 1960s for a number of reasons, but especially because of consternation that greeted the roll-out of new manuals for the church's educational ministries. This "New Curriculum" mostly reflected standard liberal Protestant positions: a description of biblical supernaturalism as myth, rejection of the Virgin Birth of Christ, waffling on the Resurrection, and reinterpretation of "decisions for Christ" in social or communal terms.

In Flatt's account, the New Curriculum finally brought into the open what church bureaucrats and seminary professors had believed all along. When upset local members responded with anguished outcries and when Sunday school attendance experienced the steepest decline in the denomination's history, the internal contradictions of the original modernist-plus-evangelical amalgamation stood out for all to see. With credibility contested, leadership exposed, and congregants at sea, the United Church in this account declined because it could no longer paper over the fissures built into the jerry-rigged arrangement of the founding generation. Flatt's research for events in the 1960s is through and his account of controversies prompted by the New Curriculum perceptive. Yet whether his focus on the ruptures of the 1960s provides the right context for understanding the entire history of the United Church is an issue about which Phyllis Airhart's book has a lot to say.

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