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Mark Noll

O Canada

Liberal evangelicalism: a case study.

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This past spring, new surveys of religious life in the United States and Canada revealed a reversal of trends dating back to the 1960s. In Canada, things were up; in the US, down. The survey of Canadians by the Angus Reid Institute still showed that country to be far more secular than the US in measures of church membership, attitudes toward religion, and numbers affirming "no faith." But the steep declines of the last fifty years seemed to have reversed slightly, primarily because of stronger religious commitments among Canada's large immigrant population.[1] The comparable American survey by the Pew Research Center revealed a recent significant increase in self-reported "no religious affiliation," a growing number who have switched religions (including switching in or out altogether), and an increasing representation of ethnic minorities among evangelicals.[2]

Yet if the two surveys highlighted some things new, one aspect of what they both reported sounded quite familiar. A central finding in the two reports was the continued decline in adherence to the traditional Protestant denominations that had once done so much to define, reflect, represent, and guide the main cultural currents of both countries.

Many important books have addressed the American side of this particular story, with more than a few of them featured in Books & Culture during its first twenty years.[3] Similarly, for Canada a minor academic industry has arisen to chart and then explain the dramatic retreat of that country's once dominant churches that has taken place in only the last half-century. Americans, who rarely pay attention to anything north of the border—excepting perhaps petroleum, blizzards, cheap pharmaceuticals, and hockey—would do well to look more carefully at that recent history. A recent flurry of first-rate publications on the United Church of Canada, which since its formation in 1925 has been that country's largest Protestant denomination, provides a welcome opportunity not only to put the "North" back into "America" but also to explore questions of great significance for Christian believers on both sides of the 49th parallel.

Pride of place goes to Phyllis Airhart's A Church with the Soul of a Nation: Making and Remaking the United Church of Canada. From its title, cleverly reversing what G. K. Chesterton once wrote about the US, to the more than 100 pages of end notes detailing Airhart's thorough research and airing her judicious assessments of scholarship, the book excels with a combination of sympathetic narration and realistic interpretation.

Airhart, long a fixture at the University of Toronto's Emmanuel College, which originated as a United Church institution in 1928, begins her story with the Presbyterian and Methodist leaders who at the start of the 20th century proposed an organic union of their two churches. (Along with the Anglicans, Canada's Methodists and Presbyterians represented a far higher proportion of the nation's Protestants than any comparable combination of American denominations, several of which in 1900 were still divided North and South as well as riven by many other divisions.) She unfolds her story carefully from the composition of a generically orthodox "Basis of Union," which was substantially complete before World War I, through complicated attempts at overcoming resistance to the idea of Union among considerable numbers of Presbyterians, and then to June 10, 1925, when at the Mutual Arena in Toronto the United Church came into existence. The new church's nearly 9,000 local congregations included all Canadian Methodists (about 5,000 congregations), more than two-thirds of the Presbyterians (about 3,700 congregations), almost all of the nation's Congregationalists (160 congregations), and around 100 "Local Union" churches that in the Canadian West were already functioning as deliberately ecumenical congregations. Airhart's narrative underscores the heady sense of national mission that drove the Union project from its beginnings; it was stated like this in the second paragraph of the final draft of the "Basis of Union": "It shall be the policy of the United Church to foster the spirit of unity in the hope that this sentiment of unity may in due time, so far as Canada is concerned, take shape in a Church which may fittingly be described as national."

She goes on to describe the administrative shaking out of the church's early years, its endurance through trials during the Depression, its support for the expansion of federal government social services (which undercut some of its own raison d'être), its numerical growth after World War II, and then the devastating shocks that in the 1960s sent the church into a spiraling loss of adherents that has never been reversed. The book ends with developments in the early 1970s, when a reduced, self-consciously shaken church struggled to define its own identity in a materially different nation than had existed half a century before.

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