Canada’s largest Protestant church is also its fastest declining. In the mid 1960s the United Church of Canada had 1.1 million members and in 2010 had 490,000. Almost certainly it has lost thousands more since. It is also perhaps Canada’s and even North America’s most liberal denomination, specializing in environmentalism, Palestinian advocacy, and same sex marriage. One of its prominent ministers is a celebrated and outspoken atheist. Its former chief officer openly denied Christ’s deity. Its current outgoing moderator, an activist for “climate justice,” was unable to tell a reporter what doctrines were essential to the church.
On Thursday the denomination elected its first openly homosexual moderator, perhaps the first major church in the world to do so. Four of the 15 candidates were openly gay.
Founded in the 1920s as a merger of Methodists, Congregationalists, and Presbyterians, the United Church has long been defined by its radical politics rather than cohesive theology.
“In the 1960s and ’70s we became embarrassed about Jesus,” one woman pastor told a Canadian newspaper, the National Post, last year. (Read the full report by Charles Lewis: http://life.nationalpost.com/2011/05/14/the-split-in-the-united-church/) “And so we distanced ourselves from Jesus, and the point is without Jesus there’s no point in having a church. iTunes has better music and the NDP [National Democratic Party] has better policies; everything else we do now somebody else does way better. The only thing we can do is this Jesus thing.” She said: “I would say that the United Church no longer has many unifying factors.”
A Redeemer University church historian told the same newspaper about the United Church: “What is this organization bringing to the table that doesn’t already exist from a secular perspective? There are many people concerned about the environment who have no belief in God. If you are essentially not bringing anything that’s different, there’s a risk you will be perceived as redundant and groups who are redundant lose members.” He added: “Everyone speaks about the environment and Palestine and the environment. You can find it everywhere.” Vibrant churches are distinct from secular culture and have doctrinal boundaries, he said.
The outgoing moderator, when pressed to explain the United Church’s core doctrine last year, hesitantly replied that theology was “difficult to pin down with prose,” since words of faith are “words of poetry, words of heart and words of soul.” Of course, the church has had no reluctance finding words of condemnation for tar sands oil exploration or Israel, issues where truth is evidently more manifest. “I don’t believe Jesus was God, but I’m no theologian,” the church’s then moderator admitted in 1997. No doubt.
Even more so than the U.S. United Church of Christ or Episcopal Church, the United Church of Canada has been a laboratory of liberal theology. The results are disastrous, and its future is grim. It lost 55 percent of its members while Canada’s population grew 78 percent. Maybe its example will at least warn others.
Meanwhile, in recent years, some surveys have shown an increase in Canadian non Catholic church attendance overall. Non-denominational churches and conservative denominations like the Assemblies of God and Christian Missionary Alliance are growing. Prime Minister Stephen Harper belongs to the later.
Update [9/30/2016]: The Washington Post reports that the denomination reported having 436,292 members at the end of 2014, less than half the 1,063,951 it had at its peak in 1964. The church has moved to defrock a Toronto-area pastor who publicly identifies as an atheist.