United Church of Canada

August 18, 2012

The Imploding and Very Liberal United Church of Canada

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.

20120818-172643.jpg(United Church of Canada’s 15 candidates for moderator)

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.

26 Responses to The Imploding and Very Liberal United Church of Canada

  1. Dan Trabue says:

    Its current outgoing moderator, an activist for “climate justice,” was unable to tell a reporter what doctrines were essential to the church.

    That’s funny, given that you all have the same problem. Irony, eh?

  2. Dan Trabue says:

    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 it’s example will at least warn others.

    Once again, conflating decreasing attendance with poor theology. By YOUR graceless measure, there are many conservative denominations and churches that are disobedient and suffering “disastrous laboratories” of conservative theology.

    Embrace grace, my friends. It ain’t just what saves us, it’s what is SAVING us.

    • Captain DG says:

      “Once again, conflating decreasing attendance with poor theology.”

      Maybe attendance is not a good measure of theology in general, but in the specific it can sometimes reflect poor theology. If a church suddenly tells you there is no god, not that it can pin down, but there is in fact a Palestine isn’t dealing more with geography than theology?

  3. Don Decker says:

    I left the United Church because it believes that anything goes doctrine is the way Jesus lived his life. Homosexuality teaches that Creation is not real. The underlining message is that creation from the wound and the virgin birth is a falacy. It teaches that anything goes within the Church of God. We are to tell others that it is not really an important issue in living a virtuous life. Sin is sin! Jesus was not afraid to tell the sinner their sin. You don’t tell someone who is heading over a cliff that, no everything is okay keep driving. You tell them the truth because you care for them.

    • jdh1950 says:

      ” Homosexuality teaches that Creation is not real.”

      (1) Prove that statement.
      (2) Prove Creation is the way the universes were created.

      Ah, the sounds of crickets chirping.

      • Dale says:

        Prove that creation is NOT the way the universe was created. The theory of the Big Bang can not be proven as well… Both positions take FAITH in something or someone

      • Don Decker says:

        Are you actually that stupid. I am not sure I should even be talking to you because if you cannot understand that, then you are more stun than i thought. Tell me oh bright one, How does a homosexual conceive (or create) a baby?

        Also like an architect who designs and builds a building, you have the evidence in front of you The World). Now, how he creates it is really not that important if the Architect decides not reveal it.The building is still there and strong evidence a creator was behind the design.

        If you read your bible God does not reveal everything. Many individuals in the bible sought to find out. He would ask them a question, which they could not answer. He then said to them, neither will I tell you! You see the devil was only second in command until God threw him out of the Garden. So he wasn’t involved in the creation.You see the bible is 100% accurate.Blessed are those who have not seen, yet believe. You see they weren’t looking for evidence. They just trusted God.

  4. Dale says:

    What denomination is ‘Assemblies of God’ in Canada? Are you referring to the US denomination

  5. Laurel says:

    I’m a member of the United Church and have been all my life, though I’ve flirted with others from time to time (Anglicans have great music; Catholics have great mystics; but I always come home.) When I read this article it was clear to me that the author doesn’t grasp the central tenet of the United Church, which is not so much adherence to liberal social values as it is adherence to anti-hierarchical organization. It’s that lack of hierarchy that keeps me coming back.

    The United Church gives a high degree of autonomy to individual congregations and to individuals within congregations. We’re expected to use our own minds and to find out for ourselves what faith means, and continually discuss and find ways to agree, or to disagree without flying apart. The original structure of the church made this necessary (since it was a union of several churches whose theology didn’t perfectly align). The Moderator doesn’t speak for all of us or tell us what we do or should think; he, or she, speaks for him or herself on matters of individual faith. The job of the Moderator is to keep us from flying apart through centrifugal force; so far, so good.

    So we can have an openly atheist minister. He wasn’t always, but faith is a journey, and in my experience it is undulatory. At times we have more and at times we have less, and we can trust God to support us through our process. He speaks as a member of the United Church, and one we welcome; but he speaks for himself.

    We can have a female minister who thinks we forgot about Jesus in the 70’s because we got too involved in social justice. She speaks as a member of the Church, but she speaks for herself. It is her honest opinion, but it’s only one opinion. She does not speak for me. She doesn’t even speak for her congregation. She speaks as an educated observer. Some people may agree with her; others don’t. (I don’t, because I don’t think we forgot about Jesus. But that’s me.)

    We can have a Moderator who denies the divinity of Christ. He doesn’t speak for me or for most of the Church. His job is not to teach the members theology or to tell us what we should believe. His job is to tell the truth as he sees it, and to keep the church carrying on. He did fine.

    We can have an openly homosexual Moderator, because we recognize that God can speak through us all, including people with whom some of us may disagree.

    The whole point of the United Church is that we believe that Christians can see God, Jesus and their own faith from widely different perspectives and still be part of the same church, and still be carrying on the same glorious duty, every single one of us (even the atheist) still loving God and forming part of Christ’s body. It is not my job, or anyone’s, to tell my neighbour what she should believe.

    Our outgoing Moderator was perfectly capable of telling the reporter what the central beliefs of the United Church are – the Creed is right here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_New_Creed (or here http://www.united-church.ca/beliefs/creed ) – but he, like other Moderators, does not presume to tell the rest of the members what they should believe or how. Faith is a personal matter, and a process, and it is for each individual between themselves and God. The United Church supports its members in our daily efforts to open our hearts to God and to magnify God’s grace in the world, however we are called to do that. This is not an approach that suits everyone, but it certainly does for me.

    As for the dropping membership rates – compare those to every other mainstream Protestant denomination. We’re doing fine. I think that those numbers generally (and not just for the United Church) are misleading though. I naturally can’t find the relevant passage in C.S. Lewis, but perhaps some of you can locate it, where as I recall he discusses the drop-off in chapel attendance at his university, and how people thought it was a sign of loss of faith. However, he argued, it was actually just the result of a change in regulations.

    There had been a rule that students could only skip 8 a.m. daily chapel attendance if they were at the 7:30 a.m. drill exercises (or something like that; I read this 30 years ago or so…). Naturally, most students went to chapel so they could get another half hour’s sleep. But when that regulation was dropped, and attendance at chapel became voluntary, chapel attendance didn’t gradually drop off – it dropped by 80% in a single year. This did not mean that there were 80% fewer believers; there were as many believers as there ever were, but now they were the only ones going to chapel.

    Until the 1960’s, there were all kinds of social forces and tribalism impelling church attendance, that had nothing to do with faith. Now, those forces don’t exist; so only the faithful go to church. This doesn’t show that the numbers of the faithful have dropped; only that now, we are the only ones who go.

    I do not know how long the United Church of Canada, or any other denomination of the Church, will last. But I do have faith that we are all, individually and as congregations and denominations, vital parts of the ongoing life of the body of Christ on Earth.

    • Don Decker says:

      The problem with a lot of individuals belief’s are they believe they are to adhere to their own beliefs. That’s where the issue stands. Start reading the bible and you will see a clear picture of Jesus. We are reminded to study the word to show we are approved of God. Remember the New Testament was not around until after Jesus’s death and resurrection. So guess where he got his information from. Jesus was the head of the 12 disciples not the other way around. Jesus commended Abraham for his obedience to him. In other words he took direction from him. It wasn’t based on what he believed. Although the disciples didn’t listen at times Jesus put them back in their place and reminded them of who he is and why he came.

      You will take note that in Genesis where a group of homosexual’s approach’s This home where there where angels and they began to mock them. It wasn’t long before they were blinded by the angels for their arrogance and perversion. God says he will not be mocked. We need to take his word seriously. After an encounter with Abraham God goes and destroys Sodom and Gomorrah. Our gospel is a gospel of truth. If you do not take a stand for something you will fall for anything!

      Something we need to remember about God. One of the stories, is about Jonathan and how he had the faith to go after the Phillistines. Although out numbered and only a few had access to a sword, Johnathan goes out and God gives him the victory. You see the same example in Gideon, God tells him that he has to cut down on the number of men.God gives him the victory and God is exalted because of this courage. God does not need a big army to complete his will. He even explains why he does this in the story. So for those individuals who think God cannot work in small numbers. Where is your faith. God does his best work in small numbers. He is a God who does not accept bribes. Where would his integrity be if he did?

      • Laurel says:

        Not sure if all of this was a reply to my comment (I didn’t say anything about God being unable to work with small numbers; quite the contrary). However just to clear up a misapprehension, the United Church reads the Bible a lot. We have Bible study groups and preach on texts from the Bible every Sunday. Here’s the Lectionary for 2012 for example: http://www.united-church.ca/planning/lectionary . And here are the guidelines for adult study groups (there are lots of them, including scripture study): http://www.united-church.ca/adultlearning/studygroups/general .

      • Don Decker says:

        Anyone has the ability to read something. It is the question of interpretation. Then why is the church taking the position with homosexuals? God clearly explains his position in both the Old and New Testament. Man should not lie with another man as with a woman. In scripture Jesus clearly tells people about their sin. He is compassionate about it, but he does tell them. He does not accept this and tells the sinner. It is one thing for an individual to commit the sin, but to agree with them is anti christian in so many ways. Even when others condemn the sinner Jesus does take a stand and say go and sin no more. Your position sends a clear message that Jesus accepts sin. It also puts other members in the body in a position of being influenced by this type of behaviour.

        This message tells others that the Virgin birth is not the position God intended for our lives. Homosexuality sends a message that creation is a falacy. The bible is clear that God has made us in his own image. God has the ability to create children. Homosexuals do not have that ability. So since we are made in his image, how can homosexuals even think they can represent something God has created us to be.

      • Laurel says:

        I take C.S. Lewis’ position on the question of homosexuality:it’s not an activity I have any knowledge of or interest in, so I don’t think I have any business discussing it.

      • Don Decker says:

        Then you have publicly denied Jesus and his gospels. We are not to be obedient to man but God. He reminded us that on that day when the Father comes with his Holy Angels anyone who has denied him. He will say depart from me I never knew you. He will cast them into outer darkness where there will be a knashing of teeth. There is a confirmation in the gospels of the tares and the wheat. He said this falling away would happen in the later days. On that day of his appearance he will send his angels to separate the tares from the wheat.

    • Willamina says:

      Laurel, very well said. I’ve been a member of the United Church since my husband & I married there almost 40 years ago. I’ve seen many changes in the church, and changes in my own belief. I don’t always agree with my church leaders, but that’s what makes the UC exciting & dynamic. We all have a voice & a choice, and I do not want to belong to a church that restricts these two. I’ve attended other churches where I find the dogma stifling and non-inclusive, where everything is presented with a rosy holy glow of ‘aren’t we the most wonderful thing since sliced bread’, where people can be cookie-cutter worshippers, and where the disadvantaged and outcasts of society are not welcome. God doesn’t expect us to be automatons, and the Bible is merely a collection of people’s writings & ideas about God. I may not believe any longer that Jesus was divine….so what….I still embrace his tenants as an inspired prophet and I believe what he so eloquently said….and If some folks in the United Church no longer believe Jesus was the son of God, but believe as I do in his insight and love for his fellow man/woman, his wisdom & healing powers & his kindness and acceptance towards the outcasts & lowest members of society, that sets an example of how we should live our lives – so be it. I embrace the United Church, a church where the lepers of society are accepted as equal members in God’s and society’s eyes. If you were a leper wouldn’t you want such a place to belong to?

  6. Charles Lewis says:

    It would have been nice if the author had mentioned the paper that most of his information came from. It’s the National Post in Toronto.

  7. Charles Lewis says:

    Does anyone know a contact for this blog? If you do, could you email me at clewis@nationalpost.com

  8. Why do we Christians have to prove anything? Either you are a believer or you are not. Simple, you go your way and we go ours. If you are right and we are wrong, we get to live a clean, fruitful life, and that is it. Pretty good, I would say. If we are right, I pity those that are non-believers, you live the kind of life you desire and then you face the judgement for same. Not even Christ forced anyone to follow him. Nor do we insist that others believe like we do, however, it is our responsibility to spread the Gospel, the “Good News”.

  9. John Pare says:

    Interesting that today I attended United Church for the first time as I’ve been searching for a fellowship where I can feel welcome as well as heard. My first impressions were not of any deviations from God’s Word but, I was astounded by the total lack of children. Most of the congregation was elderly. I inquired about this after the service and came away with the impression that “this vine is definitely withering away”.

    Then, when I logged into “Facebook”, I find a reference to this article. I read the article and all the comments and it just seems so sad that so many have strayed from God’s Holy Word. I know I strayed for the longest time but, since I began an honest search just a few short years ago, I know for certainty that today God is leading me to find new truths. At least they’re new to me anyway.

    And right now I don’t know if this article is a warning to stay away from United Church, or maybe sign that I can do a lot of good (with the guidance of God’s Holy Spirit, of course) to help people who just seem to have lost their way somehow.

    Many people use “Facebook” today. I wanted no part of it for the longest time, but I believe God found a way to get me involved. I then realized I could use “Facebook” to share some of the TRUTHS which were being revealed to me. I created a “Facebook” Group called “The Room”. The Web address is: https://www.facebook.com/#!/groups/the.other.room/ I think you’ll find a lot of interesting stuff there but I’d like to draw your attention the article called “Reflections on Sin”.

    Whether or not your join me in The Room, I pray that God leads all of you to the TRUTH that He wants you to know.


  10. Willamina says:

    You’ve hit the nail on the head, John. Although I’ve belonged to the UC for years, I’m still searching & questioning my faith & religious beliefs, and many others, be they church goers or not, are also on this spiritual path. Our faith journeys may lead us in all directions, and that may be away from church attendance in the old accepted way of worship. If you’re not into regular Sunday worship, the UC has other interesting & vibrant gatherings usually mentioned in the church bulletin each Sunday. There are social clubs of course, but there’s also Bible study groups, cutting edge discussion groups, and some churches are umbrellas to small-group house churches that follow the tenets of the UC, but operate autonomously for the most part. Usually people of the church just get together with an interest they want to pursue, and ask that it be put in the bulletin to invite others to join. These groups can be found in many churches other than the UC, so keep looking….seek & ye shall find!
    The lack of children and young people attending church is disconcerting, but you may find although they don’t attend Sunday worship, they could be involved in other aspects of church life such as the girls & boys clubs, and family nights. It’s sad that in many churches it seems like the traditional ‘Sunday School’ has, I suspect, fallen prey to the pleasurable pursuits of TV and the internet. Maybe such is the case for adults as well. Once the chain of family church attendance is broken, as it has been in the past years, it seems difficult to re-start. Even so, I have faith those who want & search for God’s presence will find it, and it doesn’t matter where it is to be found…..Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans, “I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God.” Romans 8: 38-39.

  11. Kacey says:

    Stumbled across this column. Was for decades a Lutheran, but have attended the United Church over the years, and lately with my partner. She enjoys the social setting. I recently noted that a gay pride candle was now on the altar. I think this church as lost its way. And in a social setting, the pastor indicated that the Bible is a series of stories, but generally not actual fact. I am no goody two shoes and sin regularly, but I know a sham when I see it. Someone open the trap door and dump this institution, the true believers in Jesus will find a new faith leading home. Amen

  12. Shanon says:

    I see that the column has been taking over by defensive liberals. At its core, the UCC has no binding ethic or truth. They’ve embraced the relativism and therapeutic religion of their Baby Boomer generation and they have nothing to say about truth, Jesus, God or religion of any merit. All more liberal platitudes about “journeys” and “open-mindedness.”

    Church attendance is an important correlation when determining the inherent problems with demographic collapse. Protestants rely heavily on evangelization; if they accept all of the pervailing orthodoxies of secular culture, what reason is there to evangelize? In another sense, the UCC is getting older because many are either gay, childless, or have children who reject the importance of church but are logical enough in their to stay home on Sunday mornings. When your attendance drops 50%+ while doing everything to appeal to the public at large, then there is some kind of problem with your message.

  13. Susan says:

    Wow – What would Jesus think of all this. As a Christian it makes me very sad. This one-upmanship is so unlike the Jesus I know.

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