Fred C. Würtele [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
What kind of a church has an atheist pastor?
You’ve probably heard of Gretta Vosper. She’s the minister of West Hill United Church in Scarborough. In 2001 she started describing herself publicly as a “non-theist.” Since 2013 she’s used a more direct term: “atheist.”
As you might expect, the outlandish idea of an atheist minister has captured the imagination of journalists and the praise of many inside and outside the church. It has also provoked substantial criticism, but so far the church has not followed through on calls to remove her from ordained ministry.
In today’s United Church, requiring ministers to believe in God is a controversial idea. So what’s the story behind the United Church of Canada?
The United Church was formed in 1925 by the merger of two large Canadian denominations, the Methodists and the Presbyterians, as well as the much smaller Congregationalists. Although only two-thirds of the Presbyterians joined the union (the rest carried on as the Presbyterian Church in Canada), the United Church still began its life as the largest Protestant church in Canada.
The architects of the union hoped that their new church would eventually encompass all Protestant churches in Canada. They thought cooperation would enable its members to decisively shape the spiritual life of the young Dominion—and to carry on social service, especially to the poor, on a much larger scale. And although those dreams never fully came to pass, the United Church has always commanded at least the nominal allegiance of more Canadians than any other Protestant church. In most parts of the country, nearly every small town has a United Church, often with names like “Knox” and “Wesley” that reflect their Presbyterian or Methodist origins.
Interestingly, in the nineteenth century, Canada’s Methodists and Presbyterians had been deeply evangelical in their beliefs and spirituality. As with many mainline Protestant denominations, however, they were infiltrated by theological liberalism at the end of the century, as ideas from Germany and Britain found a foothold first in the Canadian theological colleges and then in the pulpits. By the First World War the theology of Schleiermacher, not Wesley or Knox, was running the show.
The Early Decades
Nevertheless, in its early decades the United Church still presented a broadly evangelical face to the world. From the 1930s through the 1950s, it carried forward evangelical causes of the nineteenth century, such as mass revivalism campaigns. A spirituality centred on “decisions for Christ” continued to be important to many church leaders, even those who no longer believed in the doctrines that had previously underpinned such phrases. As late as the 1950s, for instance, many official bodies and leaders endorsed Billy Graham’s evangelistic campaigns in Canada.
Behind-the-scenes research in the archives shows, however, that many of these same leaders were deeply critical of basic evangelical orthodoxy. The principal of the church’s theological college in Edmonton, A.S. Tuttle, for example, proposed replacing the doctrine of the Trinity with the idea that God was a life force driving the process of “emergent evolution,” and Jesus was simply evolution’s greatest achievement.
While such sentiments were rarely aired in public, they did make an impact. In 1940 the church’s theological elite issued a new statement of faith that left out the virgin birth, the bodily resurrection of Christ, and eternal punishment.
The Turbulent Sixties
Clearly, something had to give. Practices like mass evangelism made sense because they assumed a certain kind of theology—theology United Church leaders had left behind. The events of the 1960s resolved that tension, decisively, in favour of liberalism.
A new Sunday school curriculum released by the church in 1964 taught adults and children to question the historical reliability of the Old Testament and the Gospels. New officials publicly rejected Billy Graham and the whole idea of evangelistic rallies. They also dropped the church’s opposition to premarital sex and lobbied the federal government to legalize abortion, reversing their traditional moral stances.
The time had come, they said, for the church to stop telling the world what to do, and instead listen to the world’s wisdom. They pointed to the radical political activists of the New Left as role models for the church. Dozens of prominent voices, including a series of moderators, the church’s highest post, proclaimed that if the church did not jettison its outdated “dogmas” and “get with it” it would become irrelevant in the new age that was dawning.
Since the Sixties, the United Church has continued further down this same path. Politically, the denomination is often called “the NDP at prayer,” and its positions on a range of issues from sexual orientation to the State of Israel bear that out. Theologically, it has pushed the boundaries further and further. In 1997, for example, Moderator Bill Phipps told the Ottawa Citizen, “I don’t believe Jesus was God,” and “I don’t believe he rose from the dead as a scientific fact. It’s an irrelevant question.” The denominational authorities responded by reaffirming his leadership and celebrating the diversity of doctrinal perspectives in the church.
The Gretta Vosper phenomenon, it turns out, didn’t exactly come out of the blue.
The Long Decline
From the standpoint of the Sixties, this all seemed like a plausible strategy: get rid of old thinking, embrace the world’s progressive causes, and you’ll remain relevant. Stay stuck in your ways, and you’ll be left behind by a rapidly changing society.
Plausible, but wrong. In one of the great ironies of Christian history, churches that followed this strategy lost both members and influence, while churches that took the opposite tack gained both.
Now, the post-1960 era would have been challenging for large mainline churches in any event. North American cultural elites—the gatekeepers of formal education, mass media, government policy—were less friendly than ever before to Christianity. At the same time the power of those elites to shape the thought-world of ordinary people was intensifying, thanks to the arrival of TV, rising rates of high school and university enrollment, and the emergence of a new, rebellious youth culture. A difficult road lay ahead for churches in any event.
The strategy adopted by the United Church made that road much more difficult. On one side, it drove out many members and their families with evangelical convictions—people who were often highly committed churchgoers, givers, and volunteers, the backbone of local congregations. They left for Baptist and Pentecostal and other evangelical churches, many of which are today peppered with ex-United Church members.
On the other side, in speaking to lukewarm or skeptical members, the church was left without a compelling answer to the question—increasingly pressing after 1960—“why should I get my family out of bed to attend church every Sunday?” If the traditional core beliefs of Christianity were psychological metaphors at best and outright lies at worst, and if “the world” had the real answers, why go to church at all? The trickle of escaping evangelicals was thus joined by a large exodus of people who left church altogether.
The result? Between 1968 and 2009 the United Church lost over half its members, during a time in which the Canadian population grew by more than 50%. Over the same period, several evangelical denominations following the opposite strategy, like the Fellowship Baptists, the Mennonite Brethren, and the Pentecostals grew explosively, more than doubling their membership.
And while 2 million Canadians put “United Church” as their religious affiliation in the 2011 census, only a quarter of those—under half a million—were actually members of the church, and only about a third of those members actually attended services on any given Sunday. Many of those local churches that dot the Canadian landscape are closing or amalgamating each year.
In short, the relevance strategy did not work as intended.
The State of the Union
In today’s United Church there are some voices of dissent. Here and there one still finds evangelical pastors and congregations. (My colleagues and I have found good evidence that such congregations actually fare better numerically than more theologically liberal ones.) I have also spoken with at least one highly placed leader in the church who candidly admits that something has to change. But most evangelicals left the denomination long ago, and the greater part of the clergy seem to want to stay the course, or even double-down on the liberal strategy as Vosper has done.
We should not be quick to judge. I’ve met many kind, decent people in the United Church. Many of them genuinely want to follow Jesus’ commandment to love others as we love ourselves, and their commitment to helping the poor and disadvantaged is worth imitating.
Nevertheless, the story of the United Church is a sobering one. It’s a reminder that strategies formed out of human wisdom rarely work out the way we intend, especially when they leave behind “the faith once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). That’s a faith worth contending for.