- A Church with the Soul of a Nation: Making and Remaking the United Church of Canada by Phyllis D. Airhart
Living as we do in a secular age, those of us who study and teach Canadian history face a temptation to retroactively secularize the past. Too many post-Confederation Canadian history survey texts, for example, studiously ignore or marginalize Canada’s religious history. It is notable, therefore, that Phyllis Airhart not only does an admirable job of exploring the history of Canada’s largest Protestant denomination, but convincingly relates it to larger historical themes of nationhood, identity, and pluralism.
Airhart argues that the United Church was founded with a vision to build a particular kind of Christian Canada rooted in reformist, Anglo-Saxon, and Protestant assumptions. While the church survived the controversies of church union and the challenges of building a new administrative “machinery” amidst economic depression and war, its founding vision could not be sustained in a postwar Canada increasingly defined by a pluralistic, secular identity. Hence the bold “making” of the church in 1925 was followed by a more tentative “remaking” in the 1960s.
Building the book around this original – and ultimately compelling – central theme allows Airhart to cover a wide range of topics in the history of the denomination while still maintaining a sense of narrative cohesion. The book is replete with short but informative forays into subjects like the role of elite networks connected to Presbyterian leader George Munro Grant in bringing about church union, skeptics’ criticisms of postwar suburban church life, and the doomed merger conversations with the Anglicans in the 1960s. [End Page 668]
Airhart is an insider to the tradition of Canadian church historywriting and to the United Church. She succeeded John Webster Grant, a doyen of the field, in her position at the United Church’s Emmanuel College, and she inherited this book project and early research materials from well-known historian of church union N.K. Clifford after his death in 1990. Being an insider has its advantages, and it shows in Airhart’s deeply informed, multifaceted understanding of the United Church and its history, grounded in decades of thinking and teaching about these topics. Her command of an impressive range of archival material and secondary sources is evident throughout the book.
Being an insider can have disadvantages too, of course. Airhart continues the frustrating custom, conventional in much writing about Canadian religious history, of using a wide range of contested theological party labels without explaining what she means by them. Throughout the book, the reader encounters not only “evangelicals,” “liberals,” “fundamentalists,” “modernists,” and “progressives,” but even “liberal evangelicals,” “progressive evangelicals,” and “conservative evangelicals,” without encountering – as far as I could see – a definition of any of these. Airhart’s penchant – also traditional in the field – for reducing Protestant theological differences to a simplistic spectrum of “personal” or “social” emphasis does not illuminate matters.
Another drawback of Airhart’s insider perspective is that her coverage of crises or controversies sometimes sticks too closely to the official line put out by church headquarters. One example is her treatment of the controversial New Curriculum, a Sunday school curriculum implemented by the church in the 1960s. Airhart approvingly quotes a source that claims there were “no loud protests” (401) over the curriculum from within the church, and brushes off the connection between the introduction of the curriculum and a sudden drop in enrollment in the same year. Both points agree with the views of church leaders anxious to vindicate the curriculum, but are hard to sustain in the face of overwhelming archival and statistical evidence to the contrary. Her discussion of the numerical decline of the denomination from the mid-1960s likewise strikes an optimistic note by making a creative but strained analogy with “adaptive cycles” (258) in ecological theory. Engagement with the large body of literature on this topic from the sociology of religion would have been more appropriate, though it likely would...