- A Church with the Soul of a Nation: Making and Remaking the United Church of Canada by Phyllis D. Airhart
This carefully researched, gracefully written history will be essential reading for United Church of Canada leaders and for scholars working in the larger domain of Canadian Christianity. Airhart’s study may not replace, but it supersedes all previous studies of its topic.
The title perfectly summarizes the theme of the book and its scope. The “making” of the United Church begins with decades of discussion leading to the formal union of the Methodist, Presbyterian, and Congregationalist churches in Canada in 1925, from which, however, a significant Presbyterian minority excluded itself. The theme of the book is the mission of the new denomination to be the soul of Canada. This task included evangelizing the uncommitted, forming personal character, doing justice, and building the Canadian nation. The “remaking” of the church was required in the 1960s, a decade that left the social realities and the working assumptions of the founding generation in tatters. For instance, caring for the poor, sick, and marginalized, which accounted for so much of the church’s service before the Second World War, had become the mandate of government. And after the Massey Report of 1951, and the Report on Bilingualism and Biculturalism in 1963, few doubted that the government, not the church, “was responsible for developing and funding a cultural policy for Canada” (208, 214).
The book ends with the funeral in 1972 of one of the denomination’s foremost theological leaders, Donald Mathers. Death, as Mathers had written, in words quoted at the funeral, was “an opportunity to transform the painful necessity of dying into a willing act of giving up and of self-surrender to God” (290). The United Church, too, was giving itself up. Unlike Mathers, however, it sought to engineer its own resurrection.
The United Church was always easy to stereotype. Even as it was being conceived, critics denigrated it as creedless, liberal, clubby, politicized, and organizationally despotic. Among the many strengths of this book is the author’s care to hear many voices, to evaluate diverse assessments, and to recognize complexities. For instance, she argues persuasively that declining to hold clergy and people to a fixed propositional creed reflected not liberalism or acculturation but the historic wisdom of Congregationalism (25), which is not to say that it had no unfortunate consequences. And despite the attempts of its spokespeople to promote the United Church as a unifying force teaching a common faith, Airhart shows that its foundational principles and characteristic practices were being perpetually disputed, and that its practices varied regionally, if not congregationally. [End Page 141]
Unfortunately, what sometimes held the denomination together was its hates. The United Church gave leadership in trying to assimilate non-Anglo-Saxon races and refuting Roman Catholic error. Indeed, among the factors requiring the remaking of the United Church in the 1960s, as Airhart argues, were Canada’s more open immigration policies, the “loss of ‘Britishness’” (145), and the new ecumenical landscape associated with Vatican ii.
This is a work of fine scholarship. Airhart cites hundreds of sources. She courteously disputes some earlier historiographies, such as N.K. Clifford on the origins of the resistance to church union. She makes inspired used of telling anecdotes and representative biographies to illustrate issues and trends.
Airhart also makes profitable use of some sociological theory, such as Talcott Parsons on inner-worldliness and Thomas Homer-Dixon on transformative change. But this isn’t a social history as such. The narrative is framed largely around the activities and disagreements of conspicuous leaders, none more influential, or more stubborn in some of their unpopular views, than J.R. Mutchmor, a veteran denominational official, and A.C. Forrest, the long-time editor of the denominational magazine. The author’s choice to focus on leaders and policies is thoroughly justifiable, and...