- A Church with the Soul of a Nation: Making and Remaking the United Church of Canada by Phyllis D. Airhart
As Canada’s largest Protestant church and the product of the world’s first modern ecumenical organic union in 1925, the United Church of Canada has always attracted opinionated attention. Was this new entity a creedless and convenient merger, shamelessly consolidating Protestant power (Methodist, Presbyterian, [End Page 956] and Congregationalist) to counteract a growing Roman Catholic population? Or was it a daring and noble experiment in cooperation based on progressive Christian theology and values? Did United Church membership plummet in the 1960s because of its godless accommodation to culture, because of its failure to accommodate a changing culture, or because of its brave honesty in confronting new theological and social issues? Scholars, journalists, and armchair critics have been happy to render judgment.
Phyllis Airhart, professor of the history of Christianity at Emmanuel College in the University of Toronto, enters the fray with A Church with the Soul of a Nation. Although the book covers familiar ground in its treatment of the denomination’s first four decades, it is distinctive for its depth and breadth of research and analysis. The title, a clever riff on historian Sidney Mead’s description of America as “a nation with the soul of a church,” sets out Airhart’s premise: that the United Church’s founders were attempting to build a church that would faithfully serve and support Canada’s growth to national maturity. Although this is not a new claim, Airhart argues that this allegedly bold new union project was actually an extension of nineteenth-century Protestant expansionism, to be viewed retrospectively as quaint and “quixotic.” Its founders were only “accidental innovators” as they sought to create a church that would unify a vast geography with its scattered and increasingly diverse population. The book elucidates the ways that United Church leaders sought to make sense of their complicated inheritance.
The chapters are at once chronological and thematic, taking us into the minds and hearts of those charged with guiding the national church’s life as they faced evolving challenges. These included the bitter divide with the 30 percent of Presbyterians who stayed out of the union; the ravages of the economic depression of 1930s; dramatic shifts in the nature of overseas and Canadian missions; the rise of the social welfare state—that the United Church had helped to foster but that left the denomination with a dwindling social role; postwar success that masked deepening fissures; and the rapid decline of numbers and influence in the tumultuous 1960s. Airhart demonstrates that the United Church’s leadership was far from godless, but that attempts at faithful responses, in a church that sought to be “broad and moderate,” often missed the mark as the century unfolded.
Although ultimately fair, the book’s negative thesis—that the United Church of Canada was outdated at birth—does lead to an emphasis on gloom. There are, for example, long hostile quotations from letters to the church magazine’s editor and reports of individuals or congregations who rejected particular programs, without evidence that these were majority opinions. However, in the final chapter, when Airhart asks, “Was the making of the United Church a mistake?”, her response is careful and nuanced. A question posed by missionary Katharine Hockin in the 1960s may best encapsulate the denomination’s conundrum: “Can it be that God is active in our world in ways that may not always be to our advantage?” [End Page 957]