Religion

Gimme that prime-time religion

Diane Francis April 28 1980
Religion

Gimme that prime-time religion

Diane Francis April 28 1980

Gimme that prime-time religion

Religion

Diane Francis

There are those within the United Church of Canada who wish wavyhaired Rev. Berkley Reynolds would leave and take his evangelistic vision with him. For the past 12 years Reynolds has devoted his ministry in suburban Toronto to bringing the word of Christ to as many souls as possiblegaining, in the process, a reputation as “the Billy Graham of the United Church.” His West Ellesmere United Church is more evangelistic than most—he has even trained teams of laymen to make home visits as part of an aggressive outreach program. But Reynolds’ larger ambition—he calls it a “shared vision” between himself and his congregation—seems headed on a collision course with the church hierarchy. Despite the support of the majority of his parishioners, he has been denied permission to do something he considers crucial to the survival of the whole denomination. He wants to sell his church and build a new one: a $3-million complex, complete with a 1,100-seat cathedral, a full lay school of theology and, eventually, television facilities for national programming— with himself as the charismatic central figure.

Although Reynolds, 51, is appealing the church’s decision at a Toronto conference in May, a final judgment will be made when the 450-member General Council convenes in Halifax this August. But regardless of the outcome, Reynolds has already been partially successful. He has spotlighted a significant new twist to a controversy which has simmered for years within Canada’s largest Protestant denomination between conservatives who interpret the gospel literally and liberals who update interpretations in terms of current science and social mores. Reynolds’ dilemma—one he believes he shares with a great many others—is that he belongs to a church that is moving steadily to the left; a church that is declining in an era of growth by evangelistic Protestant churches; a church that appears in danger, ultimately, of destroying itself. “Unwilling

to fully embrace the gospel,” he says, “the church can make up its own rules. Unwilling to preach the gospel to a Hindu on Bay Street, it has no reason to exist.”

Perhaps the most grating recent indication of what he considers perilous liberalism is a daring church study on sexuality released in part to the press last month and slated for discussion at the August General Council. The authors recommend, among other things, the ordination of practising homosexuals, the acceptance of masturbation if “not obsessive,” and sex outside marriage if “non-exploitive.” Critics, including Reynolds, point to this report as an example of the church reneging on its role as moral arbiter. His urgent message to the church is that it must embrace conservatives and evangelists like himself or divide and die.

There is no doubt the United Church has been in steady decline since the 1960s, when liberal attitudes first took root, while Bible-thumping sects like the Pentecostals have been growing rapidly. Church documents show that, since 1965, membership has dropped by 157,000, Sunday school attendance has plummeted to 236,000 from 702,000 and 254 churches have closed. Yet the Pentecostáis doubled their membership in the 1970s to 300,000. At the same time, televised religion has exploded into a multimillion-dollar phenomenon. In Toronto, just one Christian talk show, the multidenominational 100 Huntley Street, earned $5 million in donations last year alone, enabling it to beam worldwide.

Such proselytizing efforts undoubtedly have siphoned off followers and cash from main-line denominations. But many within the United Church want no part of prime-time religion, finding it superficial and simplistic. “Real faith cannot be developed by selling religion as though it were soap-

suds,” says Toronto Presbytery Chairman Rev. Kenneth Purdon. The whole format, he points out, runs contrary to the United Church tradition of building small, intimate congregations devoted to social justice. Adds Roy Bonisteel, host of CBC’s Man Alive religion series: “It’s the slick packaging of the old American success story combined with religion: Christ will get you what you want. . . success, your health or happiness. As far as I’m concerned, it’s a rotten use of both religion and of broadcasting.”

But Rev. Gordon Williams, a Toronto United Church minister on leave and now working full-time for 100 Huntley Street, stands with Reynolds in the belief that television provides new hope for Christian churches. “Shows don’t replace churches, they enhance them,” he says, adding that new members

should be pursued by television, then telephone, then home visits. “The trouble with many United Church ministers is that they are afraid of the media when they should exploit them to serve the Lord and reach the lonely, shutin or handicapped.”

Rev. William Fennell, theologian and principal of the church’s Emmanuel College in Toronto, attributes dwindling membership to growing secularism in modern life—not to evangelistic efforts by others. The church’s primary challenge in the ’80s, he says, is to reconcile Scripture to the secular world

and thereby regain members; and to maintain a “dialogue” between liberal and conservative forces within the church. “Answers for many now seem to lie in extremism. Conservatives provide simplistic answers to complex questions and liberals follow cultural. mores with pious overtones,” he says. General Council Secretary Rev. Don Ray says tensions have been created because of the church’s commitment to issues of social justice, such as the California grape boycott and criticism of corporate exploitation in the Third World.

“It’s no wonder it’s going down the drain,” counters Rev. John Tobey, who left the United Church ministry in September. “People want moral guidelines and the church has simply become a big glorified social club which occasionally champions socialist causes.” Tobey says he remained a pastor for 20 years, hoping the church would return to its original belief in the full inspiration of the Scriptures. Now a preacher at a Baptist Convention church, he is building a church, elementary school and Bible college near Hamilton. And, Rev. Glenn Wilms of Calgary says the church’s liberalization has forced him to choose between his loyalty to the gospel and to his denomination. On leave of absence after 27 years as a minister, Wilms is with another church and must decide

eventually whether to leave the United Church permanently.

For Berkley Reynolds, that decision has already been made: if the General Council rejects his plea in August, he will reject the church. In the meantime, he is appearing regularly on the national religious program Dr. John Wesley White, sells tape recordings of his Sunday services and plans to distribute the tapes nationally by mail order. “I don’t think the United Church has a monopoly on God,” he says. “If we fail, I’ll either leave or lead my congregation out of the church.”