As the United Church celebrates its 25th year modern young ministers like Elridge Currey put heart and soul into the great tasks that remain
LIKE most of the United Church of Canada’s 3,187 ministers the Rev. Elridge Argyle Currey, of Victoria Square, Ont., has a turned-around collar, a steady deep faith and the income of a well-tipped deliveryhoy. Unlike most, however, he possesses a talkie movie projector, a projector for slides and strip film, a tape recorder and a hook titled, "10,000 Jokes, Toasts and Stories.” He also has a good intellect and the sunny disposition of a well-fed infant. These aids and abilities combine to make him a minister greatly admired by the young and old of his threepulpit parish
His congregation is rural and mostly stiffly conservative hut Currey has won their approval of the most modern aids to worship. At an evening service he once featured colored slides of the Calgary Stampede. "If standing on my head would help them understand God any better,” he says, “I’d do it. And don’t think I can’t stand on my head.”
Progressive, idealistic young ministers like Elridge Currey are the greatest asset of the United Church, Canada’s largest Protestant denomination, which this month celebrates its 25th anniversary. It was on June 10, 1925, that all the Methodists, most of the Congregationalists and about two thirds of the Presbyterians in Canada came into one fold. In the ever-expanding work of the church
it is the willing horses like handsome ex-pudre Currey who bear the brunt with a smile.
The United Church is noted for its tolerant attitude toward its ministers nnd while it is probable that some of the older ministers hold Currey's brashness in some alarm, he has never been chided. The Moderator (Rt. Rev. Willard Brewing, of Toronto) is a strong temperance man,” says Currey with pride, "but I don’t think it would alter his attitude toward me if he thought I took a drink. Our church has all types of men; we had to la* a tolerant church to unite three different
Since its birth the United Church lias lieen something less than retiring in public affairs. Best known for its pugnacious attitude toward liquor it
has also swung its weight toward labor arbitration boards and unemployment insurance. It offers pulpits to some far-left pastors but could scarcely be called the working man’s church. Indeed C. H. Millard, a vice-president of the Canadian Congress of Labor, said recently at a United Church meeting on church-labor relations: “Labor is not convinced the church is overly concerned with practical material problems.”
Groups within the church fought a bitter public battle against the introduction of Sunday sports in Toronto and Windsor, Ont., and other groups are tirelessly prodding away for increased old-age pensions and a broader health program.
Elridge Currey feels, unlike many of his church, that liquor will never be defeated by legislation and that the combatants in the recent Sunday sports vote were too extreme to achieve their aim. He doesn’t drink, as some United Church ministers do, but neither does he feel outraged when drinks are poured in his presence. He is a vigorous advocate of a better standard of living throughout the world, but is also aware that all governmentsponsored benefits are made possible by taxpayers and hence can reach a point of diminishing returns.
A stocky agile man—a former gymnast—Currey at 41 has some grey in his dark curly hair. He has a quick warm smile and bird-bright eyes. Normally friendly and jovial anyway, he is never gayer than when he stands to the left of the church doors shaking hands with his congregation as they shuffle out after the Sunday service.
“What a hat!” he exclaims to a large woman crowned with veiling and flowers. “You’ll be taking the congregation’s mind off my sermon.” “You’re new here,” he says warmly to the next man. “Hope you’ll come back again. We’re not such a bad bunch. The sermon is sometimes a little dull, but you can get used to that.”
To a man who complained that his favorite hymn was cut short Currey replied that they would sing all the verses next time. “The girls have their roasts in the oven, you know. They’d never forgive me if they burned.”
Currey’s wife—his second—a small, quiet woman with a radiant smile, stands on the other side of the doors and says a soft “Good morning” to everyone. Occasionally she catches her husband’s eye and they beam fondly at one another.
Currey hasn’t just one congregation. He has three, in three separate churches and each with an individual personality. The United Church at present has 2,711 pastoral charges but they represent 6,494 “preaching Continued on page 41
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places.” This means that for every preacher there are about three churches. Currey has had as many as six churches to attend every Sunday: his sister, the Rev. Erla Currey, preached seven sermons in seven different churches every Sunday for a year. Right now the church is short 425 ministers, but enrollments in the theological colleges are picking up after a steady wartime decline.
Reason Rather Than Rhetoric
One-pulpit charges are rare plums often secured with the same amount of diplomacy as is required to elevate a vice-president. Ministers are employed like anyone else; members of a church board who are dissatisfied with their minister or who desire a change shop around in other churches listening to the sermons and sizing up the minister’s personality. The minister, in turn, can send feelers out to other churches that when they want a new minister he would like to be considered.
When he has accepted a call a minister stays until he or the congregation wants a change—perhaps a year, perhaps a lifetime. Some ministers, including Currey, feel bound by a
tradition stemming from the Methodis Church that a pastor should stay fou years on a job.
Currey has received several betterpaying offers but he will stay at Victoria Square until his four-year term elapses this summer. Then he will go to a one-pulpit charge in Acton, Ont.
Currey’s present three-point circuit (in ecclesiastical jargon “point” is the abbreviation for appointment) comprises Victoria Square, Brown’s Corners and Hedford, all villages within three or four miles of one another in the rich farming belt just north of Toronto.
Victoria Square has the largest of the three churches and the minister’s seven-room brick house is next to it. Brown’s Corners has the largest congregation, about 100, Victoria Square is next with 80 and Hedford trails with 40.
Currey gives them all the same sermon, but since each church has a different personality he varies his style of delivery. His arguments are calm and reasonable, rather than filled with thunderous Biblical references.
Men differ in their interpretation of God’s personality; some think of Him as ethereal and regal. This notion annoys Currey. He says hotly, “If God means anything, He means everything. The significance of the resurrection is that God is a warm, loving, idealistic person. He’s what we called-
i i the Army a 'morale booster’ and then
Currey's electrical equipment, which made the rewiring of his churches necessary, is not used as a gambit to pack meetings of the Women’s Association or the Women’s Missionary Society. His tape recorder, which he bought with his war gratuities, goes right into the church Sunday mornings where it is plugged in beside the pulpit.
On Saturday afternoons Currey sits down in his cluttered upstairs study and composes a children’s story on the recorder. He enlivens it with harmonica and autoharp music. He clocks this effort at five to eight minutes, closes with a prayer and stores the tape away with his sermon notes.
The next morning in church he waits until almost halfway through the service, when children often show signs of restlessness, then announces “children’s Bible story time.” He flips the tape recorder switch and sits down behind the pulpit to arrange his thoughts on the sermon. The children sit still as the minister’s heavy, penetrating voice tells them of children whose faith was rewarded.
One of Currey’s most ingenious uses of his tape recorder is for visiting the sick and aged. “I got tired of being interrupted. So now I put everything I want to say on the tape recorder beforehand, plus some inspirational music, set it beside the bed and turn it on. They can’t interrupt and they have to pay attention. When it’s over we can chat about other things, but I know I’ve made my contribution as a minister.”
None of the Spirit Is Lost.
On Good Friday of 1949 Currey had some of his laymen gather up all the old people of the parish who were too weak or crippled to come to church and had them brought to the home of a bedridden arthritic. He appointed an elder to distribute the communion at the same moment the congregation was observing Holy Communion in the church. Currey, an excellent electrician, rigged up a cable from a microphone at his pulpit to a loudspeaker in the home. The old people, some of whom had been unable to attend communion for 20 years, were deeply moved.
For old friends too feeble to visit one another Currey records messages and chatter and takes it from one to the other. When farmers are going to miss a Farm Forum broadcast he records the broadcast and they visit his home to listen to it. He also rehearses weddings, goes over the responses with the prospective bride and groom and plays it back for them. Sometimes he visits other ministers, records their sermons and plays them for his own flock.
Currey sets off on a Sunday morning soon after 9 with his wife “she hears all my sermons three times, shows real endurance”—his bulky tape recorder and Moflatt’s Modern Language Bible, a translation of the original documents into modern, idiomatic English which is often used in the United Church. Currey feels that none of the spirit is lost and much of the meaning is made clearer in the translation of “Jesus sayeth unto ” to “Jesus said to ”
His sermon isn’t prepared except for six or seven subtitles and a few references as a guide. On the other hand his prayers, which most ministers compose as they go along, are meticulously written beforehand and partly memorized.
He carries about 300 copies of a church bulletin, the Weekly Calendar
which he edits, mimeographs and folds. It contains such items as “Sparks from the Minister’s Anvil” and reports on W. A. meetings, but nowhere a mention of the minister’s name or church officers. “Noadvertising,” grins Currey.
He is supposed to open the service at Hedford at 10 o’clock but it usually starts a little late and he has to get to Brown’s Corners in time for the 11:30 service and a visit to the Sunday school.
At Brown’s Corners the congregation flows over onto chairs in the aisles and at the back of the church. The service takes about two hours, complete with handshaking and breezy conversation.
Currey and his wife drive home for sandwiches and tea and at 2.30 he opens the service at Victoria Square. He conducts only one Sunday evening service, and this rotates around his three pulpits.
The Path of the Pathfinders
All of this pays Currey the United Church minimum wage, $2,200 a year. He is supplied with a home, but he heats and pays for its utilities himself. His food costs more in country stores than it would in city supermarkets. Yet he has a 1949 model car and sends his only child, 14-year-old Loretta, to a private school in Whitby.
“No one,” he says with feeling, “puts np as good a front on as little as the rural Protestant minister. He is paid less than a city minister and his expenses are higher. We skimp on food and clothes and I know a lot of people wonder how in the world we manage. Sometimes we wonder ourselves.”
Currey is familiar with poverty and grief, fear and loneliness. If he weren’t his perpetual good humor would be hard to tolerate. “I take the long view,” he smiles. “I don’t rely on pie in the sky, but I’ve discovered in my time that things generally work out.”
Currey’s time began 41 years ago on a 130-acre farm near Newmarket, Ont. He was one of three children (all boys) of an Anglican mother and a Methodist father and attended both churches. His family was known for its zealous devotion to education.
Some boys young Elridge admired in high school belonged to a Methodist Sunday-school class that was the envy of the school and Currey joined. The 30 teen-aged members called themselves the Pathfinders. They were led first by a young man named Arnold Mollenhaeur and then by the minister. Rev. J. C. Cochrane, a red-headed Scotsman who shouted and hammered and played a harmonica in his pulpit.
Cochrane took the Pathfinders to the movies, organized softball games, slipping in a casual word for the Lord here and there. The Pathfinders are still friends, still have annual reunions.
In the spring of 1927, when Currey was 18, he underwent an emergency appendectomy and while recuperating considered his future. He found himself thinking about some remarkable colored slides Cochrane had shown around Easter time. Me decided he would be a minister.
“When I told the high-school principal about my decision he suggested that we keep it quiet, not tell the rest of the school," Mr. Currey says disgustedly. "I was indignant. I told the rest of I lie class and it didn’t make the slightest difference. I never was a sissy anyway.”
I le obtained a post asstudent missionary in Alls-rta, a typical assignment for an embryo minister whose ardor the church wishes to test. He went to Cadogan, Alta., to discover that he had six churches in a fiO-mile circuit. Mis transportation was a semi wild cow
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pony which was cut out of a herd for him about 50 miles from his boardinghouse. “The cowboy helped me climb on and then waved good-by,” recalls Currey sorrowfully. “I got home after dark in a most painful condition. I had 45 mosquito bites on one knee
Six months and 2,000 miles in the saddle later Currey was a good rider. He even grew fond of his horse. “I called him Snort,” he remembers. “He’d answer me when I spoke to him. Never found another horse that would do that.”
Bad Winter at Iron Bridge
In the time he was in the West Currey became a pretty good preacher. “One thing I learned was that people love to sing, so I gave them lots of hymns and whooped up the tenor. Music creates a fervor that will cover a multitude of errors.”
On his return east he started at Victoria College, University of Toronto, on his arts degree. A United Church minister cannot go directly from high school to theological college; he must first complete a university arts course.
Times were tough for the Curreys but the family wouldn’t hear of Elridge or his sister Erla, quitting college. He helped finance his education by going to Muskoka, a resort area about 200 miles north of Toronto, every Saturday night, sleeping the few hours left before dawn and then conducting services in four rural churches in the district. For this he received $7.
He graduated in 1931 from Victoria College and three years later received his degree in theology from Emmanuel College on the U. of T. campus. Nowadays a newly graduated minister can scout around for a job, but in 1934 a United Church regulation was that each new minister serve two years in a location selected by the church. This generally meant the poorer parsonages. Currey drew one of those at Iron Bridge, north of Lake Huron, at $900
He took with him a beautiful bride, the former Vera McLeod, whom he had met at Colborne Inlet, on Lake
The winter was terrible at Iron Bridge and his wife grew ill. When their daughter Loretta was born the doctors told Currey his wife had chronic nephritis and could live no more than five years.
The Curreys went back to Iron Bridge for a year to finish his apprenticeship and then he was free to accept his first offer of a job or “call” as the church terms it, at Gore Bay, on Manitoulin Island, for $1,200 a year.
Vera Currey fulfilled her duties as a minister’s wife, baked and sewed, attended socials and raised their daughter until the month before the
five years the doctors had allotted her, when she took to her bed and died.
People have asked Currey if this tragedy didn’t lessen his estimation of the Lord’s justice and he is always astonished that people can ask such a shallow question. “I felt fortunate,” he says sincerely, “that as a minister I had greater resources to fall back on than most people.”
Currey’s next call was at Thornhill, north of Toronto, a one-pulpit appointment. His mother, then widowed, and his sister, then a deaconess in the church, came to live with him and care for his daughter. His services attracted people who hadn’t been to church in years, particularly the evening ones during which he invited questions from the pews.
In 1942 he joined the Army, trained briefly at Camp Borden and then at Aldershot, England, from where he was posted to the Winnipeg Rifles. With that regiment he saw the fighting at Caen and Falaise.
“I came to grip with realities,” he says. “Some ministers fell by the wayside but what held me steady was my bitter acquaintance with sorrow.” When Padre Currey was offered a drink by the men of the regiment he cheerfully asked for a soft drink and refrained from delivering a short speech on temperance. “I figured a good example would speak louder than anything I could compose.”
Religion on the Upswing
Currey often recalls the terrific strain on an infantryman’s nerves. He sometimes wakes up at night soaked with sweat after a dream in which he saw again parts of men’s bodies on battlefields and the land-mined fields he had to cross.
While overseas he met a gentle nursing sister, Doris Roddy, of Oshawa. They were still in uniform in 1946 when Erla Currey, one of the church’s few woman ministers, came from Saskatchewan to marry them in the Victoria Square church.
Currey is aware that although 2,200,000 Canadians told the last census taker that they were members of the United Church only 800,000 actually belong. “Religion is on the upswing now though,” he claims. “More people are thinking in terms of Christian principles, not evangelically but deep within themselves. The fact that industrial concerns are hiring chaplains is an indication of the trend.”
Like many young ministers of both branches of the faith Currey is eager for the day when the Church of England in Canada and the United Church will unite. “It took 20 years to solve the difficulties and establish our United Church and they’ve only been working on this larger union for four years,” he says. “Cive us time; it has got to come.” With men like Currey in the ministry anything seems possible. ★