DR. ROBERT McCLURE
For the first time in its 43-year history, the United Church of Canada last August elected a Moderator who was not a professional clergyman. Instead, an outspoken 65-year-old doctor of medicine named Robert McClure was chosen to lead Canada's biggest Protestant communion.
McClure has just retired to a Toronto bungalow after 40 years of rugged service in China and India. As a missionary doctor he earned $3,400 a year and often conducted 1,000 operations in the same period — ranging from delicate brain surgery to the removal of warts. He used bicycle spokes to set broken bones and devised a giant razor blade to slice off skin needed for grafting at the thickness of 1/20,000 of an inch.
As Moderator, McClure’s official function is to preside over regular meetings of the policy-setting General Council Executive; he speaks only for himself except on topics on which the church has formally expressed an opinion. Yet, among the church’s three million followers and the public, the Moderator is heard as THE spokesman. And McClure admits that since he became Moderator “my tongue has already gotten me in a little hot water.”
Here, in conversation with journalist and author Allen Spraggett, McClure speaks out with frankness and wit on the task of the church in the world, the neglect of the old by the young, the breakdown in family life — and the good sense of marriage “by arrangement.”
Maclean’s: Dr. McClure, what
are your views on the traditional doctrines of the faith?
McClure: Well, in appointing a layman as a Moderator in a General Council with probably 50 expert theologians present, it’s obvious the United Church didn't want theological views. They appointed a layman as Moderator presumably because they wanted a clear view of the relationship of the Canadian citizen to the needs of a very shrinking world. They wanted to honor indirectly all those working overseas whose morale needs lifting up. No, as a matter of fact, I have little use for theology; for this reason: theology to religion is the same in my mind as botany is to a man who enjoys flowers. Now a man may enjoy flowers but know nothing about
the stamens, pistils, or perennials and all this sort of stuff. Two or three years ago they held a special meeting of medical missionaries from all around the world to meet with some doctor theologians in Germany to study the theology of medical missions. And to me the word came; I was then the vicepresident of the Christian Medical Association in India; and I simply scribbled across the page that as far as I was concerned it was all bunk — they could appoint anybody they wanted. I had never studied this subject, I did not propose to peruse it now.
Maclean’s: You’re a doer rather than a theologizer?
McClure: Yes, I frankly figured it out. Was I going to study orthopedics and leprosy, or was I going to study theology? I thought I could do greater service in India by studying orthopedics and leprosy.
Maclean’s: But can you sum up your theological orientation? McClure: Yes, my theology is positively childish and I'm very proud of it, because my theology is
simply my creed. It has two essential phases. The first is that the God I worship is the God of love and the second is that the God I worship is the God and Father of all men. And I mean all men, all races, all colors, and all religions. Without any distinction whatever. This is the basis of my racial, interracial thinking. It’s the philosophy that carried me into medical mission work and sustained me. Maclean’s: Since your return to Canada, you’ve had a chance to see a great deal of the church in the past few months. Are you discouraged by what you’ve seen? McClure: No, I’m a chronic optimist. I think it's probably due to a glandular arrangement of my adrenalin. thyroid, blood sugar. And I’m delighted with Canadian society and the Canadian church. Canadians are far more generous than I assumed them to be. Affluence allows a man to be generous. Maclean’s: But are Canadians doing as much as they should through their churches to help the underdeveloped countries?
McClure: No; Christianity is the
cheapest religion on earth. By far. There is no Hindu who gives as little to his temple as the most prominent Canadian gives to his church, in proportion to his income. None. When the indigenous church in China or India takes over, we are surprised by the way the Chinese or Indian pastor receives a man who says, “I want to join your church, I want to be baptized, I want to become a Christian.” The Indian pastor’s first question is something about the man’s Christian experience, his Christian knowledge. The second question is how much do you give to your temple and how much are you ready to give to the church? And the Canadian colleague usually says, “Oh my, let’s not get into finances quite so early. Let’s see that his soul is in the right place.” The Indian says, “No. Are you joining the Christian church because it’s cheaper? If you are, we don’t want you in our fellowship.” Maclean’s: What about the cries that Canada was slow to give sustenance and succor in Biafra? McClure: You’ll be in trouble if you say should we do more for Biafra. Should we do more for North Vietnam? That, to me, is getting in the range of diplomacy and international politics. If there are hungry children in Biafra starving, there are hungry children on the federal side starving. When there are women and children being butchered by war, we need relief. And it makes no difference to me whether it’s Biafra or the federal side. The political affiliations make no difference. I had to face this back in the days with Norman Bethune and Chou-en-lai and Mao Tse-tung. We talked this all out in a cave. It must have been in 1939. The question was would Red Cross supplies come in freely, and how would they be used? And we brought up a hypothetical case: if a woman and child came in and a guerrilla fighter came in, all wounded, who should get the first priority? Chou and Mao were not in any doubt. To look after the woman and child had a certain loose effect on the morale of the people; but the important thing was to get the fighter back into shape so he could go back into the line. Otherwise, more women and children — they put it in a nice way for me as a missionary — would get killed. But the idea was that you / continued on page 70
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“War is hell. It brings suffering and suffering involves us”
worked on the fighter because he was fighting the world revolution. I’m not fighting the world revolution. Maclean’s: You had a parting of the ways with them?
McClure: Yes, we did, and we’ve stayed parted. And 1 refuse to be involved in the political aspects. War is hell. It brings suffering and suffering
involves us, if we have any conscience at all, in doing relief work.
Maclean’s: What about the dwindling force of the church in society? Is the church declining numerically? McClure: After 13 years in India, I don’t know the statistics of the Canadian church. To me they’re not of great interest. I think it’s the amount
of dynamic behind it. We might be better with a smaller, more dynamic church. I don’t know. I’m not discouraged with the church. Because I see young people . . . You see hippies sitting on the steps of the City Hall in Vancouver. But I can also show you a great bunch of 2,000 kids walking for Oxfam. I think of a 10-year-old
kid in the hv use where I was staying in Ottawa. He started out at eight o’clock Saturday, came in at 2 a.m. on Sunday, walked more than 30 miles, blisters on his feet. To me, he overcomes 50 hippies, thank you very much. I’m optimistic.
Maclean’s: What do you see as the major challenge facing the church today?
McClure: Facing up to the responsibilities of being an affluent country in a hungry world. Our big problem in Canada this year is how to dispose of somewhere between 650 million and 700 million bushels of wheat. A great deal of the world’s hunger could be abolished if we sent out this wheat. But it mustn’t end there. We must teach the hungry how to grow more wheat.
Maclean’s: Is this more the responsibility of the church, though, or the government?
McClure: The church,„being the conscience of the country, should always be prepared to study and survey any problem connected with morals, ethics, social problems. The church, if it comes within its financial possibilities, should be ready to do a pilot project. Then, if we find that the government is able to take it over, we should as citizens say, “Now we’ve found the key to this log jam. We know what has to be done, but it goes beyond our capacity to do it, and we think other people would like to join in doing it, and therefore we ask the government to do it.” The United Church should pioneer in homes for unmarried mothers, elderly people. Maclean’s: Are you in favor of the widening of the divorce laws? McClure: Yes, for exactly the same reasons as I am in favor of amputations. The treatment of a crippled limb is to try to salvage that limb. But when the limb has gone gangrenous, you had better amputate or you’ll lose the life. Now, to me, the real challenge is not whether or not you believe in divorce, but what is the church doing for the breakdown in marriage and family life in Canada? Maclean’s: How do you see this family breakdown?
McClure: Well, it’s estimated now that one in every four marriages is going to end in divorce. There is another disturbing figure and that is the number of brides who are already pregnant. This is a symptom of a breakdown in the marriage system. 1 don’t like it. I am disappointed because it shows me that there is disrespect for the family unit, and so far, I don’t sec any substitute. 1 think the family unit of a mother, a father and a group of children closely knit together, I think that’s the best social unit we have yet been able to find in our civilization.
Maclean’s: What are the reasons for this breakdown?
McClure: Oh, one of them is economic. The woman doesn't have to stay loyal to her husband for fear of starving.
Maclean’s: Is the restlessness of youth in Western society a part of the same family breakdown?
McClure: A symptom, yes. A symptom of a a breakdown in the relation of child to parent, similar to the failure of the relation between husband and wife. And it is the same between
the husband and wife and the previous generation, filial piety, looking after your old folk. That has broken down.
Maclean’s: That can be tragic. McClure: I was working in a cancer clinic in Toronto and an old man came in. His cancer was all right, but he was losing weight. I took him to one of the other doctors — I didn’t know what conditions were in Canada — and the other doctor had no trouble putting his finger on the problem. He said to the old man, “Where do you live?” And the old man named one of the slum sections of the city. The doctor said, “You live on the third floor?” “Yes.” “You have a room of your own?” “Yes.” “What have you got in the room?” “A hotplate.” And the old man was living on weiners and that sort of stuff, a few loaves of bread, and tea. what the English call tea and toasters. They referred him to the social-service organization. He wasn’t a medical case any longer. 1 went down with him to the social-service department. As soon as the social - service worker started to take down his history, she didn't seem surprised at all, but we found the old man had five married daughters within the limits of Metro Toronto. Now I ask you, with the old man living in a third floor back, with a hotplate, this sort of thing! I told this to one Indian, my closest friend, a Parsee, and he made one remark: “Even the
whelps look after an old bitch better than that." And he added: “McClure, the prestige of Western countries is going down rapidly enough in our country. Promise me you won’t tell that story to anybody else, to any other Indians.”
Maclean’s: All right, how can this breakdown of the family be stopped? McClure: Ah, you're asking me for a diagnosis of a Canadian trouble. No, I wouldn't stick my neck out on that. I think we are going to borrow from other cultures. We are giving other cultures something from ours: an industrial system, a new philosophy, trade unions, modern technology, some educational systems, our agriculture, much of our science. And we're going to get a lot in return. There are some useful principles we should borrow from other cultures. Only our white-man’s arrogance keeps us from recognizing that marriage in our culture is a failure.
Maclean’s: What value's should we borrow?
McClure: Oh. Confucian values, the Confucian tradition of the respect of the son for the father, the children for the parents.
Maclean’s: What about young marriages?
McClure: Well. T claim that a good deal of the tension in young people comes from the fact that our educational system prolongs the study period. We tend, therefore, to prolong the period before a man can get married economically. If he’s going for his MA. he'll probably finish it when he’s 25. All right, he reaches his sexual peak when he is 18 or 20. And we keep him under tension until he’s 25. It’s supposed to be disgraceful for him to get married young, and ask momma and poppa for money — only in Canadian culture, not in Oriental culture. continued
Maclean’s: They're more realistic? McClure: Nothing wrong with that.
In most Oriental culture, as soon as little Willie gets the urge, they say, “Well, little Willie, you’d better get married.” In India, for instance, he will have already been married for four years. They say, “Now it is time for you to get together.’’ You will remember that child marriage in India does not lead to cohabitation until they are both quite mature. So little Willie never gets those tensions. Why shouldn’t our high-school kids be married, instead of going steady? Why shouldn't father and mother help support them?
Maclean’s: You’ve said the Western custom of necking would strike the Eastern culture as being unnatural — a form of torture.
McClure: Oh, terrible. I was speaking to an Arab service club, and the word “necking” came up. and I had to try to describe what necking was. The general opinion was a shout of what was the matter with the Western man? Was he paralyzed?
Maclean’s: Well, Luther suggested
Mary was probably no more than I 5 when Jesus was born.
McClure: Could have been. I haven't read much Luther. He didn't do much in orthopedics. But there is nothing wrong in holding the family together.
I think of my Parsee friends, who just about have the ideal marriage. Their failure rate is one in a thousand, our failure rate is one in four.
Maclean’s: And they marry young? McClure: Oh yes, quite young. The whole family is involved in the marriage, you see. The girl’s brother has checked over the prospective groom carefully. He is no rake. All right. And the girl has been checked over by the boy’s sisters and mother and aunts. And the two families come together and say, “I think Mary is a decent girl and Willie is a decent boy, and Mary and Willie come from about the same social status, the same cultural background; they’re likely to be compatible.”
Maclean’s: But what about romance? McClure: Well, I claim romance is purely a matter of hormone concentration in the blood at the time. You can actually take tests of it in the blood and the urine and tell what the level of it is . . . Were you going to say something like breathalyzer? You know, if it’s above .1 percent, you’re in love! If it’s below .1 percent you’re not! It’s iust a part of biology. Maclean’s: In other words, prepared or arranged marriages foster real love. What comes after?
McClure: I believe an arranged marriage would be an improvement. You can have a different kind of arrangement. The girl might go out with the boy and say, “I like Willie. You haven't picked me a partner. I do like Willie.” So the family looks Willie over. But the girl doesn’t say, “Oh, Willie and I were out — pow — love hit us.” 1 mean, love is a thing that grows.
Maclean’s: What about the role of the missionary in the East today? Has it changed?
McClure: Oh yes, tremendously.
There was a time when the greater
emphasis was on oral evangelism, I suppose. And there was a time, when the Eastern world would listen to the Western world: from about 1890 to World War I. After World War I, the Eastern world didn’t listen quite so carefully.
Maclean’s: So the modern missionary practises more than he preaches. McClure: That's right. We follow Gandhi’s idea: that to a hungry man, God will appear in the form of a loaf of bread, to a drought-stricken farmer in the form of a tube well, to the mother and father of a little boy who is crippled, God will appear in the form of an orthopedic department with a rehabilitation centre. We have a motor mechanic from Saskatchewan. We sent him to Katmandu and Nepal and he keeps 40 vehicles there in order because he's a good motor mechanic. This is important. You say, well, don't we need any more evangelists? Yes, we do, because there is an indigenous church there and we want to help its preachers. We want to help them in using our media — evangelism through the TV. I haven’t seen any yet, but it might come some day. eh?
Maclean’s: Did you have TV in India?
McClure: No. thank God.
Maclean’s: What do you think of Canadian TV?
McClure: As an amusement, it's marvellous. And I'm sure it sells detergent and mushy cake and all kinds of deodorants. I think we must be the stinkingest nation in the world, the amount of deodorant we sell through TV. The other night I saw a terrible medical condition that's apparently sweeping across Canada; it’s called dandruff. And it’s a terrible thing, worse than leprosy. TV dandruff must be one of the worst kinds.
Maclean’s: I understand you’re a keen cyclist.
McClure: Oh, I was known as the bicycle doctor and I always believed in the bicycle. It’s good for your heart. I had the first bicycle over the Burma road. I had a bicycle in China during the war. 1 could bike 85 miles at night and be at the next place for the air raid the next morning. Because there were air raids in the day time and they were very dangerous.
Maclean’s: Do you still cycle? McClure: I left my bicycle behind eight months ago. I’ve missed it ever since. When I let my last bicycle go, I had just finished 50,000 miles. That’s twice around the world on the bicy-i cíe. 1 think that’s good. ★