Religion

Comfortable pulpits, uncomfortable pews

Kenneth Bagnell October 9 1978
Religion

Comfortable pulpits, uncomfortable pews

Kenneth Bagnell October 9 1978

Comfortable pulpits, uncomfortable pews

Religion

This autumn, as the faculty returned to the quiet campus of McMaster Divinity College in Hamilton, Ontario, members were met with a special Thanksgiving harvest: the largest number of students in the history of the 90year-old Baptist college. Across Canada, in every Protestant seminary the signs were as promising. In Kingston, Ont., at the United Church of Canada’s Queen’s Theological College, the number of fall applicants was so high that about a dozen had to be turned away. “Things are booming,” says the college principal Robert Bater. Among Canada’s Anglicans there is even a worry that if things continue as they are, the church could face a surplus of clergy in the 1980s.

The increasing enrolments reflect an unexpected new current in the complex ebb and flow of religious life across North America: after almost two decades of decline, the ministry seems to be making a strong comeback as a career choice among the young. In fact, in the United States, leaders of the major churches fear that if the trend doesn’t let up, every denomination could be faced in the next few years with too many ministers for too few congregations. The most startling claim comes from the Hartford Seminary Foundation, an inter-church research group, which predicts that the Episcopal Church may end up around the year 2000 with one priest for every parishioner. Already the Episcopalians are using computers to match up job-hungry priests with congregations. Young clergymen and women are being counselled on career strategy with all the hardedged aggression of the Madison Avenue business world. They are being taught to sell themselves with Dale Carnegie panache as distinct from personal piety. Little wonder in face of reports like that from Vermont where the Richmond Congregational Church advertised for a minister offering a nearpoverty-line $140 a week—and received 36 replies. To many older, traditional clergymen the development is abhorrent. “You used to be able to think God called you to a church,” said one. “But now you have got to scrounge for jobs just like everybody else.”

Ironically, as the young seem to seek out the pulpit, the middle-aged seem to vacate the pew. Between 1966 and 1976, the American Episcopalian Church lost nearly 18 per cent of its members (about 600,000 churchgoers). In Canada the United Church, at 930,000 the country’s largest Protestant denomination, has

reported losses of about 12 per cent or 132,000 members between 1966 and 1977, though some executives claim the statistics don’t reflect a startling loss so much as a pruning of inactive members from the rolls. Still, they admit that the size of the United Church is declining so that with an expanding clergy for a shrinking denomination, they could face a problem period in the mid-’80s.

“Forecasting is always risky,” says Paul Gibson, a consultant on theological education to the Anglican Church, “especially when there are so many shifts in religion and culture that affect the supply of ministers and the church’s capacity to employ them.” But Gibson has produced a study showing that with the increase in ordinations—76 in 1978 compared to 46 in 1977—Canada’s Anglicans could be on the way to an oversupply of clergy.

However, Gibson and others caution that the job crunch for ministers in Canada isn’t as imminent as it appears in the United States. “For one thing,” says A. C. Forrest, longtime editor of The United Church Observer, “the decline in church membership in Canada

is not as sharp as in the United States.” He adds that while Canada’s churches tend to follow American trends, they do so several years later, and even then to a lesser degree. Says Forrest: “We don’t have quite the same boom and bust.” Furthermore, some American experts, notably Lawrence Baskir and William Strauss, authors of Chance and Circumstance: The Draft, the War, and the Vietnam Generation, think the ranks of the U.S. clergy were rapidly inflated a few years ago by many young men who chose the ministry as a way out of military service.

In Canada, the new popularity of the ministry—and the reasons for it—are subjects on which the jury is still out. Partly, enrolments have been swollen simply by the decision of so many women to enter the clergy. At McMaster Divinity College, about 30 per cent of students are female. And many theologues, both male and female, take courses not to receive ordination but as an academic pursuit, a reflection of the widening interest in religion as a subject on campus. Also, according to Melvyn Hillmer, principal of McMaster Divinity College, the Jesus movement of the early ’70s, even though superficial, was sufficient to launch some of the young toward deeper commitments. “It may have been shallow,” he says, “but it was still one of the influences.”

The surge within the seminaries has not yet reached the Roman Catholic Church, which in Canada, as around the world, still suffers a serious shortage of men entering the priesthood. According to the Rev. J. J. Carrigan, rector of St. Peter’s Seminary in London, Ont., only one man was ordained in the London diocese last year compared with the late ’50s when as many as a dozen were ordained each year. Nonetheless, Father Carrigan, whose seminary draws students from across the country, notes that ever since 1968, when St. Peter’s had only 70 students, things have picked up; this year’s enrolment is 99. Even in Quebec, where the decline in vocations was most critical, there is a slight turnaround. “Things have settled down,” says Archbishop Gilles Ouellet of Rimouski, who is also president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops. “There are fewer priests leaving now, and vocations are picking up again.” But in the opinion of Catholic journalist Dan Mothersill of Toronto, a columnist for The Catholic Register, there will be no increases comparable to the Protestant Church’s as long as celibacy remains a Catholic cornerstone. “No matter how you rationalize it,” says Mothersill, “celibacy is the No. 1 barrier.”

Despite the harvest in their classrooms, Protestant leaders still survey it with a slightly cautious eye. “There is an underlying feeling,” says Robert Bater of Queen’s, “that it ought not to be taken simply at face value, as entirely positive. The religious climate of the time, which is leading some people into the ministry, is complex and not entirely healthy. It tends to be quite self-centred. As a result we receive many students who have no interest— not even much awareness—of the relationship of Christianity to issues of our time or even the day-to-day problems people face.” Adds Melvyn Hillmer, “I have to admit that the tendency some have to a highly personalistic view of Christianity causes me concern.”

Moreover, many of the students now entering the ministry come from religious backgrounds that are outside the churches or even alien to them, all the way from street movements like the Jesus People to highly conservative campus crusades. As a result, a large number of the future clergy are often foreign, even antagonistic to the views and styles of the established denominations they enter.

This is especially marked in the case of the United Church of Canada, whose ministers have usually come through local congregations, youth groups and recruitment programs on church campuses. Today, fewer students come from such traditional sources. “Many of the new students,” says the Rev. Howard Mills, secretary of the United Church’s division of ministry, personnel and education, “come from religious movements that are quite outside the churches. Often these are quite inwardlooking movements, and quite conservative, As a result many of the students who come out of them expect the United Church to be like them. But the United Church isn’t.”

Indeed, Mills, who is a bright and candid churchman, is bold enough to approach the question that some church leaders only whisper: how many of the new candidates may be choosing the ministry partly or mainly because it’s a secure job in a job-scarce age? “We have a downturn in the economy,” Mills says, “a growth in authoritarianism and an inward attitude. One has to expect, therefore, that people entering the ministry these days may well be motivated by any or all of these factors. I’m not saying that this is all bad, but it’s not all good either.”

Over the next decade, as the new theologues become part of the ministry of the country’s Christian church, there may be tensions—for them and their denominations—over the teaching and attitudes of liberal, activist Christianity. Perhaps, predict some church executives, they may restrain or even reverse current liberal trends, thus making the churches, in the view of some, less prophetic but more representative of their people. Kenneth Bagnell