Rev. Bruce Roberts knew that he should not be addressing a group of pin-striped bankers on this particular occasion. But orders had come from the United Church head office in Toronto. As a result, he found himself before the annual meeting of the Bank of Montreal as part of a church delegation chiding the institution for its investments in South Africa. The problem was that the Toronto office had failed to give its Maritime representatives enough information on actual living conditions under apartheid. Then, the bankers asked a few pointed questions of their own, and Roberts ended up feeling “somewhat uncomfortable, to say the least.”
Remembering the episode a few months later makes the self-effacing Roberts uncomfortable. And he cringes all the more because his middle-class Halifax parishioners do not think that bank investments
have anything to do with going to church. “They’re committed Christians,” explains Roberts,
“and strong supporters of programs promoting social justice, such as helping the poor here in Halifax. But, the congregation tends to get fed up with some of the radical activism promoted by the United Church central office.”
Church activism may appear to be the shining sword uniting Canada’s leading main-line Christian churches in a common cause. But for thousands of ordinary Canadian churchgoers, it is precisely the opposite: a disruptive element within the church, causing confusion, bad feeling, and even outright hostility. The turbulent years of the 1960s and 1970s shook the comfortable pew with an onslaught of soulsearching about Christian social
responsibility—and caused nearly an entire generation to abandon the church. But now many churchgoers feel it is time for the church to get back to basics and to stop concerning itself with issues involving economic, political or military affairs. Laments longtime Anglican parishioner David Kent of Toronto. “I don’t think there’s any question about it; this kind of outright interference on the part of the church is offensive and inappropriate.”
Michael Esdaile, another Toronto Anglican, has even stronger views. “Our church leadership is completely offbase on most of these issues,” he says. “If I found myself absolutely forced to support and abide by all the political radicalism and economic nonsense emanating from some of our church leaders and bureaucrats, I’d be out of the church in five minutes.”
Congregational displeasure over church activism rarely gets as much attention as the activism itself. But there is no doubt that the five main-line Christian denominations most actively involved in social issues—Presbyterian, Lutheran, United, Roman Catholic and Anglican—face increasing polarization within their own largely middle-class ranks. Roman Catholics are perhaps least divided, but the Protestant churches are troubled. “Can you blame them?” asks Canon
Ron Davidson, minister of Christ Church Deer Park, a prosperous Anglican parish in Toronto. “There are men and women in my congregation who haven’t known where to turn. They feel betrayed by their own church leadership, which sometimes seems to behave as if it were under the sway of Marxist radicals.”
That sentiment is shared by members of the Timothy Eaton Memorial Church, the largest United Church congregation in Canada. “Our members have always regarded the church as the one place that is safe, solid, removed from the anxieties and controversies of the world,” says senior minister Rev. Stanford Lucyk. “When the church suddenly turns around and starts attacking business or supporting guerrilla movements in the Third World, many members feel their whole order is being threatened. They resent it.”
In their search for a more moderate voice, disgruntled churchgoers have explored a variety of alternatives. Some,
such as David Kent in Toronto— who at one time “seriously considered leaving the church out of sheer exasperation”—have become active in a nationwide Confederation of Church and Business People. This multidenominational group has 900 members who work to help church leaders gain a better grasp of business and economic affairs.
Others, such as George Berg in Lethbridge—who “had to get out of the church I’d been attending for years because the social action stuff was completely turning me off”—have supported a movement known as the United Church Renewal Fellowship. A para-religious organization within the United _uChurch, the fellowship aims at 'getting back to spiritual basics. Still others—and there is no way of telling how many—have
opted for the silent protest by cutting off donations to central church funds earmarked for programs of social “outreach.”
Taken together, these trends do not necessarily constitute a sharp swing to the right. “Most of us in the liberal Christian denominations in Canada have always believed the church has a role to speak out, to take the side of the underdog,” says Toronto businessman and lifelong Anglican Trevor Moore. “What we do object to is when the church takes irresponsible positions on issues it doesn’t fully understand.” Adds Rev. David Cline, head of the United Church Conference in British Columbia: “As often as not, it is the manner, the appearance of dogmatic radicalism, of a small minority within the church hierarchy that gets people’s backs up.”
The key issue currently seems to be whether church leaders can find better ways of communicating with their constituents. As in any organization where the leadership is more radical than the membership at large, Canada’s mainline Christian denominations find themselves in the middle of a backlash. The difficulty for many will be to find the line separating Christian outreach from outright interference in the secular affairs of state.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.