In 1925, four denominations merged together to form a new Canadian superdenomination. At the time, this new United Church of Canada dominated the protestant landscape of Canada. It was ubiquitous, for example performing a quarter of all marriages in Canada for decades, even as the Catholic Church held the plurality among denominations in the country.
The merger consisted of the following denominations. First, The Methodist Church, Canada, which itself was a united church. In 1884 the Methodist Church of Canada, the Methodist Episcopal Church in Canada, Bible Christian Church of Canada and Primitive Methodist Church in Canada had joined together, and this denomination contained nearly all the Methodists in Canada. Secondly, the Congregational Union of Ontario and Quebec, a relatively small denomination, was part of the merger, along with the Association of Local Union Churches and two thirds of the Presbyterian Church in Canada. In 1968, the Evangelical United Brethren Church in Canada also joined the United Church.
In 1971, the Disciples of Christ and Anglican Churches in Canada approved a plan of Union with the United Church, but this ended up falling apart, one reason being the issue of Apostolic Succession. A formal agreement recognizing the validity of baptisms between these groups along with Catholics and the continuing Presbyterian denomination was however completed.
What does the United Church of Canada Believe and teach? The answer is that there is a very broad spectrum of acceptable belief in the United Church of Canada. In 2015 the denomination made international news when the church held an ecclesiastical hearing that could had led to the dismissal of one of their ministers – Avowed atheist Greta Vosper. Vosper has been an atheist since 2001, and retained her role as a United Church pastor. In 2018, the denomination decided not to take action, and she remains a United Church pastor today. Vosper says about the United Church,
“My congregation belongs to The United Church of Canada, probably the most progressive Christian denomination in the world. It ordained women over seventy years ago and has been ordaining openly LGBTQ leaders for decades. But theologically it remains in the closet about the human construction of religion and all its trapping. I couldn’t stay in that closet.”
Vosper isn’t alone as an atheist in United Church leadership, but most of the reverends are theists. However, even the standard monotheistic understanding of God isn’t a gimme in the United Church. In 2016, Richard Bott, a United Church pastor in Vancouver, conducted a survey of United Church clergy and found the following: The most common view among United Church clergy of God is of panentheism. In fact, it’s the majority. 51% agreed with the statement, “I believe in the existence of god/God, and that God/god is greater than the universe, includes and interpenetrates it.”
34% of respondents to Bott’s survey agreed with the following statement of classical theism: “I believe in one god/God as the creator and ruler of the universe, and further believe that God/god reveals godself/Godself through supernatural revelation.”
2.3 percent were deists, 2.1 percent view God as a metaphor, 1.2 percent were agnostic, and 0.7 percent atheist.
Numbers aside, the acceptance of an atheist minister indicates that there is not much off-limits theologically in the United Church. In the 2019 book “The Theology of the United Church of Canada” John Young writes in the introduction,
“In a practice much less common to both the Methodist and Reformed traditions, Ministry Personnel in the UCC are not obligated to offer a literal subscription to the denomination’s doctrinal statements. Rather they are required to say that they are in “essential agreement” With them and that they see the UCC’s statement of doctrine “as being in substance agreeable to the teaching of the Holy Scriptures.”
We’ll be referencing this book “The United Church of Canada” which I purchased in preparation for this article, quite a bit, and I suggest if you want a much more thorough view of the matter that you get it too.
Very much about the theology of a denomination can be estimated simply by looking to what the viewpoint of that denomination is on the Bible. In “The Theology of the United Church of Canada”, Robert Fennell writes about the United Church’s view on scripture and revelation. He says,
Without a firm requirement that all persons adhere to a single interpretive approach or even to a common doctrinal standard, there is a great deal of freedom in how UCC members may treat the Bible. Individuals may revere or reject it; they may honour it as the inspired Word of God; regard it as merely one piece of literature among millions of others; find in it a treasure trove of wisdom; see it as containing the actual words of God; or hold any number of other perspectives.
That being Said, Fennell also points out that in 2012 the United Church “identified the Bible as the authority to which all doctrinal statements and claims are defined as ‘subordinate.'” One of the United Church’s twenty articles of doctrine states in part, “We receive the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, as containing the only infallible rule of faith and life, a faithful record of God’s gracious revelations, and as the sure witness of Christ.” When the denominations that united to form the United Church discussed this point, they eventually settled on this wording. Originally, the wording had been that “We receive the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, as the only infallible rule of faith and life…”, but the word containing was added. This, fitting with the denial of inerrancy in theologically Liberal churches, fit with the historical-critical method that holds sway in the United Church. The statement to some may seem to be a constraint on the tendency toward a shifting orthodoxy, but recall that a member or clergyperson within the United Church may choose to simply not believe or follow even the church’s own statements without censure.
This is clearly demonstrated by what Fennell goes on to say in the book about the Church’s view on scripture over the years.
“The UCC could never be accused of being biblicist or literalistic. There has always been a robust sense of the Bible as a human document, even though it is God-inspired. As an important study remarked in the early 1990’s, “Christians do not believe in the Bible; we believe in the God who is witnessed to in it…. [As a result] not everything found in the Bible is to be taken as a direct word of God to us.” This conviction expressed a view that emerged most clearly after the Second World War: the Bible ought no longer to be understood as infallible. When in 1925 the Twenty Articles of Doctrine referred to the Bible as “containing the only infallible rule of faith and life,” this reflected a then-popular view of Scripture as flawless and perfect. In time, with the growing prevalence of modernist modes of thought, this perspective faded. In particular, there was a gradual clarification in the UCC that while Scripture might “contain” an infallible rule, the Bible itself is not the infallible rule. By the time The New Curriculum appeared in the 1960s, the language of “infallibility” no longer held sway. As Mathers argued in one of The New Curriculum books, “If it is [biblical] infallibility you want, you need an infallible church, too.” The implication was clear enough: there is no infallible church. Accordingly, interpretive work will never be infallible, and so the church must no longer look to Scripture as if it were infallible. The 1966 report of the Committee on Christian Faith emphasized the point: “the scriptures must not be regarded as infallible objects of faith. As human words of witness to God (as self-revealed) they are subject to the fallibility that belongs to human limitations and sin. Infallibility belongs alone to God.” From that point on, the term was abandoned.”
In 1944, the United Church published a catechism, followed shortly after in 1945 by “A Companion to the Catechism.” In this companion guide, the author Arthur Lochead wrote of the Trinity, in terms that indicate that orthodox Trinitarian beliefs were no longer all that was accepted in the United Church, a modalist interpretation was also acceptable:
[Christians] “believe as firmly as Jews or Mohammedans or Unitarians that there is but one God,” but this one God is like a stage actor with three roles, the “one God appearing in different circumstances as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”
In “The Theology of the United Church of Canada”, the author on the chapter on the Trinity, Catherine Faith MacLean says,
“He explains that God was known as one almighty Creator until after the resurrection when believers began to worship Jesus as God, and a third form of God’s activity was revealed at Pentecost when they recognized this Spirit as the Spirit that rested on Jesus at his baptism.”
Later in the chapter on the Trinty, MacLean explains some of the issues facing Trinitarianism in the United Church today:
Questions and critiques raised by the feminist movement found their way into matters of faith, theology, and liturgy soon thereafter. “The work of fostering religious consciousness which is explicitly incompatible with sexism will require an extraordinary degree of creative rage, love, and hope,” Mary Daly wrote in 1971. She went on: […] Daly was among the first to sound a warning about the male—bound language of Trinitarianism and its impact on human self-perception and the injustice it fosters in human relating. Daly argued that as the credibility of a masculine divinity decays, so does the understanding that the incarnation necessarily must be reflected in the male sex.
MacLean mentions that part of the response was reflected in a popular communion prayer of the United Church: “We thank you God, Father and Mother of us all.”
Maclean also quotes United Church Author Charlotte Caron, stating:
Charlotte Caron has identified that many see Trinitarian theology as an obstacle to women’s co-equal humanity. She wrote about the variety of theologies across the denomination, observing: “For many with orthodox views, hierarchy composes part of God’s order: God reigns above all. From the most conservative perspective the order flows downward—God (in the Trinity), angels, rulers, religious leaders, men, wives, children, others”
Hierarchy, grounded in God, presses dorm women, children, all of us. There must be other ways to understand and express God, if God is love.
The name ‘trinity’ is in many United Church congregations’ names, and the doctrine is present in creeds and still affirmed by the United Church. Affirmation of the trinity is part of being in the World Council of Churches, and the Catholic Church will not accept baptisms from churches that don’t baptize with a Trinitarian formula. The baptism issue and remaining ecumenically joined with other denominations do seem to be restraining factors on drift from Trinitarian theology in the United Church.
Of course, Trinitarianism recognized the deity of Christ, which is not a given among all United Church ministers. In 1997, the Ottawa Citizen published a news article based on an interview with the United Church’s Moderator, Bill Phipps.
The divinity of Jesus and the reality of heaven and hell are irrelevant, says the new moderator of the United Church of Canada. What really matters, says Rev. Bill Phipps, is mending a broken world. He says Jesus was more interested in life on earth than the afterlife, and had more to say about economics than any other subject. “I don’t believe Jesus was God, but I’m no theologian,” Mr. Phipps says. His lapel button, “Zero Poverty,” reflects the views he developed in the mid-1960s as a student observing riots and civil-rights marches in New York and Chicago. “Biblically, it’s an abomination that there are any poor people in Canada at all,” he says.
Phipps position on the deity of Christ was controversial, but he remained the Church’s moderator. Don Schweitzer, in The Theology of the United Church of Canada writes about how, similarly to the mainline churches in the United States, the church had large numbers of theologians who took higher criticism to its ends and ended up disbelieving the miraculous and the resurrection of Christ.
Popular among many people in the UCC at this time were the understandings of Jesus generated by New Testament scholars such as John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg, and popularized by John Shelby Spong.’ These authors tended to see the eschatological elements in the gospel accounts of Jesus’s public ministry as later, inauthentic accretions and the resurrection narratives as fictional representations of the church’s beliefs. They understood Jesus as an inspired person whose message was distorted by later church teaching. While these portrayals of Jesus were sometimes potentially radical in their social implications, they refused to see Jesus as anything more than an inspired person. This put them at odds with the New Testament and made it difficult for them to explain how faith in Jesus Christ survived his crucifixion.
United Church minister Connie denBok mentioned in a news article how this undermined the Church.
“In the 1960s and ’70s we became embarrassed about Jesus. And so we distanced ourselves from Jesus, and the point is without Jesus there’s no point in having a church. iTunes has better music and the NDP has better policies; everything else we do now somebody else does way better. The only thing we can do is this Jesus thing,”
In addition to evolving views on God, the United Church has also developed a different view of other religions. Robert Fennell, writing in “The Theology of the United Church of Canada”, says
The changing understanding of God’s activity among non-Christian majority cultures with which overseas mission personnel interacted also impacted UCC theological reflection significantly.
Don Schweitzer also writes,
“The 1966 report World Mission” introduced a fundamental change into the UCC’s understanding of Jesus’s relations to other religions. The […] report called for some “reconceptualizing of traditional attitudes” toward other religions. Previous UCC materials understood the revelation of God in Jesus Christ to surpass that available in other religions. World Mission moved the UCC’s official understanding of this relationship dramatically towards a more respectful attitude towards other world religions and provided a Christological basis for this. As God’s action in Christ had respected the rights of other people to accept or reject the gospel, so Christians should respect the integrity of a non—Christian’s choice of religion. Mission was now broadened to include dialogue with other religions, which might lead Christians to a better understanding of their own faith”
The United Church does not teach that salvation can be found only through Christianity, and especially in the case of Judaism is averse to seeking converts from other religions. Don Schweitzer writes,
Next came Bearing Faithful Witness, a statement by the UCC about its relationship to Judaism. This was received in 2003. It emphasized that Jesus’s teaching and ministry could be understood only in relation to his Jewish heritage. It repudiated any notion of supersessionism that understood Christianity as replacing Judaism or rendering it obsolete,” and argued that Jesus extended the breadth of God’s promises and blessing to include gentiles. It provided a post-Holocaust reading of major New Testament traditions and concluded that Jesus probably understood himself as a prophet but not as the Messiah.” It argued that the correct answer to the question “Is Jesus the Messiah?” was “For Jews, no; for many Christians, yes.” This moved the UCC’s Christology to a more pluralist position.
This can also be seen in the 99-page document the church produced on Islam, called “That we May Know Each Other. In the section on “A Christian Understanding of the Qur’an as Revelation”, it is stated, “…Christians may affirm that the Qur’an is revelation to Muslims while not being authoritative for Christians. As Jews do not require Jesus to be authoritative for their covenant with God, so Christians do not require the Qur’an to give authority to our covenant.”
Later, in the section on “Can Christians Affirm Muhammad as a Prophet?”, it is stated:
We believe it is important that Christians strive to speak truthfully and respectfully of Muhammad. We also believe it is a possible, though major, step forward in Muslim—Christian relationships for Christians to acknowledge Muhammad as a prophet of God.
According to Don Schweitzer, the Church has returned somewhat to viewing Christianity as having unique value. He writes,
Up until the 1960s, the UCC typically took an inclusivist position in its understandings of Jesus’s relationship to other religions. Since then, it has typically affirmed the uniqueness of Jesus as the Christ but also the need for dialogue with other religions. […]”Christ” in the New Testament is an evaluative term. It designates Jesus as having a unique saving significance for the whole of creation. A pluralist understanding of Jesus’s relationship to other religions does not do justice to this aspect of the New Testament witness. Faith in Jesus Christ places one within the tension of affirming both “the enriching facts of cultural and religious plurality, and ‘commitment’ as a clear advocacy of the distinctive symbols and perspectives of the Christian tradition centered in Jesus the Christ?” The UCC has tended to stand within this tension and in recent decades has adopted a more respectful, dialogical approach to other religions, while still affirming Jesus’s uniqueness.
Despite this, the church is welcoming to integrating other spiritualities into the United Church. Adrian Jacobs writes disdainfully about how the Church previously tried to convert the Canadian indigenous peoples instead of respecting their beliefs:
Even though Indigenous people had their own understanding of spiritual matters, to the European Christian colonizers, it was in error and needed to be replaced by “correct” European Christian doctrine. […] Western Christianity in general, and the UCC in particular, was not shy about knowing what this “only infallible rule of faith and life” was. Many Indigenous followers of the Jesus way absorbed the missionaries’ view and ruled out Indigenous spirituality as pagan and something to be abandoned. […]In 1986, the UCC apologized for this Eurocentric, Western-ethnocentric, and Western-Christian approach to discipling Indigenous church members: “We did not hear you when you shared your vision we were closed to the value of your spirituality… We tried to make you like us and in so doing we helped destroy the vision that made you what you were. As a result, you, and we, are poorer and the image of God in us is twisted, blurred, and we are not what we are meant by God to be”
What is the United Church’s view on sin? In The Theology of the United Church of Canada, Sandra Beardsall covers the topic. The first twenty pages of the chapter are filled with the story of the gradual shift in the church’s theology, from a recognition of human sinfulness to a focus on the need of the church to rectify the social ills of society, and the failure to do so being sinful. After covering this history, and reaching the 1950s, Beardsall writes,
In 1955, Templeton, the church’s most high—profile preacher of the need for personal conversion and a God-fearing nation, declared he could no longer go on, and he quit his evangelist’s career. “My convictions as to some aspects of Christian doctrine became diluted with doubt,” he said. Templeton’s anxieties prefigured a new and changed world for Canada’s Christian churches. Doubt and disinterest were on the horizon. Fewer and fewer UCC worshippers would be willing to testify: “I’m only a sinner, saved by grace.” Change was in the air.
Beardsall later writes,
… “original sin” was on its way out of mainstream North American Protestantism by the late 1960s.
Colonized nations were winning their independence. Civil rights groups and war resisters were on the march. The American Indian Movement was opening a new chapter in Indigenous communities. Middle—class women were rediscovering their feminist voices. Even the Roman Catholic Church was opening its windows to the world. Niebuhr was yesterday’s news; now the cover of Time magazine famously asked: “Is God Dead?” The spirit of the age was liberation, not “man’s helplessness and need.” And many of these liberated souls, aware of the power dynamics at work in naming sins and sinners, were not interested in hearing “dead white men,” their oppressors, pronounce them utterly sinful and incapable of doing good. The new theologies that emerged eschewed classical Protestantism and Neo-Orthodoxy. Sin returned to the public square as “the will of a privileged minority who have made possible the construction and maintenance of an unjust society, the capitalist society.”
The United Church of Canada has rarely, as a denomination, been unsure about what is wrong in human behaviour. Disunity, spirituous liquor, gambling, untrammelled capitalism, communism, premarital sex, homophobia, bottled water, racism, sexual exploitation, empire, colonization: these have stood at various times alongside more general acknowledgements of human alienation from God as “sin.” That the list has shifted over time—and even contradicted previous approbations—has perhaps helped to give the UCC the reputation of being “soft on sin,” or simply letting the tide of current affairs set its norms. This is the price of being a church that, from the outset, understood itself to be vigorously engaged with its culture, not content with the “old type of Evangelism.”
Let’s briefly discuss a few more theological matters. It shouldn’t be surprising that the United Church does not hold to any form of literal interpretation of the creation account in Genesis. Harold Wells, in The Theology of the United Church of Canada writes on creation,
Many biblical texts are not to be interpreted literally as fact or history, but as symbolic and poetic. The ancient biblical authors knew nothing, of course, about the evolution of life forms. We read the creation texts, then, as foundational expressions of faith, insight, and witness.
Wells later states,
It is interesting to consider that many in the UCC considered Neo-Orthodoxy “liberal” in the 1960s. This was evident in the conflict over the New Curriculum. This educational program, for church folk of all ages, was a serious effort of the church to build a theologically literate laity, introducing church members to non-literal interpretations of the Bible, intending to help them reconcile their faith with modern science—all of this while steadfastly reaffirming the basics of trinitarian faith. The curriculum stimulated anger and division among many church people. Particularly influential with laypersons, however, was the adult study book “The Word and the Way” by Donald Mathers. In a Neo-Orthodox way, he implicitly assumed evolutionary science, declaring that “science describes how the world took shape” but the doctrine of creation affirms that “all things were made by God” and “that he is in control of his creation” and “it is good.” While the curriculum was unpopular with many members, it served to move the UCC decisively away from biblical literalism and fundamentalism.”
On the United Church’s view of Divine Sovereignty or Predestination, Wells writes,
At any rate, a contemporary, scientific history of the planet and of the universe clearly does not point to an all-controlling deity who creates, orders, and rules over all things by divine fiat. I suggest that, since the late nineteenth century, we have seen a gradual collapse of what is called “classical theism.” By classical theism I mean a doctrine of an all-controlling, unchangeable, and invulnerable deity—an all-powerful “God” who unilaterally determines the destinies of individuals, nations, and planets.
[…] Moreover, an all-controlling divine monarch tends to legitimize domineering rulers and an imperialistic, oppressive Christianity.
The United Church is heavily affected by feminist theology. Wells mentions a few key players:
Feminist and ecofeminist theologies, originating mainly in the US, have had a huge impact on UCC theology of God and creation, its language of worship, and its ethics. Since the 1960s, perhaps the most important feminist pioneer has been Rosemary Radford Ruether. She calls for “God language beyond patriarchy,” denouncing the domineering male deity of classical Christian theism who legitimizes all the worst of male behavior toward women and human domination of nature. As an ecofeminist, Ruether has vigorously opposed the dualism of body and spirit, critiquing “the correlation of dominated woman and dominated nature,” seeking an ecological/ feminist theology of nature. Another theologian in this genre is Elizabeth Johnson, whose work is well known in the UCC. She offers a trinitarian eco-feminist panentheism.
Most in the United Church do not hold to a Penal, Substitutionary view of the atonement. Don Schweitzer writes,
…in the first book published in the New Curriculum series, Donald Mathers noted that Anselm and Calvin’s understanding of substitutionary atonement seems “to oppose the love of God to his justice and his holiness, and even to suggest that Christ has to work against his angry and wrathful Father in order to save men.” Yet Mathers affirmed that this understanding “sets forth the gravity of sin, the predicament of men and the fact that Christ does for us what we could not do for ourselves.” This critique of substitutionary atonement—while affirming its meaning—is a consistent theme in UCC Christology, from the commentary on the Twenty Articles of Doctrine up until the mid-1960s.
The United Church has made statements and acted on many contemporary political issues in Canada. For example, in 2015, the church divested its general treasury from any interest in fossil fuels and focused on renewable energy.
As has been seen already in previous quotes, the church has had longstanding critiques of capitalism. Schweitzer writes,
Towards the Christian Revolution interpreted society in conflictual term and Jesus Christ as a prophetic figure with what is now known as a preferential option for the poor, whose teaching demanded a socialist alternative to capitalism. In light of this, following a trajectory in Karl Barth’s theology, affirming the deity of Jesus Christ led to asserting that God judges the world and takes sides in the conflicts of history. The Depression had opened the contributors’ eyes to how capitalism oppressed the poor and created sinful social structures that only collective action could adequately address. Jesus was seen to have carried forward the prophetic tradition of Israel. He identified with society’s victims, preached the coming of an egalitarian reign of God, and called his followers to seek God’s reign and to find their lives through losing them in service to its coming.
Gail Allan and Marilyn Legge write in The Theology of the United Church of Canada on how the church has come to be fully accepting of the LGBT movement. They say,
Meanwhile, the UCC also grappled intensely in this era with its complicity in homophobia and heterosexism. After multitudinous expressions of deep pain and prayer, conflict, and petitions, the General Council adopted in 1988 the Membership, Ministry and Human Sexuality statement declaring that “all persons, regardless of sexual orientation, who profess their faith in Jesus Christ are welcome to be or become members of the United Church of Canada” and that “all members of the Church are eligible to be considered for ordered ministry.”
In 2010, the first transgender minister in the United Church was ordained.
On Sacraments, the church’s Twenty Articles of Doctrine state,
[W]e acknowledge two sacraments, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, which were instituted by Christ, to be of perpetual obligation as signs and seals of the covenant ratified in His precious blood, as a means of grace, by which, working in us, He doth not only quicken but strengthen and comfort our faith in Him, and as ordinances through the observance of which His Church is to confess her Lord and be visibly distinguished from the rest of the world.
Baptism is not taught as necessary for salvation, it is done with a Trinitarian formula, and is for either infant or adults.
For the Lord’s Supper, the elements are bread and wine, which is commonly unfermented, open to all believers.
Other than that, there are not really common commitments of understanding of the sacraments. Their necessity, their effect, Christ’s presence, and so forth – on each of these points different churches may believe differently or have no set theology on the matter at all.
As with most theologically liberal denominations in the early 1900s, the churches that merged to form the United Church held to an eschatology, or view of the end times, that was primarily postmillennial – meaning they believed that the return of Christ would be after the millennium, and thus through the work of the church in making the world a better place, Christians would usher in the millennial kingdom. This philosophy was very compatible with a social gospel. Michael Bourgeois, writing in The Theology of the United Church of Canada, informs us of this compatibility:
Even as liberal evangelicals embraced higher biblical criticism and adopted less literal understandings of the “Second Coming,” post—millennialism remained a vital component of evangelical Protestant theology and fuelled the drive for the related aims of church union, social reform, and domestic and world mission. By the start of the twentieth century, Protestant evangelicalism in Canada and the US was fragmenting due to liberal—postmillennial and conservative—premillennial differences. Nevertheless, well into the second decade of the twentieth century, Protestant churches’ perceived successes in mission, ecumenism, and social service—apparent signs of the gradual realization of the Reign of God in history—reinforced post—millennialism’s influence.
Bourgeois also writes how this view lost sway in the early 20th century:
Although not immediately apparent, the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914 marked the beginning of the end of post-millennialism as the dominant form of Protestant eschatological expectation. The war’s devastating brutality, with the “Christian nations” engaged in what appeared to be interminable, pointless slaughter of their people, punctured early twentieth—century Protestantism’s hopeful vision of a gradual improvement in history.
So what does a United Church eschatology look like then? Certainly the church has not done less in attempting to improve the social order. Bourgeois explains:
An alternative eschatology may be emerging. Like traditional amillennialism, formal UCC statements and individual members seem largely unconcerned about the timing of the return of Jesus Christ and regard the course of history realistically, hoping and working for partial realizations of God’s Reign but acknowledging that setbacks and failures are inevitable.
Eschatology in the United Church, like other liberal protestant groups, does not receive nearly as much of a focus as it does in Conservative evangelical churches.
In the conclusion to The Theology of the United Church of Canada, the change in the United Church’s theology over the years is discussed.
“…UCC theology tends to change. Is there a pattern to this change? The denomination has been accused of simply adapting its theology to the surrounding Canadian context and predominating trends. In one sense this is true. The UCC tries to express its theology in language and concepts that can communicate the gospel to its context. For this reason, the terminology it uses to articulate its theology tends to be adapted to changes in its context. […] As A Statement of Faith put in in 1940, “Christians of each new generation are called to state [the church’s faith] afresh in terms of the thought of their own age and with the emphasis their age needs.” This is typically the way in which UCC theology changes. And so the theology of The United Church of Canada remains a work in progress.
How is the United Church faring numerically?
The 2011 Canadian Census, or National Household Survey, asked the religion of all Canadians, and here are some of the results in brief. 38.99 percent claimed Catholic, and 23.9 percent claimed no religion. For Protestants, The United Church had the largest number, 6.11 percent – or just over two million people of the 32.8 million polled. 4.97 percent were Anglican, Baptists were 1.94 percent, Lutherans had 1.46 percent, Pentecostal also had 1.46 percent, and Presbyterians 1.44 percent. Orthodox Christianity had 1.68 percent.
So when Canadians were asked what their religion is, a decade ago in 2011, over six percent claimed adherence to the United Church.
Two things need to be considered in these numbers. First, many people claim to be part of a denomination but rarely or never attend, and second, a lot can happen in a decade. So let’s turn to the official statistics from the denominational bodies themselves. In December 2018, the United Church released their latest statistics, showing that there are 388,363 members in the United Church, in 2,711 congregations. Average weekly attendance is 120,986.
That means on a given week, you can expect only one Canadian person out of every three hundred to attend a United Church service, that’s less than one third of one percent. But looking back at the membership numbers, it also means that the dominance that the United Church seemed to have among protestant denominations seems to disappear into thin air.
Compared to the 388 thousand members in the United Church, the Anglican Church of Canada in 2017 claimed 359,030 members in 2,206 congregations.
The Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada claims 234,385 members in 1,077 congregations.
These numbers are a result of a decades-long trend of decline in the number of members and attendees in the United Church, closely mirroring the similar decline of theologically liberal Mainline Churches in the United States. At the merger and creation of the United Church in 1925, there were around 600,000 members, or 6.45 percent of the Canadian Population. By 1964 United Church membership was up to 1.1 million – the peace before the decline. But as a percentage of the population of Canada, they were in decline all along. That 1.1 million people was only 5.7 percent of the 1964 population. So bring that to the present number of 388,363 members and United Church membership is only 1.03 percent of Canada’s population today.
Membership tells part of the story, but other numbers paint an even bleaker picture. Worship attendance from just 1990 until 2013 is down 55 percent. Professions of faith are down 70 percent. Sunday School Membership is down 75 percent. Child baptisms are down 75 percent, and Marriages are down 80 percent. None of the few dozen megachurches in Canada – churches that have 2,000 people in weekly attendance – are part of the United Church. Back in 2012, the largest United Church congregation had an average attendance of 540, one of only six United Chuch congregations with more than 400 people attending the services on average.
Kevin Flatt, History professor at Redeemer University has identified what may be the reason for the decline.
“The main question is, What are the characteristics a religious group needs to have in order to hold on to members and maintain its relevance in our society? There have been lots of studies that show a religious group has to have a very clear and shared identity and there are boundaries around the group that makes them distinct from the general culture. In the United Church, those lines have blurred.
“What is this organization bringing to the table that doesn’t already exist from a secular perspective? There are many people concerned about the environment who have no belief in God. If you are essentially not bringing anything that’s different, there’s a risk you will be perceived as redundant and groups who are redundant lose members.”
And there were those who saw the decline coming before it was evident. In 1961, the cover article on MacLean’s, a Canadian News Magazine, was “The hidden failure of our churches.” In the decade at which Canadian Liberal churches were at their peak, the article stated,
At first glance the signs—at least those close to home—are reassuring. The massive blows that various forms of rebellion, reaction and nationalism have dealt the Catholic and Protestant churches in Asia. Africa, Europe and Latin America have scarcely been felt in North America. Statistically the Christian denominations and sects in Canada and the United States are in good health. Their growth in membership and attendance is in nearly all cases, either keeping up with or surpassing the growth in population.
Put almost without exception the leaders of the Christian churches are the first to admit that the statistics are misleading. Their control over the conscience and behavior of Western man is seriously shaken and perhaps in imminent danger of being lost, and nowhere is this realized so agonizingly as in the churches themselves.
The United Church of Canada is a member of the Canadian Council of Churches, World Council of Churches, and a full communion partner with the United Church of Christ since 2015 and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) since 2019.