Saturday, December 22, 2012

What's happening to Canadian Christianity?

I wrote a post recently on some female Anglican priests who performed the play The Vagina Monologues in a cathedral.

A reader has pointed out to me that the United Church of Canada (the equivalent of the Uniting Church here in Australia) is no better. But before I point out what's happening in that church I'd like to set out a theory of what's going wrong in a number of Christian churches.

The theory goes like this. A church that is functioning well is going to create a religious culture through which its members will come to a sense of communion with the divine. But there are Christian churches now which are either abandoning or compromising this function.

What they are increasingly focusing on is the idea of bringing meaning or purpose to their members' lives through involvement in a series of causes, such as environmentalism, the Palestinians, Aborigines or refugees.

It is no coincidence that this aligns these churches very closely with liberalism. There are a lot of liberals who like to believe that they have a "deep social conscience" which means that they support the marginalised and dispossessed. It's likely that Western liberals were influenced by Christianity in this, as it is a part of Christianity to be concerned for "the least amongst you". It's possible that liberals secularised this aspect of Christianity and ran with it. And now this secularised liberal ethos is making its way back into the churches from which it most likely originated, albeit as part of a larger and more integrated religious view of things.

What does it mean when churches go with a secularised "cause" based approach rather than the more traditional "religious culture" one? Here's one significant problem. A religious culture was one of the forces protecting against anomie; it was significant in bringing a sense of a moral universe to the individual, of the goods of family life, of the sacred purpose of social roles and social hierarchies, of a higher purpose of art and culture. It helped, in other words, to protect against the dissolving of society and social roles and relationships and identities.

So the more that the churches abandon the traditional function, the more likely it is that anomie will increase, which then means that cause based satisfaction will have to be ramped up even more to compensate for this.

And here's another unfortunate consequence. Because there is so little difference between the secular liberal ideal of "social conscience" and the new church focus on "social justice" or "cause" based satisfaction, then there is little to prevent members of the churches from drifting away into the secular liberal mainstream. Why go to church if you can get the same thing in your daily secular programming?

Which brings me back to the United Church of Canada. The process of abandoning a religious culture in favour of a secular cause based one seems to have gone further in this church than elsewhere (though even in suburban Catholic parishes here in Melbourne the process has gone some way). There are parishes of the United Church which have adopted what they call "post-theism"; they continue to talk in a vague way about spirituality but they no longer have religious beliefs:
It’s community prayer time at West Hill United, and a microphone is being passed from hand to hand between the pews. Overhead, colourful streamers resembling a rainbow dangle wistfully, nearly concealing a cross on the wall beyond. A few of the 50 or more people packed into the church on a November Sunday seem to bare all during this time: one offers a prayer for the quashed federal climate change bill, and another remembers a neighbour who has hurt her ankle. A woman stands up to share her battle with depression and reveals she’s been going through a dark stage in her life. “I just ask that I be kept in your thoughts and prayers,” she says, her voice fragile but clear in the Scarborough, Ont., sanctuary.

She wasn’t asking for God’s strength or for a miracle. West Hill identifies itself as a post-theistic congregation, one that does not believe in a supernatural being or an interventionist, capital “G” God, but rather in the sacredness inherent in leading a life of justice and love. And so the woman’s plea was met with “May love abound,” a blessing spoken in unison by the people around her.

Post-theism has quietly emerged in individual United Church ministries across Canada that desire a sense of intellectual satisfaction and nurturing and inspiration in their spiritual lives, qualities they say the traditional format fails to offer. Post-theistic churches use the Bible sparingly, acknowledging its contents as myth — or don’t reference it at all. Many write their own music, use contemporary songs to convey their values or change the lyrics to familiar tunes. Prayers aren’t addressed to God, but to the community and its innate sacredness.

West Hill’s shift to post-theistic worship began in 2001 when the Board decided to gradually shed the word “God,” says Rev. Gretta Vosper, the minister of West Hill and author of With or Without God: Why the Way We Live Is More Important than What We Believe. “In the United Church, we’re very strong about praying for guidance, praying for strength, praying for courage, and if you take that idea of an interventionist God . . . away, nothing has really changed,” she says. “You’re still asking for strength, except it’s not coming from some supernatural source. It comes from the community that you gather with.”

Note the emphasis on "leading a life of justice and love". I'll write more about this later, but if there is a theological heresy in the modern Christian churches it comes from a non-traditional understanding of the concept of caritas, i.e. the virtue of love or charity.

A Protestant historian has made the following criticism of the United Church:
It is that reluctance to define doctrinal belief, while at the same time putting an emphasis on social causes, that is making the United Church indistinguishable from many activist secular groups, said Kevin Flatt, a Protestant historian who has studied the United Church for years.

“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?” said Prof. Flatt, who teaches at Redeemer University in Ancaster, Ont. “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.”

The data on United Church membership seems to back him up:


  1. I have see multiple churches that are dominated by rich urban liberals who take great pride in helping "those people over there". To even suggest that they would serve the church better by helping the people in the church who need it is typically met with shock at the idea that anyone in the church might even need some spiritual or other support.

  2. The United Church has been insane for decades. I recall that back during the early 90s their location on Bloor Street West in downtown Toronto was permitting the evening worship of the Babylonian goddess Ishtar... but only women were admitted.

  3. in each instance, the specific word that replaces God is "community"

    what is community?

    community is woman, with a smattering of male "leaders" and enforcers at the top, to make "community" look like males run it and make its decisions, which they certainly do not

    hilary's Village is no differnt from community

    the frightening truth is that what Reverend Gretta (lol) believes about Community -- that the collective will of Team Woman is a fantastic, and necessary, evolutionary leap forward from the mean old God -- is also the operant principle in most mainstream churches, not just nutfactories like West Hill "church"

    Christians need to start calling all these places what they are -- temples of jezebel

  4. Coincidently, the United Church features strongly in a recent article in the Vancouver Sun wondering why men are abandoning churches in droves.

    The author quotes Rev Nancy Talbot (United Church) about the mystery of why men are no longer engaged with churches:

    "I don't think many of us have answers to why it's happening," says Talbot, who has led Mount Seymour United for eight years while raising two boys in a same-sex relationship with her partner, Brenda.

    Yep, it's a complete mystery...

  5. As you say, Mark, this has been going on for a long time. Here in the U.S. it started in the 1840s and became evident in the big denominational schisms over slavery. The humanitarians, as they were often called, reduced Christianity to love and the brotherhood of man. The orthodox insisted that man and the world were still fallen, and it was beyond human power to will the millennium into existence. The humanitarians became what we think of as liberals, many of them loosing all vestiges of Christianity along the way. The easiest way to tell if you are talking to a liberal Christian or an orthodox Christian by the way they describe sin. For the liberal Christian, sin is always collective. Society has a sinful (i.e. unjust) structure. For the orthodox Christian, sin is almost always personal.

  6. I try not to tell Christians what their religion is or ought to be, but...

    A problem with Christian community redefined as zeal for leftist causes is that leftist causes are all about breaking up the core of White and Western civilization (by preventing the reproduction of patriarchy etc.), while empowering and sanctifying alternatives that ideally would grow into deadly rivals. (As they sometimes do, especially when assisted by mass immigration.) This means that the sacred and the relevant are out there, leaving the community itself, to the extent that it consists of well-socialized Whites (especially men) irrelevant, not sacred and somehow hollowed out.

    At a local Catholic church, old ladies talked with great enthusiasm about their trips to central Australia to help Aboriginals, and other adventures of that nature. Taking it on trust that these brief trips were indeed helpful, I asked what they church, or anyone they knew, did about the abortion issue, this being life and death, and a key point of Catholic morals. (Unspoken - unlike a preference for helping distant Black people over nearby White ones.) Nothing occurred, and these very pious ladies were surprised that anyone would ask about a topic that nobody ever thought about or desired to do anything about. What other issues were there that were nearer than, say, Ayers Rock, that related to specially important people? Nothing occurred. Specially important people were different and distant. Really, such marvelous people, those Aboriginals.

    How can you build community on a scale of values that has as its first article: the people who matter are unlike us and far away, or if nearby, only relevant and good to the extent that they are part of social forces with a tendency to break us up? As for the un-special, mundane human beings nearer at hand, they don't matter even to the extent of caring if they are killed before they ever get a chance to draw a breath.

  7. What is modern Marxism and Cultural Marxist or post-Marxist leftism, at core?

    On a charitable interpretation, it is a great good, summing up a vast array of (perhaps oddly chosen) subordinate goods, and lacking only the additional goods of piety and divine endorsement.

    This suggests that if you move it into any church as far as possible, it will flourish like something that naturally belongs there, becoming holy as well as everything else.

    On an uncharitable interpretation, it is a great evil and always was, as illustrated by the mega-deaths of Communism. It is profoundly and specifically hostile to Christianity; in a direct religious sense, as the religion of a hated race and civilization, and as the only effective guardian of many goods that are now in effect subordinate goods within Christian culture. It does endorse many good things, but essentially it draws legitimacy from them, like a terrorist group using a hospital and a charity as a front, rather than being about such goods.

    This suggests that if you invite it into any organization, especially a Christian church, you are inviting the vampire into your home and making yourself defenseless against it. Leftism will not become holy, it is the churches that will become unholy.

    The uncharitable theory seems to be proving out in practice.

  8. Pope holds firm against gay marriage.

    "People dispute the idea that they have a nature, given to them by their bodily identity, that serves as a defining element of the human being," he said. "They deny their nature and decide that it is not something previously given to them, but that they make it for themselves."

    "The manipulation of nature, which we deplore today where our environment is concerned, now becomes man's fundamental choice where he himself is concerned," he said.


    The Socialist government's plan also envisions legalizing same-sex adoptions. Benedict quoted Bernheim as denouncing that in his view, under the plan, a child is now essentially considered an object people have a right to obtain.

    "When freedom to be creative becomes the freedom to create oneself, then necessarily the Maker himself is denied and ultimately man too is stripped of his dignity as a creature of God," Benedict said.


    A good argument assuming one is prepared to countenance the idea of God. And I don't see any point in a Pope confining himself to arguments framed to be acceptable to atheists.

    It would be interesting to hold up a lot of liberal church doctrine and rhetoric next to the Pope's argument. I don't think liberal writings would look good in that bright light.

  9. Daybreaker wrote:

    A problem with Christian community redefined as zeal for leftist causes is that leftist causes are all about breaking up the core of White and Western civilization ...This means that the sacred and the relevant are out there, leaving the community itself...irrelevant, not sacred and somehow hollowed out.

    That's well put. It's not the only problem with Christianity redefined as zeal for leftist causes but it's one of them.

  10. @Ray,

    A few years ago, a female acquaintance mentioned joining the local unitarian church. She said she wanted to feel a sense of "community" (using that exact word). Pretty much a case in point of what you are talking about here.

    My own internal reaction, which I think I didn't bother expressing because she was a knee-jerk liberal, was along the lines of what Flatt said in the article: what's the point of joining a "church" from which every religious element has been drained, leaving only the flabby social activism and the liberal dogma that you can get anywhere (and do get everywhere)?

  11. The uniting Church here is full of single mothers with multiple children, the few men that go, do not even think about marriage to these women. The few men that do go I think feel sorry for the kids, and try to give them a father figure of some kind, if that's possible on a sunday, and Scouts.