Thursday, August 16, 2012

Religious Decline , Liberal Churches, and their Evolution in Canada

By Gary Berg-Cross

Liberal churches and falling religiosity have been discussed on the blog recently. Here is some follow up on these topics using Canadian examples.

A while ago one could think that French Catholic Canada was a more religious place than the US. But in French Canada, and even across broader Canada, there seems to be a pronounced secular movement. Religiosity is in decline. In contemporary, decidedly secular Québec religion has been eroded by a secular nationalism. In Quebec city you can find an old church turned into a public library. Laval University formerly Catholic has become secular.  Another manifestation has been the national conversation promoted by  people like Gretta Vosper who founded  the
Canadian Centre for Pryogressive Christianity in 2004. Her first book, With or Without God: Why the Way We Live is More Important that What We Believe, emphasized just and compassionate living, and a new and wholly humanistic approach to religion. It quickly became a Canadian national bestseller.
Part of the Canadian religious sceine is the swath of Protestant sects, such as Canada’s Anglicans, in decline.  From 1,343,000 parishioners in 1960 Anglicans declined to just under 642,000 by 2001.

Why so? Phyllis Tickle, author of The Great Emergence: How Christianity Is Changing and Why sees a gradual, painful emergence or evolution of  various religions. Her belief is that there is "recurrent pattern" in which every 500 years Christianity has shed  "the incrustations of an overly established" institution and reinvents itself. She sees a similar phenomenon in Islam and Judaism. What Tickle sees emerging in the future is several different types of Christianity which selectively emphasize different aspects of the Christian message.
In her view there are 4 evolving types making up quadrant. In the upper left, quadrant there would be “Liturgical Christians” (hung on established practices without a deep philosophy); while the upper right we have“Social Justice Christians” (more on these from liberal groups later). In the lower part are 2 fundamentalist groups “Renewalist Christians” (Pentecostal/charismatic/neo-charismaticsmay  who may be very activist  ) and  more “Conservative Christians.”

As Tickle puts it, “One locates oneself or one’s faith community on the map in terms of that which is more, or most, important in one’s Christian practice.”
It’s already possible to see a version of "Social Justice Christians”. It is common to speak of liberal churches in Canada which has located their faith this way. One of these is the United Church of Canada, a pillar of Canadian society, UC is the largest Protestant group and seems to be moving in the direction of “Social Justice Christians” away from the other 3 types. In 1965, but in decline, United Church membership hit its peak at 1,064,033. It then began a decline that has continued for 45 years till today. In 2008, membership was almost half of 45 years ago at 525,673. More recently a candid document from the office of the church’s general secretary itemized some problems generated in part from a shifting (the average age of its members is 65 ) and more secular population:
“They include declining membership, aging congregations and ministers, eroding finances, and a model of ministry and mission that has failed to engage the spiritual yearnings of many young people. Many Canadians find community in workplaces, book clubs, sports teams and Facebook, but church simply is not on their radar.” 
The church reaction has been a bit of following its members many of whom are interested in social justice. Members and congregations have diverse beliefs, which does not necessarily include God. Some congregations describe themselves as “post-theistic,” and as one church elder said, it shows the church is not “stuck in the past.” One disaffected branch of the United Church of Canada in Vancouver has voted to join a Humanist association in reaction to ongoing disputes within its national executive around social issues. At least three churches in Canada have ratified a merger with Humanism this year, and at least some say that more may follow. One reason offered is that so called liberal churches are converging with humanism. Designated Pastor John Meagher of Ottawa’s Humanist Church described it this way:
“Christian and Humanist ethics are almost identical, and we are learning from each other that liberal Christianity and an inclusive Humanism have much to share and to teach each other.”
And at least in the UC social justice issues are driving agendas outside of the usual religious sphere in Canadian society. It shows us what various evolving religious groups may be like as they collaboratively take on social issues.
Members of the United Church of Canada’s general council with more than 350 delegates from across Canada, recently to affirm a motion supporting a boycott of goods produced in Israeli settlements on the West Bank and in East Jerusalem. United Church’s Moderator, Mardi Tindal, in response to the Canadian senator’s criticism of the new activism, smacking of politics said: “We are very political, as was Jesus—that’s why he was crucified.” She she added that political does not mean partisan.
In a press release, Independent Jewish Voices Canada (IJV) commended the Church and applauded their affirmation of the boycott resolution.
The press release adds:
“By adopting this historic resolution, the United Church of Canada joins a growing movement of churches, trade unions, and other organizations in Canada and around the world that are boycotting Israel’s illegal,” says IJV spokesperson Sid Shniad. “It is not anti-Semitic to criticize Israel. Given the state’s ongoing illegal activities it is a moral imperative. We are very encouraged that the United Church has recognized the difference and we look forward to working with the church to move this important human rights work forward.”

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