“Those Protestants, up to no good as usual.” – Father Ted
And with all that history in mind, it came to pass that I would be raised as a member of the United Church of Canada, simply because it was my dad’s church. His family were members probably as soon as the church was founded. Previously, they would have been Presbyterian as my great-grandfather listed that as his faith on a 1911 census (large PDF file, scroll down to line 35 if you want to see my family) right next to his ethnicity, which he listed as ‘Scotch’.
The United Church began in 1925 as an amalgamation of the Canadian branches of the Methodist, Congregrational, and Presbyterian churches. While individual congregations can range from very liberal to very conservative, the Church’s official positions tend to be progressive. The congregation I grew up with was quite conservative and yet, the United Church tends to be popular among members of the New Democrat Party.
Growing up United, I remember our church services being a world away from the tent revivalism broadcast on American television, with all the men with the James Brown hair, the tailored suits, the hollering, the sweating, and the warnings of damnation and End Times in front of an audience of thousands.
Instead, we sang from a hymnal. We were read passages from the Bible. We put money in plate. We heard a sermon. We were reminded not to forget our various missions around the world. The Book of Revelation was never mentioned (although the church’s crest contains a visual reference to it). We were never told we were going to Hell.
I have a lot of affection for the United Church and in many ways, I still consider it my church. Despite being the largest protestant denomination in Canada, membership is on the decline. There could be two contributing factors for this: declining numbers among the faithful in general as people move away from belief in a deity. The other may be a rise in the numbers of people attending churches offering a more fundamentalist strain of Christianity. The latter is something I see as a worrisome trend of people drifting toward extremism, either political or religious. It’s not a healthy trend, by any measure.
In many ways, the United Church would be an ideal spiritual home for me if it weren’t for the fact that I just don’t buy into the concept of the church’s core beliefs which are basically, like pretty much all Christian faiths, Trinitarian. Fortunately, I’m not alone in this. The church’s former moderator, Bill Phipps, during his term stated that he didn’t believe that Jesus was God, nor did he believe in the Resurrection. Imagine Pope Benedict XVI or the Archbishop of Canterbury questioning Jesus’ miracles. While his comments were met with some controversy, it was a signal to me that questioning your faith, even from within it, is a healthy, normal thing. And his views at the time did resonate with me.
This could be viewed as representative of, among some of the more progressive United congregations, an overall movement toward Unitarianism. My sense, however, is that the majority of the congregations were content to stick with the Trinity. I can’t imagine that the United Church would ever take such a big theological step, even if a few congregations may be ready for it.
All of this, however, wasn’t anything I was actively involved as I was spending my adulthood as a non-churchgoer. I alternated between thinking of God as an abstract, distant concept that bears little relation to any of the world’s religion, and not thinking that there was anything there at all. I had my own preferences as to how I would like to conceive of God but those were simply wishes and not a basis for faith.
Today, I think what I’m trying to do is find a place for me in that third way between being good kirk-going folk and being an atheist. And that’ll bring us to the third and final rambling and unfocused post on the subject.