United Church of Canada

The United Church of Canada was founded in 1925 as a merger of four Christian denominations: two thirds of the Presbyterian Church in Canada (then the largest Canadian Protestant denomination) and the Methodist Church of Canada; the Congregational Union of Ontario and Quebec, a numerically less significant but historically important denomination of evangelical Protestantism; and the Association of Local Union Churches. The latter was a predominantly prairie-based movement pressing the older churches toward a larger national union once the Basis of Union (see below) had essentially been formulated, that began in Melville, Saskatchewan in 1908.

While other Evangelical Protestant denominations have tended in political and theological terms, to drift towards the right (the terms "Evangelical Protestant" and even the bare "Evangelical" have tended to be co-opted by a considerably different religious tradition) the United Church declines to have these traditional identities taken from it. The United Church has maintained theologically and politically liberal positions, especially regarding its stances toward the social gospel, women's and minority rights and relations with the wider Christian Church. The United Church of Canada has historically identified and prided itself politically as a uniquely Canadian institution and religiously as the voice of liberal Evangelical Protestant opinion in Canada.

About 250,000 people attend United Church services in 3,405 local congregations, although some 2.8 million Canadians, or about 9% of the population, reported the United Church as their religious affiliation in the country's 2001 census. This is a significant fall-off from previous censuses in which the proportion of Canadians identifying as United Church members and adherents has been as high as 25% among a population in which the Roman Catholic French Canadians (who are almost entirely Roman Catholic) were some 30% and Roman Catholics nation-wide some 50%. Ethnically United Church members are historically the urban Methodist business class and the Presbyterian farmers of heartland Canada; today they are broadly the liberal middle class of suburbia. The United Church describes itself as having a presence in "all parts of Canada except rural Quebec." The United Church does in fact exist in rural Quebec, albeit as "l’église mitaine" (the mitten church): so tiny that only a handful of people can fit inside.

The United Church is led by an elected Moderator. Currently, The Right Reverend David Giuliano of Marathon, Ontario, holds the position after his election at the August 2006 39th General Council, held in Thunder Bay, Ontario.



The United Church of Canada was inaugurated at a large worship service at Toronto's Mutual Street Arena on June 10, 1925, assorted legal issues arising from the church union being dealt with by Act of Parliament and provincial laws concerning church property: it is not of course by any means established by Act of Parliament — there being no established religion in Canada; the Methodist Church's Rev'd Egerton Ryerson having been sternly in denunciation of the Family Compact, the former establishment of the Church of England in Upper Canada and the prerogatives of Anglican clergy, and the favours formerly accorded to church schools over secular ones; and the United Church generally being in favour of a broadly secular society in which the free expression of religion might flourish. The United Church was formed by the union—negotiated and planned over more than twenty years—of three Protestant denominations, the Presbyterians, the Methodists, and the Congregationalists. The Union Church also participated: it had already been established using the Basis of Union in small towns in the rapidly developing Canadian west when impatience grew with the objections to Church Union of Ontario Presbyterians. (Continuing Presbyterians and, perhaps now only formerly, reluctant Presbyterian members of the United Church in Western Canada called the United Church "the Union Church" through to the 1970s.) The Mutual Street Arena inauguration of the United Church followed the final sederunt of the Presbyterian Church in Canada held in College Street Presbyterian>United Church, Toronto. The sitting Presbyterian Moderator, the Right Reverend George C. Pidgeon, became the first Moderator of the United Church.

The non-concurring Presbyterians

Despite the newly united Presbyterians having been the initiators of the Church Union movement, a substantial minority of Presbyterians remained unconvinced of the virtues of church union and their threat to the entire project was resolved by giving individual Presbyterian congregations the right to vote on whether to enter or remain outside the United Church. At the time of the merger, approximately 30% of the Presbyterian congregations in Canada — mostly in southern Ontario — chose to withdraw from the institutional Presbyterian Church and reconstitute themselves as a "continuing" Presbyterian Church in Canada. Nevertheless, the majority of Presbyterians who entered the union still constituted the largest constituent of the United Church.

A major legal issue in the 1930s was whether the non-concurring Presbyterians were entitled to designate themselves as the "Presbyterian Church in Canada," given that legally the body bearing that name continued as part of the United Church of Canada. Ultimately in 1938 the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the non-concurring Presbyterians could so-style themselves, the name having been in effect vacated by the United Church. Of more practical significance was the large volume of litigation through the 1920s and '30s regarding the ownership of disputed church property, including Knox College in the University of Toronto, whose faculty and students as well as the United Church itself had assumed it would become the principal clergy training facility of the United Church, and the interpretation of wills which contained bequests to "Presbyterian" churches. These "United Church cases" constitute a significant chapter in the evolving law of trusts in Canada.

In the early days of the United Church, relations between "non-concurring" and "continuing" Presbyterians (it was a matter of some controversy which Presbyterians were entitled to the term "continuing") were somewhat abrasive, particularly in small towns where congregations were divided. The uniting Presbyterians in the United Church were assertive in their view that they were the continuing Presbyterian Church, and many historic United Church buildings to this day proudly bear cornerstones showing their original identity as Westminster or Knox or St Andrew's (etc.) "Presbyterian Church." In due course relations settled down and in today's Canada it is a matter of indifference which sort of Presbyterian one is. Many Canadian United Church lay people are unaware of their own contentious history and in Canada the term "Methodist" is largely unknown.

Similar church unions outside Canada

Such a merger was unprecedented in world history: Canada was the first country where the Protestant churches elected to pool their resources and become one large nondogmatic church, and the creation of the United Church may have been a model for similar unions that followed in South India, North India, Papua New Guinea, Australia, the USA, England and elsewhere, though of course in the USA and the UK the proposition that models might be found in Canada are firmly eschewed. The United Church has continued a policy of openness to church union: its motto, displayed on its Presbyterian-derived heraldic logo (see above) is Ut omnes unum sint: "That they all might be one" (John 17:20).

Further church union discussions in Canada

In 1968 the Evangelical United Brethren Church of Canada (EUB or "Unionists"), having been orphaned when the parent body in the United States joined what became the United Methodist Church, joined the United Church of Canada. Union talks between the United Church and the Anglican Church of Canada in the 1970s stalled when the Anglican houses of laity and clergy voted in favour of entering into organic union but the house of bishops voted against. (See immediately below). This was a decidedly hurtful episode: the United Church, a vastly larger denomination in Canada, had agreed to accept episcopacy and to enter into arrangements for the episcopal recognition of its clerical ordinations; numerous United Church clergy had anticipatorily sought episcopal re-ordination in order to serve in Anglican parishes and many Anglican clergy were already serving United Church pastoral charges. There have also been conversations about union with the Disciples of Christ, who were involved in the 1960s and '70s discussions with the Anglicans. The United Church is active in the Canadian Council of Churches, the World Council of Churches and the World Alliance of Reformed Churches.

Relations with the Anglican Church of Canada

During the 1960s the ecumenical movement was strong and — particularly during the Anglican primacies of Arthur Michael Ramsay in Canterbury and Ted Scott in Canada — the Anglican Communion was receptive to increased intimacy with the Presbyterian and Methodist Churches. The United Church made overtures to the Anglican Church of Canada with respect to creating a broader Canadian church union along the lines of the Churches of North India, South India and Pakistan, to which the Anglican Church of Canada responded with alacrity. In the course of such church union discussions a compendious draft basis of union was prepared which involved the United Church agreeing to accept episcopacy and arrangements being contemplated for the episcopal recognition of United Church ordinations. A common hymn book was published, whose reception in both Anglican and United Church congregations in Canada was equivocal, suggesting that the grassroots were not quite ready for so radical a union, though the soon-to-be-united Presbyterian, Congregational and Methodist, together with the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches of Australia enthusiastically adopted a second, Australian edition of the Canadian hymn book.

The United Church Observer espoused the proposed further church union wholeheartedly. The Anglican Church adopted the joint Hymn Book and began ordaining women clergy, as the United Church had done since 1936. United Church preachers in Anglican cathedrals were responded to with enthusiasm by Anglican congregations, who were excited by the preaching of such United Church divines as the charismatic then-moderator, the Right Reverend Bruce McLeod.

However, the Anglican House of Bishops vetoed the church union despite the approval of the Anglican Houses of Laity and Clergy. It seemed to the bishops that the smaller Anglican Church of Canada would be swallowed up in the much larger United Church and that episcopalian sensibilities, despite the good will of United Churchpeople — and indeed despite the United Church's express willingness to accept episcopacy — would be lost in a wider union. Since then, institutional relations with Anglicanism have been cool; the joint Hymn Book of 1972 has been resoundingly denounced by both denominations, for musical as well as ecclesiastical reasons. Both denominations have produced separate successor hymnals, and common endeavour has been somewhat soured at the national level.

About the United Church


The United Church consists of a range of congregations from moderately conservative to very liberal, but it is one of the most socially liberal of the world's large Evangelical Protestant denominations. It began ordaining female ministers in 1936 and has long shied away from a rigidly literal interpretation of the Bible. Canadian United Church people moving to the United States may find themselves at home in the United Church of Christ, the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the United Methodist Church; to the United Kingdom in the Methodist Church of Great Britain, United Reformed Church or, in Scotland, the Church of Scotland and to Australia in the Uniting Church in Australia, though none of these denominations entirely corresponds in ethos to the uniquely Canadian United Church.

The limits of the Church's broad-mindedness are tested from time time. Apart from the difficulties over inclusion of gays and lesbians (see below), in 1997 the Church's then-Moderator, the now-Very Rev'd Bill Phipps revived an old controversy in Evangelical Protestantism by disclosing a personal Unitarian bias when he commented that he was not sure the resurrection of Jesus was a scientific fact and additionally asserted that Jesus' nature was fully human. This sparked great debate in the church, and heated condemnation from some former moderators for what they considered a departure from basic Christian doctrine, not to speak of the Basis of Union, with some congregations passing motions asserting their faith in Jesus' literal resurrection. Former Moderator the Very Rev'd Bruce McLeod, who had been an especially high profile spokesman for the United Church during his Moderacy and whose doctorate is from Union Theological Seminary in New York, where an early 19th century New England bifurcation between an élite clerical drift into Unitarianism and a mainstream affinity for historic Christian trinitarianism is no novelty, was particularly forthright in his disquiet.

The Moderator

The polity of the United Church is largely presbyterian, with a hierarchy of governing bodies (Presbyteries, Conferences, and the General Council) each having equal membership from ministers and lay people; conference presidents and moderators of the national church may be clergy or lay people. Its social policies owe the most to the Methodist strain in its heritage. The freedom available to individual congregations owes much to the Congregationalist part of its roots.

The Moderator presides over its highest governing body known as the General Council and is elected for a three-year term. It is a perhaps largely symbolic post, but particularly in past times Moderators have taken an extremely high profile in national life corresponding to the moral voice of the Archbishop of Canterbury in England: Moderators Mutchmor, McLeod and McClure have been been in particularly high profile.


In keeping with its historic inclusivist stand on many issues the United Church now does not choose to take a strong stand as to the issue of homosexuality in the church and in national life now that the federal Parliament has acceded to the proposition that homosexuality is a matter of private preference. The Church's formal stance is that homosexuality "is not in itself a barrier" to becoming a minister. Some United Church ministers solemnize marriages for same-sex couples, and some United Church spokespersons advocate for gay rights in the greater community. Certain United Church delegates presented evidence in favour of same-sex marriage to the House of Commons Justice Committee during its cross-country hearings in 2003 and welcomed court decisions that legalized same-sex marriage in certain provinces. The 37th General Council, 2003, affirmed that "human sexual orientations, whether heterosexual or homosexual, are a gift from God and part of the marvelous diversity of creation." On the other hand, many United Church people take a rather more conservative position and many congregations decline to call gay clergy and to approve gay marriage. In keeping with the historic inclusivism of the United Church such heterodoxy among congregations nation-wide is welcomed and indeed celebrated, and the United Church does not by any means discourage such dissent. Some congregations have found it difficult to contend with church-wide decision on issues of human sexuality. Some of them elected to leave the church entirely during the 1988 controversy and have withdrawn into a re-constituted "Congregational Christian Churches of Canada." Some clergy and laity have joined the continuing Presbyterian Church in Canada.

The United Church has issued three hymn books:

  • the Hymnary (1930) — Its major musical editor was Sir Ernest MacMillan, but with considerable input from Healey Willan. The Hymnary substantially influenced at least two generations of literacy and musicality in anglophone Canada: it was a traditional Presbyterian hymn book with a Canadian slant, largely adopted in public schools throughout Ontario and the Canadian West for classroom and school-wide assemblies at a time when it did not occur to United Church people in the wider community that this may not have been appropriate. It remains an extremely influential artefact of anglophone Canadian culture.
  • The Hymn Book (jointly with the Anglican Church of Canada) in 1972 — This interdenominational hymnal, promulgated in anticipation of an institutional union between the United and Anglican Churches, was a somewhat radical departure from traditional hymnody and widely eschewed, at a time when United Church of Canada churchmanship still remained a major determinant of public opinion: the Hymn Book was widely reviled in both the United Church of Canada (where it was "too Anglican" — a considerable irony in conservative United Church congregations which increasingly adopted Book of Common Prayer liturgies) and the Anglican Church of Canada (where it was "too United Church") but it was enthusiastically adopted in a considerably modified second edition by the Presbyterian, Methodist, Congregational, Anglican, Roman Catholic and, ultimately, Lutheran churches in Australia). Derek Holman, an Englishman of some minor eminence in Canada at the time, was the bête noire of the 1972 Hymn Book.
  • Voices United in 1996 is the current hymnal. More Voices is a supplement to it.

United Church of Canada churchmanship in the early 21st century appears to be drifting into bifurcation, with some congregations becoming increasingly liturgical, and with the decline of Anglicanism in Canada rather low church Anglican in ethos, with formal proceedings, communion at altar rails and clergy in sacramental (albeit severely Protestant) vestments; others are increasingly free-form Evangelical Protestant.


For its first 40-odd years United Church congregations largely followed the historic Presbyterian Book of Common Order in the layout of their Sunday worship services, and United Church people could expect to find a familiar liturgy in Presbyterian, Congregational, Methodist and Baptist churches anywhere in the anglophone world. Some Baptist Churches in Canada, indeed, not only used the United Church's Presbyterian Book of Common Order as the template for their worship services but adopted the United Church Hymnary as the basis for their official hymn book, substituting the infant baptism section with sections on the dedication of children and believer's baptism.

Beginning in the late 1960s, as Roman Catholics and Anglicans began experimenting with new liturgies, United Church congregations also began relaxing their style of worship and liturgy became less recognisably denominational. Nowadays one may find United Church congregations that worship in a wide range of styles, from free-form Evangelical Protestant prayer meetings with pentecostal gospel music to essentially Anglican Book of Common Prayer or Presbyterian Book of Common Order sobriety, with a highly literate set liturgy and communion at what amounts to an altar rail. Liberal Evangelical Protestants in Canada have a wide range of choices among congregations of the United Church as to preference in liturgy.

There, however, always remains an acute awareness and inclusion of the United Church's historic heritage of the great 18th century English non-conformist hymnodists, the Wesleys and of the Presbyterian metrical Psalter. And, notwithstanding the criticism of more fundamentalist constituencies, close and literate study of Scripture remains a sine qua non of United Churchmanship: despite overtures in recent decades to other socially, politically and ethnically comfortable Christian denominations, the United Church remains an essentially and fundamentally Protestant church.

Official doctrine

The Basis of Union sets out the doctrines concurred in by the uniting denominations; it

  • "affirms" "belief in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as the primary source and ultimate standard of Christian faith and life";
  • "acknowledges" "the teaching of the great creeds of the ancient Church" — that is, the Apostles' Creed, the Nicene Creed and the Athanasian Creed; and
  • "maintains" "allegiance to the evangelical doctrines of the Reformation, as set forth in common in the doctrinal standards adopted by the Presbyterian Church in Canada, by the Congregational Union of Ontario and Quebec, and by the Methodist Church."

Weekly recitation of the Apostles Creed was a routine feature of Sunday worship until 1968 when the Church promulgated an additional specifically United Church Creed, entitled A New Creed. It should be noted that the United Church emphasises its participation in the universal small-C catholic church, and that the ancient creeds are not displaced but only supplemented; that being said, it is the new United Church Creed that rather than the ancient creeds is most often recited during Sunday worship.

The United Church in national life

Canada has not officially endorsed any religious persuasion since the 1840s when the establishment of the Anglican Church and the issue of clergy reserves became a major focus of popular discontent with the colonial government in Upper Canada. But the numerical significance of the Presbyterians and Methodists and later the United Church in anglophone Canada has until recent times given the Church considerable political influence. According to John English in Shadow of heaven: The life of Lester Pearson there was a time when Canadian Prime Ministers consulted with United Church moderators as British Prime Ministers did with Archbishops of Canterbury.

The United Church followed its antecedent Presbyterian and Methodist constituents in promoting the social gospel and United Church clergy have historically taken strong stands in provincial and national political discourse. Many political leaders have been United Church clergy, including David MacDonald (federal Conservative cabinet minister in the 1980s), Stanley Knowles (elder statesman of the CCF-NDP), Don Faris (former Saskatchewan NDP cabinet minister), Mark Wartman (former Saskatchewan minister of agriculture), Lorne Calvert (former Saskatchewan NDP Premier) and Bill Blaikie (NDP Member of Parliament). Numerous non-clerical political leaders and persons of influence have demonstrated the influence on them of United Church priorities: Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson, whose views on Canada's role in the world and whose outlook on foreign aid continue to inform Canadian foreign policy into the 21st century was a son of the United Church manse; Madam Justice Bertha Wilson of the Supreme Court of Canada was a wife of the manse.

The church newspaper the United Church Observer, particularly under its 1960s editor A.C. Forrest, took an early stand in promoting the interests of Palestinians, both Christian and Muslim, vis-à-vis the state of Israel, at time when wider Evangelical Protestant opinion was generally uncritical of Israeli government policy, determinedly maintaining a stance of objectivity with respect to developments in the Middle East while seeking to avoid accusations of anti-semitism. This has from time to time been an issue for the United Church.

Until recent times when public sensibilities became more attuned to the undesirability of imposing the views of majorities on minorities, it was common for the United Church Hymnary to be distributed to public school children for use in daily and weekly assemblies, and Presbyterian and Methodist hymnody was a common fund of reference and allusion in public discourse.

Several United Church moderators, notably the Very Reverend Bruce McLeod and the Very Reverend Art Moore, have expounded on the heritage of Evangelical Protestantism of literacy, both literal (so to speak) and figurative (in terms of broad awareness of the world of letters beyond narrow Evangelical Protestantism), as demonstrated in antecedent denominations' founding of many Canadian universities.

North American universities founded by antecedent denominations of the United Church

as well as numerous similar federated or residential colleges in universities across Canada including Victoria and Knox Colleges in the University of Toronto and St Andrew's College in the University of Saskatchewan.

The United Church proudly expounds its literary heritage of Milton and Blake and the urgent need to proselytize for "literacy" among less worldly Evangelical Protestant denominations and to reach out to its historic sister churches. Dr McLeod in particular preached in Anglican cathedrals across Canada during the debate on further Church Union with the Anglicans and his charismatic personality and highly literate preaching did much to persuade Anglican laity and clergy that union with the United Church was desirable.

Causes (See also "The United Church in popular culture," below)

The United Church has been forthright in the defence of liberal social causes — often well in front of more conservative Evangelical Protestants, and often followed at greater or lesser remove by theologically more cautious but politically akin episcopal denominations such as the Anglican Church of Canada and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada. Many of its historic causes which may initially have been controversial have in the long term become matters of common Canadian accord:

  • The espousal of universal medical care was very early the bailiwick of outspoken United Church people;
  • the ordination of women (1936 in the United Church; 1974 in the Anglican Church of Canada);
  • the championing of the interests of the Palestinians (in the 1960s the United Church Observer's editor A.C. Forrest comprehensively startled United Churchpeople with his reports on the plight of the Palestinians and the question of re-assessing Evangelical Protestant uncritical support of Israel);
  • the defence of GLBT rights, including equal marriage.

One notable lack in the United Church (and its antecedent denominations)’s mission may have been a ministry to indigenous peoples. Apart from a notable mission among the indigenous people of the Queen Charlotte Islands and elsewhere in British Columbia, the United Church has not especially ministered to aboriginal Canadians. In the short run this has been a financial boon to the church in that claims against the Anglican Church and against Roman Catholic orders by persons who were abused by sexually disordered mission personnel have not correspondingly involved the United Church in so large a degree of humiliating and financially crippling litigation. In the long run, the credibility of the United Church in speaking on behalf of the interests of indigenous Canadians may be limited since there are very few aboriginal United Church clergy and laity.

The United Church in popular culture

Indian Residential Schools

Until 1969, the United Church of Canada was marginally involved with Canada's Indian Residential Schools system, which resulted in a painful legacy in many Aboriginal communities, albeit perhaps less egregiously so than its sister churches the Anglican Church of Canada and assorted Roman Catholic orders.

Prominent United Church members in national life

  • Nellie McClung (1873-1951) was a Canadian feminist, politician, and social activist. She was a part of the social and moral reform movements prevalent in Western Canada in the early 1900s. Her great causes were women's suffrage and temperance, both early Methodist priorities. She championed dental and medical care for school children, married women’s property rights, mothers' allowances, factory safety legislation and other reforms. She served as a Liberal member of the Legislative Assembly of Alberta and was one of The Valiant Five who, in 1927, put forward a petition to clarify the word "Person" in Section 24 of the British North America Act, 1867 (now the Constitution Act, 1867) (the Persons Case). On October 18, 1929, the Privy Council found that "Person" includes female persons, thereby making women eligible for appointment to the Canadian Senate.
  • Ralph Connor, the pen-name of the Reverend Charles William Gordon (1860-1937), was a Presbyterian and then United Church cleric and author. Born in Glengarry County, Upper Canada, the son of a Presbyterian minister, he graduated from the University of Toronto and studied at Knox College and the University of Edinburgh. He was ordained to the Presbyterian ministry in 1890 and was an active social gospeller and advocate of temperance. He became senior Protestant chaplain to the Canadian forces during World War I. As Ralph Connor, he was a prolific and popular novelist. Much of his work concentrated on the Western Canadian frontier, with good confronting evil in the plots. His best-known books — The Man from Glengarry, Glengarry School Days, and The Foreigner — are concerned with young men and their development. In the years before World War I, Ralph Connor was one of the world's best-selling writers, and his work always found an audience. Scholars today find him undistinguished as a literary craftsman but he remains interesting as a time capsule of middle-class Anglophone Canada.
  • Margaret Atwood, a Booker Prize-winner and today undoubtedly one of Canada's most internationally renowned authors, describes herself as an agnostic, but in her early life she was a Sunday School teacher at Leaside United Church in Toronto and her early grounding in the Scriptures from a United Church perspective has amply informed her fiction, particularly in The Handmaid's Tale.
  • Bertha Wilson, a Scottish-born wife of the United Church manse, was the first woman puisne justice of the Supreme Court of Canada. During her time on the Court she was influential in introducing the uniquely Canadian juridical concept of the constructive trust as a means of enabling separated common law spouses to participate fully in the division of family property.
  • Margaret Laurence was one of Canada’s greatest novelists (This Side Jordon, The Stone Angel, A Jest of God (filmed by Paul Newman as "Rachel Rachel"), The Fire-Dwellers, A Bird in the House, The Diviners) and a figure of prominence in the late-20th century emergence of Anglo-Canadian literature in world letters. She often described herself as a fervent United Churchwoman and was a close friend of United Church Moderator Lois Wilson; her novels bear the firm imprint of her avowedly Scottish Presbyterian sensibility.
  • Northrop Frye(see below) was an eminence grise of Anglo-Canadian culture during the '40s through the '80s; a United Church minister and Milton and Blake scholar; unusually in Canada, a clerical don. He served on the Canada Council and other cultural bodies, bringing to bear a sternly literate Christian voice. Wooed by Princeton and other American universities, he resisted invitations to join their faculties, aware that he had become a Canadian institution. Extremely wry as to the shortcomings of the United Church, he nonetheless maintained that for all its foibles it was vastly the preferred denomination of the worldly Christian intellectual in Canada.
  • Alice Munro's fiction, increasingly in literary criticism slotted into the category of Ontario Gothic is set in Southern Ontario and her characters are of the agrarian and urban middle class; they frequently identify as "United Church" to the puzzlement of US and other international literary critics.
  • Don Harron, a journalist, author, comedian, actor, director, and composer. Harron has been a fixture of Canadian entertainment and letters since his 1956 direction of the television film "Anne of Green Gables" (which led to his libretto to “Anne of Green Gables: The Musical”). He was host of CBC’s "Morningside" 1977-82 and has — perhaps somewhat regrettably — been featured in his "Charlie Farquharson" persona, a parody of a Canadian rustic (scorned as "vulgar" by the Anglican Peter Gzowski), on US television’s Hee Haw, though Robertson Davies vastly praised Harron and his wife the singer Catherine MacKinnon as to their appearance at high table at Massey College. He has been an exemplar and spokesperson of United Church sensibilities in national life (perhaps for good or ill) and hosted the United Church’s 50th anniversary celebrations at Ottawa’s National Arts Centre in 1975
  • Lester B. Pearson, the son of a Methodist and later, United Church minister, he was Minister of External Affairs in the St Laurent government and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in defusing the Suez Crisis. During his tenure as prime minister (1963-68), he introduced universal health care, student loans, bilingualism, the Canada Pension Plan, Canada's maple leaf flag and fostered a Canadian tradition of peace-keeping and of substantial foreign aid to Third World countries. He was an intimate of both the Royal Family and President Kennedy and is regarded as one of the most influential people of the twentieth century.
  • Stanley Knowles, a United Church minister, was a Manitoba CCF-NDP parliamentarian from 1942-1984 with a hiatus from 1958-62. After the CCF’s decimation by the Diefenbaker Tories in the 1958 federal election he together with David Lewis was responsible for regrouping the social democratic left as the New Democratic Party. He was an articulate and credible spokesman for the social gospel — he is credited with persuading governments to increase Old Age Security benefits and for the introduction of the Canada Pension Plan, as well as other features of the welfare state — but was also the recognised expert on parliamentary procedure. During Liberal minority governments of the 1960s he was pivotal in the exercise of the NDP’s hold of the balance of power to persuade Liberal governments to introduce progressive, social gospel legislation. When he retired from politics in 1984 Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau gave him the unprecedented position of honorary table officer of the House of Commons, permitting him to spend his retirement viewing parliamentary debates from the floor of the Commons.
  • Vincent Massey, first Minister of Canada to the UK and first native-born Governor General (although in later life Massey was a parishioner of St. Mark's Anglican Church, Port Hope, near his country estate and in whose churchyard he and his wife Alice are buried). The Massey family were staunch Methodists and contributed vast sums to the cultural life of Toronto and Canada, including the Massey Foundation, the Massey Lectures, Massey Hall in Toronto, Hart House at the University of Toronto, Massey College and not least, to Metropolitan Methodist, now United, Church in downtown Toronto.
  • Egerton Ryerson was a Methodist minister, educator, politician, and public education advocate in early Ontario, Canada. Ryerson helped found the Upper Canada Academy, of which he was the first principal, in Cobourg; it later became Victoria College, now a part of the University of Toronto. He fought for many secularization reforms, to keep power and influence away from any one church. Such secularization also led to the widening of the school system into public hands. He became Chief Superintendent of Education for Upper Canada in 1844. His study of educational systems elsewhere in the Western world led to three School Acts, which would revolutionize education in Canada. His major innovations included libraries in every school, an educational journal and professional development conventions for teachers, a central textbook press using Canadian authors, securing land grants for universities and universal mandatory free education for all school-age children. While Ryerson lived long before the creation of the United Church he is one of its great patriarchs. The Ryerson Press, long the foremost publisher of Canadian works and owned by the United Church, was of course named for him as is Ryerson University in Toronto and numerous Ryerson United Churches across the country.
  • Robert Baird McClure was originally a Presbyterian, then United Church medical missionary in China, India and Palestine, and the first non-clerical United Church Moderator (1968 - 1971). He assumed an extremely high profile in national life during his tenure as Moderator, attracting favourable (if at times controversial) notice for the United Church, the Social Gospel, Christian Missions and liberal Evangelical Protestantism through his earthy outspokenness. Several new congregations across the country were named for him.
  • Gordon Lightfoot - The singer and writer of "If You Could Read My Mind," "For Lovin' Me," "Early Mornin' Rain," "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald," and other well known songs, is a high-profile member of the United Church of Canada. As a youth in Orillia, Ontario, he sang in a local United Church choir. A 2003 article in the Globe and Mail profiling Lightfoot and his recovery from a major illness noted that Lightfoot had for many years sung at Christmas services for a Toronto congregation of the United Church.
  • Steven Fletcher is the Conservative Member of Parliament for Charleswood-St.James-Assiniboia and the Parliamentary Secretary for Health. He is a quadriplegic and the first permanently disabled person to be elected to the House of Commons. He grew up in the United Church of Canada and is a member of Charleswood United Church in Winnipeg.
  • Jack Layton is Leader of the New Democratic Party and is MP for Toronto—Danforth. He is a faithful member of his home church in Toronto.
  • Bruce McLeod, a Moderator of the United Church, longtime minister of Bloor Street United Church in Toronto, amply published commentator and an urgent proponent of the ultimately aborted church union with the Anglican Church of Canada, was a regular columnist throughout the 1960s and '70s in the United Church Observer and a nation-wide mentor of United Churchmen and -women. He spoke widely throughout anglophone Canada coast-to-coast and his charismatic inspiration to literate evangelical Protestantism in the United Church of Canada mould brought many young people to service in the United Church through the decades of his service.

Liberal causes

Canadian Methodism in particular but also Canadian Presbyterianism and liberal Evangelical Protestantism in general were early associated with the rights of women, the right to vote, the right to contraception. The United Church took up such causes; broader causes took some time but ultimately the position of Jews, other non-Anglo-Saxons and indeed GLBT people in Canadian society at large and the Church in particular became issues for the United Church.

From the 1960s, especially with the lead of the United Church Observer's liberal-minded editor A.C. Forrest, the United Church forthrightly took the problematic course of supporting the cause of the Palestinians, both Christian and Muslim, while at all times fervently supporting the position of Jews in Canadian society — seldom, be it said, an easy course.

The question of accepting homosexuality has been a controversial issue for the United Church in the latter part of the 20th century — insofar as conservative church people on the one hand have regarded its denunciation as essential to Old Testament biblical fiat and liberal church people on the other hand have regarded it as similarly essential in accordance with New Testament inclusively to be accepting of private mores which do not harm others and which indeed may be a model of Christ's mandate to love God and love each other. In keeping faith with its constituency, whose values may be somewhat more conservative than those of a central, sophisticated elite, while at the same time remaining true to its priorities of liberal Evangelical Protestantism, the United Church has taken a rather difficult middle road. Its increasingly inclusive stance has lost it many conservative congregations and members.

In the outcome, the United Church has nationally become generally very open to homosexual members, while leaving it open to individual congregations to take a more conservative stance, in keeping with its congregationalist ethos. Since 1988 the church formally states that homosexuality "is not in itself a barrier" to becoming a minister. Some United Church ministers solemnize marriages for same-sex couples, and some United Church spokespersons advocate for gay rights in the greater community. Certain United Church delegates presented evidence in favour of same-sex marriage to the House of Commons Justice Committee during its cross-country hearings in 2003 and welcomed court decisions that legalized same-sex marriage in certain provinces. The 37th General Council, 2003, affirmed that "human sexual orientations, whether heterosexual or homosexual, are a gift from God and part of the marvelous diversity of creation." However, the process of coming to a church-wide decision on issues of human sexuality has been difficult, with some congregations electing to leave the church entirely during the 1988 controversy. Some of these congregations went into the re-constituted Congregational Christian Churches of Canada and some clergy and laity joined the Presbyterian Church in Canada.

Family planning and women's rights

The United Church has historically taken a position of urgent support for women's rights, moderated by an awareness of the value of human life and a commensurate consciousness of the ethical and theological difficulties of its small-C catholic sister communions of Roman Catholicism, Anglicanism, Eastern Orthodoxy and Oriental Orthodoxy and of its more conservative Evangelical Protestant fellows. The United Church's historic positions on the legalisation of contraception, which it early espoused, are now largely uncontroversial. Its more recent positions on abortion have perhaps been more contentious: recent positions have consistently asserted that women have a right to self-determination with regard to abortion and in summary have been as follows:

  • (1980) Declared support for contraception and access to abortion: "We do not support 'abortion on demand.' We believe that abortion should be a personal matter between a woman and her doctor, who should earnestly consider their understanding of the particular situation permitting the woman to bring to bear her moral and religious insights into human life in reaching a decision through a free and responsive exercise of her conscience.
  • (1989) Policy paper issued urging the Canadian government "not use the provisions in the Criminal Code to regulate abortion
  • (1990) Issued policy paper encouraging the Canadian government to improve rural access to abortion

United Church of Canada theologians and important thinkers

The United Church has followed closely in the footsteps of its English Puritan and Scottish Reformation forebears in championing education and literacy in the broadest sense. It is difficult to separate outstanding United Church thinkers and contributors to national intellectual life in terms of strictly Church-related thinking, teaching and publication, since historically the United Church has always been close to the centre of mainstream Canadian thought, whether as a leader or a follower. This becomes particularly problemmatic as the term "evangelical" increasingly becomes co-opted by deeply conservative constituencies, expecially in the USA, but latterly also in Australia. Important avowedly United Church intellectuals include the following:

  • R.B.Y. Scott — Professor, Union College, Vancouver, 1928-31; United Theological College, Montreal, 1931-35; dean of faculty of Divinity, McGill University 1945-66; professor, department of religion, Princeton University, 1955-68. Relevance of the Prophets, 1953 ISBN 1-199-23675-6; Treasures from Judaean Caves, 1955; The Psalms as Christian Praise, 1958; Proverbs and Ecclesiastes (1965) in the Anchor Bible Series; The Way of Wisdom, 1971); primarily now remembered for some ten of his 24 hymns, many written in the cause of the Fellowship for a Christian Social Order, especially the social gospel hymn "O day of God draw nigh.
  • Northrop Frye — Professor, Victoria College, University of Toronto. Not known primarily as a theologian but as a literary critic, one of the most distinguished of the twentieth century, but also wrote extensively on the Bible as a cultural artefact of western civilisation. In this context, The Great Code: The Bible and Literature (1982), Words with Power: Being a Second Study of The Bible and Literature (1990) and Northrop Frye on Religion (2000). Frye had a notably wry attitude towards the United Church but considered it, despite its foibles, more congenial than Anglicanism or Roman Catholicism.
  • Douglas John Hall — professor emeritus at McGill University, known for his examination of how Christian belief has interacted with North American culture and history.
  • David Lochhead (1936-1999)— Professor Emeritus, Vancouver School of Theology. Lochhead wrote in the context of interfaith dialogue: "Dialogue is not so much a process of sharing truth as it is of discovering it....The most significant way in which truth is discovered in dialogue is when I and my dialogue partner together discover something neither of us had known before." (The Dialogical Imperative: a Christian Reflection on Interfaith Encounter). Lochhead was also a pioneer in emerging computer and online communities, co-founder of the Ecunet online community and is author of Theology in a Digital World (1988).
  • Walter Henry Farquharson — Moderator of the United Church 1990 - 1992; noted hymnodist (some hundreds of hymns, but internationally best known for "God who gives to life its goodness") and latterly spiritual director for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Regina, Saskatchewan, whose works are sung throughout the anglophone world.
  • Chris Levan - Former principal of St. Stephen's College and acting president of Huntington University, Ontario, where he had served as Principal. His books include The Dancing Steward, God Hates Religion, Sin Boldly, Living in the Maybe, Knowing your Ethical Preferences, and Give us this Day. He is currently at Wilmot United Church in Fredericton, NB.

See also


External links


  • Allan Farris, The Fathers of 1925: The Tide of Time, edited by John S. Moir, Knox College, 1978
  • C. E. Silcox, Church Union in Canada, Institute of Social and Religious Research, New York, 1933
  • Donald John MacRae Corbett, The Canadian Church Union of 1925 and the Law, Caven Library, Knox College 1957
  • E. Lloyd Morrow, Church Union in Canada: Its History, Motives, Doctrine and Government, Thomas Allen Publisher, Toronto 1923
  • Gershom W. Mason, The Legislative Struggle for Church Union, The Ryerson Press, Toronto 1956
  • John Webster Grant, The Canadian Experience of Church Union, Lutterworth Press, London 1967
  • N. Keith Clifford, The Resistance to Church Union, UBC Press, Vancouver 1985 ISBN 0-7748-0212-X
  • Thomas Buchanan Kilpatrick, Our Common Faith, The Ryerson Press, Toronto 1928 ['With a Brief History of the Church Union Movement in Canada', Kenneth H. Cousand]
  • Munroe Scott, McClure: The China Years; McClure: Years of Challenge (biography of Dr. Robert McClure, vols. 1 and 2), Penguin Books Canada, Toronto 1979 and 1985.
  • Donovan W.M. Waters et al., Waters' Law of Trusts in Canada. Toronto: Carswell, 2005. ISBN/ISSN: 0-459-24164-8

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