But the country’s largest Protestant denomination still emphasizes social issues.

Delegates to United Church of Canada’s twenty-ninth general council got right down to business on opening day by ordering the outgoing moderator, Lois Wilson, and the four men nominated for her position to picket the local offices of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau.

It was the thirty-seventh anniversary of the dropping of two atomic bombs over Japan. The picketers joined others in front of the office before being allowed in to present a document to one of the prime minister’s secretaries asking Trudeau to ban testing of American cruise missiles in Canada.

Trudeau missed the demonstration; he was climbing in the Canadian Rockies.

But it was a made-to-measure gesture for Canada’s largest Protestant denomination, known for its avant-garde leadership in social and theological issues. The United church, a uniquely Canadian institution, was created in 1925 when members of two churches in the Reformed tradition—the Presbyterians and Congregationalists—joined with the Methodists, whose roots were in the Anglican church.

Wilson, 55, a tiny, dynamic minister, was active on the social front during her two-year tenure as titular head of the church, which claims a membership of over two million.

Words such as South Africa, oppression, the poor, sexism, and multinationals are frequently heard at the United church. Committees studied a variety of social and theological concerns and lobbied governments and corporations to promote social justice.

Dozens of well-researched documents reached the floor of the university gymnasium August 8–14 where the 453 commissioners and 200 observers were grouped around tables for instant “table-talk.”

Many resolutions were merely put off to the next council two years away—such as an explosive report on human sexuality, which included the issue of whether homosexuals should be ordained.

A plenary session discussing the issue was told there are admitted homosexuals in the church’s divinity schools and among ministers.

But the commissioners did pass many resolutions. One called for expanded use of renewable, or soft energy, as opposed to energy mega-projects. Another called for better surveillance of prisoners’ rights, just days after one of Canada’s bloodiest prison riots at nearby Archambault Penitentiary in which three guards and two prisoners were killed. Commissioners approved another resolution on ecology, which included the idea of holding a Creation Sunday each spring.

The United church has already begun lobbying with American churches in the U.S. Midwest, the area from which much of the pollution in Canadian air comes.

The increasing emphasis on social action has its detractors in the church, who see it as one reason for declining membership (CT, Feb. 19, p. 28). This wing was represented by the United Church Renewal Fellowship; a tiny but growing evangelical movement of 2,600 paid-up members within the church.

Wilson was replaced by Clarke MacDonald, a 61-year-old church executive and pastor for 25 years, who tries to hit the evangelical as well as social action bases by calling himself “a basic, evangelical activist.” In an interview, MacDonald said he is “basic, because whatever we do in social action has to have a biblical gospel as a bench mark.” As for evangelical: “I’ve been saved by grace and I want to tell others.”

Among his ‘activist’ credentials, MacDonald is chairman of Project Ploughshares, an interchurch peace and disarmament group campaigning for “Canada as a nuclear weapons-free zone.” He has traveled to promote human rights in such places as southern Africa, South America and Eastern Europe.

Along with the evangelism-versus-social-action dispute at council was a parallel one called “faithful remnant or growth.” This arises from one tendency in the church, which is to be realistic about the decline of membership and influence and just remain faithful to the cause particularly of social justice. The other side wants to promote evangelism and church planting. Gordon Williams, who is a United minister and cohost of the daily charismatic-evangelical television show “100 Huntley Street” from Toronto, declared in an interview: “Any of our churches and ministers, coast to coast, who have gone to work to make their ministry more relevant and evangelical have seen their congregations grow.”

Ethel Snow, an active member of the renewal fellowship along with minister husband Bailey, from Port Carling, Ontario, said that the church “has to get back to its scriptural roots” before it tackles social problems.

“As strange as it may seem, my husband was an ordained minister for seven years before he became a committed Christian,” said Mrs. Snow, her face flushed with embarrassment. The faithful remnant group accuses the growth group of “triumphalism” and being “simplistic.”

Asked about the membership decline, MacDonald said he viewed it “with concern. I want to see the church built up—not through membership drives, but by making the gospel attractive—winning people to the cause of Christ.”

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On the theological front, the commissioners voted to put the church through a six-year examination of its basic beliefs, starting with the members.

The conference took steps to recognize Canada’s other official language within the church, and studied a request by its 12 small French-language churches to form a separate linguistic presbytery.

The United church has not evangelized among Canada’s 7 million French—concentrated in Quebec—as effectively as more evangelical denominations, whose churches have grown rapidly during the past decade.

ALLAN SWIFT in Montreal

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