August 17th Glenn Tunnock's Message -Back to the Future



It was a warm day on June 10, 1925 when 8,000 delegates from across Canada met in the Mutual Street Arena in Toronto to inaugurate The United Church of Canada. The event culminated a movement that had been 50 years in the making dating back to 1874 when George Grant, Principal of Queen’s University envisioned a new church in Canada that would capture the best qualities of the major Protestant denominations: order and conservatism from the Anglicans; enthusiasm, zeal for missions and adaptability from the Methodists; insistence on the rights of the individual from the Baptists; the love of liberty from the Congregationalists; and the well-knit strength and high regard for the Word of God from the Presbyterians. Grant was inspirational, but there were other forces at work. Union was driven by competition in small communities where only a few attended each denominational church, none large enough to be sustaining. In part union arose out of an anti-immigrant sentiment, a numbers game where the protestant Anglo-Saxon was determined to prevail as a predominant religion. Fear of being outranked by the growing number of Roman Catholics was also a factor. But union was also driven by the need to help create a Canadian identity. Canada needed a partner, a religious organization who by its reputation already had a strong identity and something to which the young nation could hitch its wagon. The idea had been seeded as early as 1825 by John Strachan, Upper Canada’s Anglican bishop, who said “To speak of a Christian nation without a national church was a contradiction.”

Indeed the mantra for the United Church for the first several decades was to Christianize Canadian society by becoming the national church that would hold the sole of a nation in its breast. Good Christians would make good Canadians. Christ’s Dominion, His Dominion, should be our Dominion, a metaphor that played on the words of Mathew 6: 10 “to further the extension of His Kingdom”. The concept stumbled over the gestation process. While Anglicans and Baptists had been advocates of union as early as 1859, they subsequently withdrew in 1906, largely over theological differences. The Basis of Union document established by 1908 was our founding document and focused on continuing existing traditions. The intent in drafting the document was to “minimize change and avoid offense”. What could be more Canadian, eh? The United Church of Canada Act was passed by the Canadian parliament in 1924 followed by similar enactments in all nine provinces at the time.

And so The United Church of Canada was born, with each of the five words having a specific meaning to the new protestant religious label.

The “marked the aspirations to gather all Protestants together” not ‘A’ church but the church of all, again reflecting the aspiration of being the only protestant church in the country

·         United “declared that the church represented the organic union of 4 separate bodies in one”

·         Church “proclaimed the identity of the new entity they professed God brought about” “embodiment of the Church of God”

·         Of “declared the church to be indigenous” to Canada “the expression of the land, the people , and the nation out of which it grew

·         Canada “a national declaration” a truly Canadian Institution


The unity reflected and was inspired by words from today’s gospel reading, John 17:21: “That they should all be united.”

8,800 congregations had joined the union in June 1825 representing 1.2 million Methodists, 31,000 Congregationalists, several thousand members of Local Union Churches and about 1.1 million Presbyterians. 20% of the Canadian population were members, a statistic that remained the same up until the late 1950s. We were the single largest protestant denomination, born largely out of a British evangelical ethos. It was a remarkable achievement to bring about a consensus of so many people across such a large geographic area without the internet or even universal telephone coverage.

The mechanics of church organization were put into place shortly after the union. The Book of Common Order of The United Church of Canada published in 1932 created the framework for orders of worship and sacraments. A new hymn book was introduced in 1930. The Manual of The United Church of Canada (1926) set out the constitution, the Basis of Union and government structure, and a Dominion headquarters was established at 299 Queen St West on Toronto. 15 theological colleges combined into 8. The Women’s Missionary Society (WMS) also took shape in what has been described as a parallel and largely independent organization with its own organizational and constitutional structure. With the Union and WMS in place, we were in business. So what did we do? How did we go about Christianizing Canada. Christianizing the Canadian social order was a missionary task. It was reputed that the United Church was often the only church doing Christian work in the vast rural areas of Canada and the commitment was to “claim every community in Canada for Christ”. So our early role was devoted to developing a Christian Education curriculum for Sunday school and working through the Board of Home Issues on as S.D. Chown, the principal author and advocate of the Basis of Union stated: “solving social problems”. And that was largely our focus.

We used our resources in the depression years to feed, shelter and clothe Canadians, even finding employment. We bailed out local congregations and over-worked ministers. The 30’s set a tone for what I believe has one of the prevailing themes of the work of the United Church: social justice and social welfare. We lobbied the King and the Bennett governments to assist impoverished Canadians; we spoke against anti-Semitism; we knitted clothing for our troops in the second world war and raised $1.7 million in War bonds, but we also conceived of the precept of the conscientious objector; we supported the rights of labour unions and encouraged the Canadian Government “to recognize labour’s right to collective bargaining; we promoted the concept of universal Medicare long before its time. We orchestrated a post-war readjustment program and carried out missionary work in many places around the world. In the golden years of our history in the 50s and the 60s, we took positions on abortion, divorce, daycare, the over prescription of drugs by physicians. We coped with issues of human sexuality and became the first church to endorse same sex marriages. We have been supporters of the LGBTQ movement; and we took a position against apartheid. We were respected for our contributions to public policy making and for the early decades it was standard practice for the moderator to meet with PM, the opposition leader and several key cabinet ministers during his term”. 3


Initiatives included trying to convince the federal government to recognize the People’s Republic of China in 1952 which failed and “In a similar vein, the church’s pronouncements against gambling, the liquor trade and commercial sports on Sunday had no apparent effect on government policy…” This was the signal that the former impact of the UC on government policy was beginning to wane. “By the late 1950s it was already becoming clear that the church’s hitherto privileged position in Canadian culture would remain only as the trappings of a formerly powerful presence.”

Our legacy has not been without controversy. We were slow to recognize the ordination of women and the changing status of women in what was a male dominated church culture. We were prone to using sexist language. We tried to Christianize aboriginals and have suffered the legacy and lasting scar of residential schools. And we have been accused of a preoccupation with a corporate ideology, top-heavy management, too much hierarchy and taking unpopular national positions contrary to the interest of local congregations.

In the golden years, Many new churches were built and our membership rose and peaked in 1966; a product of the demographic wave of the baby boom generation, but it was a double-edged sword. We weren’t prepared for the societal impacts that we faced. As our numbers declined, so did our revenues. Today we are now seeing 1 congregation a week closing its doors in Canada. The influx of growth-related immigration policies has created a more pluralistic Canadian society and has pushed the United Church from a central denomination to one of many voices competing for attention. The most significant change perhaps has come from a shift to a more secular society focused on the individual. An expanding leisure culture demanded us to make choices such as whether to attend church or play golf. Educated baby boomers balked at the formality, hierarchy and authoritarianism associated with the church. A tug-of-war evolved between the fundamentalism embodied in the 1925 Basis of Union and the demand for theological exploration. Even with the liberal theology that the UC was known for, questions were raised about its pragmatism to modern society. By the early 1970’s the bloom was off the rose, we were no longer the national church. We were no longer central to many Canadian lives. We had lost our role as the leading edge on social issues of import to Canadians. Many of our social welfare and missionary activities had been replaced by state-run programs. We had to create a new destiny and we are still working on it.

This gives you a brief overview of the events that have marked our passage, most notably at the national level. I want to turn my focus for the balance of my message to the local level.

Margaret Wheatley has stated that the capacity of an institution to deal creatively and successfully with change has to do with the degree to which such changes can be meaningfully linked to its origins and ethos, its core values and identity”. And therein I believe is a formula for moving forward …that we reflect on the strength of our history, our traditions and our understanding of Jesus ministry in making decisions on the menu or program of activities we choose to pursue as a congregation. Issues of social justice have long preoccupied General Council and have variously supported by local congregations. We have the opportunity to chart our own destiny at St. Paul’s and how we might build on our Mission Statement. What I would like to talk about is moving towards a new vision and how the theme of this message reflects the back to the future.

I would point out that these are my views. The waiver here is that my views do not represent the position of management, or at least not yet.

I would also emphasize that creating a vision is a complex process and that the ingredients can come from a long menu of choices. And I strongly believe that the process has to be participatory.

St. Paul’s has undergone a significant transition over the last 4-5 years from a congregation who lost its confidence and coherence to a congregation that I believe has re-gained its self-esteem and a renewed confidence its destiny. Much of that transition has focused on revising the machinery of church governance and in addressing financial sustainability. We have also created a new Mission statement: a spiritual hub for Creativity, Discovery and Growth that can become the basis for crafting our vision. The back to the future lesson, however, is that we should not dwell on the elements of our structure or hierarchy…it is working, we have a mission…the question is, how do we move forward with that mission.

We do face the challenge that many congregations across Canada also face. We only have to look at our church membership. We do not represent the Canadian demographic. One has just to look out into the pews and ask “Where are the youth?”. The reality is that we are an aging population and to put it politely, most of us here today will be fading from the scene over the next 10-25 years. Church membership is not a growth industry, but there is good news. Perth is beginning to grow again and as the Town’s consultant land use planner, we are projecting an increase of some 4,000 by 2041 or roughly 10,000 population. If only 5% of the population join St. Paul’s we should be able to sustain our current numbers.

We are also concerned about declining revenues, but I believe that the generation here today will leave a financial legacy that will help to offset the shortfall. We have already begun to see evidence of that. Our sustainability measures are also beginning to pay off in increased space-rental revenues. The increased use of the church building provides an opportunity to expose new people to St. Paul’s welcoming environment whether it is someone from Tai-chi, from someone who attends a concert or even someone who enjoys a community dinner. They all realize that we at St. Paul’s have something to offer…our opportunity is to convert their interest to perhaps helping them with their spiritual journey or resolving a life situation.

The deeper question is whether St. Paul’s is suited or not suited to meeting the needs of its members and the needs of the community surrounding it? We must feel the pulse of community needs and wants; our human needs and wants; and your neighbour’s needs and wants in determining a new role for outreach and to strike that delicate balance between spiritual fulfillment and solving social issues.

The question may be posed today as it has been over the decades: what is more important…should we be solely an evangelical institution concerned with the souls of our members or a modified secular institution that fosters to the broader needs of society, of our community?

We can strike a fundamentalist agenda that retains many of the trappings of today’s worship services, church traditions and the needs of our congregants. And goodness knows with the aging of our membership, we could immerse ourselves solely in the pastoral needs of St. Paul’s over the next couple of decades. However, I believe we are more broad-minded. I believe that our back-to the future national history of friendly service, service to the community and influencing public policy provides us with an untapped opportunity for outreach into our immediate community to find gaps in social welfare needs. Are we prepared as a congregation, to move outside of the walls of the church and into the community?

Emerging community issues we will be faced with include: senior immobility, loneliness from the loss of a partner, a friend; poverty, domestic abuse, technological changes that create greater isolation with the inability to communicate or cope in an electronic world and geriatric diseases...dementia, chronic pain.

Our mission statement talks to being a “hub”. Can we become a hub for one or perhaps a number of initiatives like:

·     Facilitating the delivery of affordable housing or habitat-for-humanity projects in providing for the shelter needs of low to moderate income households

·         Providing services to an aging population, be it transportation, home repair or coping with new technologies, a senior’s drop-in centre

·         Addressing homelessness or providing a cold-weather shelter

·         Providing community gardens or other measures to increase local food production and food security

·         Playing an advocacy role for public policy on healthy communities


Any of these activities can be the genesis of creativity, discovery and indeed growth, for as we extend outward, people will see our mission and be caught up in our purpose. Their growth will be our growth.

And our vision can also include music.

Part of the vision may be building on the musical traditions by making St. Paul’s a centre for music excellence. It has been argued that music is a way to restore the emotion essential to individuals and social transformation. Maybe we need to equip our members with earphones and iPads to get them rocking in the aisles…a form of neo-evangelism. We commend Brad for his work and examples such as having Adam and Aidan here today, but maybe we can become the music hall of Perth.

When I mentioned to someone the theme of my message today they said make it worshipful. I thought about that an in particular the work of Jesus. Here was a man who was the epitome of outreach and one that understood the importance of taking the message to the people, to walk the walk and not expect everyone to come to the temple to hear His Word. His back to the future technique is relevant today. We can find a niche in outreach that optimizes the best time and talent resources we can bring to addressing social issues or providing leadership on other issues within the community. And we can take it a step further, by using current technology.

The first step was taken recently by building up an email address list so that messages could be sent cost effectively to the membership. The next step is to use social media. How about a Facebook page, a twitter account for St. Paul’s. How about live-streaming worship services to anywhere in the world? If you have a cell phone or an iPad, you could be connected just as we connected to Australia this morning. How about using internet resources integrated into the worship service. We can use our mission of discovery of technology like Jesus to reach out and touch the faces of others wherever they might be.

The UC set out to Christianize Canadian society as the foremost protestant church. In the face of a changing Canadian society we evolved to support a vision of multiculturalism, working for peace and justice between different social groups, celebrating religious pluralism and seeking to model peaceful coexistence with other faiths and cultures. We have moved from the imposition of a religious ethos to a champion of social equity.

The story continues at the national level as well as here at St. Paul’s. Our back to the future started over 150 years ago. Ours is a rich legacy which will lead to a promising future full of the spirit of God’s message, and full of our vision for Creativity, Discovery and Growth.

Amen and Amen

Glenn Tunnock

Click here to see the Power Point images Glenn used to highlight his presentation.