Has Christ Been Divided? The Ecumenical Context in Canada
— Jan. 13, 201413 janv. 2014
The Resources for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity in 2014 were developed by a team from across Canada. The theme is drawn from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians where he addresses the divisions in the community. The team offers a reflection that grows out of the Canadian experience of cultural, linguistic, regional, and religious diversity. Paul challenges us to see the gifts that God has bestowed on our neighbours and to heal the divisions within Christ’s body. The following is the “Ecumenical Context in Canada” as presented in the international resource package. This is part 3 of our series.
The Ecumenical Context in Canada1
Among the many factors that influence Canadian religious experience is the sheer size of our country. Canada is the second largest country in the world, 40% of which is in the Arctic, north of 60o latitude. Stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific and from the United States to the North Pole, Canada has ten provinces and three territories. We are surrounded by three oceans: the Atlantic, Pacific, and Arctic. Our only land border is with the United States and it has experienced almost 200 years of peace. Canada is a confederation of former British colonies, with a parliamentary form of government in a federal system of ten provinces and three territories. The union of the former colonial territories and independence from Britain occurred peacefully, and Canada remains a strong proponent of international engagement and cooperation. The vast distances between our cities have promoted both self-reliance and formation of distinct identities in the regions, but can also engender feelings of alienation or resentment.
Canada is known for its natural splendour: its mountains, forests, lakes and rivers, seas of wheat and three ocean shorelines. This is a land rich in agriculture and natural resources. Canada is also a land of diverse peoples: First Nations, Inuit, and Métis,2 and many people who came to settle here from around the world. We have two official languages, French and English, yet many Canadians also celebrate the cultural and linguistic heritages of their ancestral homelands.
Jacques Cartier, the earliest French explorer to navigate the waters of the St. Lawrence River, was the first European to hear the indigenous people use the word “Canada,” which means “village.” The first settlers from France were mainly Roman Catholic but there were also a good number of Protestants, mainly Huguenot merchants. The religious tensions in France were not felt in New France with groups such as the Jesuits readily cooperating with Protestants. But sadly, the early period of collaboration gave way to discrimination and eventually only Catholics were officially admitted as settlers to New France. The original name of Montréal, “Ville Marie,” proclaimed these Catholic foundations.
In the mid-18th century, New France was ceded to Great Britain and the mainly Catholic French-Canadian families became subjects of the Anglican king of England. At a time when Britain still had laws discriminating against Catholics, religious freedom was granted in Canada by the Crown along with linguistic, educational, and cultural freedoms. Nevertheless, there were alternating periods of tolerance and of hardship under this regime. Until the 1950s, Catholic bishops oversaw most of the social institutions in the French communities. Meanwhile, the country grew and integrated waves of immigrants in the succeeding years. English, Scottish and Irish settlers began arriving at the end of the 18th century. Subsequent waves of immigration through the 19th century from Western and Eastern Europe have been joined more recently by large numbers of Latin American, African, Middle Eastern, and Asian peoples. In the 20th century, people from all parts of the world have come to Canada as immigrants and refugees, including significant numbers of Eastern and Oriental Orthodox from Eastern Europe and the Middle East whose Christian traditions enriched the Canadian landscape. Today, Canadian Christians worship in hundreds of languages and dialects and preserve distinctive elements of their cultures within a rich cultural and religious mosaic. Members of other religions have also settled in Canada, including Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus and Baha’i. Canadian cities rank among the most multicultural and multi-religious in the world. Earlier government policies promoting assimilation have been replaced by official multiculturalism since the 1970s. The country has been enriched by the contributions of citizens from diverse ethnic origins and we rejoice at their visible presence in the political, educational, health, arts, communications, business, and religious arenas.
For over a hundred and fifty years, some of the Christian denominations of Canada worked with the federal government to operate Indian Residential Schools, which took aboriginal children, often against the will of their parents, to be taught and assimilated into European culture. These schools, which sought to eradicate indigenous language and culture, were often sites of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. The largest churches in Canada – Roman Catholic, United, Anglican, and Presbyterian – were complicit and have recently apologized in a variety of ways. These churches now work closely together with aboriginal people in the search for justice, healing, truth, and reconciliation, most recently through a national Truth and Reconciliation Commission,3 which is part of an overall holistic and comprehensive response to the Indian Residential School legacy.
From our earliest frontier experiences, Canadian churches have developed an instinct for cooperation in pastoral ministry. As early as the 1880s, Presbyterian, Methodist and Congregationalist missions in Western Canada cooperated in allocating responsibility for mission. These led to union churches, which formed part of the impetus for the founding of the United Church of Canada in 1925, the world’s first modern ecumenical church union. Proponents of this union saw it as a way to provide unified Christian leadership in the project of nation-building. Today, cooperation in ministry takes many other forms. Spiritual care ministry is shared through ecumenical chaplaincies in prisons, hospitals, universities, and the military. Most formal theological education across the country occurs in ecumenical schools or consortia. Other forms of cooperation have developed in congregational ministry, such as Ecumenical Shared Ministries where two or more denominations share buildings, clergy, or programs and engage in weekly common worship.
Twenty-four denominations come together in the Canadian Council of Churches (CCC), one of the broadest and most inclusive church councils in the world, encompassing Anglican, Catholic, Reformed, Evangelical, Free Church, and Eastern and Oriental Orthodox traditions. The CCC, which uses a consensus model of decision-making, was founded in 1944 and its current denominational membership represents 85% of the Christians in Canada. It is of substantive note that the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops is a full member of the CCC as are six Evangelical denominations. The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada (EFC) brings together denominations, para-church ministries, and local congregations across the Evangelical and Pentecostal spectrum. A number of churches are members or observers in both the CCC and the EFC. These two bodies have been working more closely together in recent years.
Many Canadian churches are engaged in bilateral and multilateral relationships both at national and local levels. The most significant organic union has been the coming together of numerous Presbyterian, Methodist and Congregationalist churches in 1925 to form the United Church of Canada, but many other forms of fellowship and communion have developed, including the Anglican-Lutheran Waterloo Declaration on full communion in 2001. The Canadian theological dialogues have contributed to local study and reflection and have shared their insights in the international dialogues.
One of the many innovative aspects of Canadian ecumenism is the formation of more than fifty inter-church coalitions for social justice beginning in the 1960s. Project Ploughshares, the Women’s Interchurch Council of Canada, KAIROS-Canadian Ecumenical Justice Initiatives, the Canadian Churches’ Forum on Global Ministries, and others have assisted the churches and government in research and engagement with complex social issues.
The Canadian Centre for Ecumenism was founded by Fr. Irénée Beaubien in Montréal in 1963 in a very vibrant French and English milieu. It offers national resources such as Ecumenism magazine which is published in French and English editions and sent to subscribers in forty countries. The Centre’s ongoing sensitivity to social movements is demonstrated in the new Green Church program which helps churches of all denominations to become better stewards of creation.
The calling of the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s positively impacted the growth of ecumenism in Canada. Canadian ecumenical insight and experience are evident in the 1962 pastoral letter of Cardinal Paul-Émile Léger, archbishop of Montréal, titled Chrétiens désunis (Disunited Christians). Léger did not call for the conversion of Protestants to Catholicism, but invited Catholics to pray for unity, particularly through the revival and conversion of the Catholic Church itself. In words that anticipated the Second Vatican Council, the cardinal acknowledged that “the concern for unity is becoming the main focus of contemporary Christianity” and that this important movement was “born under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.” In this reflection on the mystery of the unity and disunity of Christians, he stressed that all validly baptized persons “are inserted into Christ and become one body with him.” He also noted that in light of the express will of Christ, disunity is “a scandal” and “evil.” Thus, the cardinal urged his flock to pray for unity and to enter into dialogue with their fellow Christians, recognizing that the responsibilities for disunity are shared on both sides.
Having heard of the discrete monthly meetings between Protestant pastors and Catholic priests organized in Montréal by Fr. Beaubien beginning in 1958, the World Council of Churches chose to hold the Fourth World Conference on Faith and Order in that city in 1963. This gathering of over 450 theologians from many different denominations and countries, warmly welcomed by a mainly Catholic population, constituted a major ecumenical happening. An evening of Christian fellowship held during the conference at the Université de Montréal brought together 1,500 Christians. At Expo 67, the World’s Fair held in Montréal, Canada’s main churches and the Vatican put aside the practice of separate kiosks to come together in one common “Christian Pavilion.” In the history of World’s Fairs, this was the first time an ecumenical pavilion had been erected.
Other ecumenical groups emerged after the Second Vatican Council and in the decades that followed: the Atlantic Ecumenical Council (1966), the Quebec Ecumenical Network (1982), and the Prairie Centre for Ecumenism (1984) are of particular note. The Prairie Centre for Ecumenism, founded in Saskatoon by Fr. Bernard de Margerie, is sponsored by seven denominations and has a focus on ecumenical education and formation, as well as serving as a national resource for Ecumenical Shared Ministries. Across the country, local ecumenism is promoted by ministerial groups in rural communities and urban neighbourhoods as well as by numerous councils of churches. Several ecumenical initiatives flourish throughout the country: shared celebrations of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, common formation in theological faculties, activities for peace and social justice, publications, etc. As an integral part of Church life in Canada, interchurch families live the challenges and blessings of the work for Christian unity and frequently provide leadership in ecumenical ministries.
A highlight of recent ecumenical life has been the growing involvement of Evangelical churches and pastors in local ecumenical gatherings, in ecumenical worship and dialogue, and in community ministries. Following upon a period of internal Evangelical rapprochement, we now see opportunities for new dialogue partnerships between the historic mainline Protestant churches, Evangelicals and Pentecostals, Eastern and Oriental Orthodox, and Roman Catholics. Evangelicals in Canada are reaching out to other local churches seeking dialogue, opportunities to worship together, and cooperation in witness to our cities. Churches are facing a common reality in which they no longer have the social influence that they once enjoyed, and for many historic churches membership rolls are dramatically declining.
Differences within the Christian community over the priority or need to evangelize people of other living faiths have continued to be factors inhibiting cooperation. Nevertheless, Christian cooperation in inter-religious dialogue has increased in recent years and is frequently undertaken collaboratively between churches.
Has Christ been divided in Canada? It can certainly be said that there are divisions among Christians in Canada. The Christian community is divided over the role of women in both church and society as well as over ethical issues such as abortion, euthanasia, and same-sex marriage. Many of these divisions cut across denominational lines. However, in the face of new social issues some religious communities have begun to engage with their neighbours in new and positive ways. Indeed, Canadian history has seen periods of tension and rivalry, of life lived in ignorance and indifference to each other. Through it all, we have learned to take into consideration the values of others in order to live peaceably together. We continue to be divided by doctrine, polity, and practice, and to maintain our own religious solitudes, yet our pilgrimage towards unity continues under God’s guidance.
The aspirations expressed in this prayer from the 1967 Canadian Centennial celebrations still reflect the modern Canadian character:
“Let us pray and live for a world where people of all nations will be united in thought, word and deed; help us to be transparently honest, pure, and loving in our relations with others in our world and every world. Let us pray for harmony and self-fulfilment for every soul in this nation and every nation; help us to work and live so that hunger, poverty, ignorance, and disease will disappear and thy kingdom will come indeed. Amen.”
1 This text is reproduced under the sole authority and responsibility of the ecumenical group in Canada which came together to write the source texts for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity 2014.
2 First Nations is a term used in Canada to acknowledge the presence of the indigenous peoples before the arrival of Europeans. The indigenous people in the Arctic call themselves Inuit. Métis is a term used to refer to people of both indigenous and French ancestry.
3 See trc.ca for further information on the Indian Residential Schools and the settlement agreement.