Antiquarian Anabaptist

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

Tag Archives: United Church of Canada

Chapter 3 – My father

The time has come for me to write about my father, but I don’t want to. I’m afraid that I’m going to make him sound like an ogre, and he really wasn’t. Most of the time he was a pretty decent sort, but I grew up living in dread of the times when his internal volcano would erupt. He never physically harmed my mother or me, he was kind to animals and polite to others. His anger was only words, but those words would peel the paint off your self respect and wither your soul.

You see? I’m already off on the wrong foot if I want to portray my father in anything like a sympathetic light.

Let’s start over. My father was of New England Puritan stock, had high moral ideals and strong religious convictions. He was a tireless worker, he could fix anything mechanical and build most anything of wood with just a few hand tools. Sometimes he could laugh at himself, but only once did I hear him come close to admitting he’d made a mistake. He’d always had cattle and chickens on the farm and one time when he was about done with farming he said it might have been better if he’d kept a few pigs, too.

His mother was Franco-American, the granddaughter of a man who settled in New York state after serving as a maître d’armes, a master swordsman, in the army of Napoleon Bonaparte. My father believed the world would be a better place if everyone spoke the same language, namely English. He only learned a few words of French from his mother, but had a warm spot in his heart for his French heritage because the USA could not have won the revolutionary war without help from France.

My grandparents were from St. Lawrence county, New York and moved to the Newell, Iowa area shortly after they married. Five children were born to them there, then they moved to Pipestone county, Minnesota. In 1908 they came to Canada and homesteaded near the south-west end of Old Wives Lake in Saskatchewan. My father built a house across the road from the estate house where his widowed mother lived and cared for her until her death.

He was 49 when he married and 50 when I was born. Perhaps that half century between us was too much to bridge. Or perhaps he expected a son who would be just as robust as he was and was disappointed to find himself the father of a sickly wimp.

There were good times. Our farm at Bishopric had rows of trees between the yard and the road on the west. All our kinfolk in the area would come once a summer for a family gathering and picnic in an open area among the trees. In the winter, the snow would accumulate in the trees and our driveway became impassible. Then we would travel by team and sleigh with horsehide robes to protect us and maybe a big stone or two at our feet that had been warmed in the oven.

One ice-cold Monday morning, when walking the mile to school was not an option, my father hitched up the sleigh and took me across country to the little brick schoolhouse in the village of Bishopric. When we go there, there was not another person there, no foot prints in the snow. Then I remembered: “Uh, Dad, I forgot. Today is a holiday.” The ride home was quiet, but Dad was not angry and never mentioned the incident.

Once when I was in my teens, Dad started talking about the evils of a white person marrying a black person. “Their children will be mixed colours, one leg white, the other black.” I found that a little hard to take. “I don’t believe that is possible. Did you ever see anyone like that?” He didn’t answer, but that was the last I heard of people with Holstein markings.

I was maybe 15 when he got me to change the water pump on the truck. He told me what to do, then I crawled under the truck and went to work. He wasn’t anywhere near to answer questions, so I figured out what tools to use and which way to install the pump, and it worked. Another time, he got some grinding compound and had me grind the valves and the valve seats on a Briggs & Stratton engine that had lost power. That worked too. But usually Dad didn’t have the time or patience to teach me how to do all the things he could do.

Dad was a Wesleyan Methodist whose church got sucked into the church union fever, eventually being incorporated into the United Church of Canada. Dad talked of attending a United Church in Edmonton, sometime in the later 1920’s. As the preacher spoke, it became evident that he was getting his direction from somewhere else than the Bible. The creation, miracles, virgin birth of Christ and the resurrections were only fables meant to teach a lesson. And the lessons this preacher drew from them bore no resemblance to Bible teachings. Dad walked out into the street, tears streaming from his eyes.

Soon he visited the Calgary Prophetic Bible Institute and become an ardent follower of William Aberhart. When Aberhart created the Social Credit Party and led it to power in Alberta in 1935, Dad was convinced that this was the way forward. The churches had become corrupt, what was needed was to elect Christian statesmen to office.

As a true believer of Social Credit principles, it was hard for him to listen to someone expound a contrary philosophy. Occasionally I would see him clench his jaw and tremble in striving to maintain an outward civility when the fire inside was on the point of bursting forth.

I guess it didn’t always work. One day he came walking home from Mr Harlton’s. Mr Harlton was David’s father and a member of the CCF party, at the opposite end of the political spectrum from Social Credit. The Harltons lived two miles from us; I’m not sure why my father stopped there on his way home from town, but they got into a political discussion. My father became so agitated that Mr Harlton decided it wasn’t safe for him to drive and took his keys. Dad walked back the next day, in a somewhat calmer frame of mind, and got his keys back.

The Social Credit movement never got close to political power on the national level and eventually declined. When we went to Moose Jaw, Dad would go to Charlie Schick’s barber shop for a haircut and a religious discussion. Mr Schick was a fervent Lutheran and his influence gave Dad the impetus to start looking for a church again. That led to us joining the Anglican Church when we moved to Craik.

Dad’s eyesight began to fail in his 60’s and pretty soon he let me drive the family half ton to church. There was an RCMP officer attending the same church and I’m sure he was aware that I was nowhere near old enough to have a license. I wonder if he thought it might be safer to let me drive those short distances around home than to have Dad drive. When I turned 16 and got my drivers license, Dad gave me permission to drive the truck to school and to band practice.

My father was really a decent man and he meant well. He would accept advice from a few people, but for the most part he was the judge of what was right and wrong. One evening when we had family devotions he prayed that God would show others that he was right.

Every once in awhile the volcano within would come spewing forth and for three days, every time he came into the house, he would rant about all the things my mother and I had done that he didn’t like. We walked on eggshells to avoid triggering such outbursts, but never actually knew when they would happen. Most of life was normal, but I grew up with an overriding fear that anything I would say or do might be exactly the wrong thing to say or do at that moment.

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A fading faith

[This is one of my earliest posts on this blog, dating from four and a half years ago.]

For twelve years we lived in a little village in Ontario.  Directly across the street from our home was the United Church manse.  The minister and his wife were a pleasant older couple, professional and polished.  There came a Christmas Day where we were all snowbound after a three-foot snowfall that began the day before.  Some people’s children couldn’t make it home for Christmas, family gatherings were cancelled.  In the evening, after the storm had ended, the minister and his wife invited their neighbours to gather in their home.  We appreciated the gesture, but this was about the only time we really had occasion to visit with them.

Eventually, they moved on and were replaced by a young couple with small children.  These people were different — not much polish, but downright friendly.  We visited on our way to the corner store while waiting for the mail, in their home, in our home, our daughter babysat their children, they sent their children to our congregation’s Vacation Bible School.

I began to realize there was something else different about this United Church minister: he appeared to be a man of genuine faith.  Over the course of our visiting his story came out.  He had been raised in a locale that was pretty solidly Roman Catholic.  In his youth, he had searched for answers to his inner spiritual need and had met the Lord.  He no longer felt at home in the Catholic church and the only alternative in the area was the United Church.  He had joined that church, went to theological college and become a minister.

During that time a TV program did a show on the practice of excommunication.  One half dealt with the practice of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the other half with the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite.  They interviewed a few people who had been expelled from the church and who seemed to relish the opportunity to vocalize their bitterness.  The next time I talked with my neighbour from across the street, he mentioned seeing this program, then said, “I have only one question.  Is there a way for someone who has been excommunicated from your church to become a member again?”

I explained that it was indeed possible and that most of those who were excommunicated were later re-accepted into full fellowship in the church.  The church only excommunicated those who had lost contact with God and the purpose was to awaken them to the seriousness of that loss and move them to re-establish their relationship with their Lord and Saviour.  I also explained that I had never observed that those who had been excommunicated and re-accepted carried any stigma among the brethren.  The re-acceptance was genuine and complete.

His response floored me: “I wish we could do that in the United Church of Canada.  I wish we could say to our people that this is what we believe and if you don’t believe it and live by it, you have no right to be members here.”

Another time this minister told me, “I believe there are nine real Christians in my congregation.”  I think I could have guessed the names of the ones he was thinking of.  Most of them were older, in their seventies, and I sensed something in them that closely resembled what I felt from this minister.  I think there must have been a lingering evangelical witness in parts of the United Church during their youth and they had caught something that carried on to the end of their lives.  There was also one younger couple who were born again during the time that our neighbour was ministering in the local United Church.

The years have gone by, the newly-converted young couple moved to a more evangelical church, the older true-hearted folks have passed on without passing their faith to their children.  The minister too died suddenly some years ago.  His wife was also our friend, but I don’t believe she ever shared his faith.

The United Church of Canada appears to be slowly dying.  One would be hard-pressed to find much trace of spiritual life among the adherents.  Neither is there much social advantage to be found anymore in attending the United Church.  Rural churches have been closing and consolidating for several generations.  Urban churches are declining in membership and beginning to ask for help to maintain their magnificent buildings.

Sadly, I am seeing the same kind of rot developing in churches that were once considered evangelical.  People are transferring from church to church in search of one that will be more spiritual than the last one.  Whole congregations are transferring from one denomination to another for the same reason.  What is the answer?

Cultural amnesia

One hundred years ago, when the Social Gospel was well on the way to infiltrating and taking control of many of the major Christian denominations of North America, my father was already 24 years old. It has lately dawned on me that because I was born when he was 50 I have a window on that long-ago era that most people today know nothing about.

My father was a Methodist, but the social gospel changed that denomination into something he no longer recognized. He told of visiting Edmonton in 1925, and attending a Methodist church there. The minister had much to say about the social responsibility of Christians, but it became evident as he spoke that the Bible’s accounts of creation, the miracles, the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus were just mythology, allegories meant to teach moral lessons. My father walked out into the street after the service and wept.

A few years later the Methodists, Congregationalists and half the Presbyterians merged to form the United Church of Canada. This was by far the largest protestant denomination in Canada and it was dedicated to ministering to the social and materiel needs of all those oppressed by the evils of our society. The belief that the greatest need of each person was to find forgiveness of sins and peace with God was dismissed as a childish amusement that diverted people’s attention from more important concerns.

In subsequent years, the Anglican Church of Canada and some Baptist, Mennonite and Lutheran churches have also embraced the Social Gospel. It is worthy of note that the social gospel churches have all experienced precipitous declines in membership. People are either turned off by the social gospel or decide that the battles can be more effectively fought outside the churches.

The social gospel movement was the main impetus behind the co-operative movement. People were taught that the private ownership of business was a great injustice that deprived them of the fruits of their labour. They formed co-operatives to buy grain from farmers and to provide the supplies they needed, co-operative retail stores and co-operative banks (credit unions).

For many years the grain co-ops were the dominant agricultural businesses in Western Canada. They calculated patronage dividends for their farmer-owners, based on the amount of business they did with them, but retained the money to provide working capital. Farmers were able to withdraw their patronage dividends upon retirement. Then difficult times came and the co-ops suffered financial reverses. All the prairies grain co-ops merged into one, reorganized as a shareholder owned corporation, then sold out to a Swiss investment company. In the process, the patronage dividends evaporated into thin air. There is no evidence that farmers have suffered from losing the opportunity to sell to the co-operatives.

The Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) was a political party born of the social gospel. It promised to bring about a more just society by limiting the depredations of privately owned businesses, so that resources were more evenly shared between all people. This party (now known as the NDP) formed the government of my home province for the best part of 60 years. They did many good things, but the social gospel ideals of economic equality created an atmospherics of suspicion of anyone who appeared to prosper more than the average. The result was economic stagnation, leading to an increase in unemployment and poverty – very much the opposite of the promised result.

My father saw the fatal flaw in the social gospel long before I was born. Time has proved him right – in church, in business and in politics.  But the social gospel message still has power to seduce well-meaning people into expending great efforts on activities that will not produce the promised results.

Now we hear people who once were evangelical Christians proclaiming that our highest duty is to reach out to the suffering members of society. There is an element of truth in this, but if one listens closely it becomes evident that the social, emotional and economic needs are their sole concern and the spiritual needs of people are forgotten. This is simply the social gospel warmed over for a new generation who are not aware of history and are not aware that the promises of the social gospel are doomed to fail.

I am not trying to say that we need to forget everything else and just preach the gospel. After all, James said “If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, and one of you say unto them, depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit?” If we are blind to the material, emotional and social needs of others, we are not going to present a complete gospel. But the spiritual distress of people around us cannot be relieved by only ministering to their outward needs.

My concern is that if we trim our sails to catch the latest wind of doctrine and ride the wave of what is highly thought of in the world, we will end up far from where we thought we were going.

Business and Church

I grew up in a small Saskatchewan town with four grocery stores and three churches. One store was owned by a cousin and another by an old friend of the family. Another was owned by a Catholic family and the fourth was the local Co-op.

The three churches were the United Church of Canada, the Roman Catholic and the Anglican. The United Church was the largest and the Anglican the smallest. My family was Anglican. Sixty years ago there were enough mouths to feed in the town and the surrounding farms to support all four stores. Cut-throat competition was unheard of.

As the years went by things began to change. Gravel highways were paved, and travel to the city became more common. Young people went to the cities to further their education and stayed to work. Small farmers sold out to their neighbours and moved to the cities. Families had fewer children. As the population of the town and the surrounding countryside slowly shrank, the owners of the grocery stores began to feel pressure on their profit margins.

One day a fire started at one store. The bell on the town hall was rung, the town’s fire engine and water wagon rushed to the scene, and in true small town neighbourliness every able bodied man and youth converged on the scene to fight the fire. In their zeal to help, they got the fire hoses tangled up. By the time they got them straightened out and were able to pour water on the fire the store was past saving. It was not rebuilt.

The other stores could breathe easier for a time, but the trend toward a shrinking local market continued. One day a lady came to my cousin’s store to ask him to buy an ad in a Catholic periodical. He was not interested. She told him that if he did not buy an ad the Catholic people would be told to stop buying at his store. He didn’t take it very seriously, but one by one his Catholic customers stopped coming into his store. Some of them were among his best friends, and they remained friends, but the priest had told them they should support the business owned by a Catholic and they felt pressed to do so.

The United Church and the Co-op were both products of the social gospel movement, resulting in a similar commitment from the United Church people to support the Co-op. That left my cousin with the Anglicans and the people who were of other religious persuasions, or none at all. He began to reduce the shelf space devoted to groceries and to stock clothing and dry goods, items where he had no competition from the Catholic or social gospel people. This provided a livelihood for a number of years. I believe the town is now down to two churches and one store, the Co-op.

Thinking over this little bit of history has raised a question in my mind. When I go into business, should I feel that my brethren are obligated to do business with me? Should I expect the deacons to drop a few gentle hints that brethren should support my business rather than a “worldly” competitor?

Having a captive market may sound like a sure road to success in business. But does it work that way in real life? I think I know myself well enough to admit that the quality of service to my customers would tend to go downhill if I could take it for granted that most of them would deal with me even if I made no special effort to see that their needs were being met. A captive market begets mediocrity.

We operate a business to earn a livelihood for our family. In most cases, we could not make a living by serving only the members of our own church community. This is a good thing. Our neighbours are predisposed to see us as closed, inward-looking people. Operating a business in the community can give people a better picture of what we are like. Our business is not a mission, but the way we run it shows what is important to us. When we are open, honest, friendly and fair to all, that is a witness of what our faith is. When we and our employees work together harmoniously, when there is no foul language, and no racy pictures on the walls, that is a witness. When we patiently and kindly attempt to meet the needs of customers who are old, frail and a little confused, and customers who are angry and demanding, that is a witness. When we show no evidence of prejudice or favouritism, that is a witness. Honesty in our dealings with governments is also a witness.

The purpose of a business is to serve our customers and support our families, not to bring salvation to our neighbours. Yet we should remember that as these neighbours observe us, they will form impressions about the church to which we belong, the faith we profess and the God we serve.

Am I a suspect?

We lived in a village in south-western Ontario for 12 years. The United Church Manse was right across the street from our home. Several ministers and their families came and went during that time. We exchanged a few pleasantries, but never really got to know them.

One couple was different. The husband had been raised in Québec as a Roman Catholic, but had undergone a spiritual crisis in his younger years and had switched to the only other church in his area, which was the United Church of Canada. We felt that he had truly had a new birth experience and we enjoyed visiting with him and his family. Our daughter babysat his children on occasion; one summer they sent their children to the Vacation Bible School of our church.

Some members of our congregation were interested in learning French, so I asked if he would be willing to try and teach French to a bunch of Mennonites. He agreed and we got together once a week all through one winter to be exposed to a little French. Many were complete beginners, others already had some knowledge of French. He even taught us a few hymns.

Being Mennonites, there had to be a lengthy coffee break in the middle of each evening with lots of time for visiting. He told me later that those evenings had been the high point of the whole winter for him.

During one visit he had some questions about church discipline. Then he told me that he wished that the United Church could tell people that “this is what we believe, and if you don’t believe it you have no right to be a member.” During another visit he told me that he believed there were nine real Christians in his congregation. He didn’t give names, but by then I had lived long enough in the community to have an idea who he might be thinking of. There were a few elderly people whose lives seemed to speak of an inner grace and one young couple who had recently been converted (and left the United Church a couple years later).

That minister moved on to another community, then died suddenly of a heart attack a number of years ago. Thinking back of that time, and of times before that when we had been “church shopping,” I remember congregations of one denomination or another where we fellowshipped for a time. In each place we found many fine people with good intentions, but only a few that we could feel truly knew God.

Which leads to a sobering question: Does my life, my conduct, my attitude and relationship with others convey that I am walking in fellowship with God, by the leading of the Holy Spirit? It is a fine thing to have a love of the truth and a keen nose for all that is false in others, but a critical, fault-finding attitude is no help to them. If someone is looking for a person with whom they could share their struggles and questions about life and faith, would I be a likely candidate?

In short, if someone was searching for a real Christian, would I be a suspect?

Business and Church

I grew up on the edge of a small Saskatchewan town.  There were four grocery stores and three churches.  One store was owned by a cousin quite a few years older than myself, another by an old friend of my family, another was owned by a Catholic family and the fourth was the local Co-op.

The three churches were the United Church of Canada, the Roman Catholic and the Anglican.  The United Church was by far the largest and the Anglican the smallest.  My family was Anglican.  Fifty to sixty years ago there were enough mouths to feed in the town and the surrounding farms to support all four stores.  It would be too much to say that relations between the stores were always cordial, but cut-throat competition was unheard of.

Slowly things began to change.  Gravel highways were paved, and travel to the city became more common.  Young people from the farms went to the cities to further their education and stayed to work.  Small farmers sold out to their neighbours and moved to the cities.  Families had fewer children.  As the population of the surrounding countryside slowly shrank, the owners of the grocery stores began to feel pressure on their profit margins.

One day there was an electrical short circuit at our friend’s store, starting a fire.  The bell on the town hall was rung, the town’s fire engine and water wagon were rushed to the scene, and in true small town neighbourliness every able bodied man and youth converged on the scene to fight this fire.  In their zeal to help, they got the fire hoses tangled up.  By the time they got them untangled the store was past saving.  It was not rebuilt.

The other stores breathed a little easier, but the local market continued to shrink.  One day a lady came to my cousin’s store to ask him to place an ad in a Catholic periodical.  He was not interested.  She told him that if he did not buy an ad the Catholic people would be told to stop buying at his store.  He didn’t take it seriously, but one by one his 23 Catholic customers stopped coming into his store.  Some were among his best friends, and they remained friends, but the priest had told them they should support the business owned by a Catholic and they felt pressed to do so.

The United Church and the Co-op were both products of the social gospel movement, resulting in a similar commitment from the United Church people to support the Co-op.  That left my cousin with the Anglicans and a few people of other religious persuasions, or none at all.  He reduced the shelf space devoted to groceries and stocked clothing and dry goods, items where he had no competition from the Catholic or social gospel people.  This provided a livelihood for a number of years.  My cousin retired years ago, as did the Catholic store owner.  Today, the town has the same three churches, but only one grocery store, the Co-op.

Thirty years ago I was manager of a grain elevator in another prairie town.  There was one other elevator in this town, a Pool (a grain handling co-op).  It happened one summer that the Pool manager was incapacitated by health problems, leaving the elevator closed at a time when farmers wanted to deliver grain.  Many of the Pool customers hauled their grain to my elevator.  One of those farmers watched closely as I sampled and tested his grain, and then remarked: “I know I’m being cheated on every bushel of grain I haul to the Pool.  But I can’t help it, I believe in the Pool!”

This man was typical of a large number of prairie people who were strong believers in the co-operative principle.  There was a time when Co-op’s knew that people would deal with them no matter what kind of service they got.  Consequently, Co-op employees had no incentive to make any special efforts to serve their customers.  Times have changed, realism has triumphed over idealism.  Co-op stores have discovered customer service.  The Pool elevators are no more, the elevators now belong to a stock exchange listed company.

Thinking over this little bit of history has raised a question in my mind.  When I go into business, should members of my church feel obligated to do business with me?  Should I expect the deacons to drop a few gentle hints that brethren should support my business rather than a competitor?

Having a captive market may sound like a sure road to success.  But I think I know myself well enough to admit that the quality of service to my customers would tend to go downhill if I could take it for granted that most of them would deal with me even if I made no special effort to see that their needs were being met.  A captive market begets mediocrity.

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