Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

A Church with the Soul of a Nation: Making and Remaking the United Church of Canada

Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

A Church with the Soul of a Nation: Making and Remaking the United Church of Canada

Article excerpt

A Church with the Soul of a Nation: Making and Remaking the United Church of Canada. By Phyllis D. Airhart. [McGill-Queen's Studies in the History of Religion, series 2, no. 67.] (Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press. 2014. Pp. xx, 440. C$34.95 paperback. ISBN 978-0-7735-4249-5.)

As Canada's largest Protestant church and the product of the world's first modern ecumenical organic union in 1925, the United Church of Canada has always attracted opinionated attention. Was this new entity a creedless and convenient merger, shamelessly consolidating Protestant power (Methodist, Presbyterian, and Congregationalist) to counteract a growing Roman Catholic population? Or was it a daring and noble experiment in cooperation based on progressive Christian theology and values? Did United Church membership plummet in the 1960s because of its godless accommodation to culture, because of its failure to accommodate a changing culture, or because of its brave honesty in confronting new theological and social issues? Scholars, journalists, and armchair critics have been happy to render judgment.

Phyllis Airhart, professor of the history of Christianity at Emmanuel College in the University of Toronto, enters the fray with A Church with the Soul of a Nation. Although the book covers familiar ground in its treatment of the denomination's first four decades, it is distinctive for its depth and breadth of research and analysis. The title, a clever riff on historian Sidney Mead's description of America as "a nation with the soul of a church," sets out Airhart7 s premise: that the United Church's founders were attempting to build a church that would faithfully serve and support Canada's growth to national maturity. Although this is not a new claim, Airhart argues that this allegedly bold new union project was actually an extension of nineteenth-century Protestant expansionism, to be viewed retrospectively as quaint and "quixotic." Its founders were only "accidental innovators" as they sought to create a church that would unify a vast geography with its scattered and increasingly diverse population. …

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