Secular shift

New book examines decline of Christianity in Canada


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On July 1, 1967, an estimated 20,000 people gathered on Parliament Hill in Ottawa for a worship service to kick off the official celebration of Canada’s centennial.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 19/05/2018 (1660 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

On July 1, 1967, an estimated 20,000 people gathered on Parliament Hill in Ottawa for a worship service to kick off the official celebration of Canada’s centennial.

It was presided over by clergy from the major Christian denominations — United, Anglican, Presbyterian and Catholic — along with a rabbi.

The service included readings from the Bible (Prime Minister Lester Pearson read from the book of First Peter), hymns and a confession of sin. It concluded with the entire gathering voicing a litany of dedication to God.

Fifty years later, when Canada marked its 150th anniversary last summer, religion appeared to be absent on the Hill.

The day in Ottawa began with a celebration of welcome and diversity. The opening celebration featured musicians and guest speakers, including the prime minister.

If there were any clergy present, or any prayers or hymns, the official schedule fails to note it.

For Brian Clarke and Stuart MacDonald, authors of the new book Leaving Christianity: Changing Alliances in Canada since 1945, the differences between the two celebrations illustrate the significant changes for the church in Canada over the past 50 years.

In the book, Clarke, a professor at the Toronto School of Theology, and MacDonald, a professor at Knox College, say the decline of the church in this country is far more widespread than is commonly assumed.

Using census data, they show that many churches and denominations are in serious trouble.

That’s no surprise, of course. Anyone who has gone to almost any mainline church on a Sunday morning can see the empty pews.

But what the authors discovered is the trend of decline is not limited to mainline denominations. Other groups — such as the Christian Reformed, Pentecostals, Mennonites, the Salvation Army and some Baptist groups — are also seeing decreases.

Meanwhile in Quebec, where loyalty to the Catholic Church has traditionally been high — even if few attend services — the decline in allegiance to Catholicism “can only be described as precipitous,” they say.

As for Catholics in the rest of Canada, more of them are switching to no religion, along with a “remarkable rise” in the number of Catholics who never attend services.

Altogether, it adds up to a significant disengagement with church-based religion, they write.

“There is a decline in the number of people who socialize their children into churches, or go to churches for rites of passage. There is a decline among those who come to church expecting that their social needs for friendship and community will be met there.”

These changes will “profoundly affect how Canadians live their lives, the vitality of their religious institutions, the salience of these institutions in Canadian society, and the state of Canadian civil society, in which churches and church-affiliated organizations had a significant presence.”

Rise of the “Nones”

Clarke and MacDonald trace the start of the change in how Canadians view religion to the 1960s, with mainline churches the first to feel the effects.

This change was “sudden, it was broad-based, it was massive in scale, and it gained momentum over time,” they write. For the most part, they lost the baby boom generation and never got them back. Many of these Canadians went on to become “nones” over the next several decades — people who, when asked to name their religion on the census, check the box that says “none of the above.”

Today, some 7.8 million Canadians identify as having no religion — about 25 per cent of the population. In 1961, that figure was one per cent.

Clarke and MacDonald call the growth in the non-affiliated “the most dramatic change in the Canadian religious scene since the 1960s,” noting if they were a religious group, it would be the third-largest after Catholics and Protestants.

(If anything, they believe the number of those who are unaffiliated with Christianity to be much larger. They estimate about 17.9 million Canadians are disconnected from religion, including many who are no longer religiously active, but haven’t got around to checking off the “none” box yet.)

But along with the growth in the de-churched — those who have left religion — there’s a new cohort not seen in such large numbers before: the children of the “nones.”

According to Clarke and MacDonald, there are more than 1.5 million Canadians under 15 who have never been to church, except for weddings or funerals, and have little or no exposure to Christian beliefs and practices.

Demographic trends “don’t get any stronger or deeper than the growth trend among no religion and the cultural shift it represents,” they say, adding “we are witnessing an unprecedented cultural shift.”

Not all struggling

What about conservative and evangelical denominations? Clarke and MacDonald say some of these church groups have had greater success adjusting to the change.

They suggest this is because of strong group identity, active efforts at outreach and their ability to retain more of their youth.

These denominations are doing better at maintaining membership, attendance and religious identification than the mainline churches, they say.

But beginning in the 1990s, “many of them have seen decline… the end of a common Christian culture is now affecting them, as it did earlier with the country’s larger Protestant denominations,” they say.

Conservative churches “are one of the few forms of Christianity that is not shrinking.” But, they add, trends suggest that “stability or modest growth is the reality.”

Impact on society

The consequences of these changes are dire for many churches — decreased attendance, drop in giving, closed congregations. But all of Canadian society will feel the pain.

Since active church participation is a chief predictor of whether someone gives to charity or volunteers, declining church affiliation and participation will have “a profound impact on civil society, most clearly seen in the decreases in volunteering and charitable giving,” they say.

Fewer church members means there will be fewer people donating to charities, putting many of them at risk — and not just religious charities, since churchgoers give to many causes.

The changes will also affect how people learn to be engaged citizens.

“Churches have traditionally served as one of the chief entry points — if not the chief entry point — to civil society,” they write.

Historically, churches were where most Canadians learned how to be civically engaged through things like speaking in public, leading meetings, being part of boards or committees, engaging people with differing viewpoints, giving to charity and doing service in the community.

Of course, other groups also contribute to society’s social capital. But “churches have been one of the major gateways to participation in the rest of society,” they say, adding “for whatever reason, they are unique in the ways they empower people to become active members of Canadian society. The decline in churchgoing, then, is a societal issue.”

Diminishing influence will also affect relations between churches and government, the authors contend.

They note there was a time when elected officials paid serious attention to statements issued by church leaders — statements based on the number of people they counted as members, and their beliefs.

Today, however, Christian institutions “can no longer assume they can secure public recognition” because of who they represent or what they believe.

“They must do so on the basis of civil and human rights or how they might contribute to the common good, rather than specifically Christian values,” they state, adding that the “church’s voice is one voice among many, if heard at all.”

What’s next

According to Clarke and MacDonald, there is no easy fix.

“The trends we are tracking are well entrenched, and they indicate that the pool of Protestant and Catholic affiliates will continue to shrink and to do so at an increasing pace as new cohorts of youth appear, other cohorts age, and still others disappear.”

As for the future, they recommend denominations “accept that Canada is a de-Christianized, post-Christian society. The challenge for churches is how to adapt, adjust, and start to function effectively in this context.”

This is “not a matter of tweaking a program, new music, new liturgy, new style of sermons, etc. to reverse fortunes,” they say.

Instead, it is about finding new ways to communicate about the faith “in a culture that no longer understands what they are talking about. They (churches) can no longer appeal to Christian symbols and ideas that used to be diffused in the general culture to proclaim their message.”

They also recommend seminaries prepare future clergy “to deal with the context of ministry that awaits them, which is dramatically different from what it was just a few years ago… for the sense of loss and pain they will encounter in congregational ministry.”

And they suggest that “in such a post-Christian society, Canada’s churches will need to rediscover Christianity’s founding impulse for mission and engage their new cultural and religious context.”

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John Longhurst

John Longhurst
Faith reporter

John Longhurst has been writing for Winnipeg's faith pages since 2003. He also writes for Religion News Service in the U.S., and blogs about the media, marketing and communications at Making the News.

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