Churches Come Tumbling Down

Globe essay: Aftershock of the '60s

Churches come tumbling down

As the young women go, so go the country's Christian communities. There are various factors, but future mothers have proved to be the key to the churches' future as organized, living bodies

From Saturday's Globe and Mail
December 22, 2007 at 12:00 AM EST

For 129 Christmases, the 12-spire Gothic tower of Welland Avenue United Church has beckoned people in St. Catharines, Ont., to celebrate the birth of God's son Jesus. This Christmas almost certainly will be the last.

The tower is falling apart. The congregation doesn't have $300,000 to rebuild it.

A church committee has unanimously advised the congregation to vote on Jan. 27 to leave the building, put it up for sale and merge with two other United churches in the city.

It is a textbook crisis scenario for Canada's churches, beginning to fall like bowling pins in the aftershock of institutional Christianity's implosion in the 1960s, a cultural and spiritual derangement still not fully understood.

It has moved at least one scholar of religion, Stuart Macdonald at the University of Toronto's Presbyterian Knox College, to ask in the journal of the Canadian Society of Church History if Christian Canada is dying.

Prof. Macdonald and others, looking beyond the 40-year steep decline in regular worship attendance, cite the unprecedented growth in the census of those who identify themselves as having “no religion” from 1 per cent in 1961 to 4 per cent a decade later, to 16 per cent in 2001 (and a whopping 35 per cent in B.C.) as well as those self-identified as unaffiliated Christian, or “Christian not included elsewhere”: now 700,000 Canadians, double the number in 1991.

Denominational belonging is one of the final things to go in someone's attachment to institutional faith, Prof. Macdonald noted in an interview. “People's religious identity lasts a long time.”

Scholars find significant, as well, the marked decline in occasional attendance, which means the churches are losing prospective membership recruits.

They cite the sharp declines in baptisms, church marriages and young people's confirmations or professions of faith marking full membership (the Anglicans, some years ago, abandoned confirmation instruction as a prerequisite to taking part in the Eucharist) and the disappearance of once well-known biblical references from our everyday speech.

And Michael Higgins, president of Fredericton's St. Thomas University and an expert on contemporary Roman Catholicism, sees a crucial absence of “credible moderate and liberal witnesses” for reforming the Catholic Church from the inside, people who remain strongly attached to the institution and haven't left. “They don't seem to be there.”

All the demographics worked against Welland United. Its congregation shrank. It aged. The median age in all so-called liberal mainline Protestant denominations (United Church, Anglican, Presbyterian) is several years older than the Canadian median. And while Catholicism is being kept viable just by immigration, Protestant immigration into Canada is vanishing.

“So they can't bring in the next generation and they can't bring in the immigrants,” said Peter Beyer, a religion sociologist and historian at the University of Ottawa. Suggesting the Protestants are up the creek.

Welland United could have paddled along a few more years. The congregation is lively; there are children; there have been a few new members. Two men who came to get married the church offers a gay marriage ceremony stayed on. But the falling-down tower was its death knell.

“Because of our building, we don't have another choice,” said Karen Thacker, chairwoman of the church's council.

Such stories can be heard in thousands of congregations across the country that are either already in palliative care or a roof-leak or furnace-failure away from the grave. They are rural, urban, Catholic, mainline Protestant, Pentecostal (the Pentecostals show the second-largest census decrease in Canada after the Presbyterians) and other conservative sects such as the Salvation Army, Mormons, Mennonites and Jehovah's Witnesses.

Most scholars of religion now recognize that adherence to the country's pre-eminent faith 72 per cent of Canadians self-identified as Christian in the last full census year of 2001, down eight points from 1991 (while fewer than 20 per cent regularly attend services) has not been following some decades-long trend of gentle decline, as many had thought.

Rather, church membership steadily climbed before the 1960s and then abruptly collapsed.

The United Church, Canada's largest Protestant denomination, had more children in its Sunday schools in 1961 (757,338) than its total membership in 2001 (637,941). Its decline began in 1966. Anglican membership peaked in 1964 (1,204,601), then fell almost by half by 2001 (641,845).

The Presbyterians grew from 173,152 members in 1945 to a peak of 202,566 in 1964. The next year it lost 68 members, the following year more than 2,300 and, by 2001, membership had fallen to 132,659 40,000 fewer than in 1945.

Catholic numbers are tricky. The Protestant denominations distinguish between census self-identifying adherents and actual church members. But the Catholic Church, Canada's largest denomination, treats all census Catholics as members.

As Peter Beyer puts it, Protestants leave their churches and don't go anywhere else. With Catholics, nobody leaves the church but no one comes.

Except, of course, immigrants, although the evidence suggests they only come for the first generation. The second generation tends to fit the same church-attending profile as the native-born.

Nevertheless, not only have census Catholic numbers grown by 600,000 since 1991, from 12.2 million to 12.8 million (while Protestant numbers declined by 800,000, from 9.4 million to 8.6 million) but, for the first time, there are more Canadians identifying themselves as Catholics outside Quebec than inside, a factor attributed to immigration.

However, the numbers get feathery when actual church attendance is examined particularly in Quebec, where 83 per cent identified as Catholic in 2001, but attendance is by far the lowest in the country.

In fact, Roman Catholicism in Quebec is morphing from religion to cultural heritage, Prof. Beyer says similarly to Christianity as a whole in Europe. Many pure laine Quebeckers stay away from their churches in droves, hovering in the background as a kind of “shadow establishment” and showing displeasure when immigrant communities take over their parish churches.

Surveys show most Quebeckers oppose the provincial government's 2000 decision to secularize public schools, meaning an end of public religious instruction for children.

But as Solange Lefebvre, director of the Centre for the Study of Religions at the University of Montreal, points out, many parents have grumpily responded by sending their children to church for instruction. Though they don't attend and, for historical reasons, still feel hostile toward the church, they nonetheless see religious instruction as part of their heritage.


There have been several theories for the 1960s collapse (Quebec has its special narrative); all but one have flaws.

The argument that churches have been in a long (200 years and more) decline in response to modernity and the Enlightenment doesn't work because churches were growing in the decades before the sixties.

The facts also don't support the notion that decline in church membership is part of a general decline in institutional association, that people have stopped being joiners, an explanation church leaders like. Research says people have just stopped joining institutions that don't mean much to them.

The theory that a postmodern spiritual revolution has altered perception of the self God is no longer “up there” or “out there” but internalized to a God within, leaving the individual free to compose her or his own spiritual experience has substance, but not enough muscle (certainly not 40 years ago) to account for the sixties big bang.

But it is impossible to refute or underemphasize the fact that religion was suddenly confronted in the 1960s by changes in the social construct of gender and a resulting severing of the centuries-old linkage between Christian piety and femininity.

Women the traditional mainstays of institutional religion in huge numbers abruptly rejected the church's patriarchal exemplar of them as chaste, submissive “angels in the house” with all of the social and moral responsibility for community and family but none of the authority.

Unable to find acceptable religious role models or religious ideals that were not painful or oppressive, they reconstructed their identities as secular and sexual beings.

As they progressed into university graduate and professional schools and entered the work force, their horizons broadened and they discovered ways of serving that were more valuable than doing dishes and running church picnics.

Birth control gave them the deliberate choice to be sexual, to move out of enslavement to fertility, to delay and limit the size of families. Pope Paul VI's 1968 encyclical, Humanae Vitae (On The Regulation of Birth), shocked even loyal Canadian Catholics by upholding the church's ban on contraception.

Callum Brown, a Scottish church sociologist, describes what took place in the churches in the 1960s and 70s especially in Western Europe and Canada as a “hemorrhaging of young women.”


There was a general decline in young people's institutional deference. There was a boredom factor. There was the growth of quasi-religions, like the transcendental meditation of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, guru to the Beatles. And powerful books such as John Robinson's Honest to God and Harvey Cox's The Secular City shook traditional belief.

That turbulent decade, says Prof. Macdonald, illustrated “the incredible unreliability of the clergy's insights into the faith of the average person.”

Christianity in Canada won't die, of course, although Canadian Christendom is destined for history's sunset. And while it remains unclear how much the rebellion of the past 40 years has been against Christianity and how much has been against the church, many of the clergy's insights have radically changed and the churches today have a pretty clear idea of what congregations must do to survive. In fact, Michael Higgins, the Catholic scholar at St. Thomas, believes the decline is bottoming out and the congregations that survive, though smaller, will be more committed.

But with research showing mothers to be the prime influencers of their offspring's religious behaviour, it remains the rejection of the church by young women 40 years ago that was so catastrophic. Their children never came through the doors.

Michael Valpy is senior writer for The Globe and Mail