Tuesday, January 22, 2008

The State of the Canadian Church -- Part VI: Those pesky moral, social issues

Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV | Part V

By Jim Coggins@www.canadianchristianity.com

This is the sixth in a series of articles on the Canadian church, drawing on the expertise of a variety of researchers and church leaders.

IN PREPARING this series, we conducted a number of phone interviews, consulted a number of published studies, and did an email survey of a variety of church leaders from across Canada.

One of the topics we covered in our survey was social/moral issues. In the last few decades, issues such as abortion and homosexuality have brought Christians into frequent contact with political leaders and garnered much media attention. They have been the focus of many CC.com news stories.

Abortion and homosexuality especially have aroused much frustration and anger, and even divided Christian denominations, such as the Anglican Church of Canada. Both issues have also divided the Canadian church generally, often pitting mainline Protestant churches, which have been somewhat supportive of abortion and homosexual "rights", against Roman Catholic and evangelical churches.

Further, the 20 percent of Canadians who are weekly church attenders may generally accept their churches' positions on moral and social issues. However, the 50 percent of Canadians who call themselves Christians but attend only monthly or annually do not. An Ipsos poll discovered that 72 percent of Canadians believe "Private beliefs are more important than what is taught by any church." A more recent Angus Reid poll done for the Vancouver Sun found that only 12 percent of Canadians are "strict moralists." However, another third of Canadians are "thoughtful conservatives," holding church positions on some issues.

This lack of consensus among those who call themselves Christians "makes it increasingly difficult for a common voice of Christianity to prevail," said Damian Macpherson, director of ecumenical and interfaith affairs for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Toronto.

Rather than repelling Canadians, political scientist John H. Redekop suggested that a strict moralism might actually be attractive in the long run. "A truly secular society, as it realizes its ideological futility and moral rootlessness, may, in fact, become increasingly open to the Christian gospel and the Christian ethic," he said.

Abortion and homosexuality

In recent decades, Canadian Christians have fought hard against the legalization of abortion and same-sex marriage -- and have essentially lost the political battle on both issues. Does this mean that these issues will fade from Christian consciousness?

"Canadian society has no interest in hard-line positions on either abortion or same-sex marriage," said David Harris, editor of the Presbyterian Record. "Churches that focus on that will remain relatively small numerically or (have) their teachings ignored."

Tim Day, senior pastor of The Meeting House, a young contemporary church in Oakville, Ontario, was more ambivalent. "I think abortion has lost its primary focus, although many churches still support the good work many life centres are doing," he said. "Homosexuality, I believe, is the litmus test of our generation, sort of like dietary laws and circumcision in the New Testament. I think for some the discussion about this is still alive and well. Others, I think, are tiring of this discussion."

Others, however, suggested abortion will become a prominent issue again, though the form of the debate may shift. "Abortion will surface again," said Brian Stiller, president of Tyndale University College and Seminary in Toronto. Moreover, "we will be facing the larger issues of the sanctity of the human person in the various forms of cloning and embryo manipulation that will inevitably come down the pipeline."

Gerry Bowler, a historian at the University of Manitoba who specializes in the intersection of religion and culture, suggested that "the same-sex issue is over for at least the next generation," but "abortion is due for a comeback as an issue." Like Stiller, he suggested that related issues may take the spotlight: "With the appearance of the first wave of geriatric baby boomers, end-of-life issues will be the next great moral struggle. Within 20 years, suicide will be seen as the socially correct thing to do for the elderly, and do-not-resuscitate policies will be mandatory."

Doug Cryer, director of public policy for the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, asserted the EFC's continued commitment to "the sanctity of human life, care for the vulnerable, marriage and family, and religious freedom." The EFC will continue to promote "the uniqueness and importance of marriage, as a covenant between a woman and a man" and "to press for protection for unborn children," he said.

Macpherson stated: "The question of abortion has not finally been laid to rest. It is my impression that this issue will remain in the forefront . . . Respect and protection for life, from conception to the death and dying of all individuals, is among the highest moral priorities within the Roman Catholic Church."

Redekop summed up: "Many moral issues such as sexual fidelity in marriage have been with the church and society since New Testament times. That will not change. In addition, of course, we now also need to deal with abortion, same-sex marriage and the undermining of the family generally. I see these challenges becoming more, not less, serious."

Poverty, homelessness and the environment

On the other hand, many of those surveyed were convinced that other issues may become as important for Christians as abortion and homosexuality in the near future.

Day: "Global issues like poverty, the environment and just community will be increasingly important as our world gets smaller and we actually have new ways of expressing our commitment to Christ."

Cameron Roxburgh, founding pastor of the multi-site Southside Community Church in British Columbia: "Social issues, justice issues are crucial. Issues of sexual purity will continue to be important, but so will issues of generosity, simplicity, community and the stewardship of creation."

Harris: "I think poverty and inequality are the biggest moral issues facing Canadian Christians."

Veteran Christian journalist and political observer Lloyd Mackey: "I believe that health, environmental and economic issues will come to take on moral perspectives, as the church develops biblical and theological perspectives in this area."

Cryer: "Key issues will include euthanasia, religious freedom, poverty and homelessness . . . There is also a growing interest among evangelicals regarding creation care and environmental stewardship.

Redekop: "Evangelical churches need to take a much stronger leadership role in addressing social and community ills without reducing their emphasis on soul salvation as a primary agenda. Christian churches today must stand strong in defence of basic Biblical morality, especially as it concerns marriage and the family. At the same time, the Christian church must address serious moral issues concerning greed, materialism, individualism and hedonism as Jesus also did. . . . Many churches are doing good work in addressing these issues in both practical and theological ways."

Bowler agreed: "We are not noticeable at a provincial or national level but on a micro scale Canadian Christians continue to do wonderful work with the destitute, lonely and lost. If such workers were raptured away tomorrow, the inner city would notice the absence long before the media or politicians."

Willard Metzger, director of church relations for World Vision Canada, was not as convinced that the Canadian church is doing well in this area: "Canadian society is displaying an increasing concern for the environment and issues of social justice . . . The mainline . . . churches have been embracing the concerns, but . . . the evangelical church . . . has just recently begun to embrace (them). As a result, the church appears to be out of touch.

"I see a growing interest in the evangelical church around social justice issues. There will be a growing need for tools to help the church address these issues while also calming their fears of losing their evangelistic concern. Good theological, biblical reflections will be important . . . The church should be leading the charge in addressing issues of poverty and social issues. Even nonreligious people know intuitively that part of the responsibility of the church is to look after the poor."

Approach as important as the issues

A crucial question is not whether the churches will be willing to be involved in social issues but whether they will be allowed to be involved.

Bowler warned: "(An) issue of importance in the coming years is going to be the access of faith groups to the public square. Two trends mitigate against Christianity being allowed a respected hearing or even any standing outside of the home.

"The first is the rise of the human rights industry as a tool of the secular left; it has been enormously successful in ensuring the triumph of one set of rights (chiefly gender and sexual) over the imagined constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion and religious speech.

"The traditional place that Christianity has had in Canadian society had inoculated it from a full-scale assault, but the second trend -- the demand by Canadian Islam for tolerance for its religious distinctives -- now mandates that all religions be marginalized in the public sphere.

"We may look for increasing state interference in child-rearing practices, tax-exempt status, church and religious-educational hiring policies, freedom of preaching or publishing on controversial issues, etc. Religion will soon be seen as having no right to public utterance if it dares to contradict accepted social mores."

Redekop advised: "The Christian churches must speak more boldly to governments, media and education authorities about their rights and their historic and current contributions to societal well-being. Christians have every right to be heard seriously at public tables and in the public square.

"I foresee an increasing attack on Christian teaching about family and marriage. We must, in Christian ways, counteract such attacks whether they emanate from the media, the courts, the legislatures, the schools, or entertainment depictions.

"In coming years, the evangelical churches will need to work in a much more focused manner in affirming government action where it is good, working with government agencies where we have a common agenda and being constructively critical of governments and their policies where these are detrimental for society."

Harris suggested that at least some of the problem is the church's own fault: "The wrongs committed in the name of organized religion, such as involvement in residential schools, continues to taint organized Christianity."

David Macfarlane, director of national initiatives for the EFC, agreed: "The most serious issue facing the church is integrity. Christians must live incarnationally 24/7, not just on Sundays."

Metzger argued: "One of the greatest moral issues for the Canadian church is how to have Christian integrity as people of affluence. What is the difference between the righteous rich and the unrighteous rich? Answering this question will be crucial for the health of the Canadian church and for the acceptance of the faith message of the Christian church . . . The young adult population is finding it increasingly difficult to take the church seriously. Because of their gravitation towards environmental and social justice concerns, any silence or delay from the church regarding these issues causes quick disinterest . . . The activity of the church in addressing issues of poverty and social justice has become necessary for the integrity of the church and to be accepted as a voice of authority in Canadian society."

Redekop suggested that the way churches get involved in social issues may be key: "We must not only oppose but present a better option and a clear rationale . . . The big challenge for evangelical Christians will be truly to love those who sharply disagree with what the church stands for and, because of their chosen lifestyles, come across as increasingly unlovable."

Stiller said that a key challenge for Canadian Christians is "is to decide if the role of faith in culture matters. If it does matter, how can we help the people of God understand what it means to be the voice and presence of God in the marketplace? . . . In defining faith as being that which happens in church and within the individual, we've allowed secularity to become the dominant cultural model . . . There appears to be a lingering fear of engaging the culture . . . Mingling with the cultural gatekeepers of the community provides enormous opportunity for congregations."

He noted that the church narrowly lost battles on abortion and same-sex marriage and that "it was important that we register our concerns." However, he suggested that is important for Christians to think carefully about those struggles: "What did we gain by our battle, and how did we represent Christ in the battle? What's the long-term benefit? At the time, what I heard was angry and unchristlike chatter, and frankly, I was embarrassed by much of it . . . Did we discredit Christ by the style and attitude which were the carrier of our words? I don't think we were served well, and neither was the gospel."

Roxburgh admitted: "The church has been marginalized . . . We need to focus on changing our approach without compromising and cheapening the gospel. It has been said before that people are not opposed to Jesus, just the church."

He suggested that participating in social and justice issues might actually help the church "once again 'to enjoy the favour of all the people' (Acts 2:47). Our approach should be to demonstrate an alternative way to live. As we demonstrate the positive approach of adoption over abortion and fidelity in a marriage between wife and husband, we will proclaim the kingdom of God . . . Now, more than ever, we need to demonstrate a level of holiness that in the end will be attractive to others searching for answers."

However, Day cautioned that attention to social issues alone will not be enough: "Having our position sorted out on government legislation or on moral issues like homosexuality in my personal opinion will not revitalize the health of the church. I believe these have the power to divide and distract but not to revitalize the church. Until the church has a renewed vision of the message of Jesus and can step free of its own religious paralysis, I believe we could easily remain on the sidelines, distracted and for the most part irrelevant."

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