Canada’s churches: A conscience for social and eco-justice

Anglicans and Lutherans hold a prayer service on Parliament Hill in 2013, urging the government to provide clean water for all. File photo: Art Babych
Anglicans and Lutherans hold a prayer service on Parliament Hill in 2013, urging the government to provide clean water for all. File photo: Art Babych
Published June 12, 2017

Here are two important biblical appeals:

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8; New Revised Standard Version)

God blessed them, saying to them, “Be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth and subdue it. Be masters…take responsibility for…the fish of the sea, the birds of heaven and all the living creatures that move on earth.” (Genesis 1:28; New Jerusalem Bible)

It’s old news that many of Canada’s traditional mainstream churches are experiencing institutional decline. What is not widely acknowledged is that those same churches have maintained a strong influence as this nation’s social conscience. I consider that to be one of the most important Canadian justice-developments during the past half-century.

Societal justice and care-for-the-Earth advocacy have been major ecclesial contributions to Canadian society, and a continuing witness to the gospel in our nation. Those who see decline in numbers as a sign of unfaithfulness to the Good News are taking a very limited view of what is actually happening. Those who are discouraged by some of the statistics need to take heart. There is another side to the story! Church growth is one thing. Faithfulness to God’s word is quite another.

“We tried to make you be like us and in so doing we helped to destroy the vision that made you what you were,” stated the 31st General Council of The United Church of Canada in 1986, more than 30 years ago.  This was in response to a request of Indigenous peoples that the church apologize for its part in colonization. Since that time, many denominations have issued apologies to the First Nations, not just for the existence of residential schools but for many other injustices.

Eventually, the government of Canada apologized in 2008 on behalf of all Canadians.  Even though various sectors of the Canadian Roman Catholic Church have issued a number of apologies for their schools, it now appears quite likely that Pope Francis will issue an apology with global implications.

Societal injustice has been increasingly recognized in Canada, so that now, much more attention is being paid to race, colour, creed and various handicaps in ways not recognized previously. The churches have taken the lead in not only apologizing, but in working concretely toward healing efforts and heading off future wrongs.

It is but a small step to move our attention from societal to ecological wrongdoing. Care for creation includes humanity and the environment. The World Council of Churches (WCC) has led the way, guiding our thinking and advising that “the present world development model is threatening the lives and livelihoods of many—especially among the world’s poorest people, and destroying biodiversity. The ecumenical vision is to overcome this model based on overconsumption and greed.”

Since the 1970s, the WCC has helped to shape the concept of sustainable communities. Since the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change was adopted in 1992, the WCC has attended all UN climate change conferences. Over the years, the WCC helped foster a movement for climate justice touching millions around the world, including thousands in our Canadian congregations.

To act as a conscience in society suggests discretion in how we speak truth to power. We must avoid judgmentalism in favour of setting a good example; being vigilant and keeping our own houses in order.


  • Wayne Holst

    Wayne A. Holst was a Lutheran pastor (ELCIC) for twenty-five years; he taught religion and culture at the University of Calgary for a quarter century and, for 15 years, he has coordinated adult spiritual development at St. David’s United Church, Calgary.

Related Posts

Skip to content