Canadian churches moving from uniformity to diversity

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Published April 21, 2017

My March Anglican Journal column focused on major “changes” I have observed in many of our churches during the past half-century.

I emphasized the expansive leadership of women, the secularization of Canadian society, increased social justice and care of the Earth concerns, as well as ecumenical/interfaith engagements.

This time, I want to elaborate on the first: how women have played a major role in making Canada’s churches places of increasingly celebrated diversity.

One definition of diversity is “the inclusion of individuals representing more than one national origin, colour, religion, socioeconomic stratum, sexual orientation, etc.” A half-century ago, little was made of diverse communities of faith. At best, we tended to deny or soft-pedal this characteristic in favour of a certain “uniformity.” Sameness, even combativeness, was honoured. But Canadian social values have evolved. Today, we are much more committed to embracing diversity.

As Canadian society has changed from mono- and bi-cultural to multi- and intercultural, our Christian communities have continued, albeit hesitantly, to reflect societal composition and tendencies.

When and how did we change from being churches that valued uniformity to becoming communities valuing diversity? I believe it was during the 1960s when (at the Canadian centennial) we became more intentionally focused on our distinct identity as a nation.

Gradually, over the decades, we have reassessed our Euro-based history to recognize our global inheritance. Add to this a consciousness of Aboriginal foundations. Now, at the celebration of our 150th anniversary, we have a clearer understanding of what it means to be Canadian. “United in our diversity” is a firm part of that self-definition.

The emergence of women as a strong influence on societal values and in leadership has triggered inclusive—non-divisive—thinking. We are now a society that tries to celebrate diversity. We are enhancing our ability to be inclusive and affirming of our differences.

Building on these holistic “female” values, we have come to appreciate and intentionally engage persons of differing race, culture, creedal affirmation, human ability and sexual orientation. Once, our churches were the acknowledged conscience of society. In more recent times, we have often responded, rather than initiated the higher moral precepts. We have had to come to terms with and adjust to the challenges of progressive judicial and political rulings.

Half a lifetime ago when I started searching in earnest for new models to guide my thinking, I was happily drawn to some key mentors from First Nations spiritual traditions. I learned I did not always have to be right in my beliefs. I discovered that it is possible to hold differing truths in a living suspension until new or alternate truth emerged. I found that everyone has something to contribute to a spiritual community and that I must work hard to retain the different, difficult members.

My ideals have not always held up, but I would credit many women who have long-reflected First Nations influence in the church I love, with ways of modelling, shaping and celebrating diversity.


  • 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.

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