Canadian Council of Churches, still vital at 70?

Illustration: David Anderson
Illustration: David Anderson
Published November 17, 2014

(A shorter version of this story appeared in the November issue of the Anglican Journal.)

It was 1944. As the war dragged on in Europe and the Pacific, 10 Protestant denominations came together in Canada with a new ecumenical vision: the Canadian Council of Churches (CCC). The council officially antedated by four years the World Council of Churches (WCC), whose long-expected formation was postponed by Hitler’s rise.
“In the middle of a great conflict, the churches of Canada gathered in a new relationship with each other in the face of darkness in the world to witness to an alternate and better way of being,” says the United Church of Canada’s Rev. Dr. Karen Hamilton, general secretary since 2002 of the Toronto-based council. The council’s first president was Archbishop Derwyn Owen, then primate of the Anglican Church of Canada.

To mark its 70th anniversary this month, the CCC will hold an assembly in a retreat centre in Mississauga, Ont., and also host public events at the Anglican Church of Redeemer in Toronto’s downtown.

The churches’ groundbreaking goal was to collaborate in the call to mission, service, religious education and evangelism. At that time, 60 per cent of Protestants attended church on Sunday and together their professed adherents represented more than 45 per cent of the Canadian population.

Today, the Toronto-based council has 25 members representing churches of very different sizes and stripes: Anglican, Eastern Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Evangelical, Oriental Orthodox, Protestant and Roman Catholic. In total they encompass 85 per cent of Christians, who account for 66 per cent of Canada’s population of 35 million. The CCC also has two observer denominations and six non-church affiliates.

“We are the broadest, most inclusive church council in the world and we are looked to as a role model,” says Hamilton, noting that neither the WCC nor the U.S. National Council of Churches counts the Roman Catholic Church as a member.

She points to 1997 as a milestone year when the council welcomed in the Catholic church after adopting a forum consensus model in which “every voice, small or large, around the table matters. We don’t outvote each other and money doesn’t buy you anything.” Absent complete member consensus, no statement can be issued in the name of the CCC. The WCC is now adopting the forum approach, which, Hamilton adds, “is a hugely important model for how we can be in relationship on the hard issues and come to consensus.”

Such consensus can carry serious weight, she says, pointing to 2003, when the U.S. was seeking partners to participate in the invasion of Iraq. “Eighteen of 20 council members signed a letter to Prime Minister Jean Chrétien stating that Canada should not take part in the war,” Hamilton recalls. “Chrétien later said publicly that knowing the minds of the churches had a definite impact on his decision not to join the war.”

The Rev. Karen Hamilton
The Rev. Karen Hamilton

The council’s mission is carried out largely by its Commission on Justice and Peace (CJP) and Faith and Witness Commission. Current focuses include human trafficking, biotechnology, racism, nuclear weapons, poverty, doctrine, emergency planning, interfaith relationships and Christian theological reflection on suffering and hope.

Recently, human trafficking has become a major concern. In 2008 the council’s CJP set up the Human Trafficking in Canada Working Group to facilitate learning, theological reflection and common action on this issue. The group developed the educational resource Human Trafficking in Canada: A Leadership and Learning Kit for Churches. In July, in the wake of Bill C-36, the working group’s recommendations on prostitution, which it links to human trafficking, was submitted to the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights. These included a halt to further decriminalization of prostitution as a whole, criminalization of the purchase but not the sale of sexual services, and large-scale investment in exit programs for sex trade workers.

Since 1999 its Biotechnology Reference Group has explored the ethical implications of genetic engineering and modification, genetic pharmaceuticals, cloning and stem cell research and has developed several biotechnology resources.

Another mandate is the mentoring of students who will form the next generation of Canadian ecumenists. “We encourage them all to make us as uncomfortable as possible and to challenge our tried and true assumptions about what ecumenism should look like into the next 70 years,” says Hamilton.

Along the course of the council’s first 70 years, there have been a few bumps-not surprising in an organization of such diversity. According to the Rev. Canon David Oliver, who served as general secretary for six months in 1994 to 1995 alongside a restive staff, funding and staffing were problematic issues. “It was a time of change when the incredibly important work of social justice that so many members and affiliates had been able to do was being impacted pretty seriously by the churches’ budgets,” says Oliver, archdeacon missioner of Quebec and vicar of St. Barnabas Anglican Church in North Hatley, Que. “With the incapacity of the churches to fund it, how could we continue to do social justice work in the world with the same strength?”

The Rev. Canon David Oliver & The Rev. Stuart Brown
The Rev. Canon David Oliver & The Rev. Stuart Brown

Over the years, the council has drastically reduced its staff and relocated its offices twice.

Another problem, Oliver adds, is that committee people who had hands-on expertise in working for social justice did not always have strong connections to the members. “They wanted the churches to stand out of their way and not interfere since they knew what needed to be done.” In this vein, Archdeacon Bruce Myers, the Anglican church’s co-ordinator for ecumenical relations and member of the council’s governing board, notes that Project Ploughshares, which began in 1976 as a CCC peace and justice initiative, now exists almost as a separate entity.

The Rev. Stuart Brown, the council’s first lay general secretary from 1988 to 1993, says funding issues had already reared their head in his day. “People expected the council to do things and represent the denominations on various commissions, but the denominations never budgeted for the council to do what their own people thought it should be doing. It wasn’t viable,” says Brown, since ordained and now priest-in-charge and regional dean for Aklavik, Anglican diocese of the Arctic.

Brown also notes that, over time, enthusiasm can wane. “In every denomination there’s a certain ecumenical aging. And there’s also, in most, a particularist group that’s not so sure about the ecumenical idea. So there’s a little tug of war inside each denomination about the ecumenical commitment and what we’re going go do together.”

Noting that interest in ecumenism stands today at fairly low ebb, Myers agrees. “A perpetual tension can be said to exist between councils of churches and their constituent members,” he says. “Do councils exist exclusively to serve their member churches in areas of work clearly defined by those members, or must councils sometimes lead the member churches by prophetically calling them back to the search for visible unity, common witness and service?”

This in an inborn strain that plagues disparate-member bodies from political parties to the UN. But for Hamilton, such tension no longer exists. The council is not a Ding an Sich; nor is it greater than the sum of its parts. “There is no friction. There is no such thing as a separate council. It is the coming together of the 25 members. The council is the churches,” she says.

According to Oliver, Hamilton “has been superb in finding ways to identify what churches want to do together rather than what the groups and individuals funded by the denominations want to do. The council has turned a corner in terms of a willingness to have the pace and priorities determined by the churches.”

For Hamilton, the frustrations in her 12-year tenure have been few: “There are occasional times when denominations will want to reinvent wheels used for decades by another denomination,” she says. “And denominations don’t always sufficiently promote important council initiatives to their congregations.” As for the sensitive matter of funding, each member is given a suggested contribution figure based on its size. “Most come close, but some can’t manage it.”

Despite tensions and challenges, there is a prevailing sense that the council remains important as it enters its second 70 years.

The CCC is a home for churches ?where the experience of persecution is raw and real,” says Henriette Thompson, the Anglican Church of Canada’s director for Public Witness for Social and Ecological Justice. She recalls attending a meeting at the height of the persecution of Coptic Christians in Alexandria, Egypt, and the anguish that was conveyed there. ?The value of the CCC as a place where Canadian churches can be together and listen to and pray with each other is hugely important.”

Thompson says that as Canadians respond to ongoing religious conflicts around the world, ?the role of the council in advocating for religious freedom and protection, and in offering a home to Canadian churches with roots in places like Iraq, Syria and Egypt, becomes evermore critical.”

Adds Oliver, ?The reality is, if the council were to fold, in a few years it would have to be recreated. It’s essential the churches talk to each other and to the government on certain issues.”


  • Diana Swift

    Diana Swift is an award-winning writer and editor with 30 years’ experience in newspaper and magazine editing and production. In January 2011, she joined the Anglican Journal as a contributing editor.

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