Our history, whether we claim it or not

Published February 1, 2003

The denigration of the study of history in Canada over the past 50 years was unfortunate. The mistaken view that historical ignorance would free people in the present to construct an unfettered future has proven a disaster. To whatever degree knowledge of the past may be eliminated from our minds, realities linger on, often to haunt us. This is as true of church history as any other. If we would be responsible Christians today then we must acknowledge and claim what happened before we came along.

[pullquote]In this spirit, The Holocaust, Israel, and Canadian Protestant Churches by Haim Genizi may help. This study covers the records and controversies between Christians and Jews in Canada from the 1930s, through responses to the Holocaust and the establishment of Israel to the 1990s. Consulting official announcements, committee minutes, correspondence, newspaper articles and touching on the roles of many individuals in positions of authority or influence, he reveals both the confusion and imbalance that marked Christian response and the hyper-sensitivity of Jewish reaction.

Attention is given to the ecumenical councils of churches, international and Canadian, and to each of the major non-Roman churches in Canada. The United Church of Canada receives extended treatment due to the controversies surrounding A.C. Forrest, one-time editor of the United Church Observer, who adopted a strong anti-Israel editorial stance due to the plight of Palestinian refugees displaced through the creation of Israel. The United church was generally more involved in international issues, struggling to maintain a balanced position, while at the same time speaking out on Israel-Palestinian relations.

During the first half of the 20th century the Anglican church “maintained a traditionally conservative attitude towards Jews and Judaism.” Mr. Genizi notes that, “In 1936, the Reverend C.B. Mortlock called Judaism ‘a monstrous creation of human ingenuity’ and referred to the Jews as ‘God killers.'” Perhaps an unsung hero at the mid-century was Canon W.W. Judd of the council for social service who provided enlightened leadership but often failed to persuade either bishops or General Synod to move quickly. Since then the church has eliminated the traces of anti-Semitism from its liturgies and called for greater sensitivity and less triumphalism when interpreting the Scriptures.

However there have also been policy changes which have troubled Jewish observers, particularly the Anglican Church of Canada’s close relationship with the Anglican churches in the Middle East which Jews believe have been ‘Arabized.’ There is a problem here. Why would a church of Arab Christians not be Arab in the same sense that a church of Canadian Christians would be Canadian? Is it to suggest that now colonial oversight has ended, Canadian Anglicans should have nothing to do with Middle Eastern Anglicans? This is dangerous territory but it does highlight the ongoing problems which beset external response to affairs in the Middle East. There will be more problems to come. How we face them will depend on how well we understand what went before.

In Women and the White Man’s God, Myra Rutherdale examines gender and race in the Canadian mission field based on “the perceptions and experiences of Anglican missionaries primarily from the records of one hundred and thirty-two such English and Canadian women.” Between 1860 and 1940 there was no question in official circles that God called only men to such ministries. Winnifred Petchey (later wife of Donald Marsh, bishop of the Arctic) heard a “stirring sermon” in 1921 calling for volunteers to go to Canada and recalled, “I was seventeen years old and a girl; thus, I was excluded from consideration ? As I left the church that summer’s night I was angry and resentful.”

This is a heroic story of how women studied and prepared themselves for service and found ways of responding to what they believed to be God’s call. For some it was a case of marrying a male missionary while others became teachers and nurses. The English Church Missionary Society (CMS) opened up the missions in the north of Canada and had strict ideas about “separate spheres” for each gender. “Women were to be the moral guardians of society with their influence centred on the domestic or private sphere; men were masculine arbitrators over matters deemed to be public, including business and government.” By their faithfulness and endurance, and often through necessity, these women of the North progressively overcame their restrictions.

There is an underside to this account that reveals the degree to which English cultural ideas of civility were considered an integral part of the gospel message. Christian progress equated with English customs and good table manners provided the backdrop for policies that lacked due respect for cultural differences, a legacy with which we continue to struggle. Whether we claim it or not, it is our history.


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