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United Church of Canada
The crest of the United Church of Canada is a modified version of the pre-Church Union Presbyterian logo. The lozenge shape evokes an upended fish, symbol of the earliest Christian church. (The initials of the phrase "Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour" in Greek spell ιχθύς [icthyos], which means "fish".) The central X, a cross of St. Andrew, is also the Greek letter Chi, first letter of Χριστός, Greek for "Christ". Within the four quadrants are the symbols of the founding churches: Presbyterianism (the burning bush), Methodism (the dove) and Congregationalism (the open Bible). At the bottom, the alpha and omega represent the ever-living God (Revelations 1:8). The motto Ut omnes unum sint recalls John 17:21: "That all may be one".
Classification Protestant
Orientation Mainline/Calvinist
Polity Presbyterian
Associations Canadian Council of Churches; World Alliance of Reformed Churches; World Council of Churches
Geographical areas Canada (plus Bermuda)
Origin June 10, 1925
Merge of Methodist Church of Canada; two thirds of the Presbyterian Church in Canada; and the Congregational Union of Ontario and Quebec
Congregations 3,405
Members 2,500,000 (affiliates); 250,000 (regular worshippers)

The United Church of Canada, the second-largest Christian denomination in Canada after the Roman Catholic Church,[1] is an evangelical Protestant denomination founded in 1925 as a merger of four Protestant denominations: the Methodist Church of Canada, the Congregational Union of Ontario and Quebec, two-thirds of the congregations of the Presbyterian Church in Canada, and the Association of Local Union Churches.

According to United Church statistics for 2008, there are about 300,000 members, and 2.8 million adherents.[2] About 200,000 people attend services in 3,362 pastoral charges on a regular basis.[3] From 1991 to 2001, the number of people claiming an affiliation with the United Church decreased by 8%, the third largest decrease in mainstream Christian denominations in Canada.[4]

In structure, the United Church has a "bottom-up" governance, where the congregation hires its clergy, rather than clergy being appointed by a bishop or other body. The policies of the church are inclusive and liberal: there are no restrictions of gender, sexual orientation or marital status for a person considering entering the ministry; interfaith marriages are recognized; communion is offered to all Christian adults and children, regardless of denomination or age.


Governance and Structure

The rules for governance are set out in The Manual, first written in 1925, and updated on a regular basis.



The voice and face of the church is the Moderator, who is elected to a three-year term at each General Council. The duties of the Moderator include:

  • giving leadership to the church, "quickening in the hearts of the people a sense of God as revealed in Christ, and heartening and strengthening the whole United Church".[5]
  • visiting pastoral charges across the country, "giving sympathetic guidance and counsel in all its affairs".[5]
  • being the primary spokesperson for the United Church
  • presiding at the meetings of the General Council, its Executive, and its Sub-Executive.

Currently, Mardi Tindal, a lay person from Brantford, Ontario, holds the position after her election in August 2009 at the 40th General Council.

The four courts of governance

Administration in the United Church is divided into four levels of governance, or "courts":

Pastoral charge (congregation)

The basic unit of the United Church is the pastoral charge, consisting of one or more congregations under the spiritual leadership of a minister or ministry team.[5] A pastoral charge that has two or more congregations is described as a "two-point charge", "three-point charge", etc.

The pastoral charge is responsible for their day-to-day operations, including raising all of the money needed for staff, building maintenance and operation, worship, committee work and projects. This is generally done by taking up a collection from the congregation, but fundraising from the wider community is also allowed, as long as it does not involve games of chance such as raffles, lotteries, or bingo. The pastoral charge is also responsible for searching out and hiring church staff, including ministers, musicians and lay staff; maintenance and upkeep of their property and buildings; deciding when they worship, and how often; policies on candidacy for baptism and marriage (specifically, if the congregation will allow same-sex marriages to be performed in their building); Christian development and education within the congregation (Sunday School, youth and adult confirmation classes, Bible study, etc.); outreach projects to the community and wider world; and other day-to-day functions.

Policy decisions at this level are usually made by a congregational Board or Council, which can take one of the several forms listed in The Manual. However, budgets and finances, election of Board members and changes to ministry-pastoral relations (either increasing or reducing ministerial hours, firing a minister, constituting a search committee to find a new minister, or issuing a call to bring a new minister to the congregation) must be approved at a meeting of the full congregation.


There are 90 presbyteries within the United Church, each being a collection of about 35–50 pastoral charges. All ministers except congregational designated ministers are members of the presbytery—"presbyters"—rather than members of their pastoral charge. The presbytery is responsible for care and oversight of the pastoral charges within it. When a pastoral charge is seeking a new minister, the presbytery provides presbyters who help to assess the congregation's ministerial needs as well as taking part in the search process.


Presbyteries are gathered up into one of 13 conferences. The conference is responsible for the training and education of candidates for ministry, for overall church mission strategy, and for electing commissioners to attend general councils.

General Council

This is the church's highest legislative court. Every three years, ministers and lay commissioners who have been elected by the Conferences meet to set church policy and choose a new Moderator. An Executive and Sub-Executive govern between meetings of the council.


The clergy of the United Church are called "ministers". There are two "streams", ordered ministry and lay ministry. Ordered ministry includes ordained ministers and diaconal ministers. Lay ministry refers to licensed lay ministers, designated lay ministers (DLM) and congregational designated ministers (CDM). There are no restrictions on gender, sexual orientation, age, or marital status for any branches of ministry.

Beliefs and Practices

The Bible

The United Church believes that the Bible is central to the Christian faith and was written by people who were inspired by God, but the stories told in the Bible should not be taken literally. The church also believes that the circumstances under which the books of the Bible were written were of a particular place and time, and some things cannot be reconciled with our lives today, such as slavery.[6]


The two sacraments of the United Church are communion and baptism.[6]


Communion is the ritual sharing of the elements of bread and wine (or, more commonly, grape juice) as a remembrance of the Last Supper that Jesus shared with his followers. It is usually celebrated at a table at the front of the sanctuary, where the minister blesses the elements before they are distributed to the congregation. There is no restriction regarding age or United Church membership—Communion is open to young children as well as Christians from other denominations.[6] The actual distribution can take several forms, including passing a tray of bread cubes and another tray of small juice glasses from person to person, and then eating the bread and drinking the juice in unison; and lining up for "intinction", where each person takes a piece of bread, dips it into a cup of juice and then eats the juice-soaked bread.

There is no guideline for frequency. Some pastoral charges celebrate communion once a month, others on a quarterly basis.


The belief of the United Church is that baptism is not a requirement for God's love; it is not considered a passport to heaven, nor does the church believe that those who die unbaptised are condemned or damned for eternity. Rather, the church believes that baptism is the first step in church membership, where the parents make a profession of faith on behalf of the infant in the hope that their child will later confirm that profession at or around the age of 13.[6]

The United Church practices infant baptism, but in cases where a person was not baptised as an infant, baptism can be performed at any age.[6] In the case of infant baptism, the parents of the infant, before the congregation, agree to a series of statements about the beliefs of the United Church on behalf of their child. They also promise to encourage the child to seek full membership at an appropriate time. The members of the congregation also promise the parents that they will help to raise the child in a Christian community. The minister then places a few drops of water on the candidate's head three times (expressing the trinity of God, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit) and traces a cross on the person's forehead with water.

Baptism within the United Church is recognized as valid by all other denominations that practice infant baptism, and the United Church recognizes any baptism performed in another denomination.[6]


Remembering that Jesus was reported to have welcomed tax collectors, prostitutes and other "undesirables" to his table, the church attempts to welcome everyone, regardless of age, race, class, gender, sexual orientation, or physical ability.[6] In the same manner, there is also no restriction on those interested in entering ministry.


Believing that marriage is a celebration of God's love, the church recognizes and celebrates all legal marriages, including same-sex couples, previously divorced people, and couples of different religions. The actual policy of whom to marry is left up to the church council of each pastoral charge. For instance, one congregation might not allow same-sex marriages to be performed in their building, while another allows all marriages regardless of sexual orientation.[6]

Interfaith relations

The church believes that there are many paths to God. The United Church's path is through Jesus Christ, but the church also recognizes that Christians' understanding of this is limited by an incomplete comprehension of God; their belief is that the Holy Spirit of God is also at work through other non-Christian faiths.[6]


The church supports the right of women to have access to safe abortions that are covered by provincial health care, but also supports better access to contraception, sexual education and counselling that eventually might obviate the need for abortion.[7]


A full member is one who has been baptised, either as infant, child, youth or adult, and has made a public profession of faith before the congregation.[5] Full membership is not required in order to worship at a United Church, and many who regularly attend worship are adherents rather than full members. (The United Church estimates the number of adherents within the church at almost three million, as compared to 300,000 full members.[8])

In order to become a member, a person goes through a process called "confirmation". This is offered to adults (starting at around age 13) and usually involves a series of classes about the beliefs of the United Church. Following this, the candidate makes a public profession of faith before the congregation, thereby "confirming" the statements made by his or her parents during baptism. If the person is unbaptised, the minister baptises the person before the profession of faith. The new member's name is then entered on the official Roll of Members for that congregation.[5]

Benefits of membership

Only members can be a part of a pastoral charge's board or council. In addition, a member can vote on spiritual matters at congregational meetings—usually whether to issue a "call" to a new minister to join the congregation.[5] (On temporal matters—those that deal with finances, property, etc.—a motion is usually made at the start of a congregational meeting to allow all who are present, rather than just members, the right to vote.)[5]

Transfer of membership and removal from Roll

Although confirmation takes place at the congregational level, the person is a member of the entire United Church of Canada, not just one congregation; therefore membership can be transferred freely from congregation to congregation.[5]

A congregation may remove members from its Roll for non-attendance. (The Manual suggests an absence of three years, but the congregation is free to set its own period of time.[5])


In the early twentieth century, the main Evangelical Protestant denominations in Canada were the Presbyterian, Methodist and Congregational churches. Many small towns and villages across Canada had all three, with the town's population divided among them. Especially on the prairies, it was difficult to find clergy to serve all these charges, and there were several instances where one minister would serve his congregation, but would also perform pastoral care for the other congregations that lacked a minister. On the prairies, a movement to unite all three major Protestant denominations began, resulting in the Association of Local Union Churches.

Facing a de facto union in the western provinces, the three denominations began a slow process of union talks that eventually produced a Basis for Union.[9].

However, not all elements of the churches involved were happy with the idea of uniting under one roof; a substantial minority of Presbyterians remained unconvinced of the virtues of church union. Their threat to the entire project was resolved by giving individual Presbyterian congregations the right to vote on whether to enter or remain outside the United Church. In the end, 302 out of 4,509 congregations of the Presbyterian Church (211 from southern Ontario)[10] chose to reconstitute themselves as a "continuing" Presbyterian Church in Canada.


Inauguration of United Church, 10 June 1925, at Mutual Street Arena in Toronto. (Victoria University Archives)

With the four denominations now in agreement about uniting, the church leaders approached the government of Canada to pass legislation concerning transfer of property rights. Once the legislation had been passed, The United Church of Canada was inaugurated at a large worship service at Toronto's Mutual Street Arena on June 10, 1925.

The ecumenical tone of the new church was set at the first General Council in 1925. The former Methodist General Superintendent S.D. Chown was considered the leading candidate to become the first Moderator because the Methodist Church made up the largest segment of the new United Church. However, in a surprise move, Dr. Chown graciously stepped aside in favour of George C. Pidgeon, the moderator of the Presbyterian Church and principal spokesperson for the uniting Presbyterians, in the hopes that this would strengthen the resolve of the Presbyterians who had chosen to join the new Church.[11]

The 1930s

In 1930, just as mergers of the congregations, colleges and administrative offices of the various denominations were completed and the United Church Hymnary was published, Canada was hit by the Great Depression. Although membership remained stable, attendance and givings fell.[12] In the face of overwhelming unemployment, some in the church, both clergy and laity, called for a radical Christian socialist alternative such as the Fellowship for a Christian Social Order.[13] Other more conservative members felt drawn to the message of the Oxford Group that focussed on the wealthier members of society.[12] The great majority of members between these two extremes simply sought to help the unemployed.[12]

In the United States, Methodists had been ordaining women since 1880,[14] but it was still a contentious issue in Canada, and it was not until 1936 that Lydia Gruchy of Saskatchewan Conference became the first woman in the United Church to be ordained.[13]

The 1940s

The Second World War was also a divisive issue. Some who had declared themselves pacifist before the war now struggled to reconcile their philosophy with the reality around them.[12] Others remained pacifist—some 65 clergy signed A Witness Against War in 1939.[13] But the church as a whole, although it did not support conscription, supported the overall war effort, both on the home front and by providing chaplains for the armed forces.[13]

Although the forced relocation of Japanese Canadians away from the West Coast was supported by most members across Canada, church leaders and missionaries in B.C. spoke out against it, and the churches on the West Coast set up an Emergency Japanese Committee to help fight for the rights of the dislocated people.[12]

In 1943, the Anglican Church invited other denominations to union talks, and the United Church responded enthusiastically; by 1946, the two churches had issued a statement on mutual ministry.[13] In a similar ecumenical vein, the United Church was one of the founding bodies of the Canadian Council of Churches in 1944 and the World Council of Churches in 1946.[13]

In 1925, The United Church had inherited responsibility for some native residential schools that were designed to assimilate native children into Canadian culture. By the 1940s, thinking had begun to change about the underlying assumptions, and in 1949, the church began to close the schools in its care.[13]

The 1950s

The United Church continued to espouse causes that were not politically popular, issuing statements supporting universal health care and the People's Republic of China at their 15th General Council at a time when these were considered radical concepts in North America.[13]

Membership and givings increased dramatically as baby boomers started to bring their young families to church.

Talks with the Anglican Church had not made significant headway during the decade, but in 1958, the two churches decided to continue the conversation.

The 1960s

In 1962, two women's auxiliary organizations, Woman's Association and Woman's Missionary Society, join together to form the United Church Women (UCW). That same year, the United and Anglican Churches jointly published Growth in Understanding, a study guide on union, and in 1965 the Principles of Union between the United Church and the Anglican Church. The spirit of ecumenism with other denominations stayed strong throughout the decade, culminating in 1968 when the Canada Conference of The Evangelical United Brethren Church joined the United Church.

The high tide mark of membership was reached in 1965 when the church recorded 1,064,000 members.[15] However, there were already rumblings of discontent in the church: that same year, Pierre Berton wrote The Comfortable Pew, a bestseller that was highly critical of Canadian churches, and a United Church Commission on Ministry in the 20th Century was appointed in response to growing frustration from congregations, presbyteries, and ministers about the role of ministry.[13] The church lost 2,027 members in 1966, a decline of only two-tenths of a percent, but significantly it marked the first time since amalgamation that membership had fallen.

The Vietnam War brought new controversies to the church when in 1968, the secretary of the national Evangelism and Social Service Committee, Rev. Ray Hord, offered emergency aid to American Vietnam draft dodgers; the General Council Executive disassociated itself from the decision but within two years it became church policy.[13]

The 1970s

In 1971, the ecumenical movement reached its height as a joint commission the United and Anglican Churches and the Disciples of Christ approved a Plan of Union, and The Hymn Book, a joint publication of the United and Anglican Churches was published. The tide quickly turned though, and in 1975, the Anglican House of Bishops and National Executive Council declared that the Plan of Union was unacceptable. However, the Anglican, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Roman Catholic, and United churches did agree to recognize the validity of Christian baptisms performed in any of these denominations.

Membership continued to decline slowly throughout the decade, despite a report that lay ministry was on the increase.[13]

The 1980s

In 1980, at the 29th General Council, the commissioning of diaconal ministers as a part of ordered ministry was approved.

With union talks with the Anglicans already at end, talks with the Disciples of Christ also ended in 1985.[13]

In 1986, the 31st General Council elected its first female Moderator, Dr. Anne M. Squire.[13]

In 1988, the 32nd General Council chose to end investment in South Africa, apologize to First Nations congregations for past denials of native spirituality by the church, and elected the first Moderator of Asian descent, Rev. Sang Chul Lee.[13] However, those events were largely overshadowed when the commissioners passed a statement called Membership, Ministry and Human Sexuality that stated "all persons, regardless of sexual orientation, who profess their faith in Jesus Christ are welcome to be or become members of The United Church of Canada" and that "all members of the United Church are eligible to be considered for ordered ministry."[13] Taken together, these two statements opened the door for openly gay men and women to join the ministry.[13]

This shook the church to its core. Over the next four years, membership fell by 78,184.[16] In some cases, entire congregations split, with a sizeable faction—sometimes led by the minister—leaving to form an independent church.[17] Some of those opposed to the gay ordination issue chose to stay in the church, and formed the Community of Concern, a voice of conservatism within the church.[16]

The 1990s

In the 1990s, the United Church faced the legacy of cultural assimilation and child abuse in the residential schools that it had once helped to operate. In 1992, the first Native Canadian Moderator, Rev. Stan McKay, was elected at the 34th General Council. Two years later, the church established a "Healing Fund".[18] This was followed in 1998 by an apology made by the church to former students of United Church Indian Residential Schools.[19]

At the 35th General Council in 1994, commissioners voted to have General Councils every three years rather than every two years.[13] This also increased the length of term of Moderators from two to three years.

The original General Council office of the church built in 1925 resided on increasingly valuable land on St. Clair Avenue in downtown Toronto. In 1995, facing increasing financial pressure from falling donations, the church sold the building and moved out to the suburb of Etobicoke.[13]

In 1996, a new hymnary, Voices United, replaced the joint United-Anglican "The Hymn Book". Response from pastoral charges was enthusiastic, and by 2010, over 300,000 copies had been printed.[20]

In 1997, Rev. Bill Phipps was elected Moderator at the 36th General Council. Controversy again descended on the church when later the same year, Phipps stated in an interview that he did not believe that Jesus physically rose from the dead.[13]

Twenty-first century

In the new century, membership and givings both continued to drop, and in 2001 the General Council offices were reorganized as a cost-cutting measure.[13]

In 2005, the church urged the Canadian Parliament to vote in favour of same-sex marriage legislation; after the legislation had been passed, the church urged the government not to reopen the issue.[13]

The church continued to deal with the consequences of the Native residential school issue. In 2005, the church welcomed the Agreement in Principle announced by the Government of Canada and the Assembly of First Nations, which outlined a comprehensive resolution package for former students of Indian Residential Schools; and the following year, the church agreed to sign the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement.[13]

In 2006, the 39th General Council approved the use of a generous bequest to start up "Emerging Spirits", a promotional campaign aimed at drawing 30–40 year olds into a conversation about faith. As part of this campaign, "Emerging Spirit" used controversial magazine advertisements featuring, among other images, a bobble-head Jesus, a marriage cake with two grooms holding hands, Jesus sitting on Santa's chair in a mall, and a can of whipped cream with the caption "How much fun can sex be before it's a sin?"[21]


The United Church has issued three hymn books:

  • the Hymnary (1930)
  • The Hymn Book (jointly with the Anglican Church of Canada) in 1972
  • Voices United (1996) is the current hymnal, with over 300,000 copies in print.[20] A supplement, More Voices was published in 2006.

Public positions and policies

Indigenous people

Until 1969, the United Church of Canada was involved with and supported Canada's Indian Residential Schools system, which resulted in a painful legacy for many Aboriginal people and their communities. While the United Church's level of involvement was perhaps less egregious than its sister churches the Anglican Church of Canada and assorted Roman Catholic orders[22], its contribution was significant. Of approximately 80,000 students alive today, about 10 percent attended United-Church run schools.[23]

Criticism from outside the church

The Rev. A.C. Forrest, the editor of the United Church Observer in the 1960s and '70s, and by extension the United Church itself, came under strong attack from the Canadian Jewish community for his frequent editorial espousal of Palestinian rights in Israel and the West Bank and Gaza; many within the United Church were also discomfited, though ultimately the Church concluded that a plurality of opinion on this and other matters was consistent with United Church open-mindedness.[24]


  1. ^ MSN Encarta Encyclopedia. Accessed July 13, 2009.
  2. ^ "Top 10 religious denominations, Canada, 2001". Statscan. Retrieved 19 November 2009. 
  3. ^ "Statistics" (in English). United Church of Canada. Retrieved 19 November 2009. 
  4. ^ "Religions in Canada" (in English). Statscan. Retrieved 19 November 2009. 
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i "The Manual" (pdf). United Church of Canada. 2007. Retrieved 2010-03-04. 
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h i "Beliefs: Overview of Beliefs". The United Church of Canada. 2009-05-25. Retrieved 2010-03-11. 
  7. ^ "United Church Social Policy Positions: Access to Abortion". The United Church of Canada. 2007-05-08. Retrieved 2010-03-11. 
  8. ^ "2008 Annual Report of The United Church of Canada". The United Church of Canada. 2008. Retrieved 2010-03-09. 
  9. ^ The Basis for Union. Toronto, Canada: United Church of Canada. 1925. 
  10. ^ "Vast Majority of Presbyterians Favour Union", Bratford Expositor, 1925-01-25, 
  11. ^ Gallinger, Kenneth R. (2009-02-08). "United, Unorthodox, Unlimited". Lawrence Park Community Church. Retrieved 2010-03-09. 
  12. ^ a b c d e Anderson, C.P. (1983). Circle of Voices: a history of the religious communities of British Columbia. Lantzville, B.C.: Oolichan Books. pp. 195-213. 
  13. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v "Overview: Historical Timeline". The United Church of Canada. 2010-03-03. Retrieved 2010-03-10. 
  14. ^ Whitman, Alden, ed (1985). American Reformers. New York: The H. W. Wilson Company. pp. 734–735. ISBN 082420705X. 
  15. ^ Ewart, David (2008-01-25). "United Church of Canada Trends: How We Got Here". Emerging Spirit. The United Church of Canada. Retrieved 2010-03-10. 
  16. ^ a b Trudeau, Dawn (April 2010). "Going Backwards for 20 Years: United Church Membership Loss (1988 - 2008)". Concern (Hamilton, Ontario: Community of Concern) XXI (1): 3. Retrieved 2010-03-11. 
  17. ^ Grove, Leslie (1990-07-30). "Reverend Donald Prince watches his new church blossom and grow". The Citizen III (7D). Retrieved 2010-03-11. 
  18. ^ "Funding: The Healing Fund". The United Church of Canada. 2008-08-29. Retrieved 2010-03-11. 
  19. ^ "United Church Social Policy Positions: Apology to Former Students of United Church Indian Residential Schools, and to Their Families and Communities (1998)". The United Church of Canada. 2008-09-19. Retrieved 2010-03-11. 
  20. ^ a b "Voices United: A besteller". The United Church of Canada. 2009-11-17. Retrieved 2010-03-09. 
  21. ^ "Wondercafe Ads". Emerging Spirit. The United Church of Canada. 2010-02-10. Retrieved 2010-03-11. 
  22. ^ "Aboriginal Peoples: Indian Residential Schools". The United Church of Canada. 2009-10-27. Retrieved 2010-03-12. 
  23. ^ "The United Church of Canada and Indian Residential Schools". Remembering the Children: an Aboriginal and Church Leaders' Tour to Prepare for Truth and Reconciliation. 2009-03-27. Retrieved 2010-03-12. 
  24. ^ Haim Genizi, The Holocaust, Israel, and Canadian Protestant Churches (Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2002) pp.97ff.

Further reading

  • Allan Farris, The Fathers of 1925: The Tide of Time, edited by John S. Moir, Knox College, 1978

External links


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