In the summer of 1963, the Anglican Church of Canada commissioned journalist and TV personality Pierre Berton to write a book reflecting on the state of the Canadian church in the 1960′s.
Berton’s little book, The Comfortable Pew published in 1965 became, by Canadian standards, a runaway best-seller, selling over 200,000 copies. Forty-seven years later, it still makes interesting reading.
One of the fascinating aspects of Berton’s book is the portrait he presents of the relationship between the church and the prevailing culture as he experienced it in the ’60′s. The relationship of the church Berton to society as Berton experienced it, bears almost no resemblance to the role the church plays in Canadian society today.
The tone of the description of the church in Berton’s book is set in the Foreword where Ernest Harrsion writes,
the twentieth-century Church is strong – perhaps stronger than it ever was in the days of its political power. 8
Berton does not share Harrsion’s view that the church had lost its political power by the time he agreed to write his book, but he certainly agrees that the church of the ’60′s was “strong”.
It is inconceivable today that anyone could describe the Christian church using the words Berton wrote in the early ‘ 60′s.
One of the minor phenomena of the post-war North American continent has been the so-called “religious revival.” Statistically it is impressive. Films, books, and articles dealing with religion are such sure-fire successes that the cliche phrase used in a thousand magazine titles How I… Found God” has become a classic joke inside and outside of the trade. Columns of religious advice help to sell newspapers. Millions appear to have been influenced by Norman Vincent Peale, Billy Graham, and Fulton J. Sheen. The Church itself has never been financially stronger. In Canada its property values have passed the one-billion mark, its annual income the one-hundred-million mark. The church-building boom, especially in the suburbs, is easily observable: in Metropolitan Toronto, for instance, two hundred new churches have been erected in a decade. The polls reveal that almost everybody – some ninety-four per cent – believes in God, accepts the doctrine of the virgin birth and life after death, and is convinced of the power of prayer. Everybody in short is a Christian. 69
How could this ever have been the church in Canada in my lifetime? Imagine a time when
The religious establishment exerts great power in the community and brings great pressure to bare upon those who resist it. 86
Was there really a day in the last half century when the church wielded such power that it cast fear into the hearts of anyone who dared to disagree with a church position?
The teaching of religion in secular schools clearly does not work, as a majority of delegates to the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation Convention in 1964 made clear; but anyone who opposes it does so at his peril. He will come under heavy attack from the religious establishment; he will be reviled as “Godless”; his morality, his loyalty, his sincerity and even his politics will be questioned. I speak from personal experience.
The insistence upon, and the espousal of, so-called “religious” instruction in the schools underlines the long-term alliance between the religious establishment and the political establishment. 88,89
The church in Canada today is marginalized to the point of almost complete obscurity. The voice of the church is almost silent in the cultural discourse of our nation. We are ignored at best and frequently ridiculed. How things have changed in less than fifty years.