As much as Pierre Berton in his book,The Comfortable Pew identified a church that continued to exert tremendous influence in the culture of his day, he also described a church in which he saw a few problems.

Berton offers a damning litany of complaint against the Protestant church he saw in the ’60’s:

Outmoded, inaccessible, irrelevant language and liturgy

the lessons, which though beautifully phrased and intoned might as well have been in a foreign tongue, or the sermons which had nothing to say. 18

Ritual, alas, cannot long remain exotic when it becomes a weekly commonplace. It may become as comfortable and as reassuring as an old slipper; or it may become a drag. For myself, and for most of my contemporaries, it became a drag. 19

Many people who no longer attend church, but who continue to call themselves Christian, give as a reason the fact that the service “does nothing for them.” The liturgy is “dull and old-fashioned,” the phraseology unfamiliar, the words archaic, the sermons cliche-ridden and irrelevant to the times, the organ music “square,” the congregation spiritless. 104

One suspects that many of the in-group, who use old and worn-out phrases, are talking almost by rote, without having hacked through the thicket of cliche to get at the truth beneath. They really do not know what they are saying. 107

Out-of-touch insensitive compromised leadership (Clergy certainly come in for the lion’s share of Berton’s opprobrium. nb. all Berton’s pronouns referring to clergy are masculine. There were only male clergy in the church Berton was examining, a fact that in 1963 did not even merit comment.)

I had rarely seen such a display of mass arrogance on the part of men who proclaimed, always  in general terms, their own humility. 21

If the Church has failed to influence the faithful, it is surely because the leaders of the religious establishment themselves worship at another shrine…. “success” in business and social terms has all too often been the real gospel of the Church. A successful church is like a successful business. If its membership is growing, its budget growing and its program growing, then it is said to be “progressing.” The Church existed for three centuries without the need for building programs; but a church today without an expensive edifice is becoming unthinkable in the major denominations.  71

If he wishes to achieve recognition from the community at large, from the congregation, from his fellow ministers, and from the church hierarchy – and if he wishes to move forward in that hierarchy – the clergyman must be success-motivated. He must bring lustre to the physical look of his church by financing the building of a new one or by refurbishing an old one. To do this he must enlist as many members and as much money as possible. His congregation must grow numerically if not spiritually, and the minister himself must become an organization man. If he can “relate” to people, and not rub them the wrong way with too many awkward questions; if he is good at raising large sums from the more affluent members of the parish – and good at keeping them happy – if he is good at “P.R.”; if he “adjusts” to the community  and does not come into conflict with it by raising too many abrasive points of Christian conscience; if he can balance a budget, expand facilities, and act as a good executive while developing the relatively innocuous skills of the pulpit – all without stirring up the natives unduly – then he will be counted a success; he will be sought out by better-appointed parishes because of his proven abilities in the Numbers Game; his photograph will appear in the diocesan press with the appropriate statistics below it; and he will be marked for continuing promotion. 73

Many [clergy in the church] are so tyrannized by parish duties that they have no time to think. When they cease to think they lose their zeal and their commitment. 75

[the popular media portrayal of clergy bears testimony to the state of religious leadership in the church. They are routinely portrayed as]: generally passive and often farcical… bumbling do-gooders, pious moralists, “sissies,” or faintly laughable and ineffectual… [or] as stern evangelists, enemies of demon rum and sin, preservers of local morals (in the narrow sense), and occasionally as decent and even courageous leaders. 133

Dreary hypocritical irrelevant preaching 

That the sermons of today tend to be spiritless, irrelevant, dull, and badly delivered, there can be little doubt. 110

the incompatibility of Christian preaching and Christian action has been one of the major weapons in the hands of the Church’s enemies. 45, 46

In a list of a dozen suggested sermon topics, “How Can I Take Religion into My Business Life,” ranked seventh in Canada and last in the United States – far behind such standard soothing syrup as “How Can I Make Prayer More Effective?” and “Happier Families through Religion.” 54

Of 240 ministers who replied to the question “Would you say that you chose your sermon topics from the front pages of the newspaper?” sixty-two per cent answered “rarely” or “never”‘ thirty-five per cent answered “occasionally”; three per cent answered “fairly often”; none answered “regularly.”

A remote stultifying religious institutionalism that is indistinguishable from the cultural elites

the Church has simply stood aloof. It has, for instance, virtually ignored the whole contemporary question of business morals, the tensions within industry and labour, the sexual revolution that has changed the attitudes of the Western world. 30

The worship of conformity and respectability, which distinguishes the religious establishment, turns religion and Christianity into two separate entities. Religion, the cult of the establishment, with its denial of Christian radicalism, its alliance with the status quo and its awesome social power, is, indeed, often the antithesis of Christianity. 82

the Christian philosophy and ethic has been shackled by its institutional chains. 129


Berton’s Comfortable Pew paints an uncomfortable picture of the Canadian church in the ’60’s. But it is worth asking ourselves, if we find any similarities between Berton’s portrayal and the reality of church as we experience it today. How much has changed?