Magazines 2018 Mar - Apr Mainline evangelicals

Mainline evangelicals

28 March 2018 , 2018 Mar - Apr By Kevin Flatt

My one-hour commute from one Southern Ontario city to another takes me through several small towns. Each town has at least one United church and one Anglican church. In most parts of the country, you find the same thing.

My one-hour commute from one Southern Ontario city to another takes me through several small towns. Each town has at least one United church and one Anglican church. In most parts of the country, you find the same thing.

Anglicanism has always been one of the most common religious affiliations in Canada, and the same has been true of the United Church since its formation in 1925. That’s one reason why they’re often called mainline churches.

Most Evangelicals today probably think of mainline and evangelical as mutually exclusive categories. Evangelicals in Canada mostly belong to other denominations – Baptist, Pentecostal, Reformed, Mennonite and so on. But this hasn’t always been the case. Even today it is not the full picture.

The great evangelical preacher John Wesley (1703–91) was Anglican, and although many of his followers left the Anglican Church to form a separate Methodist movement, he never left, and neither did a continuing stream of evangelical Anglicans. Although Evangelicals were a minority in Canadian Anglicanism in the 19th century, they were an active one. Wycliffe College at the University of Toronto, for example, was founded as a centre for training evangelical Anglican clergy.

The Methodist and Presbyterian denominations that merged to form the United Church in 1925 shared a strong heritage of evangelical piety going back to the 19th century and beyond. Something of the fire of the Methodist heritage of camp meetings and revivals continued into the early United Church, and could be seen in the major evangelistic campaigns and revival meetings organized by United Church leaders in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s.

To be sure, the influence of evangelicalism diminished in the mainline churches over the course of the 20th century. Theological liberalism, introduced from Germany and Britain before the First World War, gradually eroded the confidence of church leaders in the authority of the Bible and the biblical convictions that had underpinned evangelical preaching and activity. The evangelical stress on evangelism and missionary work fell by the wayside.

Both denominations eventually largely adopted society’s shifting views on sexuality. It became more difficult to carry forward as a faithful Evangelical in those churches.

But many Evangelicals did remain in the United and Anglican churches in the second half of the 20th century. While many United Church ministers shunned Billy Graham’s evangelistic crusades in the 1960s, ordinary United Church folks continued to flock to them, often making up the largest group of inquirers who came forward to make a decision for Christ or recommit themselves to Him. At the large crusade Graham conducted in and around Vancouver in 1965, 21 per cent of inquirers listed United Church as their denomination, more than any other group.

Anglican Evangelicals likewise did not disappear, playing an important role particularly in many of the new Christian institutions of higher education set up by Evangelicals. Anglican pastor E.L. "Ted" Simmonds headed up Toronto Bible College (now Tyndale University College & Seminary) as principal from 1954 to 1961, and internationally renowned evangelical Anglican theologian J.I. Packer came to Regent College from England in 1979 to serve as a professor at the Vancouver school. Anglican clergy were also part of the group that founded The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada in 1964.

Evangelicals in both denominations increasingly spoke out to challenge the liberal drift of their churches after the 1960s.

Evangelicals in the United Church birthed the United Church Renewal Fellowship in 1966, which the United Church Observercalled "the first organized rebellion" in the history of the denomination. It was followed by several other renewal groups, all drawing strongly on evangelical supporters.

Anglican Evangelicals in Canada made common cause with other Anglicans committed to historic Christian orthodoxy to form Anglican Essentials in 1994. Some of these churches eventually left the Anglican Church of Canada, and joined the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA), an orthodox Anglican Church founded with the support of Anglican leaders from Africa, Asia and Latin America.

Today, you can still find evangelical leaders and congregations in the mainline United and Anglican churches who have chosen to stay put as witnesses for evangelical convictions.

So, while it’s true today’s mainline churches are mostly not evangelical, mainline Evangelicals have always been part of the Canadian Evangelical story – and they remain so today.

Today, you can still find evangelical leaders and congregations in the mainline United and Anglican churches who have chosen to stay put as witnesses for evangelical convictions.
KEVIN FLATT

Kevin Flatt is associate professor of history and director of research at Redeemer University College in Ancaster, Ont. Read more of these columns at www.FaithToday.ca/HistoryLesson