The urban missiologist Glenn Smith recently stepped away from the Quebec-based ministry Christian Direction after 35 years, as Faith Today reported last issue. We asked this avid "student of Québec society" (as he describes himself) to reflect.
The year 2020 has provided a series of commemorative events recalling major turning points in recent Quebec history.
In June: Quebecers thought back to a time 60 years ago when their province turned on a dime with the election of Jean Lesage as premier after years of Duplessisme. On June 21, 1960 the révolution tranquille, to use the famous term coined by a Globe and Mail journalist, was launched. Since then Quebec has never been the same.
July to September: Quebec is a society that prides itself on nonviolence, evident partly in the resistance to conscription in 1917 and 1944. But that’s also what makes remembering the Oka Crisis of summer 1990 so challenging – 30 years afterwards, Quebecers returned once again to take a serious look at our relationships with the 19 First Nations on whose land we live.
In early October: Quebecers marked a 50th anniversary, remembering the 1970 October Crisis kidnappings of two political figures. Back then, as a university student in Michigan, I spent every afternoon reading newspapers in the library and engaging my fellow Quebecois students in animated debates on what all this might mean. It soon became clear that violence was too much. The FLQ utterly failed.
On October 31: It was only 25 years ago in 1995 that all Canadians watched as Quebec came within 51,000 votes of separating from Canada. In contrast to what typically happens across the world in a crisis of that nature, we all awoke the next morning and went to work.
FIRST NATIONS IN QUEBEC
Today separatism is on life support, barely alive, but pride in the French language and the love for la nation flourish.
All of these 2020 reflections for Quebecers were framed by a moment earlier in the year.
On March 13,2020: Quebec was one of the first political entities to move into strict confinement due to Covid-19. Across Canada 38 per cent of the cases were in Quebec, a province that only represents 23 per cent of the population. Quebec also had 58 per cent of the deaths.
What happened then laid bare all the fault lines in our society.
- The hyperindividualism that led some to say, "No government is going to tell me what to do."
- The neglect of our senior citizens under a government that promotes progressive use of physician-assisted suicide.
- The negligence of successive governments to properly maintain the ventilation systems of our public buildings including schools.
These fault lines have all been exacerbated by this unseen predator of the value of human life.
I am a missiologist, not a prophet. Having looked back 60 years, let me timidly look forward and venture to name five futures worth watching closely for the Church in Quebec.
Hyperindividualism. My fellow Montrealer, the philosopher Charles Taylor, helps us all to grapple with the mounting secularity of our society and the challenge to pursue reasonable accommodation within the galloping pluralities all around us. But this secularity is tied to what Taylor calls expressive individualism, self-sufficing individualism, exclusive humanism and the buffered self.
We would be wise to realize that the endless debates about the perils of secularization and post-Christendom are missiological cul-de-sacs right now. (Most good sociologists and missiologists now agree these notions give us only a weak conceptual framework to understand faith in the modern world.)
NUMBER OF PROTESTANT FRENCH
CONGREGATIONS IN QUEBEC TODAY
An increasing number of Quebec journalists are drawing straight lines between the hyperindividualism of our society and the propagation of the coronavirus rooted in stiff resistance to authority structures and institutions of all sorts. We will want to watch how the Church in Quebec faces up to this secularity and hyperindividualism within our congregations.
Christian and human-rooted spiritualities. The rise and flourishing of the religious "nones" (claiming no religious affiliation) coupled with the quest for human-rooted spiritualties will be a phenomenon to follow very closely.
More than 76 per cent of Quebecers continue to self-identify as Roman Catholic. To the extent people no longer identify with Catholicism, the tendency is to say they have no religion.
Contrast no religion with Christian spirituality – the process of developing and experiencing a deep relationship with God, being conformed to the image of Christ for the sake of others, living out a faith that makes a difference in the world. Christian spirituality can’t be divorced from the struggle for justice, and care for the poor and oppressed.
Christians’ interest in spirituality is not new, although there has been a renewed awareness in the past several years. We will want to watch how the Church in Quebec cultivates her spirituality in the context of this rise and flourishing of the religious nones and the quest for these immanent spiritualties.
Shifting Christian traditions. The Protestant Church has come to adulthood in these tumultuous six decades. In 1960 there were 57 French congregations – today there are 1,100. More French-speaking Quebecers self-identify with an evangelical faith and practice than ever. There are some 105,000 francophones who make such an affirmation. Christian witness and church planting over this period is working.
Our Roman Catholic sisters and brothers do not see as happy a future. In the late 1950s and early ’60s, there were 200 candidates in a cohort for the priesthood – today there are 15 in all Quebec. In November 1961 a vast province-wide inquiry showed 61 per cent of the population attended mass that month. Today monthly attendance is at 14 per cent, and only 4 per cent in Greater Montreal.
We will want to watch how the Roman Catholic Church in Quebec evolves in the next decades.
Institutional restructuring. The pandemic is a marker of sorts for the beginning of a new period for the Church in Quebec – as it will be across North America. Because of the decline of institutional faith and the rise of secularity and hyperindividuality, structures of believability are more fragile than ever.
The local congregation, whatever her public structure – traditional churches, microchurches, home churches, university groups, Bible studies in the marketplace – is an entity that interprets the triune God to the neighbourhood.
PERCENTAGE OF QUEBECERS WHO
CONTINUE TO SELF-IDENTIFY AS ROMAN CATHOLIC
We will want to watch how the Church in Quebec transitions from the strict measures under which we have lived since March 2020. Massive social upheavals are on the horizon and it will be interesting to watch both the posture of the Church and its involvement in public life going forward.
New-style faith communities. It is interesting to watch the re-emergence of a variety of new expressions of congregational structures, particularly missional communities. Beyond the normal small group structures than emerged in Canadian ecclesiology since the 1960s, these communities of six to 12 people often connected to a larger congregation take Bible study, fellowship in the Spirit and local mission very seriously.
These are the groups who love God, each other, and their city and neighbourhood in word and deed. All over Quebec these missional groups are popping up, multiplying and changing the face of the Church.
These are the spiritual grandchildren of St. Patrick (Ireland), Martin Bucer (Strasbourg, France), John and Mary Wesley (England), Gordon and Mary Cosby (Church of the Savior, Washington D.C. in the 1960s) and the base communities in Latin America.
As we watch these five futures, we should remember the clearest social indicator to the future is past behaviour. There is little doubt tumultuous times lie ahead. Quebec has great experience with that reality.
Let us continue to watch, dialogue and respond to see God’s reign advance in our society.
Glenn Smith of Laval, Que., is co-chair of the Roman Catholic–Evangelical Dialogue in Canada sponsored by the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops and The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada. He’s also academic dean at two Montreal schools, Presbyterian College and Institut de théologie pour la francophonie.