March 28, 2008 Volume 22, Number 01
The hitchhiker's guide to denominations in Canada
By Kevin Quast | Special to ChristianWeek
A small community of in southern Ontario was being overrun by a boom in the squirrel population and all the church attics in town were infested. The Presbyterian church called a session to discuss the problem. After two hours of debate the elders concluded that God had predestined the plague and there was nothing they could do about it. The United church across the street agreed at their council to humanely trap these furry fellow creatures and release them in the wild. The squirrels returned three days later. For their part, the Baptists voted to baptize the animals and put them on the membership roll. Now the Baptists only see the squirrels at Christmas and Easter.
If you get this joke, then you probably don't need to read the rest of this article. But for those of you who are baffled by the diversity of denominations among the Christian churches in Canada, read on. Why do we have so many denominations in our country and what are their differences?
While each local congregation of any denomination develops its own character that defies categorization, there are certain basic contours to denominations in the Canadian landscape. Each rests on a particular foundational theology, operates with an ordained governing structure and practises distinct liturgical traditions.
All early Christians held one confession in common: "Jesus is Lord." Beyond that, no two Christian communities were identical in matters of faith or practice. This unity in diversity has continued in the Body of Christ to the present day. With Christ at the centre, denominational beliefs vary on such things as their basis of authority, their understanding of how God works out salvation, the nature of the universal Church, the role of the sacraments, mission, ethics and their expectations about the transition between this world and the next.
The convictions held by churchgoers in Canada range from the fundamentalist to liberal. Churches at the conservative end of the spectrum such as Southern Baptists insist that faith in Jesus Christ as personal Lord and Saviour is the only way of salvation. The more liberal and ecumenical denominations like the United Church allow for the pluralistic idea that there may be many saving paths to God in addition to Christianity.
Some denominations subscribe to ancient creeds such as the Apostles' Creed that define their basic doctrines. Others staunchly hold to a non-creedal perspective, believing that the Bible alone should be our statement of faith. Of course, this does not preclude a tendency for non-creedal groups to define their own set of doctrinal tenets.
Imagine two men in a car driving by a church with a sign reading: "Welcome to Oak Road Bible-Believing, Hand-Clapping, Non-Sunday Shopping, Hymn-Singing, Non-Denominational Church." The man leaning on the sign says, "When you don't believe in written creeds, you have to squeeze a lot of doctrine into your name."
The role of baptism and the Lord's supper in the Christian life also delineates denominations. Some of the more sacramental bodies maintain that these rituals convey God's saving grace when they are administered in the prescribed manner by ordained clergy.
Non-sacramental groups observe baptism and communion because Jesus commanded them, but they do not believe these practices have any objective spiritual power. Rather, for non-sacramental churches baptism and the Lord's supper serve as visible symbols that portray what Christ has done for us.
In terms of worship and ministry, some denominations maintain a traditional form of order in their services, complete with lectionaries of prescribed readings and prayers for each week of the Christian calendar. The Lord's supper, also called the Eucharist, is the highlight of worship. Traditional forms of hymnody and organ music dominate.
Other denominations have shifted to contemporary, free-flowing worship styles that incorporate all manner of music, drama and lay involvement. Charismatic churches allow for input from congregational members as they feel led by the Spirit. Typically, in evangelical churches, the sermon is the focus of worship services.
There are three basic types of governing structure or church polity that distinguish denominational life: Episcopal, Presbyterian and Congregational.
Episcopal churches have a hierarchical system in which priests and bishops direct decision making. Synods are organized as advisory boards for the higher ranking bishops.
The Presbyterian model uses a system of councils, made up of elders. The local church council is called a "session" and it is comprised of the minister and a number of lay people. The session sends representatives to the next level of council, the presbytery of the area. Presbyteries make up larger synods and the decisions of the synods are ratified by the overall general assembly.
Congregational church government does not use a system of bishops, nor does it turn to any external body for authoritative direction. Instead, each local congregation retains their autonomy in a democratic process. Church members discuss and vote on all issues of faith and practice. To facilitate a cooperative working relationship with other churches in the same denomination, congregations form associations. These associations receive their mandates from local churches rather than the other way around.
Denominations with common visions and missions have formed larger associations with other denominations to promote their causes and represent a Christian voice in Canadian society. The two main associations in Canada are the Canadian Council of Churches (CCC) and the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada (EFC). The CCC tends to be more ecumenical and moderate in its theology while the EFC, as its name implies, limits membership to conservative evangelical denominations. Some denominations identify with both groups.
Any attempt to summarize Canadian denominations according to their theology, liturgical tradition or governing structure will not do justice to the diversity contained within each denomination. Nor does it reflect the reality that every denomination has adopted elements of other traditions as they have evolved.
Now that we've seen a bird's eye view of denominations in Canada, we can return to our squirrel-infested town for the rest of the story. The Pentecostals held a tent-meeting revival for the squirrels. They incapacitated the rodents by laying hands on them, slaying them in the Spirit. The Roman Catholics ordained all the male squirrels. From that point on, the priestly squirrels remained celibate, thus ending the population growth. Seizing the opportunity for more soldiers on the front line, The Salvation Army commissioned their squirrels to stand in storefronts soliciting donations to help the poor.
Kevin Quast is a freelance writer living in Charlottetown, PEI. In previous lives he has pastored churches, taught in universities and drilled for gas in the Northwest Territories.