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The effects of _Changing Allegiances_: an interview with Prof. Stuart Macdonald


[This article first appeared in the Spring 2018 issue of Connexions magazine. See the full issue here, or sign up for your free subscription.] 


In November 2017, McGill-Queen’s University Press published Leaving Christianity: Changing Allegiances in Canada since 1945 by Brian Clarke (Emmanuel College) and Stuart Macdonald. The Rev. Dr. Stuart Macdonald is Knox College’s Professor of Church and Society and currently serves as Vice Principal and Director of Graduate Studies.


What is the nature and extent of Canadians’ disengagement with organized religion? Why this major cultural shift?

After years of stability, even growth, in the period following WWII, something shifted in the late 1950s and early 1960s: Canadians began shedding their religious identity. This affected the larger denominations first and most severely. The United Church, Anglican Church, and the Presbyterian Church in Canada moved into decline in their membership, Sunday school enrolment, and all of their recruitment statistics. The Roman Catholic Church in Quebec was also dramatically affected.

What began then has only continued, until most Christian denominations have been affected. Few churches are growing. What has grown – dramatically – is the number of Canadians who report no religious identity. In 1961 this was under 1%, but in 2011 it stood at 24%, or almost a quarter of all Canadians. This isn’t the percentage of those who are inactive in churches; this is people who do not claim a religious identity. We’re facing a completely different landscape than we did fifty years ago.

The hardest question to answer is “why?” Brian Clarke and I argue in the book that this was an external culture shift which affected society as a whole, with the churches only being one area of culture that was affected. But why did this culture shift happen? We suggest some possibilities, including growing affluence and individualism.

What implications do you see for Canadian society and our religious institutions?

For churches the implications are the most obvious. Congregations find themselves in an environment where they cannot assume people have a Christian memory, let alone a Christian faith. Faith is no longer the default option, as was the case in the early 1960s. Churches need to recognize how much has changed.

For the broader culture – this is much harder to anticipate. But churches are traditionally one of the main sources of volunteers, not only inside churches, but for other not-for-profit organizations.

What surprised you most about your research findings?

Brian and I started working on the book around 2003, and our research spurred a new understanding for me. I had been teaching (as the literature indicated) that the Church’s decline had been happening since the late nineteenth century. But in fact, the Church had expanded in 1950s; things were much better than we realized. People were therefore trying to fit their own experience of church growth into a story that didn’t make sense to them; they were told that the Church has been in decline for much longer, and so what they saw was an illusion. But Brian Clarke’s and my research now shows: That wasn’t an illusion. There was real, significant growth in the 1950s and early 1960s in the United Church, the Anglican Church, and the Presbyterian Church. After that time, things changed. For me, one of the key findings of the book is how recent this shift has been. These churches were very strong in my lifetime, and the downturn was just beginning in the early 1960s.

How does this research inform your teaching and preparation of religious workers? How is Knox responding to this cultural shift?

It is vital to share the relevant insights so that students are prepared for the world as it is, not the world as it was fifty years ago.

We have to recognize how many people have memories (or parents’ memories) of that time of expansion; this shift is recent. Many people haven’t yet come to terms with this being a cultural change. They’ve thought we just haven’t done a good job being church – that we’re teaching the wrong theology or have the wrong program or the wrong music. Part of my teaching now is to say: that’s not what the evidence shows. Changing the music or theology to be more relevant isn’t a bad idea, but that doesn’t explain the fast and recent shift.

The research has specifically changed my teaching on leadership. Leadership is what our graduates need to be doing, and that’s very different from managing. When I look back, I was trained to be a manager, not a leader. I was trained to be a good preacher, offer good pastoral care; but basically I was there to manage what the church knew worked, not to find a new direction.

Now as I teach, I’m now much more intentional about talking about leadership and its importance. We can’t go out in this new context as managers or facilitators. We have to lead, and that requires a different set of skills. You’re not just there to help people do what they’ve always done. You have to help them find a way of relating to this changed environment. And there’s no consensus on how to do this; it’s almost up to each individual minister.

Since many of the folks in their congregations aren’t sure that anything has changed, leading in this context also has enormous potential for conflict. That’s the reality our graduates are facing. We have to help them prepare for the potential of conflict, but also help them understand what lies behind it – those different visions of the recent past.

More broadly in response to this cultural shift, Knox is continuing to expand its program offerings. What we’re doing is seeing where there are opportunities and trying to provide programs that help students and graduates be involved in those. What programs do students need? As opportunities in the Church decrease, people want to exercise their gifts in other arenas, like hospitals.