Ecumenism, Clergy Influence and Liberalism: An Investigation into the Sources of Lay Support for Church Union

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  • Ecumenism, Clergy Influence and Liberalism: An Investigation into the Sources of Lay Support for Church Union

    R O B E R T C. K A I L L / University of Guelph

    Le mouvement cecumCnique chez les Cglises protestantes a pris beaucoup dim- portance durant les soixante dernikres annCes. Plusieurs groupes religieux autonomes se sont intCgrCs dam une union organique tandis que chez certains autres Ies nCgociations ont abouti B une impasse. Cette Ctude vise B identifier lensemble des facteurs opCrants dans la formation des attitudes des laics vis-8-vis ces projets ecumkniques. Le projet de fusion de lEglise anglicane et de lEglise Unie est A lorigine de notre intCr&t scientilique. Nos rksultats mettent en lumikre limportance primordiale de deux facteurs dans la prCdisposition des informateurs A approuver le projet de fusion. Ces facteurs sont les attitudes favorables du clergC et lidkologie libkrale des paroissiens dans les questions profanes.

    The ecumenical movement has been gaining momentum in Protestant Christianity for the past sixty years. Organic union of several autonomous religious groups has been achieved, while in other instances, negotiations have ended in stalemate. This study undertakes the identification of those factors which are functional in the formation of lay attitudes toward such ecumenical proposals. The plan to merge the Anglican and United Churches in Canada provided the occasion for the investigation. Findings indicate that clergy endorsement and secular liberal orientation of adherents are two primary factors predisposing respondents to approve the union plan.


    Since the time of Comte, sociologists have been interested in religious be- haviour as a social phenomenon. Enquiries have focused on a variety of topics from the effects of religious attitudes on secular institutions (Weber, 1930; Lenski, 1961) to attempts to develop typologies of religious organiza- tions (Troeltsch, 193 1 ; Yinger, 1970). From the outset, religious activity has been recognized as peculiarly susceptible to fruitful investigation. In part, this may be accounted for by the ubiquity and relative stability of religjous institutions. I t is also true that the social integrative function com- monly ascribed to religion implies a significant and persistent interaction with the other major social institutions of society. However, the unique quality of religious behaviour which renders it especially fruitful for study is its subject matter, since it is concerned with the primary orientations and goals of human existence, those which adherents, themselves, would describe

    Rev. canad. Soc. & Anth./Canad. Rev. SOC. & Anth. 8(3 ) 1971


  • as most important. The fact that often these claims amount to nothing more than verbalizations exhibiting little influence on behaviour, far from invali- dating religion as a viable object of study, adds a further dimension for scientific investigation.

    Sociologically, the research reported in this paper is of interest in that it alTords an opportunity to examine the attitudes of adherents of two formal organizations on an issue over which consensus is clearly lacking. It should be understood that the union issue is critical for members of the two religious bodies concerned, since it involves the continued existence of those groups as separate organizational entities. We are not primarily concerned, however, with the relative support for the merger plan in the two denominations, since the localized nature of the sample would invalidate such conclusions. The research goal is rather to identify the predisposing characteristics which lead church members to adopt positive or negative attitudes toward the proposal.

    H I S T O R I C A L B A C K G R O U N D

    Ecumenism is essentially a response to nine centuries of divisiveness within the Christian Church. The modern ecumenical movement dates from the World Missionary Conference at Edinburgh in 1910, which led eventually to the formation of the World Council of Churches (Latourette, 1953: 11 38-1 145). Almost since its inception, two concurrent and philosophically opposed interpretations of ecumenism have persisted. One aims at increasing the level of cooperation among autonomous religious groups, while the other is committed to the principle of total organic union of existing Christian bodies. In 1965, Rodgers listed thirty-nine separate union negotiations then in progress in twenty-nine countries, indicating the geographic scope of this latter movement (1965: 147). Some merger attempts have already found- ered, among them the ill-timed plan to re-unite Anglicans and Methodists in England. On the other hand, unions involving several major Protestant denominations have been consummated. One of these brought the Church of South India into existence (1947), while the Church of Nigeria was created by a second (1966). Notable among several American mergers, was the formation of the United Methodist Church through union of the Methodist and Evangelical United Brethren churches (1968). Unquestion- ably, the most daring and comprehensive ecumenical plan of modem times was the Blake proposal of 1961, which envisaged the organic union of all major Protestant denominations in America, apart from the Baptist (Christi- anity Today, 196 1 : 6) .

    The proposal to unite the Anglican Church of Canada and the United Church of Canada is of particular interest since the latter religious body is, itself, the product of a merger between the Methodist, Presbyterian and Congregational churches in 1925. The negotiations which preceded the union extended over seventeen years. While the proposal was the subject of vigor- ous debate within all three denominations, the discussions among Presby- 143

  • terians were marked by dissension, and punctuated by vitriolic exchanges which resulted in the polarization of the church. When union was finally achieved, approximately a third of the Presbyterian congregations voted to remain outside of the merger as continuing Presbyterians. For the present study, it will be of interest to compare the attitudes of members of the United Church who have Presbyterian and non-Presbyterian backgrounds ( Walsh, 1956).

    The present movement toward union of the Anglican and United Churches in Canada began formally in 1943. A document entitled The Principles of Union Between the Anglican Church of Canada and the United Church of Canada, produced by a joint committee of the two denominations has received wide distribution throughout the churches. Although the decision- making apparatus in neither denomination has any place for participation at the congregational level, it is evident that the plan cannot succeed without general support of the laity. Hence, an intensive educational programme is currently under way, aimed at increasing adherents understanding of the issues involved, while promoting the merger plan as a partial solution of the churches problems in contemporary society.


    The primary concern of this study is with the social factors which influence lay attitudes toward church union, rather than the relative strength of sup- port for the plan within the two denominations. Nevertheless, notice must be taken of the organizational context within which adherents of the two bodies make decisions and formulate attitudes. It might be assumed initially tiiai because of the episcopal structure, emphasis on historical liturgies, and strong sense of tradition characterizing Anglicanism, members wn.:ld per- ceive the merger plan as an overt threat to their religious identity. On the other hand, the Anglican church has been in a state of relative numerical decline in Canada for more than a decade, and this might create a cross- pressure in favor of union (Dominion Bureau of Statistics, 1961 : 924-546). On the surface, the issue appears much less ambiguous for United Church- men, since their denomination is a product of merger and claim to be not only a united but a uniting church. (United Church of Canada, Manual, 1962:6.) This claim may however be little more than an idealized definition of the situation. Since routinization and rationalization are ubiquitous organ- izational processes, it must be assumed that after forty-five years of exis- tence, many United Church adherents are unmindful to their denominations lofty initial aims, and feel an emotional attachment to it differing little from that of Anglican gbsence of liturgical worship patterns and episcopal organizational structure may have developed into valued realities as norma- tive as their existence is for Anglicans. On the basis of this analysis, there is no sound theoretical ground for predicting the extent of support for merger in either of the two religious groups. 144

  • In seeking to identify the factors predisposing members to accept or reject the union proposal, the claim of Demerath and Hammond that ecu- menism represents primarily a response to the pressures under which mod- ern urban congregations exist, offers a point of departure. They maintain that, although church leaders typically appeal to lofty religious principles as the justification for ecumenical undertakings, they are simply making theological virtue out of organizational necessity (1969:221). This sug- gests that, at the local level, adherents approve church mergers because they fear their congregations cannot survive alone. They prefer congrega- tional fusion to dissolution. This explanation of ecumenical behaviour might be appropriate when disintegration appears imminent, but such a threat is by no means apparent in the two groups under study. There has been a moderate decline in participation but budgets continue to be met, and rou- tine operations are not curtailed. From the elevated perspective of senior administrators, symptoms of advanced structural deterioration may be apparent, but this insight will have little impact at the parish level, especially since, for religious or perhaps strategic reasons, top echelon officials feel constrained to base their appeals for union support on theological principle rather than pragmatic considerations. It is therefore assumed that anxiety over congregational survival is not a primary source of support for merger. The first hypothesis states that pessimism concerning the churchs future is not significantly correlated with approval of church union.

    A more convincing argument may be made for treating liberalism as the primary source of the ecumenical spirit. For example, Yinger links ecumen- ism and liberalism through their mutual connection with the social gospel. He argues that religious groups which preach the social gospel are the same ones that advocate interfaith co-operation and merger ( 1957:224). Other writers have pointed to the historically coincidental emergence of ecumenism and the social gospel in America (Demerath and Hammond, 1969:221). Further evidence of this relationship is provided by the fact that practically all mergers that have taken place have involved liberal Protestant denomi- nations (Salisbury, 1964: 299-3 14). Liberally-inclined churches view re- ligious organizations instrumentally, as vehicles of social amelioration. Thus, despite wide theological and liturgical cleavages between denominations, ecumenism flourishes because the mainline churchman neither understands nor is interested in the niceties of theological distinction, although so far as he has a doctrinal viewpoint, he would have to be classified as a religious liberal.

    But, as sociologists have good reason to appreciate, liberalism is a complex and elusive phenomenon, exhibiting secular as well as sacred dimensions. Rokeach, for example, considers open-mindedness to be an important aspect of liberalism (1960). This is particularly relevant for the present investigation since merger of these two religious groups is certain to involve changes in several facets of church life. In formulating their attitudes to- ward the proposed merger, adherents will be compelled to choose between 145

  • preservation of familiar religious patterns, and the acceptance of new forms and structures. Hence, openness to innovation must be considered a further component of the liberal spirit for purposes of this study. Finally, liberalism also has politico-economic dimensions, usually expressed in leftist leanings, although many would insist on excluding doctrinal socialism on the ground that it represents an inflexible position incongruent with the liberal spirit. For this reason, Lipset has distinguished between economic and non- ecomnomic liberalism, including in the latter category concern for civil liberties and tolerance, a phenomenon which has been operationalized in this design as belief in freedom of expression, following Stouffers classic study of liberalism in the United States.l Economic liberalism, on the other hand, connotes a negative attitude toward the free-enterprise economic system, coupled with advocacy of welfare-type legislation. Lipset perceives a difference in social class attitudes toward these two modes of liberal expres- sion, maintaining that the working class are liberal in economic matters, while upper classes are more favourable toward non-economic liberalism (1960: 101-102). In the present investigation, the church union proposal is considered an expression of non-economic liberalism and it is anticipated that respondents who favour the plan will be predominantly middle and upper class liberals in the non-economic sense, whereas working class re- spondents will exhibit less enthusiasm for union and more for economic liberalist principles.

    From the foregoing analysis, the following hypotheses have been elicited specifying the relationships between each dimension of liberalism and atti- tudes toward the proposed union: ( a ) that there is a positive correlation between religious liberalism and approval of church union; ( b ) that there is a positive correlation between belief in freedom of expression and ap- proval of church union; ( c ) that there is a positive correlation between acceptance of innovation and approval of church union; and ( d ) that there is a negative correlation between economic liberalism and approval of union. It is also anticipated that respondents who approve of union wiU exhibit other characteristics commonly associated with liberalism, including higher than average socio-economic status, multiple memberships in secular vol- untary associations, and relative youthfulness.

    A second factor which might reasonably be expected to influence attitudes of church adherents toward the merger proposal is the position taken on the issue by the clergy. Numerous theoretical and empirical studies have been carried out on clergy role and the nature of its authority. There have, how- ever, been few empirical attempts to measure the power of the clergy over lay members of their congregations. A number of theoretical analyses have been made of the nature and development of religious leadership, begin- ning with Webers concepts of charismatic, traditional, and rational-legal

    1 Twelve of Stouffers fifteen items comprising his tolerance scale measured the respondents willingness to grant freedom of expression to those with whom he

    146 disagreed.

  • authority (1947:358-360). Utilizing a structural approach, Vernon con- ceives of a continuum of power ranging from congregationalist clergy at one pole, exerting least power, to episcopal priests at the other, wielding most ( 1947 : 190-19 1 ) . Considered jointly, these two typologies suggest that clergy power is generated from both structural and personal sources, and, in our technologically oriented society, the incumbents personal sources of influence include not only idiosyncracies of manner, but also level of expertise. In the context of the present study, the Anglican priest exceeds the United Church minister in structural authority by virtue of his episcopal ordination and non-democratic form of government at the congregational level. The formal educational requirements for ordination are approxi- mately alike in the two denominations, and we may therefore assume that the expertise levels do not differ significantly. Unfortunately, there is no evidence available regarding the personal charismatic qualities of clergy of either church. From this analysis, two hypotheses have been elicited: (a) that both Anglican and United Church clergy influence the attitudes of lay- men with respect to church union; ( b ) that the influence of Anglican priests on lay attitudes toward church union exceeds that of United Church ministers.

    Apart from these major theoretical considerations, there are certain other factors which may siplicantly influence lay attitudes toward church mer- ger, but about which little relevant evidence is available. Firstly, there is the effect of ethnicity to be considered. Will Herbergs acculturation hypothe- sis represents one of the few serious attempts to relate immigrant status to religious behaviour, but it offers little guidance in the present context (1956). A somewhat analogous problem concerns the effect of family d e nominational solidarity or discontinuity on union attitudes. Here, again, little help is available from the literature. Finally, there is the question of commitment. Does the union proposal receive greater support from the more or less committed? The answers to these questions will be explored, although no formal hypotheses have been formulated. It will also be of interest to discover if a structural profile of the typical union supporter can be drawn utilizing especially such characteristics as age, education, and residence.


    The sample consisted of 408 active adherents of two urban and two town parishes of each denomination in central Western Ontario, a total of eight congregations. Active adherents are defined as persons who attended church services at least once in the past year, By drawing an inchurch sample, on what was considered an average Sunday (not a festival occasion), and utilizing the following correction factors to weight respondents for differ- ential attendance patterns, a relatively representative sample of active ad- herents of each denomination was drawn, see Table I. The use of this weighting system provided methodological justification for distribution of 147


    Average monthly attendance rate Assigned weight

    1 (or less) 4 . 0 2 2 .0 3 1 . 3 4 1 .o

    the questionnaire at a Sunday service, since it adjusts for the statistical prob- ability of every active adherent being present. In the analysis of data, it was considered legitimate to use the weighted data for descriptive, but not analytical purposes.

    The details of questionnaire distribution are as follows: The schedules were passed out to worshippers in stamped, self-addressed envelopes as they left the church buildings. To minimize bias, distribution took place on the same date in all eight churches. The clergy also read prepared statements emphasizing the importance of having all viewpoints represented. This procedure combines some aspects of group administration with mailing technique, and probably accounted for the unusually high response rate of approximately 69 per cent. Denominational composition of the sample was 35 per cent Anglican, 60 per cent United Church and 5 per cent other, representing a ratio of Anglicans to United Churchmen of 3.5:6, closely approximating the national ratio of 3.4:5.3 (Dominion Bureau of Statistics, 1961). Similarly, the sex and rural-urban distribution of the sample did not d8er si@cantly from the parameters of the national population. The age characteristics of the sample are of particular interest in view of the prevailing belief that older persons are over-represented in religious activi- ties. Unfortunately, differential grouping of the data between the research design and census records does not permit exact comparison, but inspection clearly supports the above postulate, younger people being under-represented and the more elderly over-represented, although the discrepancy does not appear to be above five per cent in any of the three categories into which age groups were divided.

    Socio-economic status is also of concern since several studies have indi- cated that Anglicans enjoy 8 somewhat higher status than adherents of the United Church (Mann, 1963: 171-194; Allingham, 1962:32-33). The data of the present study c o b this finding, but again the difference is below the level of statistical significance. When compared with national figures, the total sample proves to be well above the mean. When, however, it is recalled that socio-economic status was measured by formal education and occupation, this inconsistency is understandable in view of the large proportion of university faculty members (14 per cent) included in the sample. Further, since this variable is not significantly related to the phe- nomena under investigation, this sampling bias does not invalidate the 148

  • fbdings of the study. In general, then, despite the localized nature of the sample, it exhibits a fairly high degree of representativeness of the national population.

    The questionnaire was entirely structured, consisting of 38 Likert-type items, about half the number used in the pre-test phase, the remainder hav- ing been eliminated on the basis of item analysis. In attitude studies, the question of single versus multiple measures is particularly crucial, since the relative validity of each item as a true indicator of the attitude under study is always problematic (Blalock, 1969: 1 11). For this reason, multiple indi- cators were used for all major attitudinal variables, items being combined additively.



    Unweighted Weighted Attitude data data

    toward union (per cent) (per cent)

    *Approve 58 61 Neutrai 17 16 Disapprove 25 23

    N (408) (58%

    *All variables were trichotomized for tabular presentation. In preference to the use of arbi- trary cutting points only the centre cell of the Liked-type scales were labelled neutral, to reflect intention of respondents as accurately as possible. A trade-off cost of this procedure is the low number of cases in this category.


    Attitude Anglican United Church toward union (per cent) (per cent)

    Approve 48 63 Neutral 20 15

    N (146) (248) Disapprove 32 22

    Chi-square = 7.88 < .02.

    F I N D I N G S

    Comparison of the two columns in Table II indicates that weighting the data on the basis of attendance patterns has little effect on the major depen- dent variable of the study. Consequently the weighted data were not used in the analysis. The figures show that a majority of respondents approve the merger plan between the two churches. Denominationally, the relative approval rate is as shown in Table III. United Church respondents exhibit 149

  • si@cantly higher approval of the merger plan than Anglican. Our research problem now i s to explain that daerence.

    Before examining the data in terms of the formal hypotheses of the study, we shall dispose of the incidental issues raised in the theoretical model. The development of a structural profile of the typical church union supporter is not possible since the data indicate that approval of the plan is randomly distributed among all segments of the religious community so far as age, occupation, education, and residence are concerned. With respect to occu- pation, it had been anticipated that farmers would exhibit lower educational levels, fewer liberal characteristics, and less enthusiasm for merger than other occupational groups. While the data confirm the first premise, this group exhibited mean levels of liberalism and support for union, an unan- ticipated outcome which suggests that farmers who attend town and city churches represent a deviant social category, if the premise is accepted that rural dwellers are generally more conservative than urbanites. The data may be interpreted to mean either that farmers who adhere to town or urban congregations internalize the social values of the dominant group, or conversely, liberally-oriented farmers gravitate toward such churches b e cause of the more compatible ideological milieu. Conversely, liberally- oriented farmers may gravitate to town and urban churches because of the more compatible ideological milieu. With respect to residence, the data indicate some minor positive relationship between community size and approval of union. A final incidental question concerns the effect of Presbyterian background on United Church adherents. Because of the pro- found dissension among Presbyterians associated with church union in 1925, it was anticipated that their attitudes and those of their children toward this current proposal would d8er from the other members of the sample. The data do not reveal any differential response pattern for this group. Within a wider context, it was found that inter-generational denominational solidarity was also systematically unrelated to church union support.

    The data tend to support the fust hypothesis which postulated no relation- ship between pessimism over the churchs future and approval of union (see Table rv) . This composite variable had three components, representing



    Degree of pessimism

    Attitude High Medium Low toward union (per cent) (per cent) (per cent)


    Approve Neutral Disapprove

    62 53 58 13 23 17 25 24 25

  • anxiety over ( 1 ) financial difficulties, (2) recruitment of suitable clergy, and ( 3 ) the churchs appeal to youth. Item analysis revealed that concern over financial problems exhibited the lowest correlation with the other two items, and with approval of union. Where pessimism about the future does produce a willingness to accept denominational merger, it is the difficulty of clergy recruitment and holding the interest of young people that are chiefly functional. This relationship holds for adherents of both denomi- nations, every age group, and all socio-economic statuses.

    The first positive proposition of the theoretical model argued that the proposal to merge the Anglican and United Churches is an expression of the liberalist spirit. For purposes of the present study, the concept of lib- eralism was refined into four constituent dimensions - religious liberalism, belief in freedom of expression, acceptance of innovation, and economic liberalism, following the theoretical outline.

    The religious liberalism variable was comprised of five questionnaire items. The questions referred to the theological content of belief (doctrine of the Trinity and the divinity of Christ), degree of emphasis on other- worldy matters (attainment of heaven in the next life and mystical experi- ences in this) , and stress on social action (support for the resolution of social evils through collective action rather than by individual conversion). While this composite variable exhibited relatively high internal validity, neither the whole variable nor any of the items was sipficantly related with ap- proval of church union. Yinger has commented on the ambiguities surround- ing the concept of religious liberalism, especially its influence on social behaviour ( 1970: 45 1-455). Our outcome c o b s this observation: where organizational identity is at stake, religious liberals tend to behave no dif- ferently than others.

    The innovation dimension of liberalism consisted of three items (see Table v) , each of which required the respondent to choose between the retention of familiar religious traditions and change. Again, neither singly nor as a composite measure were these indicators correlated with support for union. However, the statistical relationship between the two variables does provide valuable insight into respondents attachment to traditional forms of religious expression, and therefore warrants examination. Only


    Acceptance of innovation

    Atritude High Medium LOW toward union (per cent) (per cent) (per cent)

    Approve 65 66 59 Neutral 13 16 17 Disapprove 22 18 24

    N (58) (104) (240) Chi-square = 2.38 > 0.50. 151


    Belief in freedom of expression

    Attitude High Medium Low toward union (per cent) (per cent) . (per cent)

    Approve 13 65 29 Neutral 16 19 18 Disapprove 11 16 53 N = 100percent (231) (43) (1 26) Chi-square = 87.31 > 0.001.

    fifty-eight respondents (14 per cent) were prepared to approve change involving the sacrifice of familiar religious forms, while 240 (60 per cent) opted for tradition. The response pattern is approximately the same for adherents of both Anglican and United Churches. Since more than half of the total sample approved the union proposal, it is evident that most of them assumed that merger could be achieved without substantial change at the congregational level. Recalling that at present there are si@cant litur- gical and structural differences between the two religious groups, it is appar- ent that those who favour church merger either anticipate that the new church will permit wide variation in procedures at the congregational level, or that their bargaining agents will be strong enough to impose their present forms on the other uniting group. Some further light might have been thrown on the situation by the inclusion of questions relating to innovation in secular matters, such as educational practice or political policy. So far as the above data are concerned, we must conclude that traditionalism does not deter adherents of either religious group from approving the merger proposal.

    The third liberal variable concerned belief in freedom of expression and consisted of two items, one referring to the treatment of Communists in our society, and the other relating to censorship of movies. This composite vari- able showed a highly significant correlation with support for church union (see Table VI) . This relationship between belief in freedom of expression and support for church union holds when controlled for all available theo- retically relevant structural variables. For example, several studies have linked liberalism with age, and it might therefore be assumed that the rela- tiomhip is more a function of age than of belief in freedom. Table VII indi- cates that this is not the case. As anticipated, the marginals in the above table indicate a strong and consistent positive correlation between age and belief in freedom of expression, but the relationship between the dependent and independent variable established in the previous table remains intact. In every age category, those who believe most in freedom of expression are also most in favour of church union.

    If this liberal quality predisposes people to support church union, United Church adherents should exhibit more of it than Anglicans, since they have 152

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