Today a dynamic, tightly focused body with 25 member denominations, the Council began in 1944 with tremendous enthusiasm as 10 Christian churches sought to work together to fulfill their call to mission, service, religious education, and evangelism. Together their professed adherents represented more than 45 per cent of the Canadian population. At that time two of three Canadians were in a church on any Sunday–60 per cent of Protestants and 80 per cent of Roman Catholics. The Council was a particularly Canadian vision. There had been proposals to join with the National Council of Churches in the United States in a North American council, but Canadian churches felt there were reasons for a distinctly Canadian organization.
The Council was born during the Second World War when people worldwide longed to find ways of cooperating. This period saw the drafting of the charter of the United Nations and the founding of the World Council of Churches, in the planning stages from 1938 until its inaugural assembly in 1948. Canadian churches had already been cooperating through bodies related to social service, religious education, evangelism and overseas mission.
At the first meeting of the Council, the general secretary was asked to invite Orthodox Churches to join. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church had accepted by the time of the second meeting in 1945. By 1977 the Council embraced 12 member churches, three of them Orthodox. The 25 member denominations today represent Anglican, Evangelical, Free Church, Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox, Protestant and Catholic traditions. Staff is drawn from all traditions. In the ecumenical spirit, unity does not mean uniformity. It means learning from one another.
On November 11, 1942 an informal meeting of officers of the Canadian churches met in the office of The Rev. Dr. W. J. Gallagher, 3 Willcocks St., Toronto, to consider some aspects of the cooperative work of the Canadian churches and their relation to a North American Council of Churches, which was being proposed. They agreed it was time to organize The Canadian Council of Churches and put their request to the executive of the World Council of Churches Canadian Committee. Five members of that group, five more of the Christian Social Council of Canada and five more from the Religious Education Council plus five representatives of the missionary interests of the Canadian Churches were invited to meet to organize The Canadian Council of Churches.
A service of Ecumenical Worship took place at Yorkminster Baptist Church (now called: Yorkminster Park Baptist Church), located at 1585 Yonge St., Toronto (2 blocks north of St. Clair Ave.) – September 26, 1944 at 8:00 p.m., followed by three days of meetings. The first president of The Canadian Council of Churches was The Most Rev. Derwyn T. Owen, Archbishop of Toronto and Primate of All Canada, The Church of England in Canada.
The Council was asked to consider the treatment accorded to Japanese Canadians and decided to send “the strongest deputation possible” to the Prime Minister to argue against the government’s move to induce Canadian citizens of “Japanese race” to return or emigrate to Japan. Some other issues of the day: chaplaincy to prisoners of war, a $10,000 grant for the restoration of the Canadian Vimy Memorial Church, venereal disease, marriage laws and a mobilization of the world resources of the church for righteous peace.
In the 1950s and into the 1960s, the Council was organized with full departments of ecumenical affairs, evangelism, social relations, overseas mission and Christian education as well as many committees.
In 1957 the Council through its Faith and Order Commission participated in a conference in Ohio on The Nature of Unity We Seek. The meeting was organized by the U.S. Conference of the World Council of Churches, the National Council of Churches in the United States and The Canadian Council of Churches. Several study groups met beforehand in Vancouver, Saskatoon and Toronto. 42 Canadians attended, including youth and consultants.
The Council’s Department of Christian education published a booklet titled “one Lord” summing up the doctrines and history of the 10 member churches.
The Department of Social Relations endorsed the appeal of the Chinese Canadian Association to remove the second-class citizenship status affecting Canadian citizens of Asian ancestry. The department also worked on issues such as the rise in gambling, low-cost and low-rental housing, the simplification of funerals, penal reform and mental hospital chaplaincy.
By 1958 General Secretary W. J. Gallagher was able to report “phenomenal” growth and development in the Council’s first 14 years. In the preceding two years alone, some 30 inter-church conferences and training sessions had taken place.
In 1958, however, the Council’s Department of Evangelism reported that two years of concerted efforts on the part of member churches had failed to produce a breakthrough in reaching the unchurched. ” . . .The most serious obstacle is the half-awakened, indifferently trained and lethargic members of our congregations and parishes. . . The need today, as always, is for convinced and well-instructed Christians who know how to make their witness wherever they are set in daily life and work.”
The Council was at work on projects for the Canadian Centenary. The general secretary joined a committee to plan the Christian Pavilion at Expo 67.
Criticisms arose, from The United Church of Canada among others, suggesting the Council was not only too compartmentalized but was duplicating the work of the churches. By the mid-60s, the Council was busy examining its purpose, reorganizing itself and writing a new Constitution.
Within a few years, instead of coordinating or reflecting the departmental activities of the churches, the Council started to consider its work the nature and nurture of ecumenical encounter and action.
Meantime, a dramatic increase arose in ecumenical activity elsewhere, leading to the formation of ecumenical social justice coalitions. The Council worked with such coalitions as Project North, to help address the challenges of native land claims and Northern development, and with the Movement for Christian Feminism. In 1974 The Canadian Council of Churches with the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops co-founded the Church Council on Justice and Corrections.
This was also the decade in which the Mennonites and the Society of Friends took the initiative to begin Project Ploughshares. It was founded and continues as an operating division of the Canadian Council of Churches. In 2004, Dr. Ernie Regehr, Executive Director of Project Ploughshares, was named to the Order of Canada. In August of 2016, the President of the Canadian Council of Churches, the Rev. Dr. Canon Alyson Barnett-Cowan, articulated the following foundational biblical principles of the Canadian Council of Churches working through Project Ploughshares. [PDF] En français [PDF]
In 1977 a task force called together 50 persons representing Christians across Canada to consider how to do theology ecumenically in Canada. They decided that the Faith and Order Commission should facilitate and coordinate the discussion of theology and plan a biennial or annual conference.
In the 1970s, the Council reduced its commissions from four to three (World Concerns, Canadian Affairs and Faith and Order).
The Commission on Canadian Affairs was to identify issues requiring ecumenical leadership and to work directly on those issues with member churches, related organizations and secular groups. Among the issues: social services, French-English relations, continued abolition of the death penalty, civil liberties and labor.
In one small piece of its work, the Commission on World Concerns distributed material responding to widespread critical response to the World Council of Churches’ grants to liberation movements in Africa.
By the beginning of the ’80s, the notion of “mission” had changed. Promotion of intercultural respect, interfaith dialogue and international justice were seen as vital expressions of mission. World mission was no longer seen as carrying the Gospel from one place that knows it to another which does not.
Instead, world mission was seen as the world church in its diversity, with global ecumenical partnership.
In 1985 the Council lobbied governments on the issues of acid rain, peace and disarmament and the Canadian Security Intelligence Act and participated in African relief programs.
At the 1989 meeting the name of the Commission on Faith and Order was changed to the Commission on Faith and Witness, broadening its mandate to include mission and interfaith relations.
In 1991 The Canadian Council of Churches adopted a new constitution, which gave it a governing board, and formalized a new structure of three commissions: Faith and Witness, Justice and Peace and Ecumenical Education and Communication.
At the 50th anniversary in 1994, The Rev. Douglas DuCharame, Associate Secretary for Justice and Peace, said “The changing face of Christianity in Canada has been reflected in changes in the Council, from dire financial cutbacks to shifts in influence of mainline Protestantism.”
“Catholic (associate) membership has meant taking the predominantly French-speaking church in Quebec much more seriously,” he wrote, while Orthodox churches have brought “new and sometimes surprising gifts to ecumenical life and worship.”
By the time of the 2001 census, only 20 per cent of the Canadian population attended worship services on a weekly basis, compared to the two out of three back in 1944. The Council’s member churches, however, represented 85 per cent of Christian Canadians who professed adherence to a church, compared with the 45 per cent of Canadians its members represented in 1944.
The Canadian Council of Churches today is the broadest and most inclusive ecumenical body in the world, representing 25 denominations of Anglican; Evangelical; Free Church; Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox; Protestant; and Catholic traditions. Together we represent more than 85% of the Christians in Canada.
Member churches believe in the Lord Jesus Christ as God and Saviour, according to the Scriptures. Members seek to fulfill together their common calling to the glory of one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
In a forum where all voices hold equal weight, the Council brings member churches into encounter with one another, promoting understanding among them and with other Christian churches. It also provides a safe place for immigrant churches to learn about Canada and to put down roots.
The Council undertakes and promotes theological study and reflection among Christian traditions. As well, the Council studies, speaks about and acts on conditions involving moral and spiritual principles including the war on terror and societal issues such as the future of health care. The Council communicates results of reflections to Canadian society and governments.