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United Church of Canada  
 
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The United Church of Canada has been instrumental in the increased acceptance of glbtq rights, including same-sex marriage, in Canada. As the country's largest Protestant denomination, the United Church has been an influential defender of the human rights of homosexuals.

In the last few decades, the Church's stance on homosexuality has evolved from condemnation to acceptance. From considering homosexuality sinful, it has moved to celebrating it as a gift of God.

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This stance is sharply divergent from the conservative--sometimes blatantly --positions of most evangelical denominations in the United States and Canada.

History

The United Church of Canada came into being on June 10, 1925, as a merger--after more than 20 years of negotiation--of four previously independent denominations: the Presbyterian Church in Canada, the Methodist Church of Canada, the Congregational Union of Ontario and Quebec, and the Association of Local Union Churches. (Not all Presbyterian congregations approved the merger, and those became part of a separate Presbyterian denomination; similarly, some Methodist congregations rejected the merger and formed the conservative Free Methodist Church.) In 1968, the Evangelical United Brethren Church of Canada also joined the United Church.

Some 3 million Canadians--about 10% of the population--now identify the United Church as their religious affiliation, though the Church reports only 700,000 confirmed members, and regular attendees of United Church services number only 250,000. Historically, the United Church membership has been as high as 25% of Canadians.

The Church is a significant presence in all parts of Canada except rural Quebec, where it is known as "l'église mitaine" (the mitten church), presumably because of its small size in the heavily Roman Catholic area.

The Church has been influential beyond its numbers. Although it has never been the "state church of Canada," its founding was recognized and legitimated by an Act of Parliament and it has been widely appreciated as a uniquely Canadian institution. Many prominent Canadians, from renowned Prime Minister Lester Pearson to acclaimed literary critic Northrop Frye, have been members of the United Church.

Beliefs

The United Church's founding as a result of a merger of similar but distinct denominations has helped shape its tradition of openness to different viewpoints and its tolerance of a range of theological beliefs.

The Church's structure is Presbyterian. It is organized into Presbyteries (i.e., governing bodies) and Conferences and governed by a General Council, each having membership of both clergy and lay people. Conference presidents and moderators of the national church may be clergy or lay people.

Despite its rather elaborate hierarchy, the denomination vests a great deal of power in individual congregations, which range broadly from moderately conservative to extremely liberal on questions of theology and social policy.

Not surprisingly, congregations of the United Church of Canada also worship in a variety of styles, reflecting the complex history of the denomination. Some congregations are distinctly evangelical in style of worship, featuring Pentecostal fervor and gospel music, while others employ a liturgy similar to that of high-church Anglicanism.

The Church's official theological positions tend to be similar to those of other evangelical Christian denominations, but are either expressed vaguely so as to avoid disputes over fine points of dogma or diverge from other denominations by virtue of their liberalism.

For example, while the Church affirms the Bible as the "Word of God" and as "a source of wisdom, personal prayer, and devotion . . . [that] can bring us closer to God," it pointedly disavows "inerrancy" or the belief that the Bible should be taken literally. It sees the Bible as a cultural artifact--the stories of two ancient communities--that needs to be interpreted in the light of tradition, inspiration, and contemporary knowledge.

Similarly, although Baptism is, along with Communion, one of the denomination's two sacraments, the Church does not believe that Baptism is a requirement for God's love or that people who die without Baptism are condemned.

Moreover, the Church prides itself on its inclusiveness and its dedication to social justice. According to its official website, it welcomes "everyone the way Jesus did, regardless of age, race, class, gender, orientation, or physical ability."

Social Issues

The United Church of Canada has a rich history of social activism. From the time of its founding, adherents of the "social gospel"--i.e., those who believe in applying Christian principles to social problems--have been prominent in the Church. Hence, the Church has long been involved in such issues as the alleviation of poverty, the achievement of racial justice, the expansion of women's and minority rights, and the protection of the environment. It has attempted both to influence national social policy and to achieve social justice within the Church itself.

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Metropolitan United Church, Toronto, an Affirming Ministry.
  
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