United Church of Canada

. The United Church of Canada is Saskatchewan's second largest religious denomination (after Roman Catholic), with 19.5% of the population claiming United Church affiliation. Saskatchewan Conference, which is subdivided regionally into seven presbyteries with a total of 343 congregations, is one of thirteen conferences of the national United Church. The Saskatchewan United Church maintains two hospital chaplaincies, three urban outreach ministries, and several church camps. It shares with Manitoba and Alberta a theological school campus (St. Andrew's College, Saskatoon) and a training centre (Calling Lakes Centre, Fort Qu'Appelle). The national All-Native Circle Conference has oversight of six Saskatchewan Aboriginal congregations. The theology of the Saskatchewan United Church is generally liberal Protestant in tone, and its polity is conciliar: authority and oversight rest not with individuals, but with elected bodies comprising both lay and clergy members.

The history and development of the Saskatchewan United Church are closely related to the European colonization of the region. Officially formed in 1925 in a national union that brought together the Canadian Methodist Church, the Congregational Union of Canada, and two-thirds of Canadian Presbyterians, the Saskatchewan United Church traces its roots to the prairie missionary activity of Methodists and Presbyterians in the late 1800s. (The Congregational church was much smaller and did not participate heavily in mission.) Initial interest by these two large denominations in Canada's prairie west centred on “Indian work”: Methodist encounters with Aboriginal communities in Saskatchewan were few, but the Presbyterians established missions in the south, first at Round Lake and File Hills, both of which eventually became the sites of the United Church's only Saskatchewan Indian Residential Schools (in 1886 and 1889 respectively).

When the federal government began aggressively seeking settlers for the prairie west in the 1880s, Anglo-Protestants were the immigrants of choice, due to the assumption of their loyalty to British-Canadian authority, their language, and their customs. As these potential parishioners began arriving in numbers to set up their prairie homesteads, the Methodists and Presbyterians raced to provide ministry personnel to the territories. Both denominations found their mission resources stretched to the limit. They also discovered that many new prairie communities were finding their way, economically and socially, through structures of co-operation, and had little taste for religious competition among Protestant denominations. The two denominations had begun formal union talks at a national level, and they signed a policy of “Co-operation on the Frontier” in 1899. Rural communities, especially in Saskatchewan, went further and began forming local union churches, the first being at Melville in 1908. Such unions spread rapidly, and by the time of the national church union in 1925, over 400 congregations in Saskatchewan claimed some sort of union status - more than in any other province in Canada.

The Saskatchewan United Church inherited a mixed theological legacy, one that was at once progressive - rooted in the Social Gospel of the early 20th century - and colonialist, equating Protestant Christianity with British-Canadian cultural norms. On the progressive side, Lydia Gruchy became the first female ordained minister in any mainline denomination in Canada at a service in Moose Jaw in 1936; and Edmund H. Oliver, who served as founding Principal of St. Andrew's College (1912- 35) and Moderator of the national United Church (1930-32), championed social issues and the cause of women's ordination. Many Saskatchewan United Church laity and clergy have been active in progressive political and agrarian movements and social causes. Since 1966 a “Brief Committee” has made an annual presentation of the social and economic concerns of the Saskatchewan United Church to members of the provincial Cabinet. The United Church has played an active role in ecumenical justice groups, and has strongly supported, at the Conference (provincial) level, national United Church decisions to promote inclusive language, feminist theologies, and the full rights and privileges of all members regardless of sexual orientation. On the colonialist side, however, the United Church for many years assumed the superiority of its own Anglo-Saxon culture; it worked for the assimilation of immigrants, and continued to operate Indian Residential Schools in Saskatchewan until 1950.

The contemporary Saskatchewan United Church faces, along with other mainstream churches, the aging of its membership, the closing of congregations due to the depopulation of rural communities, and a shortage of both funds and ministry personnel, especially in rural areas. It also confronts the task of building bridges between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal communities, both within and beyond the Church. Increasing co-operation with other denominations has led to participation in the Saskatoon Theological Union, the Prairie Centre for Ecumenism, and in ecumenical “shared ministry” congregations, particularly with Lutheran and Anglican partners. As in the early 20th century, it is through collaboration that the Saskatchewan United Church may again find its life renewed.

Sandra Beardsall