Looking Back Over Twenty Years of Channels

Don MacLeodDon MacLeod was the first Chair of the Renewal Fellowship Within The Presbyterian Church in Canada when it was founded in 1982 until his departure to Boston in 1987. He returned to Canada in 1997, and is presently minister of St. Andrew's Church, Trenton, Ontario. He headed up the Twentieth Anniversary Celebration Subcommittee of the Board last year.

Scanning twenty years of Channels provides a kaleidoscopic view of the Presbyterian Church in Canada over two decades. We're older — witness the photos of some of the leaders — but we've also covered a lot of ground as we've sought renewal for our denomination.

In the inaugural issue I introduced the magazine by saying that Channels had been chosen as its name for two reasons. Word associations suggest television channels. Media. Communication. Getting the news out. Christians who remember the old hymns have another recall for Channels: "Channels only, blessed Saviour." We wanted Channels to be an instrument of blessing for The Presbyterian Church in Canada.

Looking through the seventy-seven issues of Channels over those twenty years it's gratifying that many of the things one reads, relatively new to the church in those early years, is now commonplace: lay participation, evangelism and outreach, community building, experimental worship, and leadership development.

From the start there was a clear division of labour in the preparation of Channels. The position of editor was given to J. H. (Hans) Kouwenberg, minister at the time of St. Giles Church, Prince George, British Columbia. He would assume that responsibility for the next 16 years, providing lively and stimulating leadership as the publication helped to make the work of the Renewal Fellowship credible and responsive to the needs of the church. Only at the turn of the millennium would he resign and the task of editor be assumed by Renewal Fellowship Director Calvin Brown. British Columbia was the base for publication. Dal Schindell, an elder at Fairview Church, Vancouver, on the staff of Regent College, took responsibility for design and production. He has continued as managing editor for all of these twenty years, a remarkable achievement.

Dal's wife, Kit, was Reviews Editor for 15 years after a brief initial stint by Alice Wilson. In those early days these reviews appeared regularly, many of them prepared by a couple from Bridlewood Church, Toronto, the Fellowship's first Treasurer Jack Charleson and his wife Shirley. Women have always had a significant role in Channels: Elizabeth Zook of Prince George was on the committee and wrote with her husband Jerry a thought-provoking review of Donald Bloesch's definitive work on the Trinity, a challenge for any layperson.

Perhaps the most exciting review of all was Hans Kouwenberg's analysis of Keith Clifford's now classic The Resistance to Church Union in Canada, published by UBC Press in 1985. "If only this book had been written when I went to college!" Kouwenberg wrote. In that review he reflected on three points raised by Clifford about our continuing church, each with relevance to the fortunes of the Renewal Fellowship. First, he noted that resistance to church union was "a conservative lay movement" not a reactionary one. "Cannot this be a clue to the native wit and wisdom of the ordinary person in the pew who will only be pushed so far as new theologies and expressions of worship are concerned?" Second, when church politics get "hot" some will leave the fray. "Although one can understand and even be empathetic to such retreat or redirection, thank God for those who stayed the course!" And third, "this book may serve as an impetus to renewed appreciation of our confessional heritage." That review helped place The Renewal Fellowship Within The Presbyterian Church in Canada on course and in historical perspective.

Initially Jim Statham, as minister in Duncan, B.C., was Worship Editor. After two years Calvin Brown, then in Nelson, assumed that role. He announced his task as bringing "a breath of fresh air" to dull and predictable Presbyterian services. Calvin's "Worship Workshop" column was always stimulating, advocating for such innovations as house blessings, a new liturgy (prepared by Brian Fraser) for the Lord's Supper which he maintained should be held more frequently or a St. Patrick's Day service. Calvin's experiment with home fellowships in Nelson and his Lay Training School, endorsed by the Synod of British Columbia, were also featured. Creativity bloomed as new music appeared regularly in successive issues. One issue was devoted to the wedding liturgy. The Fellowship always had a commitment to the rejuvenation of worship as a significant aspect of the renewal of the whole church.

Indigenous Francophone work within the Presbyterian Church in Canada, encouraged by the Fellowship, seemed so promising in those early years. In a 1988 Channels interview David Craig stated: "We are dealing with a grass-roots situation; these are Quebecois and it is French people doing French work and not a French work being thrust upon them from outside." Alas, a middle way could not be found: as a church we lost any claim to be a church bringing together the two solitudes of our founding nations.

There's a name I honour: David Craig, dead at 63. I recall the Sunday afternoon two years ago when I got the word he had left us so suddenly and unexpectedly. Faces shout out at me from the pages of Channels. Names and memories come surging back. Channels was always intended to bring people together, encouraging, prodding, comforting. The magazine was intended to reassure isolated and sometimes discouraged Presbyterians in Canada who wanted renewal that they were not alone. Nick Nicolle, second chairman, looks out at me with his banker's eye. Nick has been gone thirteen years. And then there's Helen Young, promoted to glory this January. A veritable procession of people who have kept the faith and whose vision sustained — and sustains — us.

Tragically I also see some who lost the way. An 1986 article I wrote, titled "A Time For Honesty," concerned the need for pastors to have a pastor. Nothing I've ever written brought more response. "The mental health of ministers should be on the top of the agenda for any who are seeking renewal in the church," I wrote. "Sooner or later the reality of our brokenness catches up with us. The crash can be catastrophic." "There is no greater need, if the Presbyterian Church in Canada is to be renewed than that we serve each other, laity and clergy alike, as those called to be servants of a Servant Lord." A generation later the cost of ministry has, if anything, increased as society shows further signs of strain and disintegration and Canada becomes more and more secular.

One of the things that Channels was able to do was to put our renewal movement within a broader national and international context. Through continuing articles over the years members of the Renewal Fellowship realized that they were a part of a much wider whole. In the second issue John Stott (the two volumes of whose life are reviewed in this issue) wrote a commendatory letter conveying "best wishes for your new work with the Renewal Fellowship." In the same issue Eric Alexander, then at St. George's Tron in Glasgow conveyed his pleasure at receiving the issue as also Matthew Welde, Executive Director of our sister movement in the United States, Presbyterians United for Biblical Concerns. Canadian Presbyterians discovered through Channels that we were a part of a much wider whole.

Other significant gatherings placed the Fellowship's emphases in an international context. The huge Presbyterian Congress on Renewal, held appropriately in Dallas, Texas in January of 1985, was billed as the largest such gathering ever held. "The road to renewal is no easy ride," we were reminded by the gathering. "It is messy, taxing and not without cost." John Vissers, Interim Director after March 1987, reported on a young evangelists' meeting in Singapore that year. Two years later he highlighted the Manila Manifesto following Lausanne II, which "identifies a world vision for evangelization with which we need to keep in touch as we work for renewal within our own denomination."

John's articles were always thought-provoking and, on occasion, controversial. In the Fall of 1989 he wrote a memorable article on "Shaping Our Vision for Renewal." He faced critics of the Fellowship squarely and fairly: "Perhaps the greatest obstacle to the ministry of the Renewal Fellowship is the perception within our denomination that it is our intention to move the church in a direction away from the Reformed tradition." Citing Nicholas Wolterstorff's three perspectives on the Reformed heritage ("doctrinalist," "culturalists" and "pietists") Vissers added a fourth, the "ecclesiastical." He then threw down the gauntlet: "As evangelicals we must repent of our low view of the church … Through responsible participation in the courts, boards and committees of the church a witness for this vision of the Reformed and Presbyterian church must be given."

Longtime charismatic gadfly Cal Chambers wrote a kindly rebuke. "What about the charismatic dimensions of church renewal?" Vissers responded that "I am grateful to God for what Pentecostal, Charismatic and Third Wave Christians are contributing to the life of the church and I believe we need to embrace them, but I do not think we can reduce spiritual renewal to their vision alone." The Fellowship has always struggled to include charismatic and more traditional views of the pentecostal gifts within the same organization. As early as its third year Channels was addressing the so-called "Wimberization" of the renewal movement — brought home forcefully when Don Williams and Mark Slomka attempted to divert the 1985 Annual Meetings at Islington. Don Lewis, Regent College church history professor, called Wimber's Vineyard ministry "good and helpful" but expressed concern (quoting Augustine) that "Jesus is usually sought after for something else, not for his own sake." Peter Davids, also at Regent College at the time, made the case in a subsequent issue for Wimber's "recovery of a lost dimension of New Testament life."

I was also uncomfortably in the storm centre of controversy with a report on the 1994 "American Presbyterian Firestorm" (the Re-Imagining God Conference) and a followup "Dousing a Firestorm: Evangelical Euphoria at the 1994 American Presbyterian General Assembly." In a throwaway paragraph I referred to a Presbyterian Women's conference in Ames, Iowa, which I stated "was dominated by the gay-lesbian lobby in the church." It took six months but the response from three women working at our denominational headquarters was pointed. They called the sentence a "highly exaggerated overstatement."Ah, the perils of being an amateur journalist. No, I was not there (I was at my mother's funeral) and, yes, I relied on a Presbyterian Pro-Life press release. Obviously I had hit a raw nerve.

Sexuality issues have provided steady diversion throughout Channels' two decades. In the winter of 1992 my article on "The Joy of Presbyterian Sex" raised a few eyebrows as possibly the raciest title in twenty years. Citing the ever-quotable Camille Paglia's analysis of the Special Committee on Sexuality of the Presbyterian Church (USA) she complained about its "technique of disinformation." "The Seventh Commandment forbidding adultery is never mentioned, while the overwhelming evidence that the Bible condemns homosexuality is blandly argued away, piece by piece." She responded tartly: "The Presbyterian report, so mawkish and muddled, dramatizes the pressing need for education in the great world religions, the repository of thousands of years of spiritual experience and wisdom." I raised the question, as evangelicals "both in Canada (which will surely not be far behind) and in the United States — 'How far do you go with civility?'" One might add that it's a moot question even today.

Hans Kouwenberg wrote a significant editorial in the Spring 1988 issue on "Sexuality and the Church." United Church minister Victor Shepherd had provided information about the upcoming Victoria meeting of the United Church General Council and the report from its National Coordinating Group for the Programme of Study and Dialogue on Sexual Orientations, Lifestyles and Ministry. Kouwenberg noted — prophetically as it turned out — that "The ecclesiastical landscape of Canada will change significantly if the United Church of Canada adopts [its] recommendations." Citing with approval the 1985 Church Doctrine Committee on the issue of homosexuality he concluded: "It may well be that God, in his providence will use the current crisis within the United Church to refocus our need as Presbyterians to witness faithfully to the Biblical, Reformed and Evangelical faith entrusted to us."

The Editor of Channels made the first part of the Church Doctrine Committee's Human Sexuality Report the lead article for the Summer 1992 issue, calling it "promising" as it "attempts to offer positive and essentially biblical direction to pastors and lay people." By the Spring issue of the following year, Clyde Ervine (then minister at St. Giles Kingsway and chair of the Church Doctrine Committee) raised the question — again as a lead article — "Whose Authority?" He reflected that "The real tension point in our prolonged debate, as I have seen it, has been between the authority of Scripture and the authority of personal experience."

In 1994 the Report on Human Sexuality was coming down for final approval. Vice-Chair Bruce Cairnie, commended the statement and urged commissioners to the forthcoming General Assembly to support its adoption. "The text … will be crucial in the life of The Presbyterian Church in Canada." Urgent calls for prayer were sent out to readers of Channels.

Those prayers were indeed answered. Reporting back after the 1994 Assembly elder commissioner David Jennings of North Vancouver, then on the Board and in 2003 Convener of the Assembly Council, described the meeting as "a fine example of the reconciling hand of the Holy Spirit at work." Jennings commended the godly leadership of Clyde Ervine who had presented the report. Clair MacLeod of Truro, Nova Scotia, as a clergy commissioner noted approvingly the "great confidence that many of the Commissioners at Assembly appeared to place such trust in the authority of the Scriptures as the inspired Word of God and would not move from that position."

Although Channels did not become actively involved in the attempt by the Presbytery of Montreal to appoint a non-celibate gay ordination candidate to St. Andrew's Church, Lachine, it did publish in the Winter of 1996 a "Submission to General Assembly Committee" by then Principal of Presbyterian College, Montreal, William Klempa. Klempa's objections to the ordination of non-celibate gays were fivefold: the biblical data, Christian tradition, doctrinal concerns, moral issues, and Presbyterian Church polity. It was a comprehensive and well-thought-out statement. In his introductory blurb Calvin Brown, by now Executive Director of the Renewal Fellowship, stated that it "sums up the concerns many of us share."

Following the 1997 Assembly Calvin reported that a Judicial Commission had been appointed "to judge the matter to remove a cause of offense, and to restore discipline to The Presbyterian Church in Canada." The Assembly had appointed a special committee "to study the place of homosexuals in the church and report back to the next Assembly." Six years later the church awaits with concern the release of this delayed report. As Calvin Brown wrote: "These issues will need a lot of prayerful consideration if we are not on the one hand to forsake the holiness of God and embrace moral anarchy or, on the other hand, in the interests of truth, justice and integrity lose gentleness and compassion." Timely words as the church faces the spectre of reopening this divisive issue at her 2003 General Assembly this June in Guelph.

Twenty years is a long time for an independent publication such as Channels to continue publishing high-class and thought-provoking journalism. It has always run the danger — to quote a perceptive Fall 1989 letter by Jeremy Ashton — of focussing "too much upon rather academic concerns." Ashton complained that the magazine was in danger of "becoming too much like that which we have (in some ways) been set up to renew: an isolated, clergy-cult elite." Oh for the grace to see yourself as others see you.

The seventy-seven issues of Channels represent a significant achievement. Twenty years have passed and the magazine still appears regularly. At the half-way mark, as we completed our first decade veteran Mariano DiGangi evaluated the progress of the Renewal Fellowship. "Ten Down and More to Go" was his title as he raised the inevitable question: "How long will the Renewal Fellowship continue?" His answer: "As long as it discerns and meets real needs. Some of those have already been addressed, but others still call for work no less than prayer."

It was at the 1993 Annual Meeting that Dal Schindell, then Chair of the Fellowship as well as Managing Editor, stated: "I long for the day that our group need not exist — when the denomination as a whole will be concerned for vibrant worship, enthusiastic evangelism, churches where the Bible is studied, known and loved, and where spiritual gifts are used to build up the church. But we're not there yet. Issues come before the church that are at odds with what we hold to be biblical. Reports are presented to General Assembly and we stand amazed that they can be taken seriously. Or, on the other hand, we wonder how anyone could argue with them. Often the church seems more a place of business and conflict than joyous worship and willing service."

The future of Channels? Getting timely and relevant contributions, serving as a prophetic voice for the church, probing its needs, challenging its compromises with contemporary culture, as the magazine continues to address the issues of the day: all will play a role. Good administrative and organizational backup, facilitated by volunteers who keep the cost down as the expenses of publication relentlessly escalate, will also be vital. And the Fellowship's ability through its periodical to challenge a rising generation of increasingly ethnically diverse Presbyterians will play its part as well in the magazine's continuing viability.

Denominational magazines are increasingly threatened. Many have either cut back or ceased to exist. Independent journals such as Channels have an even more precarious existence. It is only the generous support, sacrificial giving, and enthusiastic readership that have made these twenty years possible. The Fellowship owes a debt of gratitude to Managing Editor Dal Schindell.

Channels will continue as it serves a useful purpose, loyally articulating and faithfully advocating those goals for which the Renewal Fellowship Within the Presbyterian Church in Canada was established in 1982. In so doing the magazine will maintain the vision expressed in its name as explained in the first issue: to be both a channel of communication and an instrument of blessing to the entire Presbyterian Church in Canada.