Returning to the Familiar Sensations of my Church
by Margret Kopala

Published by the Ottawa Citizen, April 10, 2004

“Fortunately, as we engage in the task of shaping the Canadian Orthodox identity, we do not have to fumble around in the dark. We have historical cultures of the Orthodox world as our examples. The early Christians had Judaism as a template for their development, the Slavs had Byzantine Orthodoxy. We, in turn, can look to a 2000-year legacy of culture transfigured by the Faith, and Faith expressed through culture.”

Rev. Fr. Andrew Yarmus, Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Canada, “The Herald”

This weekend all Christians will celebrate Easter because, as is the case every three or four years, the Julian and Gregorian calendars overlap. Because of calculations that involve the full moon, the Spring Equinox and Jewish Passover, followers of the Old Julian calendar, that is some Orthodox and other Eastern Rite Christians, celebrate Easter on different dates from year to year.

It was during one such weekend in early May, 1945, with Victory Day only a few days away, that my mother returned to the maternal homestead near Glendon, Alberta. In the midst of preparations for Ukrainian Orthodox Easter, she went into labour and produced me.

Not that I remember much about it, of course. As a child, though, I recall how the walls of the room in which I was born were filled with prints of religious icons that stared at once dispassionately and beseechingly down at you. The full throated and spiritual tones of a centuries old liturgy sung a cappella and the smell of incense in church would later stir my youthful imagination.

After a long hiatus, I have returned to my church and my faith or, more precisely, to its sights, sounds, smells and complex history. According to University of Lethbridge sociologist Reginald Bibby, I am not alone. Following the boom in church attendance that took place between 1945 and 1960, religious participation by Canadians dropped precipitously but not, as one would think, because they were leaving their churches. In the words of Archbishop Lewis Garnsworthy, “… it was just that they were not coming.”

Dr. Bibby’s 2002 book Restless Gods: the Renaissance of Religion in Canada further describes how between 1970 and 1990 unprecedented numbers of immigrants from Third World countries resulted in growing numbers of people aligning themselves with Other Faiths. These now comprise 6% of Canada’s population. But even Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists and Sikhs were encountering the same trends that Catholic and Protestant churches had discovered, namely the difficulty of sustaining interest through the first and second generations.

As the Ukrainian experience demonstrates, this is hardly surprising.

Unlike the centralized church in Rome, Orthodoxy kept its hold in Eastern and Southern Europe by creating autocephalous (autonomous) units replete with pope-like figures called patriarchs. These were further devolved along national or, with so many borders shifting in the first half of 20th century Europe, linguistic lines. Eventually, and particularly in Eastern bloc countries under Soviet rule, language and nation would become inseparable, a fact still being played out in Ukraine and in the churches of the diasporas.

Today, Orthodox Ukrainians, like Orthodox Greek, Lebanese, Serb, Croat, Bulgarian, Ethiopian, Russian and other Eastern Rite Christian Canadians are increasingly in mixed marriages, or unable to speak the language in which their services are conducted.

If churches cannot retain their base when progeny speak the language, imagine the challenges ethnically based churches face when their progeny don’t. And in these circumstances, attracting replacements from the general population is almost impossible.

Even so, there’s some evidence that Other Faiths in Canada are in the front line for growth. Bibby’s Restless Gods makes the point that whatever happens to religious groups, people continue to have needs “that only the gods can provide.” In 1990, 70% of Canadians believed in heaven, 87% had raised the question of life’s purpose and 88% identified with a religious group. Moreover, scandal and controversy in mainstream churches means others should be able to pick up the slack.

The groups that will survive, he surmises, “will be those that have been around a long time and continue to have a solid base of support, if not in Canada, then elsewhere,” but the groups that will thrive, will be those “that are in touch with the spiritual, personal, and social needs and interests of Canadians.”

Margret Kopala’s column on western perspectives appears weekly.

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