Then-United Church of Canada Rev. J. R. Hord

Editor’s note: Fifty years ago this month, American involvement in Vietnam was surging, and so was the flow of draft dodgers into Canada. Without consulting General Council, the United Church’s board of evangelism and social service, led by its crusading and often brash secretary Rev. Ray Hord, encouraged Canadians and the federal government to welcome Americans on the run — and earmarked $1,000 for groups that aided them. Press reports suggesting that the United Church was promoting draft evasion angered many members, who threatened to cut off their donations. Church leaders were not amused, either; shortly after the news broke, the Executive of General Council forbade Hord and his department from spending church funds to encourage “young Americans to break the laws of their own country.” In the wake of the dust-up, this November 1967 Observer editorial suggested that while Hord should soften his style, the United Church needed a reality check.

The United Church of Canada has had another of its periodic tea-pot tempests, occasioned as usual by the Board of Evangelism and Social Service. This time, it was draft-dodgers.

The E and SS Executive said that: “Whereas . . . the Christian Church has recognized as valid conscientious objection to state policies, and at the present time, many young Americans find themselves objecting for reasons of conscience to the Vietnam war, and whereas Canadian policy has been to provide political asylum, the Board urged Canadians to welcome Americans who for reasons of conscience refuse to do military service in the war in Vietnam and urged Canadian citizens to welcome them by offering temporary residence in their homes, practical and financial support and employment.

Then, the executive drove it home by voting a grant of $1,000 “to support Canadian volunteer groups who provide assistance as outlined above.”

E and SS added that “we believe such Americans who come to Canada should apply to Canadian immigration authorities to be granted legal status as ‘Landed immigrants’.”

The Rev. J.R. Hord, who, as well as his distinguished predecessor Dr. J. R. Mutchmore, knows a headline when he sees it coming, released that to the press the night before the Executive of the General Council was to meet. The newspapers co-operated. For $1,000, E and SS had a million-dollar protest of American actions in Vietnam. And the General Council had another problem to deal with.

Three days later, as the phone calls and letters from angry contributors to the Missionary and Maintenance fund poured in, the Executive adopted the following statement:

“Boards of the United Church are administrative and not policy-making. If a Board of the church attempts, by public statements or other action, to commit the church to undeclared policy, that Board is acting ultra vires of its authority.

“While the text of the Board’s resolution concerning the ‘draft dodgers’ may have been technically within its competence, the conclusions reasonably drawn by the public from the amplified reports given by the Board officials to the press (and given with undue haste for publication immediately prior to a meeting of the General Council Executive) at least suggest policy which this Executive does not approve.

“The United Church of Canada has strongly criticized the war in Vietnam. It supports the rights of the conscientious objector — though the Executive believes that in such a democracy as the United States, the genuine conscientious objector can best make his witness in his own land. The United Church, also, is willing to minister to human need, of draft dodger as of any other person, wherever need exists.

“The United Church does not consider it the province of Canadian citizens to proffer incitement or encouragement for young Americans to break the laws of their own country. The Executive of General Council, therefore, instructs that no funds under its administration or the Boards of the church be provided for this purpose.”

The newspapers followed that with two stories. One that the “ultra-conservatives” of the United Church hierarchy had repudiated the actions of the left-wing E and SS. And later, that the Executive had acted because the big givers were threatening to pull out. The debate was over-simplified into a left-wing, right-wing struggle personified in the moderator, Dr. W.C. Lockhart, and Dr. Hord.

Lament and rejoicing

As usual, many lamented the struggle. Others rejoiced that out of such tensions in a free and vigorous church, prophets are nurtured and prophecies born.

But the debate itself revolved around what to many may seem a dull constitutional point. Had E and SS acted with or without competence?

The General Council and its Executive, democratically elected and acting responsibly, make policy for the United Church. Boards carry out that policy. The moderator interpreted the draft-dodger resolution as setting new policy for the United Church. The Executive was careful not to say that.

There was no question about whether E and SS had a right to spend money to help people in trouble, be they draft-dodgers, drunkards, or prostitutes. There was no question about the right of a secretary to speak up and say what he thinks about Vietnam or Timbuctoo. But there was agreement that Dr. Hord’s executive had no right to spend church money to encourage draft-dodgers. The first was executing policy and the second could be interpreted as initiating policy. The moderator has repeatedly emphasized that it is improper for Boards to go ahead on their own and bypass the constituted courts.

What really made the members of the Executive smart was that the action had been taken on the eve of their meeting, and they had been given no chance to consider it.

Prophets are few

There are, we believe, several lessons to be learned from this:

The Rev. J. R. Hord has a tough job. He is expected to be something of a prophet in a church that has long prided itself on being relevant, prophetic, and concerned. And it is our opinion that prophets in the United Church are few — and that Hord is one of these few.

Now, a prophet to be effective has to be ahead of the rest of us, and he has to be heard. Several years ago, Dr. Hord was saying bitter things about American activities in Vietnam. He was unpopular.  But eventually, the United Church said the same things in more restrained and dignified language.

Like many prophets, Ray Hord tends to exaggerate, over-simplify, and express opinions which offend the majority. He has a sense of the dramatic. That draft-dodger resolution and his off-the-cuff crack last spring about Mr. Pearson being on a Washington leash shouted more loudly that the United Church was critical of Washington than thousands of wordy resolutions, learned articles and solemn sermons. But it was rude of a churchman to sound like a politician.

But a General Council Executive can’t be rude, and mustn’t encourage rudeness or approve exaggerated utterances whether they sound prophetic or not. The executive must responsibly represent the people of the United Church.

The United Church has a serious problem here. It wants to have prophets who are far-seeing, bold, right, who are alert to the great issues in the modern world, and speak up so the world listens and the people follow.

But many of the most effective prophets aren’t like that. They are often shrill, irritating, unpopular, sometimes even wrong — but they do shout loudly on the great moral issues of our time.

One of the great moral issues of 1967 is American prosecution of the war in Vietnam, and the drafting of young men into military training, and then sending them to fight an undeclared war.

Dr. Hord has been screaming as loudly and effectively as he can that this is an evil war.

The executive voted as carefully as it could say, “we agree but that’s not the way to say it.”

It all reminds us very much of the way a vigorous, relevant church functions in a free society, where there is responsible church government and the built-in means of effective dissent and loyal opposition.

We very much wish we could produce prophets who would always do their homework, always speak responsibly, always be right, and carry all the people with them all the time.

The world and the church being what they are, our prophets and our E and SS secretaries are likely to irritate, exaggerate, divide, sometimes make mistakes and keep us embroiled in controversy — and make church life interesting.

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