Brian Stiller



Global Ambassador @ WEA

Brian Stiller



Global Ambassador @ WEA

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Interview of the Christian Labour Association of Canada (CLAC)

September 30, 2015 About

Brian: To put Canada in perspective in the 60s and early 70s (see The Great Reversal David O Moberg) his analysis of the US models what happened in Canada – which is essentially, at the beginning of the century, Evangelicals, in their fundamentalist mode, reacted to German rationalism, higher criticism and liberalism of mainline denominations. Canadians, like the US, in reaction developed many denominations: Christian Missionary Alliance, Pentecostal, the Free Methodists. They formed the United Church in 1925 – most of the Methodists, 75% Presbyterians, all Congregationalists into the United Church was formed, and in time, took a decided liberal shift, identifing with the social gospel. The evangelical community reacted to that, in essence shaped by a divided universe — a Sunday-Monday, spiritual-secular. In the 70s, Gerald Vandezande came on the scene, into an Evangelical church primarily inner-space focused, salvation, and eternity-related. The public sphere was simply not seen as important, I think for two reasons: One liberal, mainline church, espousing the social gospel, a theology that viewed social categories in need of salvation. Evangelicals said, “No, it’s the individual in need of salvation. “We’ll let you (mainline Protstants) manage society and work at changing social categories, (as Douglas did in Saskatchewan in the 40s), and we’ll do the real work of the church.” This divide continued to expand. That’s when Vandezande cames on the scene.
Dena: Yes, that’s great – that’s exactly what I’m looking at.
Brian: He comes as Christian Reformed, operating with a worldview that is inclusive –all of life is the Lord’s. But he is also theologically conservative. He got a job in Sarnia in a bank, or a credit union of some kind, and then gets involved with the old Christian Reformed Labour union.

Dena: CLAC

Brian: Yes, right: CLAC. I didn’t meet him until later the late 1970s. In 1983, I was with Youth for Christ. In 1980, I’d been involved with the EFC as a volunteer – we were all volunteers.

Dena: You were the first paid leadership position, right?

Brian: I was on a committee, searching for a director.

Dena: Ah, OK.

Brian: I was on the committee with Mel Sylvester (later was President of the EFC Board; at the time was also President of the Christian Missionary Alliance). One day he said, “Brian, I think you should leave with Youth for Christ and take this on.” I had just resigned from Youth for Christ but hadn’t told anyone. I was the only person on the comittee who had his support raised: that’s how we did it with Youth for Christ. He asked, “would you take it?” Long story to short, we agreed. By then I had met Gerry because he was involved in the General Council. He got involved through Robert Thompson.

Dena: I don’t, no.

Brian: I think one of the most important names in the twentieth century, in Canadian evangelical political life, is his. He was from Red Deer, and member of Parliament, for the Social Credit. Nationally the Social Credit split between English and French called Créditiste in Quebec. Robert Thompson was head of director of the Social Credit in Canada. He was an educator and had been a chiropractor. A missionary in Ethiopia. Under Haile Selassie

Dena: Selassie?

Brian: Yes, Selassie. Thompson Interesting, he became Minister of Education for the Ethiopian Government.

Dena: Really? Wow. I can’t believe I haven’t come across his name.

Brian: Yeah. Robert Thompson. He was critical to Gerald. Robert Thompson returned to Canada wtith a boy who developmentally handicapped. Returning to Red Deer and ran for the Social Credit, as Member of Parliament, and I don’t know how he met Gerald, but he would stay at Gerald’s place when he came to Toronto. Robert Thompson then became President of the EFC, which was more of a title than an operating responsibility. So I would suspect that Gerald became involved in the EFC, and was brought into the evangelical community, by Robert Thompson.

Dena: Ah, OK. That was one of my questions, actually – was how he had connected with that.

Brian: So in the 1980s I got involved in the EFC and Gerald and I would bump into each other at the EFC meetings, and verbally tangle. It was the beginning of a learning experience with Gerald. He helped me wrestle with a bifurcation of life – out of my nineteenth century Pentecostal/Evangelical world. In 1983 when I became President of EFC it was an organization just developing. Faith Today was the first thing I started. Gerald and I… I realized that Gerald was an ally….began a friendship and through that process, he taught me a Reformed vision of creation, and a modus operandi in political operation.

Dena: So when you took on the presidency in 1983, Robert Thompson had set the stage then for political involvement for the EFC, and you had begun to move that way through your relationship with Gerald?

Brian: No, Robert Thompson had really done nothing for EFC but give it some kind of national identity.

Dena: OK

Brian: He was an MP, he was at the forefront of the federal scene. Of course we had Manning as premier in Alberta. And he was well recognized.

Dena: Yes

Brian: Manning and Robert were close friends. Robert Thomson is the declared first evangelical of that time and was on the front end of an evangelical wave that hit Ottawa beginning 1984 with the election of Brian Mulroney. But he had done nothing really to do with EFC except fill in a resident/chair for a time. When I came in ’83, EFC only existed in name and in a few meetings. My challenge was to figure out the role of evangelicals within the broader social, political, religious life in Canada. Gerald and friends from ICS

Brian: Paul Marshall, Professor of Political Theory became a personal friend and chair of our Social Action Commission. So on the theoretical side, Paul helped me see more theoretically, and Gerald helped me to see practically and develop a unified, creational view.

Dena: You’ve mentioned, you’ve said before in previous interviews that Gerald taught you more about political engagement than anyone, and that “in time, there was little that you did without consulting him” – would you say that, this is something that continued throughout your presidency with the EFC?

Brian: Oh yes, yes. As a matter of fact, interesting, his CPJ office was down at ICS…

Dena: Right – you mentioned that in the email with Mark Noll. I was going to ask you about that.

Brian: Yes. Gerald (our office was in the northern part of Toronto) we gave him an office and funds for travel, I because he was so valuable to us all.

Dena: So was that Gerald that you were funding, or also the work of CPJ? Was that sort of a CPJ-EFC relationship, or primarily just with Gerald?

Brian: It was primarily Gerald. We had a good relationship with CPJ, but CPJ was, in my view, on a more socialist bent, and our constituency was economically and socially conservative. CPJ would generally too far left for our people.

Dena: OK

Brian: But Gerald – and we can come back to this – Gerald had the skill in bridging worlds.

Dena: Yes, this is something I’m particularly interested in – how he did this.

Brian: We funded some of Gerald’s work and we travelled together or simply funded him in some things that would serve us and CPJ. Gerald had great skill in maximizing a dollar.

Dena: Could you say more about what you were saying in terms of his ability to bridge? Was this something that he spoke about, or was it something that he simply did? Was it a stated goal of his?

Brian: No, I think it was intuitive. At first I thought he was duplicitous. Because when I was with him and he was with the NDPers, he would affirm them and their role making it seem he was on their side. When he was with more conservative people, he would do the same. But I came to understand he wasn’t duplicitous at all. He just recognized the value of each person and affirmed them. He was able – he might disagree with their policy or their point of view; so he was very good at… various metaphors come to mind – to ride two horses at once. He gave people a sense of value and importance, and they never felt demeaned. Here’s an interesting story: Charles Pascal a secular Jew, who later became the Minister of Education for Bob Rae in the NDP government. (He and eventually became grandfathers of the same grandchildren — his son married my daughter.) He called Gerald his “pastor.” Gerald knew how to speak into his life.

Dena: Really?

Brian: My point is that Gerald knew how to create affirmation with this guy who had no interest in religion but would call Gerald his pastor.
With politicians, Gerald was very good at affirming their role. During the 80s following the Morgentaler decision on abortion (which BTW simply said that the current laws were in violation of the Charter. It did not rule on abortion per se.) We pressed the government to come up with a bill that would meet the Charter test and protect the unborn. In ‘84, Mulroney is elected with a number of MPs – evangelicals, many Mennonite. These Mennonites who come from an “alternative society” political stance and Gerald becoming a mentor to many of them.

Dena: Yes.

Brian: But what was interesting is that they understood Gerald because they had to assume a Reformed creational position to do what they were doing.

Dena: Yes, of course. Right.

Brian: Gerald made some of him made them nervous because they thought him a little to the left on economics, because he was big on government involvement. He worked hard and he took the lead on helping to create a Bill C-43. This bill was examined by a senior lawyer, later appointed by Mulroney to the Supreme Court – his name escapes me at the moment. It passed the House and ended in a tie in the Senate, which killed it. Gerald convinced evangelicals that while this bill was not in perfect form, it had long-term value and brought immediate relief, and it would help to re-shape Canadian thinking on this issue. So when we lost that – I think it was January 1990 – it was an enormous loss, a sad, sad day for us. But Gerald had the ability to convince evangelicals that, that was the right thing to do. Who opposed it were Catholic fundamentalists.

Dena: OK — so for them it was all or nothing.

Brian: Yes. The Campaign Life [Coalition]. And of course, fundamentalism, for Gerald, was so repugnant. He showed me how to design strategy which I eventually used at Tyndale when the Ontario government wouldn’t give us the School of Education – we eventually got them to turn that 180 degrees. He basically taught me how to do that. He also worked hard on education – Christian education – he was very good at bringing the Sikh and the Jewish communities into an association, along with the Buddhists, which pushed the Ontario government to allow for some allowance for Christian education. That never went through. In 2003, the Conservative government lost the bid for majority because they stood in favour of Christian education and it became a bogeyman in the election and the Liberals won. But he was very strong at trying to give voice to that.

Dena: Yes, definitely a different issue in Ontario than in Alberta, for example – that discussion over Christian education.

Brian: Oh yes, Alberta is miles ahead of Ontario. In fact when I was in university, we would look at Alberta as being the foremost thinker in education. And these Ontario people couldn’t believe that Alberta was ahead of them in thought.

Dena: (Laughing) Yes. I can imagine.
Were there issues or views… you mentioned earlier that in your initial conversations with Gerald you had certain verbal entanglements – were there things upon which you agreed to disagree, or different directions, or areas of involvement into which you would not have taken the EFC?

Brian: I’m not sure if we had a conversation about whether the EFC should participate, but I do remember that when Air Canada –the government, was the majority owner of Air Canada – was putting it public, CPJ was very strong in it continuing as a government enterprise. Their arguments, in my view, would almost lead one to believe that most major industries should be owned by government. I fundamentally disagreed with that as an economic plan. I think Gerald was smart enough to know where we had common interests that he could help mobilize EFC… or use EFC for his own purpose. And he did use the EFC, and we knew it, and that was fine with us because we would agree with many things he was doing. He knew how to use an organization without violating its integrity or his relationship with that organization. He was always careful in checking, going back. Politically, he knew what to do. He was very skilled at writing – at convincing people. At the EFC General Council, which was held twice a year, Gerald was highly respected and he knew how to bring them on side. We often talked talked theologically about the nature of the kingdom. Out of my background I affirmed inner righteousness and the work of the Spirit In transformation, and he would see it more as the transformation of categories. We agreed we both had something to offer and we would learn from each other. He was also very good at bridging with Catholics and the mainline. One of reasons was the Catholics saw him as pro-life. But also the mainliners appreciated his stand on social justice. So he would be careful in what he said to various groups. He understood his audience very well and he would speak what was appropriate to that audience. And that’s why at times I thought he was duplicitous until, as I watched him I realized that he just had a very broad tent under which he lived.

Dena: That comes across in his writing as well.

Brian: And that was the part of our friendship – we had a very loving relationship, and he and Wynne and Lily and I would often get together. But apart from that, we had a very dear friendship – and he made an enormous contribution to my thinking and to my understanding of operating within the socio-political world.

Dena: I was wondering if you could say, from your perspective, what at that time – I guess you can start in the 60s if you like, but also the 80s when you came more fully into the EFC – what was the relationship like between the mainline churches and the EFC? Either institutionally between the Canadian Council of Churches and the EFC, but on the ground as well.

Brian: Zero.

Dena: There was zero relationship.

Brian: There were two factors that brought this about. After the United Church peaked in the 60s – it seemed to be concurrent with them introducing their new educational menu called the New Curriculum – it very clear to the evangelical community that the United Church was moving theologically in a very decided liberal way. In time they began to lose their numbers, and support for pro-choice seemed to them to be a galvanizing issue. Then the Catholic Church in Quebec – the “Quiet Revolution” – beginning in the 1960s lost her presence and numbers which reverberated across the country. Mount Cashel in Newfoundland – sexual violation – seemed to take the steam of the church and in time it eroded her presence and moral authority. Given the RCs made up 47% of Canada, when they are in trouble we all felt it. There were a few people within the mainline that were staunchly evangelical – like Ian Rennie.

Dena: Right. He was at Tyndale before, right?

Brian: That’s right. He was at Regent and then came back to Tyndale. He was on the EFC Council and part of a very strong evangelical stream within the Presbyterian Church He could help bring various sides together. EFC, hardly existed operationally, and evangelicals, we felt very much looked down on by the mainline Protestants. The Catholics saw us as a curious bunch. But the mainline Protestants, apart from the evangelical Anglicans and some in the United Church, made it clear felt we had little to offer them. I was raised in a Pentecostal minister’s home and went to an Anglican Seminary, so I was bridging that world. [I one of the early Pentecostals to go to Wycliffe: the early 70s, after which a number of other evangelicals went there. This evangelical Anglican community was quite strong and became very much a part of EFC. In the United Church the Renewal movement has trying to exercise influence but again was looked down on by the church hierarchy.

Dena: The Christian Renewal Movement, I believe it’s called?

Brian: There were evangelicals of the mainline who were on the General Council. The twice annual meetings were most important in building of relationships. After the Morgentaler decision, I built relationships with the Catholic Church – The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, out of Ottawa. We built very good relationships and had a number of things we worked together on. We would initiate things and the Catholics would say, “we’ll work with you as long as you don’t work with the Canadian Council of Churches because the United Church will simply give us trouble, so let’s work apart from them,” I recall them saying. That relationship was fostered and worked very well.

But then towards the end of my time, I was there until 1997, then I was the president of Tyndale, or it was then the Ontario Theological Seminary. I was with the EFC for two years, ‘95 to ‘97, while I was doing them both. But there was a growing relationship with the Canadian Council of Churches and during that time we agreed to have each of us have visiting members on each other’s councils and we would find means by which we could operate. And at that time, during those years, the EFC had grown substantially. We had a television show called initially The Stiller Report, and then Crosscurrents.

Dena: Right. I know that Gerald appeared on that quite a few times.

Brian: Very often. Often we had a four person panel. It was Gerald Vandezande, John Redekop, who was Professor of Political Science at Waterloo, at Wilfred Laurier.

Dena: Right. Mennonite.

Brian: Yes. And Suzanne Scorsone, who was senior in the Diocese of Toronto. And Maxine Hancock.

Dena: Who was at Regent.

Brian: Yes. So we would do a weekly show, but we would do a few times a year – a major… a number of shows in a weekend. And Gerald was very helpful in that.


Dena: Now, I have a question in terms of where you took the EFC. I know that Ian Rennie and others have said that you came to the EFC at a kind of “propitious moment” – that at that time evangelicals were very open to some of the directions that you would take the EFC in terms of government involvement and involvement in politics. Could you describe that a little bit? The build up to that moment: why – if you agree – why were evangelicals in that present mood? Or were, or were they not, open to the direction in which you took government engagement?

Brian: I didn’t know, at the time, that I was proto-typical. Born in ’42. A Pentecostal Minister’s home. Educated. And trying to make sense of what it meant to be an evangelical in a changing Canadian world. In retrospect it seems my life overlay the evangelical journey of that period. Our journeys were quite identical. When I started with Youth for Christ in Montreal in ’67, I came across, Escape from Reason, by Francis Schaeffer. I was struggling then with what it meant to be a Christian in leadership with Youth for Christ, in an struggling organization. Francis Schaeffer introduced me to a Reformed view. This began to shape my mind, as I went through the next 16 years with Youth for Christ. I came to the EFC in ’83 and there was Jerry Falwell in embarrassing us. In ’84, I’d been invited by a Mennonite church in Kitchener to do a weekend. A couple months before they called and asked, “what are you going to do?” I said, “I don’t know.” “Why don’t you do something on youth or marriage?” they asked. I said, “no, I’m tired of that.” Then they asked , “What are you thinking about?” I responded, “I’m trying to understand, with the EFC, where we go in relationship to the broader social world.” And they said, “Well, why don’t you work on that?” So I did. Afterwards a man came up to me, and he introduces himself as John Reimer, and he’s just been elected MP in the Mulroney sweep of ’84. Heasked, “Where did you get that material?” I told him I had been working on a history of Evangelials and our culture in an attempt to make sense of what the Gospel calls us to do.

Brian: He asked, “Can I have your notes?” Out of that I developed a six-hour seminar called, “Understanding Our Times.” And I did 200 of them across Canada. I came to realize that my role, apart from building a substantive organization to do what an EFC is to do. my role was to change people’s attitudes towards the gospel and the broader social and political order. I was changing. And the evangelical church was changing. Reginald Bibby – he and I had become friends back about then asked, “Stiller, how the hell did you get away with what you’re saying?”

Dena: [Laughing]

Brian: He said, “I can’t believe that people agree with you.” I said, “Because I’m a revivalist. I’m out of the 40s, and I call people to be saved, and to spiritual renewal. And I preach and I teach. And people know that I’m one of them. I’m not coming in from outside. They trust me and will listen because the questions I’m wrestling with, they are too.” I had enough trust as one of their boys. And I knew their language, our ethos.

Dena: Absolutely. And I was kind of … I was wondering what that looked like on the ground – because sometimes, especially if I’m looking at it from a historical perspective, I get a lot of what’s happening in Parliament, or with institutions or leaders, and it’s sometimes hard to know or to see what’s happening on the ground. So you just got at that. So you found them quite receptive.

Brian: Oh yes. I didn’t get any negative feedback. It was a sweet moment, those years. It gave me opportunity of working with ideas across the country. And helping people to make sense of our calling and that social justice was a Biblical call …. part of our mandate. If you explained the issues by putting them in context – if you showed them how we had lost a sense of social justice and how we reacted… they could look back and can see that too. If they saw that you didn’t have to replace personal holiness and salvation (as we thought the United Church had done) with social justice they understood the two were handmaidens. Also, a very important part of it was creating a Canadian voice. The Jerry Falwell issue then the Bakkers and Swaggerts. Barbara Frum was very good to me, giving me lots of time, and Peter Gzowski was helpful. It was a time to create a voice, a voice that was Canadian and was reasonable. It didn’t have a Southern accent, it wasn’t cantankerous. Of course they thought at first I was a sitting duck – they would just knock me off. Until they realized that we had content and logic, and could debate. That’s what they wanted of course. And that gave us a platform, so Canadians would listen to you, or see you. The best commendation I could get was when people would say, “I saw you with Barbara Frum or heard you with Peter Gzowski, and you didn’t embarrass us.” That was the ultimate accolade. [Laughing]

Dena: [Laughing]. So you would say then in that sense that the average pew-sitter was watching America and saying, “that’s not who we are, and that’s not who we want to be.” So they were kind of warily watching you but also looking for an alternative, would you say?

Brian: I don’t know whether they’d be that self-conscious, but when they would hear a Canadian voice, they’d say, “yeah. That’s us.” Or, if they looked at the Jerry Falwells of the south and say, “we need something in Canada.” Then they would hear something in Canada that was reasonably articulate and forceful and not compromising, they would like that.

Dena: Mmm. So as this Canadian voice grew, and as the EFC public involvement grew – I’m going back now to the mainline relationship conversation – did that help improve relationships at all? I mean as the mainline churches saw the EFC engaging these social issues, were they more open? Or did the relationship stay quite cold?

Brian: I think it functioned more by individuals – you know, a relational game. And I am trying to think of her name – who became chair of the Canadian Council of Churches, a Catholic sister – and she and I became friends, it was a great relationship and of course she saw that the Catholics were working with us. They were in trouble financially and it seemed we were well finanaced. I think they recognized that we were a group of substance and could do things. As we did more and more, they realized that there was a value in the relationship and that grew as Bruce came in.

Dena: I’ve taken so much of your time, and I have a lot of other questions, but if I can ask one more – which might be too big of a question.

Brian: Sure

Dena: John Stackhouse Jr., writes about the EFC, and says that “by the early 1990s the EFC had not yet formulated a clear and coherent philosophy of Christian engagement in the public sphere.” And he comments that, “At the heart of this ambiguity was the question of whether Christians ought to push politically to make Canada as Christian as possible, or [should] instead … work with others towards some appropriate form of pluralism.” And the way that you’ve been describing it kind of seems the latter…

Brian: Yeah, that John Stackhouse … he sees things from his own perspective, as we all do. For him, pluralism, as I recall, was the ultimate organizational model to use. So for him, of course, Christian prayer in schools or council chambers was to be eliminated because that smacks of Christendom, or attempt to dominate. So for him to say that we didn’t have a clear view, I suppose he was right but it’s been an evolving view. Because we didn’t match his view of pluralism at the time he would criticize us. We were in an evolving situation. And evangelicals, because we are a multitude of communities – you’ve got everything from the Nazarene Holiness to the Christian Reformed, you’ve got a wide spectrum. How in the world do you expect to have an instant coherent political vision, with such a group seeking to find its way? The EFC itself, as an expression of its wider constituencies, was moving pretty much to a form of pluralism, but recognizing that many of your constituencies would strongly affirm Christian prayer in an institution, it took time to help them see the wider picture. And so for us to turn around and say, that doesn’t fit our model and we’re not going to do that and we’re going to stand against it, that just wasn’t how a national fellowship like the EFC operates. John can do that himself, but that’s not how a fellowship operates.

Dena: Right. You are also bridging your own divides within, never mind outside.

Brian: Sure. It’s not a monoculture, as John can be, or either one of us can be ourselves. John and I have had interesting discussions about that.

Dena: So you were mentioning John’s view of pluralism as an organizational structural model, and then you mentioned the EFC moving to a kind of quasi-pluralism. Would you say that “quasi-pluralism” would encompass what you saw Gerald working towards, and what you sort of took to work towards as an organizational model, or structure?

Brian: Yes, pluralism in the broadest sense. So for example, in Christian education, you affirm the right of a Christian, Hindu, Sikh school, as part of the larger mix. I think our community was comfortable with that. But with the public educational system, the idea of having a Christian expression in that public institution, they would affirm that. You can see there’s a certain clash of various forms of pluralism. One, true plurality – allowing each their place. I think many evangelicals would wish for the old Christian presence, of school prayer or prayer before council or holding your hand on a Bible in court. I think our people would want to retain those traditions.

Dena: It does seem – one of those things that the definition of it tends to shift and change depending on who you’re talking with, and what period of time of course.

Brian: Sure. When the gay issue surfaced, we early affirmed equal rights for gays – taxes and so forth. We were not fighting that – we wanted to affirm that. We got a little pushback but …

Dena: Yes, certainly. I almost felt bad asking it at the end because I thought you just described the way in which that statement doesn’t really apply, but I had to ask it.

Brian: No, that’s fine.

Dena: Well, I could keep asking you questions, but I’m going to let you go. And again, thank-you so much for your time.

Brian: No, you’re welcome. And if you’d like to follow this up, just give me a holler.

Dena: Thank-you so much, this was incredibly helpful.