Dangerous experiments

Dear colleagues,

In the fall of 1912, shortly after the Joint Board of Theological Colleges Affiliated with McGill University was formed, the then-rector of St. George’s, Place du Canada—the church I now attend—J. Paterson-Smyth, objected vehemently. The Joint Board, he said, was a “dangerous experiment” and genuine cooperation between the theological colleges in Montreal would never be possible. In particular, he said, he would never countenance having church history be taught to Anglican students by anyone other than an Anglican clergyman.

Dr. Paterson-Smyth’s objections may strike our modern ears as odd, amusing, or difficult to understand. Far from being a “dangerous experiment,” the Joint Board—which we now call the Montreal School of Theology—has stood the test of over a century. It is the oldest ecumenical theological education consortium in North America. Anglican (and United Church) students are now being taught church history by an Anglican—gasp!—layman.

Odd as they may seem, Dr. Paterson-Smyth’s views were very much in the mainstream of Protestant thinking in his time. Some of the other colleges that joined the Joint Board in 1912 also encountered resistance from their denominations. Indeed, the Presbyterians absented themselves from ecumenical cooperation in theological education for more than forty years. 

This week we will gather again with our MST colleagues for joint worship, led by a United Church minister. To read of objections like Dr. Paterson-Smyth’s serves as a reminder of just how far the ecumenical movement has come in a century. We now take the hard-won fruits of this movement so much for granted that we hardly ever pause to think about them. But it was not that long ago that an act as radical as praying the Lord’s Prayer with a Christian from another denomination, let alone engaging in an entire worship service, was seen as a step too far for many.

As we gather for worship on Wednesday, I’ll be giving thanks for all those who came before us and who embarked on “dangerous experiments” for the sake of the gospel. Imperfect as it may be at times, the Joint Board by its existence testifies to the importance of Jesus’ prayer that his followers would all be one so that the world would believe in the truth of the gospel (John 17:21-22). I invite you to join me in giving thanks—and also to ask what “dangerous experiments” we are being called to undertake in our own time so that Christ’s gospel might be more fully known.

Faithfully yours,


This message was written by Jesse Zink for this week’s Wingèd Ox, a weekly news digest distributed to the college community.