Reflecting on the future of the URC – a response to John Bradbury

John Bradbury, who teaches systematic theology at the URC’s Westminster College, Cambridge, began a very interesting new blog over the Christmas period. John is reflecting theologically on the future of the URC, bringing to bear a perspective that combines loyalty to the Reformed (and specifically Calvinist) tradition with the courage to face the realities of the contemporary situation and to put received wisdom genuinely at stake.

There is a good deal in what he says that I am deeply in sympathy with. His stress on the necessity of living in the tension of grace and decision, his retrieval of the the doctrine of predestination, his insistence on the full divinity and full humanity of Jesus, all this restatement of orthodox teaching is absolutely necessary.

He also insists on the communal nature of Christian faith and the centrality of baptism as engrafting into Christ. He invokes Bonhoeffer as a deeply ecclesial thinker, who regards the Church as essential rather than incidental to our faith (although he does Schleiermacher an injustice in not noting that this was his view, too, at least as developed in the great Christian Faith). John also gives a good brief overview of the nature and development of modernity and the ways in which contemporary evangelicalism and liberalism are modernist siblings.

His central thesis seems to be that this is a moment when the Church is called on to die, to go to the Cross, in the faith that beyond its death, beyond the Holy Saturday of dissolution, lies a resurrection to a new life freed from the sins inherited from our history, prominent among which is an effective denial of God’s grace in saving us and assertion of our responsibility to save ourselves.

In practical terms, for the URC, this might mean the closing of buildings and congregations and perhaps the end of the denomination as a separate institution. It is less clear whether this applies in the short term to larger denominations but one feels it might. New forms of ecclesial life are invoked, with some (slightly sceptical) notice taken of the “emerging church” and “fresh expressions”.

Again, all of this is good. Here, though, I want to note some areas where I would like to suggest additional or alternative paths for exploration. These are:

  • retrieval of Old Testament ways of thinking about the people of God to supplement the Christocentrism of John’s approach;
  • a much stronger sense of the distinction between denomination and Church;
  • a greater emphasis on the Spirit;
  • a (post-liberal) recognition of the positive (as well as the negative) significance of Church history and tradition.

I’ve already blogged here on my developing thoughts on how to read the OT ecclesiologically. This is not an alternative to Christocentrism but an enrichment of it. The Church becomes the people of God as the body of Christ. In doing so we continue the story of God’s interaction with the world through the chosen people. Critical to this is that this interaction is for the sake of the whole world and not for the people (as was already the case with Israel). A critical consequence of this, in my view, is that for the Church size doesn’t matter as much as is often thought. A small remnant Church can carry out its distinctive mission every bit as fully as a fully established national Church with compulsory membership. Numerical decline and death are not the same thing or even closely related.

The distinction between denomination and Church is not unrelated to this. The idea that the Church has a particular mission within the world is further specified by the suggestion that denominations within the Church themselves have their distinctive tasks. Nobody is called on to do everything (not even the Church). Each individual, each local congregation and each denomination has the unique task of discerning the work they are given to do. It seems to me that one of the problems the URC has is that it attempts to duplicate all the structures and operations of a national church. This is neither necessary nor useful. We need to be clear about what our distinctive contribution is and concentrate on that (again I’ve previously blogged on this).

In this first post John mentioned treatment of the Spirit as a gap and I think he’s right but I have nothing substantive to offer to fill it. I would just like to indicate my own intuition that one way of paying attention to the Spirit at work in the Church is to pay proper attention to what the Church does rather than what it says and thinks. While accepting John’s suggestion that we pay full attention to the sinfulness of the Church I’d like us also to attend to its Spirit-fullness. It may be that what we find ourselves doing is a guide to the will of God for us.

Finally, and in connection with this, I would like to make a plea that we don’t discard our history and traditions too lightly. I think George Lindbeck’s The Nature of Doctrine is one of the most important contributions to theology in the last 30 years in its placing of Christianity as culture at the heart of our thinking about what the faith is. It provides a starting point for an ecclesial rethinking post-Christendom that all would do well to attend to.

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