Thoughts on what the United Reformed Church is (and isn’t)

This week I attended my last URC Education and Learning Committee as student representative. A lot of the meeting was taken up with discussion of the 2013 E&L budget and the implications on it of the current squeeze on the finances of the denomination. I felt genuinely privileged to take part in what was (in my view) an impressively mature and sensible conversation. As I have written here before I think we in the Church are generally too reluctant to take finance seriously as part of God’s gifting and vocation.

It is not this I want to write about today, however. There was a session on a proposed competency framework  which would describe what the denomination expects its ministers to be and to be able to do. In the course of this I heard again something I have heard several times recently in various URC contexts. This is the suggestion that the core of the URC’s identity is or should be that it is “Reformed”. I disagree with this and would like to say why.

What, then, would it mean to say a church was “Reformed”. I have been studying in a university (Edinburgh) at a college (New College) which could be seen as central institutions in the history of the Reformed tradition in the English speaking world and as a result my view of what it is to be Reformed is heavily shaped by a Scottish Presbyterian context, but I think it reflects the views both of theologians who call themselves Reformed and of those of other Christian traditions who have reflected on the Reformed tradition.

As a proper noun “Reformed” primarily refers to that part of Protestant tradition that derives historically from the magisterial reform of the Church in the city states of Switzerland and the western part of the Holy Roman Empire. Its two most important early centres were Basel and Strasbourg where its leaders were Zwingli and Bucer respectively. Its most decisive definition was given to it be Calvin, who lead the reform of Geneva in the next generation. It spread to the Netherlands and Scotland in this Calvinist Genevan form and was an important influence in the English Reformation where Bucer was a key figure and Cranmer can be seen as a Reformed leader.

It is distinguished from Lutheranism and can be seen as standing further from the mediaeval Catholic tradition in a number of ways:

  • it is more suspicious of hierarchy and differentiation within the Church, rejecting the spiritual authority of bishops in most cases
  • it stresses the priesthood of the whole people of God and regards its ministers as having a functional character rather than a change in fundamental nature and relationship to God
  • it rejected more completely the idea of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper (communion) as involving the transformation of the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ

In its classical Calvinist form it is associated with a number of ideas and practices

  • Calvin’s notorious stress on “predestination”, the idea that God alone chooses (elects) who will be saved and who will be damned with human will and action being determined entirely by God’s choice and making no positive contribution
  • the related emphasis on God’s absolute sovereignty and rule
  • a stress on “covenant” as a central theological theme
  • government of the Church by councils (Presbyteries in Scotland and churches originating in Scottish migration, elsewhere sometimes church meetings in Reformed congregational churches)

As well as being distinguished from Lutheranism the Reformed tradition is identified with it as part of the “magisterial reformation”. This refers to their common dependence on the “civil magistrate”, in modern language the government or state. The Reformed churches in its home cities were linked to the rulers of those cities by close ties. They were “established” churches that did not tolerate dissent. This was true too in Scotland and the Netherlands.

The classical statements of Reformed faith (“confessions”) written in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries generally reflect this. The Westminster Confession, the founding and definitional Presbyterian document, is quite clear that the Church should be bound by tight links to the civil authority.

This “magisterial reform” is distinguished in turn from the “radical reformation”, a distinct tendency that rejects this state establishment. The radical reformation is attached to the idea that the Church is a body called out of the world, that it is something one joins intentionally or voluntarily rather than one that one comes into automatically by being a citizen of a particular geopolitical entity. This is one reason why many of the churches derived from the radical reformation reject baptism of infants.

It is this latter distinction that leads me to question how much sense it makes to describe the URC as “Reformed”. English Congregationalism, one of the major historical sources for our current denomination, did have at one foot in the Reformed tradition, it is true. But I would suggest that its other foot was planted pretty firmly in the radical reformation.

The “independency” of the seventeenth century, those churches that rejected Presbyterianism as a form of Church government, was in part also rejecting establishment (although not all would do so, given the existence of established Congregationalist churches in the American colonies). The line between Baptist and non Baptist Congregationalists was drawn later and was not an absolute one.

One part of our history and tradition is definitely Reformed (especially the English Presbyterianism that has its roots in the movement to England of Scots in the nineteenth century) but another is not, is deeply influenced by rejection of the magisterial solution to the problem of reform. I value this radical tradition very highly and think it deeply influences our nature.

On the other hand I think being a “United” church is a new and important thing, dating in our case from 1972. If we are to stress one part of what we are as definitive I would rather it was this and not our connection to a Reformed tradition which is something we share with others in the three nations.

  1. Elliot Vernon said:

    Nick – I am not sure I would agree that congregationalism is in any way part of the radical reformation. The radical reformation is very much a 16th century Reformation entity and congregationalism is a creature of the post-Reformation.

    Seventeenth century congregationalism (the term ‘congregationalist’ or ‘congregational way’ was coined by the Westminster Assembly dissenting brethren to distinguish themselves from Presbyterians but also from Separatists and the hated term ‘Independency’) developed from the application of the Reformed view of sola scriptura. That dissenting position followed the pre-Civil War non-separating non-conformist position most clearly expounded by Robert Parker and William Ames that the primal church of the New Testament was a church composed of people and their elders. All other church structures (classis, synods, etc) were to the well being of the Church but not essential to it and the counsels of such bodies were highly persuasive but not binding on the judgements of individual churches properly composed of people and elders. That was the position of the New England churches and the English congregationalists.

    Nor were the Congregational churches of the seventeenth century anti-magisterial – in fact the Apologetical Narration of January 1644 – in some respects the first manifesto of congregationalism in England – boasted that the congregational churches give more to the magistrate than the Presbyterians in that the Christian magistrate was the Melancthonian custodian of both tables, should enforce Christian laws against sinners and had the Constantinian power to call synods for the determination of controversies. English congregationalism is therefore firmly in the Reformed magisterial tradition. The church envisage by Congregationalists (and put into practice in the Cromwellian Protectorate) was that of a group of self governing churches united under one confession of faith and one church order – taking advantage of advisory synods for determining matters of controversy and relying on the Christian magistrate to punish sin. (The books to read on this, if you can stand the tedium, are John Cotton’s The Keys of the Kingdom – and Thomas Goodwin’s The Constitution, Right Order, and Government of the Churches of Christ –

    Anyway, I should end the history lecture…. 🙂

    • But is it not the case that Separatism and Independency also formed part of the Old Dissent that evolved eventually into English Congregationalism?

  2. Elliot Vernon said:

    Yes, I agree, especially after 1662.

    It is clear that congregationalists like Thomas Goodwin, John Cotton, John Owen etc were taking on some of the criticisms of the separatists about the ceremonials and the mixed communions of the national church (where visible professing saints were forced to take communion with ‘mere historic’ Christians’ and outright sinners). Unlike many (but, I accept, not all) separatist churches, congregationalists were also insistent on the governance of the eldership of each congregation (albeit with the common consent of the congregation – Cotton’s book in the keys is the important here as it argues that the keys were given to Peter in Mat 16:19 as believer, minister and apostle – and that as those categories separated out over time, so did the use of particular keys) as opposed to the congregational democracy of separatist churches.

    Also separatists generally actively denied that the Church of England was a true church at all, whereas those who came to call themselves congregationalists accepted that many of the CofE’s congregations were true, if corrupted. So there are differences in theory between separatists and the non-separating congregationalists in ecclesiology. I would agree with you that from the Cromwellian period and beyond, however, these divisions become a blurred as the stress is on agreement on broad doctrinal fundamentals. At this point separatism and congregationalism merge into one branch of dissent.

    As to ‘Independency’ – It is a tricky word as it was almost always was term of abuse that referred back to the radical reformation like the term anabaptist – (partly meaning independent of the state, like Mennonites) – one was accused of Independency but rarely accepted the title. Alternatively, it was used to mean those who held to a congregational presbyterian model but denied the doctrine of interconnectivity (such as Henry Jacob’s ‘independent’ congregation of the 1610s that still maintained communion with CofE churches) – i.e. congregationalists. Presbyterians, post 1662 Anglicans and Church historians have all tended to use it as a catch-all-category for anyone who is a congregationalist, baptist, separatists, etc.

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