What’s the URC for? (Again)

I’ve just had another useful and challenging meeting with Professor O’Donovan about my MTh dissertation (summary here). He put two questions to me about it:

  • What makes the URC part of the Church catholic (rather than, say, Unitarian or humanist)?
  • How does my account of the nature of denominationalism help me in supporting my contention that the URC’s agreement not to agree on sexuality is a good thing rather than a failure?

These are both very good questions and ones I will try to answer in the next draft of my dissertation and in the meantime this post will explore them.

My most immediate answer to the first question is to point to the Basis of Union and especially Schedule D: ‘A statement concerning the Nature, Faith and Order of the United Reformed Church’. This clearly states that the URC confesses the Trinitarian faith of the Church Catholic and it acknowledges the supreme authority of the Word of God in the Old and New Testaments.

All members, elders and ministers of the URC should, on assuming the privileges and responsibilities that go with these statuses, have confessed these things. On this basis I think it fair to assert that the URC is and remains part of the Church Catholic. We acknowledge the divinity of Christ and his rule over us.

There are those within the denomination who would appear to some eyes not fully to uphold this catholic faith, but this is true of pretty much every part of the Church and has probably always been so. This is not a huge problem to me so long as the Basis of Union with its orthodox affirmations remains the core defining document of the denomination.

This clearly implies that this doctrinal core has significance for me as marking membership of the Church Catholic and so it does, not because I think the doctrine in itself is the most important thing about the Church. Rather it has this importance because I think that without it we cannot fully recognise Christ as what he is, the incarnate Son, and that if we don’t see that we can’t appreciate what God has done for us in Christ. It is that recognition, of God revealed in Jesus, that marks the boundary of the Church (for me).

The Church is the body of Christ and can only properly be so if it recognises Christ’s headship. This is turn can only be accomplished by a perception of his uniqueness as God with us. All the rest follows from this as consequence.

This does not imply that huge effort should be expended in attempting to create doctrinal uniformity. For one thing understanding is only one precondition for knowing Christ and one that may not be indispensable. For another there are many ways of articulating this understanding, none of them adequate, and what appears to be disagreement may well actually be misunderstanding or mutual incomprehension.

Professor O’Donovan’s other question is less easily answered. Briefly I think that all existing denominational expressions of the Church express some aspect of Christ’s rule (and I include in this the Roman and Orthodox churches and the various national churches of the reformation as well as dissenting, non-conforming and non-established denominations like ours). This contention is based on a belief that the Church visible is an eschatological reality, that as long as we continue to live in a creation marked by sin and death, that is until the second coming in glory, the Church too is marked by sin.

Our divisions are a sign of sin, of our inability to be “one, holy, catholic and apostolic”. The various forms of oneness, holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity conflict with one another this side of the eschaton. In the meantime the various denominations take sacramental responsibility for living out aspects of the Church’s vocation. Each has its particular task, given it by God as it was called into existence.

In the case of the URC this is the call to be one, to be united. This can be discerned, in my view, in the Basis of Union and in (the particular focus of my studies) our debates on sexuality. At crucial moments (especially in 1999-2000 and in 2007) those we have asked to consider this matter have turned to our vocation to unity to find the right way forward for us.

We remain committed to what our Congregationalist forebears especially perceived, the necessity for Christians to be together in love through their disagreements on any matter other than that Christ is Lord. We have said that being united isn’t a consequence of agreement on other matters but rather a necessary aspect of the search for truth and even more importantly for the will of Christ, which is itself the basis of any partial truth we may be able to perceive and articulate.

The vocation of the URC, what the URC is for, seems to me to be to represent God’s will that Christians be together, that the Church be one. This oneness isn’t all there is to the Church but it is the thing the URC is here to stand for.

This doesn’t imply, either, that this is the primary calling of all people, communities and institutions within the URC. Local churches and other constituents of the denomination may well have their own special callings and our people certainly will. But insofar as we are URC ecumenism defines us.

  1. Craig said:

    You might like to speak to Stephen Orchard who spent one of his sessions at West Midlands Summer School exploring the catholicity of the United Reformed Church. He argued (if I can make proper sense of my notes) that the gathered church is where catholicity happens. When the congregation gather to worship they make their own considered view of the will of God and catholicity is expressed through Participation, Recommendation, Consultation, Congregation, Contribution, Admonition and Proporgation (following work of someone called Cotton from 19th C New England). He argued that global catholicity is difficult but that Unity is given by Christ to all who follow the way of Christ – even if they disagree on the doctrinal detail.

    But it was a long paper and my notes aren’t brilliant – so better to speak with Stephen and get a fuller explanation of his argument, I sense it will give you a number of points for discussion.

    • I think the Cotton referred to is probably this one http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Cotton_(Puritan) He was a very important thinker in seventeenth century English speaking Congregationalism, in both England and New England. The basic outlines of an ecclesiology that sees the Church catholic as being entirely and completely present in the gathered (Eucharistic) congregation remains important. One of its leading current advocates, Miroslav Volf, draws on this tradition and shares the emphasis on catholicity that derives from it.

      • pinksheep3108 said:

        I don’t think I have any little nuggets to help you with the second question, but I wondered if you would appreciate a few very low level thoughts? As you may know I am studying for an MA in Systematic Theology, but I’m also the kind of person that allows myself to be guided first by feelings, then I go on to be more systematic about things! Forgive me therefore if I am going too far back to basics.

        My understanding of the URC is that it began with a view to bring together denominations across Britian, And celebrate the similarities rather than differences. The URC wanted to take these links further in the early 1980’s with the Methodist church, C of E and Moravian church, but the C of E rejected the covenant.

        The nature then of the URC has always been one of union, but I imagine that union has not always meant agreement. Sexuality is something that seems to be shaking the very roots of the wider church, which is very unfortunate. URC however, seems to have said that this is something they cannot reach an agreement on, but they are not going to let it divide them. Choosing to agree to disagree surely means that they are saying this is important, but not more important than a belief in Jesus as Lord and therefore it must not divide. Staying with the original vision of being “united” therefore cannot and should not be seen as a failure. We are human beings who take different experiences, morals and ideals to each situation and discussion. It’s almost impossible for thousands of people to reach an agreement for the same reasons on the same issue, but in not letting that issue divide them – Of course they have succeeded.

  2. Thank you for your comment “pinksheep”. What you say aligns very closely to what I’m trying to argue. The URC as a denomination is best, in my view, seen as responding primarily to God’s call for the Church to be one (and only secondarily to the calls to be holy, catholic and apostolic, although these things matter too). My diagnosis is that oneness, holiness, catholicity and apostolicity are all beyond the reach of fallen human beings and that attempts to live them out fall into various conflicts and difficulties. For this reason the various denominations have as their missions the sacramental representation of different aspects of the unrealisable eschatological reality of the Church (while retaining a responsibility to attempt also the others).

    In the case of the URC being united in difference and disagreement is central to our God-given task. This means both that we have to find ways to remain together (as we so far have) and also to express with integrity our disagreements (which we have also mostly managed to do). This means we can’t (or shouldn’t) compromise with one another but rather we should explore what it means to be in loving communion with those whose views and practices we abhor.

    Other denominations (for example the Church of England) have other aspects of the Church’s being to express (for example full integration of all aspects of life, especially including the family and political authority, with the life of God’s people). This may mean that they suffer the issue raised by changing patterns of sexual life and morality in a different way.

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