Attending my first meeting of the Thames North Synod of the United Reformed Church yesterday was an interesting experience for me. As I finished my period as an ordinand student I reflected (here) that over the three years of my training I had developed a strong interest in the nature and future of the URC as a denomination.
As I listened to and reflected on the reports from and of our recent General Assembly I recognised that I am now much less interested in these questions (as I rather suspected would be the case).
As we discussed around our table, for example, the budgetary problems the denomination faces, with a substantial deficit and consequent cuts in the funding of central departments, I felt little immediate concern. I know that this matters to many people in a variety of ways but it didn’t seem greatly important to me personally or as the minister of Potters Bar and Brookmans Park URCs. Similarly the other really big question (denominationally) that was raised, that of the registration of civil partnerships in our churches, didn’t engage me as it has over the last three years (this has been a prominent concern of this blog and of my academic work).
This isn’t to say that I have no views on these matters, just that when, during the debates, we were urged to think about how what we were talking about impacted on our churches I thought, really, that the answer was “not much”.
Nobody apart from me attended the meeting from either of my churches and when I raised it at the elders’ meetings of both last week it didn’t seem as if anyone present saw any reason to worry about that. There’s little interest in or knowledge about the wider affairs of the denomination in my (very active) congregations and consequently reduction in the spend at the centre is unlikely to seem an urgent concern,
Similarly there seems, as far as I can tell, to be little echo of the culture wars over sexuality in my corner of the URC. People appear neither to be outraged by the general relaxation of attitudes to sexuality in general and homosexuality in particular nor to feel a strong inclination to press it as an issue of justice. I may turn out to be wrong about this, it would after all fit well with my own position making me predisposed to discern it, but this is how it looks to me right now.
What then, does matter? The big worry locally is, I suspect, for the future of our two churches. When people express the strong wish that there were more children at our Sunday worship I think this is what underlies their feelings (although I may be wrong about this as well and will try to find out). The presence of children would, if I’m right, be seen as a promise of continued existence. This is misleading as a sign, of course, since few children carry on a continuous active membership in the congregation at which they attend Junior Church.
If so then we should ask ourselves whether and why God (whom we serve) has as a priority the continuation of the existence of these two particular gatherings of his people. My own sense is that the answer to the “whether” question is “yes”, that God has a purpose (or purposes) for both our churches. I’m less clear so far as to the “why” which can only be discerned by finding what it is that we are collectively called to,
Part of that answer is found in the care both congregations show for one another, which is wonderful to behold and to begin to become part of, but I don’t think that can be all of it. In both churches the uses to which our buildings are put by the communities in which we set must also be part of it, but there is still, I think, more.
In finding this “more” we will need to explore together what our sense is of what God really cares about as it is expressed in his care for our fellowships. This becomes the question: “What really matters to God about our communal life?” Clearly that’s a big and difficult question but it seems to me that finding a way to enter into it is the heart of a pastoral ministry like the one I am called to.
It will require the development of a profound connection to these communities as they exist, which I’m hoping to find through the commitment of time and energy to making and deepening personal relationships with as many members of the congregations who are prepared to get to know me and to be known by me, It will require that I strive to find ways to lead the congregations in worship in ways that enable them communally to continue to find God in that worship. It will also require that I facilitate smaller groups and individuals in their search for understanding of that experience of the presence of God so as to appreciate it more fully. Finally it will require me to find and to nurture the opportunities for service to God for the churches wherever these exist.
Part of our faith must be that God has created us as we are and put us where we find ourselves for some purpose and that the discernment of that particular purpose is central to Christian discipleship. It’s hard to say what matters to God in himself, other than in the most general terms, but it must be possible, surely, to come to a discernment of how we, as the individuals we are, fit into God’s more general purposes, while recalling that we aren’t means to an end but matter, ultimately, in the eyes of God.