The URC’s mission council (which acts on behalf of General Assembly between meetings of that body) received a paper on “medium term planning” at its meeting in October 2012. Nothing in it specifies what “medium term” should be held to mean but let’s assume we’re thinking about 3-10 years out.
There are lots of very good things about the paper (which can be found here). It is willing to open up the really important questions that need to be asked.
It asks “are we still persuaded that the ongoing life of the United Reformed Church as a separate denomination is within God’s purposes for the building of the Kingdom? What specifically would be lost if it ceased to exist?”
It asks “Can we enable churches to die with dignity, understanding that this is natural?”
It asks “What are synods for?”
It asks about the viability of the mechanism that transfers money between financially self-sufficient synods and those which cannot currently function with these transfers.
It also asks a lot of other questions, some of which are both easier and less pressing and others which it will clearly not be able to answer, and some, indeed that are not questions, really, but something closer to pious wishes (how do we re-evangelise the church, how do we re-invigorate church meeting).
This is, in many ways, a bold and imaginative response to our denominations situation and if tackled seriously will have enormous value. I for one am heartily glad to see it and wish those charged with undertaking the task it sets the very best. My prayers will be with them.
What it does not (yet) do is outline the planning assumptions on which its work will be based. If it is to have meaningful direction from Mission Council this is an essential step. I would suggest that before the group to do the work is commissioned MC should outline these assumptions for it and that any change in them should be brought back for validation.
One such assumption I would like the group to be clear about is whether the process by which both membership numbers and financial income of the URC has steadily declined since its foundation will continue. That it will seems to me the only realistic ground on which to make a plan for our future. A plan that does not make this assumption will seem to me less like a plan than a fantasy.
We need also to make some assumptions about the future path of our actual and potential ecumenical partners, crucially the Methodists and the Church of England, but also the Baptists. I know that it will be a sensitive matter for us to make and write down any such assumption but the creation of them could be done in discussion with those partners and could include a range of possibilities acceptable to them. This will, of course, be difficult but we should at least try.
Another area is related and that is the way ministerial training will evolve across the denominations in light of changes in the higher education sector.
We should also acknowledge squarely and discuss openly the serious divisions we face theologically, brought into focus by issues of sexual ethics. We need to discuss whether and how our “wings” can be held together. We have people and churches committed to a vision of a transformation of church attitudes towards same sex relationships and others to whom this is a matter that they cannot move on. While this cannot be resolved by a planning group its plan will be meaningless if it is not addressed.
We need also to make clear whether we have decisively abandoned our founding commitment to the visible unity of all Christians (or at least all protestant Christians). I find it disappointing and rather alarming that ecumenism hardly features in the document presented. This is so at variance with our historical identity and purpose that it needs to be accounted for.
Similarly a medium term plan for our denomination needs to look at our roots in Congregationalism, Presbyterianism and the Churches of Christ. Do we still think it is part of our purpose to represent and develop these traditions?
I am aware that these matters can be seen as implicit in the questions the paper does ask but I don’t think that’s quite good enough. The remit of the group should explicitly include or exclude these matters for its consideration and give reasons or we run the risk of an exercise that doesn’t reflect the will of our denomination even in so far as Mission Council is capable of expressing it.