This week I attended the annual “New Ministers’ Conference” of the United Reformed Church. The six new ministers of this year’s cohort (we’re a small year-group) were gathered together in London to meet one another, meet people from the central denominational staff and especially to spend some time with Elizabeth Gray-King, who co-ordinates the 3 year Education for Ministry 2 programme on which we are all now embarking.It was wonderful to meet for the first time those three of the others I had not previously encountered and to get a better sense of my immediate contemporaries in the denomination.
Roberta Rominger, the URC General Secretary has dinner with us on the first night and gave us an overview of the current state of the denomination that was at once honest and open and also optimistic and positive. This was good to hear. That she was able to speak so realistically while also being so bouyant about our life together was cheering, even if I don’t quite share her particular vision of the future of the URC.
The secretaries for Mission, for Racial Justice and Multicultural Ministry (who is also Moderator of General Assembly), for Education and Learning and for Ecumenical Relations also came to spend time with us and talk about the work of their departments. I found in each of their presentations reasons to feel better than I previously had, which was not what I expected.
Especially I was very excited by the brieg report on ecumenical relations. David told us that the ecumenical bodies have recently been enlivened and enriched by the attendance of people from Pentecostal and newer charismatic churches who have not hitherto been much engaged. These Christians have brought their characteristic energy and enthusiasm made more valuable both by the need for them in that context and by the newness of this kind of work to those churches. This excites me because I have thought for a while that these churches must be the future of ecumenism since they are, to a large extent, the future of Christianity.
Michael Jagessar’s newish emphasis on moving beyond multi-culturalism (living alongside in difference) towards inter-culturalism (being enriched by real encounter across cultural boundaries) was made more valuable to me by a brief conversation I had with him afterwards. As is often the case at URC events this one reminded me of how strongly marked and how homogenuous (from the outside) the dominant URC culture is. There is a set of common attitudes and assumptions (theologically “liberal” and politically left-wing) that define this culture. I don’t share them. I’m not, reflexively, very left-wing at all any more and I’m actually quite hostile to liberal theology, in a Barthian recovering liberal way (“I’m Nick and I’m a liberal, and I’m taking it a day at a time”).
Michael was explicit and exuberant (in his characteristic way) in his recognition of the existence of this dominant culture and its tendency to intolerance of difference from it. He stressed the importance of the inter-culteral encounter including that between the church cultures of that URC majority and of the minorities that dissent from it (and we shouldn’t assume that the dissent is of a uniform “evangelical” character, I think there are a substantial number of people who are, in effect, Barthian post-liberals like myself who would identify with a Reformed Christian orthodoxy against both liberalism and evangelicalism).
It is clear that the URC is entering a period when its shape as a denomination will change. Continuing numerical and financial decline feel inevitable and stpendiary ministry will be even more thinly spread than it already is. The way ministers are trained and deployed will have to change to be affordable. Some more of what is done at Church House will probably turn out to be beyond our means. The nature of ministry will have to change as there are fewer stipendiary minsiters per church.
What I saw at the conference that gave me hope was a keen sense of these realities and a determination to face them while being faithful and loyal to (whatever one thinks is) the particular gifts and inheritances of our part of the Church. There is an openness to those with different traditions and ways of being church that I haven’t always felt from the URC majority (although that doesn’t mean it wasn’t there, it’s always possible the change is in me rather than in what I hear and see).
As I return to my ministry in the two churches where it is exercised two things above all have remained with me. Our chaplain, Rosemary Tusting (who incidentally started her Christian journey in one of my churches) invited us at different times in our closing worship to express our anxieties and our hopes. In responding I found that what I hoped for was the gift of discernment, to know what, really, I am called to, and that what I feared is that my faith may be insufficient to my task. Given that faith itself is a gift of grace I find myself reminded that my ministry and my life are in God’s hands and praying for God’s help.