Last week I posted some reflections on remaining positive and faith-filled while facing the reality of denominational decline.
I was somewhat bemused by some of the responses which seemed to think it best either to deny the facts of our decline (which I took to be so widely known as to be impossible to deny) or to avoid speaking of it (which I would regard as an evasion of responsibility). Nobody at all was eager to address the question of our stewardship of our enormous inherited resources.
All this prompted me to wonder what about the URC as it now exists would justify (in terms of the mission of God) its possession of such a large amount of the wealth of the Church (in comparison to younger and more dynamic expressions of the Church).
One answer I have encountered
when asking similar questions in the past refers to the Reformed tradition. I’m sceptical about this for two reasons:
1) I’m not sure how “Reformed” the URC is and
2) There are plenty of other candidates to represent the Reformed tradition in Britain
To deal properly with this one would need to define what it is to be Reformed and that would be too much to do here. I will just assert that I don’t think being Reformed justifies the URC’s hoarding of its legacy.
What about representing conciliarity? That seems a little more credible to me (at least in England). Conciliarity has a long and honourable history in the Church (long predating the Reformation).
While the Church of England has evolved in this direction it remains committed to episcopal authority. The URC is a much more conciliar body than any other denomination I can think of in England. It is, however, less so than a properly Presbyterian denomination.
At the same time it is too conciliar properly to represent the congregational tradition.
So conciliarism is a candidate for what the URC might have to offer the wider Church.
Another possibility is “liberalism” in one of that slippery term’s many senses. Either an ability to engage a changing culture by theologically reflecting back to it its new ethical and social attitudes to, for example, sexuality or else allowing or encouraging internal diversity while maintaining unity.
This last seems to me to point to what I see as our most likely vocation, as the representatives of the ecumenical impulse, the recognition that the unity of the Church matters. Our remaining together is a sign that unity is itself of value.
I am, though, aware of a degree of naivete in this view since it is so difficult to leave even if one wants to. The ownership of property by synods rather than congregations means that it is extremely difficult to secede.
The reality I suspect is that the main reason we continue is inertia. A large, asset rich and politically complex entity like this is much easier to maintain than to change.
That means that being realistic we should assume that business as usual will be the order of the day until it simply becomes impossible. Slow and comfortable decline will carry on.
That, too, isn’t all bad. The Church needs to adjust properly to the idea that the old and economically unproductive are no less valuable in God’s eyes than the most vigorous.
Maybe that’s our special task. To represent the retired and wealthy since that, as a denomination is what we are.