The Church and new life (Easter thoughts)

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I posted recently on how I experienced beginning my ordained ministry in the context of a denomination and of churches that are no longer what they were. The URC is much smaller than it was in 1972 when it formed and so are both the churches of which I am the minister.

This is not a criticism of the denomination (of which I am proud to be a member and a minister) nor of the “my” churches (with which I am proud to be associated). It is a simple matter of fact.

The decline of the denomination and of most of its churches has been a constant of the URC’s existence. There is no year in which it has not shrunk.

I was somewhat taken aback and rather disappointed that some of my colleagues appear to think that these facts of our life together as a denomination are better not discussed, or that our decline can be reversed simply by a little more effort or a more cheerful attitude. This seems to me to fail to pay respect to those who have served the Church in the URC to date. Our decline is not down to the incompetence, laziness, or wrong-headedness of those who lead us, those who have preceded us or, indeed, to anyone at all, in my view.

We are simply aging. As a small creature we age faster than large creatures but the process is essentially the same. I makes no more sense for us to wish that we were young again, as a denomination, than it does for me as an individual to wish myself back into my 30s, before my joints started to ache and my eyes to require bifocal lenses. It’s tempting but wrong. I, and we, have to adapt to aging, to value what in it is positive and to plan sensibly for the future while being thankful for the blessings of the present.

One of the prompts for my earlier post was my dismay at having to oversee the closure of a church nursery and one of the prompts for this post is the hope that this closure may not take place. Since we announced that the financial situation was so bad that we wouldn’t be able to re-open for the next academic year the staff and parents of the nursery have made a series of offers and proposals that mean we may well be able to reverse our decision. Out of our facing of the reality of the problems a new situation has been created that may lead to a new and better position for everybody in the long term, although there will be difficulty and disruption on the way (especially, unfortunately, for the staff who will need to accept lower salaries for a period until we can rebuild numbers of children and therefore income).

In regard to the denomination I think something similar is called for. We have to face the reality that simply spreading a diminished number of pastoral stipendiary ministers across our churches so that, now, each will look after around 3 churches with that number only likely to increase, is simply a way of managing continuing decline. This can only be justified on the basis that our denomination is something like a “closed fund”.

On this basis we would say the URC is not intended to spread the gospel further or to undertake any other missional activity but to a) look after its existing membership and b) to witness to certain parts of the Christian tradition that it inherits from the past (a modified Congregationalism, a way of being Reformed that is less strident and dogmatic than that of contemporary neo-Reformed thinkers like John Piper, a dissenting Christianity that takes the relationship of Church and State seriously, a radical political tradition rooted in the struggle over this).

I’m not absolutely sure this would be wrong, actually, but neither am I convinced it is right. I am sure, though, that without a proper discussion this is what we must believe, since it is the default position if there is no radical change of direction.

Such a radical course adjustment would have to identify what it is we, as a denomination, think we are called to achieve on behalf of the wider Church. My perception is that Zero Intolerance was an attempt to do just this. It took the ideas of “Radical Welcome” and (in its final incarnation) tried to mould a denomination within the denomination that would represent this as a progressive cutting edge of the Church. It’s failure to gain enough support from local churches to be viable shows that this direction is probably not one we can or should take.

Personally I struggle to envision what alternative there is for the URC (as a denomination). What is it we do uniquely for the Church? The things I listed above aren’t, as far as I can see, unique to us or even done best by us.

There is, though, something that is unique to us. We are an intentionally united body. We (alone of the UK denominations) came together out of separate traditions (English Congregationalism, Scottish Presbyterianism, the Churches of Christ and Scottish Congregationalism each has its own distinct and different history, idea of what it is to be the Church, how to organise, how to worship and so on).

This uniqueness should, it seems to me, to be the starting point for thinking about our future. It shouldn’t lead us to a desire to protect our institutional forms and our separate existence. It should lead us rather to think about how best we can serve the Church catholic, the body of Christ, in this time and place. This does not preclude our caring for our people or our communities. That is an indispensable part of what it is to be the Church. But is must mean that this can’t simply be accepted as all we are for without looking for the “more”.

My instinct is that this “more” must be located in a propensity to form partnerships and effect introductions. For example the new interest in ecumenism among Pentecostally descended denominations and church groupings is something we should be responding to enthusiastically. It may be that we could be among those seeking what the new churches have to say to the old churches (to apply some of the principle of radical welcome to the energetic young fellowships on behalf of the old and wealthy denominations).

At any rate it seems to me more faithful and more hopeful to embrace the reality of decline and to look for what God is saying to us in it than to try to ignore it and hope it goes away. The other side of the death of our old ways there lies the promise of resurrection!

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