Some imagined futures of the URC: what’s there and what’s not


The May 2013 meeting of the Mission Council of the URC will be discussing a very interesting document imaging alternate futures for the denomination (it can be found on the URC web site here).

It sets out 5 “scenarios”: 1) a continuation of current trends where the average size of our congregations (and their number) continues to decline – stipendiary ministry remains central to our life but each minister has responsibility for ever more churches. 2) an ecumenical breakthrough in which the URC and the Methodists (re)join the national churches 3) a future in which most URCs become part of LEPs (local ecumenical partnerships) uniting with whoever locally makes most sense 4) a process of amalgamation of small congregations into larger single churches 5) a primarily “fresh expressions” future.

It seems to me that there are a number of factors missing from this paper that mean that none of the scenarios except 1) has any real credibility and that some rather pressing problems are not adequately addressed.

  1. Our churches are not by any means homogeneous: they vary greatly in size, demographic composition, theological orientation, worship style and church life
  2. there are serious issues about who should decide about the assets of the denomination: the legal and “political” realities are not accepted by everybody as just
  3. the purpose of the URC as an institution is not transparent and may well not be something we all agree about

1) the variety of the denomination: the most obvious fault-line is that between “progressive” and “conservative”. This expresses itself most often when we discuss matters of the relationship between sexual ethics and Christian discipleship. There is a strong minority within the URC who are seriously disaffected as a result of our consistent placement on the “liberal” side on these matters, on ordination of homosexual people, on civil partnership, on same-sex marriage. This minority tends to see these issues are symptoms of a more general falling away from what they regard as Biblical orthodoxy.

Whether they are right or wrong (and I think that they are both right and wrong) this division is a matter of significance and it’s remarkable that it does not play any role in any of the imagined futures. Reading the scenarios one would never guess, if one did not already know, that the URC is currently anything other than a completely harmonious and united fellowship. Discussion of our future that suppresses or ignores our differences is far from fully adequate to present realities or our responsibility to our past and our future.

Similarly the different needs and desires of large, self-sufficient or growing congregations and the (majority of) small, aging and declining congregations cannot seem reasonable to the former. That many of them draw a significant part of their vitality from immigrant populations would again be impossible to know from the document. The extent to which Christianity in the UK is becoming a migrant faith has to be a factor in any future vision for it, as does the related question of the growth of churches with their roots in Pentecostalism, another trend which the document completely ignores.

2) The assets: the question of what to do with the money from the buildings is addressed in the scenarios where three options seem to be considered. A) use it to extend the life of another stronger denomination (the “Uniting Churches” scenario in essence imagines handing the money over to the CofE/CofS/CinW in return for them taking in our clergy). B) use it to launch new initiatives of our own (the “pastorate churches” or the URC fresh expressions of scenarios 4 and 5. C) Use it locally to give life to LEPs.

Of these A and B clearly see the money as primarily the possession of the denomination (or its synods) which C implies it can be regarded as belonging to the local church. Neither of these is clearly and undoubtedly correct but it must be something we need to discuss. To do so we would need to face the variety of our very different ecclesiologies and come to some way of managing this at a time when it is likely to be an increasingly significant issue.

What kind of thing is the URC and what is it for? This very fundamental issue is one where those who are, consciously or not, Presbyterian and those who, similarly, are Congregationalist, will differ sharply. For a Presbyterian the local church is, first of all foremost, the local instance of a wider institution. While the congregation has its independent existence this is secondary to the wider church. The denomination is primary. For the Congregationalist this relationship is reversed. The Church IS the congregation and wider structures exist to support it.

In thinking through the possible futures we will always be dealing, in one way or another, with this crucial question. It is not resolvable for us and there would be no point trying to reach agreement, in my view, so the issue for us is to find a way either to decide one way or the other at denominational level and then decide what to do about the dissidents (this is implicitly advocated by some of the scenarios  and is effectively a Presbyterian solution) or to decide to facilitate the paths of all whatever their views (implicit in others and effectively Congregationalist).

This is another case where there is something to be said for opening this up, even if it is likely to be painful and difficult.

  1. Elizabeth Welch said:

    Thanks for these helpful reflections. It’s right that there are a number of issues not mentioned in the scenarios. The Faith and Order committee has had an 18 month process of consultation and discussion which covered a wider range of issues than those mentioned in the scenarios. The scenarios are offered as a trigger for prayerful reflection on where the Holy Spirit might be leading this particular manifestation of the Body of Christ that is the United Reformed Church. My hope is that our discussions at Mission Council will take place in a spirit of openness and listening, that will help us work through the painful aspects of the conversation, and release something of the joy that life in Christ brings. Through this I hope we will discern something of the particular gifting of the United Reformed Church for this present age. The range of issues that we are facing are those faced by many other churches. The big question for any of our churches is about the way we can hold together in mutual support and encouragement in our diversity, and not just walk away from one another. To walk away from each other seems to me to be the way of the world, in which we are trying to witness to an alternative, Godly, way.

  2. It seems to me is that what we lack is a really adequate articulation of why, for us, separation is the wrong thing to do (and I’m as sure as I am of anything that it is the wrong thing to do). We are sharply divided along at least two axes, the more obvious one being the conservative/liberal distinction that emerges most clearly around issues of sexual ethics but the other, not totally unrelated, congregational/presbyterian difference is also important, manifesting itself around attitudes to the ownership of assets and possibility of secession, where asserting this possibility seems to me to be, consciously or not, congregationalist in its prioritising the local over the denominational.

    The problem with telling a story that looks back from an imagined future in which these divisions are invisible is that it. whether deliberately or not, tells those who dissent from the denominational majority that their voices are unimportant and marginal, so much so that in the future they will be forgotten. In this case that means that those who look for an independent future or who are uncomfortable with the direction of travel on attitudes to same sex relationships (who form a not completely negligible minority) can’t find themselves in the stories at all,

    This can not be the best way to find a way of living together unless the best way is to create a homogeneous denomination by inducing those who dissent to leave as individuals.

    None of which is to say that I could or would have done anything differently. I have enough experience of how hard it is politically, to speak about the really difficult and contentious issues in this kind of situation to understand how the scenarios presented would have emerged from a process you describe. It just seems to me that those, like myself, who sit at a distance from those processes have both the opportunity and the responsibility to speak openly and honestly about what political realities make difficult to address for those who are closer to them.

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