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.
- Our churches are not by any means homogeneous: they vary greatly in size, demographic composition, theological orientation, worship style and church life
- 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
- 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.