I recently posted on how I thought we might begin to move beyond our polarised and unproductive restatement of well rehearsed positions in intra-Church discussion of contentious issues (here).
My third (and final) point was that that a clear statement by all concerned of anything that was non-negotiable for them and why it had that status would be very helpful. It would allow us to understand where we stood with one another and potentially to probe these sticking points openly.
So as an experiment (and not particularly because I expect anyone to care) I thought I would see what I thought my basic starting points were. In fact it’s pretty simple. I start with the affirmations I made when I was ordained, a little under a year ago, as a minister of word and sacraments in the United Reformed Church.
I feel myself to be absolutely bound by these, because I made them freely and willingly as a condition of my ordination. They are clearly specified in the Basis of Union that is the fundamental constitutional document of my denomination (this can be found here). This binding, from my perspective, is an expression not of submission to a merely human institution. My ordination is interpreted by the Church as the recognition of a vocation, a calling of me to this role in this context. Ordination is, we say, the work of the Holy Spirit in my life.
This means that my taking of the vows I did is a particular gift and demand on me of God. This is not something to be taken lightly. As it happens I regard the Basis of Union as a very fine document indeed. It seems to me to do just enough and no more than is necessary to express the historic and apostolic faith, so that affirming it was no hardship for me.
It asks that we affirm:
- the Trinitarian understanding of one God in three persons
- the authority of the Old and New Testaments
- the simultaneous humanity and divinity of Jesus
- the gathering of the Church by God to proclaim the gospel
It asks that we assert
- that “zeal for the glory of God, love for the Lord Jesus Christ, obedience to the Holy Spirit and a desire for the salvation of the world” are the motives for ministry
It demands promises
- to “lead a holy life”
to seek the well-being, purity and peace of the United Reformed Church and, to cherish love towards all other churches and to endeavour always to build up the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church
to exercise my ministry in accordance with the statement concerning
the nature, faith and order of the United Reformed Church
Having made these affirmations and promises I feel myself bound by them. Anything else is doubtful and open to discussion but these 8 things, for me, are an irreducible bedrock for my participation in any conversation (there is a ninth item but it relates more personally to my conduct and is not, therefore, likely to be relevant).
This means that I can’t accept any position that denies the Trinity, or the divinity of Jesus, or the authority of the Bible, or the centrality of the Church. I am, though, happy to discuss what any of these mean. If, for example, we can start from an agreement that the “Word of God in the Old and New Testaments, discerned under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, is the supreme authority for the faith and conduct of all God’s people” then there’s plenty of room to talk about
- the nature of that authority
- the processes of discernment
- the relationship of that authority to others (like tradition or reason, or indeed that of the Church)
- who “all God’s people” are
I suppose one could say that starting from my ordination vows and going from them to the authority of the Bible is the wrong way round. If that authority is, indeed, that highest, how can I derive it from something else. That’s a reasonable question and one I’d be delighted to explore, my purpose here is merely to try my own medicine, as it were. and see what it’s like to examine oneself and see what one’s sticking points might be.
For those not ordained as ministers my inclination is to look at what they have committed themselves to and invite them to see that is constraining them. For members and elders of the URC these are also specified in the Basis of Union and ought, it seems to me, to be normative for us. Although again, having stated my position that I think people ought to conform to the commitments they have (under the guidance of the Spirit) made I am happy to talk about why and whether this is so.