I recently posted to a URC Facebook group in response to evidence that the decline of the denomination (which has been pretty steady at a 3% fall in membership per year since it was founded in 1972) may be accelerating (to something closer to 4% per year). The membership, which was around 200,000 in ’72 has now fallen below 60,000. Over the last 20 years (at least) there have been a succession of attempts by the denominational leadership to respond to this decline, either by adapting to it (e.g. by abolishing the District layer of our structure or by reducing the number of training institutions to which we send our ordinands) or by launching initatives to reverse the decline (e.g. Vision for Life, Zero Intolerance, Vision 2020, various Synod level campaigns).
My suggestion in my post was that, while any attempt to encourage growth is to welcomed and applauded, we need to begin thinking about what we will do if the decline continues and even accelerates further (which many argue it is bound to do, given the age-structure of our membership and the inevitable passage of time). In particular I think that we need to think together about what will happen to those parts of what we are and what we have that will be left when we can no longer credibly pretend to be a national alternative to the Church of England, can no longer pretend that we are The Church (as far too many of our internal conversations seem to believe).
I can immediately think of three “things” that will be left: there will be some local churches that have a vigorous and continuing life as fellowships as the denomination dwindles around them; at least one of our training institutions (Westminster College in Cambridge) seems to be being prepared to stand alone, given the massive investment in its infrastructure and its developing local partnerships; the 13 Synod Trusts are very likely to be left holding substantial amounts of money and property as congregations close and their buildings are left empty (no-one really knows how much money this is going to be but I would be very surprised indeed if it weren’t some hundreds of millions of pounds).
If no significant changes are made in the short to medium term the default position would seem to be that the denomination shrinks until a smallish constellation of more-or-less independent larger churches (perhaps a couple of hundred on an optimistic estimate) is surrounded by a dwindling number of very small congregations which gradually close, handing their assets over to Trusts presumably dominated by representatives of those larger churches which can be bothered to send representatives to the bodies which elect the Trustees (I’m not familiar with how the Trustees are appointed but I presume it to be from Synods).
Given the opacity (to me) of the way in which decisions are actually made in our denomination (the meetings of the two Synods of which I have been a member were in no way at all like effective decision making bodies) I feel I have no notion of how large-scale choices about the centrally held financial resources or the quasi-independent Colleges will be arrived at. The most credible body for this is probably Mission Council, the body stands in for General Assembly in the periods between its coming together every other year. However I am not filled with optimism by what one can glean from reports of its discussions. It seems not to be filled with a bold determination to find an answer to the existential questions raised by our long-term drift towards irrelevance but rather with a grim determination to prolong our life as close to its current form as can be managed for as long as possible.
What surprised me about the response to my Facebook post (on which 9 people over a total of over 80 comments) was that it quickly came to focus on questions of polity, specifically about the relative merits of Congregational and Presbyterian ecclesial practice (almost nothing was offered about the ecclesiological foundations of these two polities which is disappointing but unsurprising).
Some (one suspects from larger churches) argued that the best course of action was to free the most vigorous of our fellowships from the denomination by a move towards either a Congregationalist polity like that of the Baptists or towards full independency for these churches (presumably by adopting a more permissive attitude towards congregations that wish to secede fully or partially from the denomination, a proposal I have heard made before).
Others vigorously rejected any weakening of our, effectively, Presbyterian polity, and indeed voiced the desire to strengthen our Presbyterian identity, which is currently very much diminished by the lack of Presbyteries. Synods stand in place of a Presbyterial structure but they are totally ineffective in this role (in my view) because they are too big and don’t meet often enough to allow the development of the mutual knowledge and accountability Presbyterianism is intended to embody.
This debate reflects a deep incoherence in our denomination that is, as so many things are, at once a strength and a weakness. It has allowed us to manage and live with deep differences on a range of matters without dividing (infant baptism and attitudes to human sexuality are two obvious lines of division but there are many more) and that is, in my view, a good thing. The price we pay, though, is that we have no way to explore and decide anything that is at all difficult. Our decision making structures can’t really build true consensus in the way that is required for any genuine process of conciliar discernment of the Spirit’s leading. We describe ourselves as a conciliar church but I would suggest that we are, in point of fact, a bureaucratic denomination in which all real decisions are taken by committees which are largely self-selecting. These decisions in turn can’t lead to any real change in the denomination as a whole because they command insufficient support and legitimacy across it. They are either ignored are overturned (as all recent central initiatives demonstrate).
Thus we both need to take some really fundamental decisions at denominational level and are structurally incapable of doing so, That’s why we need to talk about polity, not as a dry and abstract discussion of organisational structure, but a living and deeply theological and theocentric conversation about how we communally are to seek God’s will for us. Is God’s will found, as Congregationalists have always believed, in a local, gathered covenant community, or is it rather found, as Presbyterians have always believed, in the Church as an expression of some larger community? (Where the legitimacy of that corporate Church derives from in dissenting Presbyterianism is a problem, although one that can be solved through Confessional loyalty.)
At any rate I am afraid that the contradiction between Congregational and Presbyterian ecclesiologies may have to faced squarely if we are do anything other than grimly delay the inevitable.