Why the United Reformed Church needs to think about its polity

ImageI 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.

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10 comments
  1. John S Bremner said:

    @NIck

    You are really talking about two different things. The bulk of your piece is about polity – Congregationalism or Presbyterian versions of church government – but your first paragraph refers to a theological problem which is far more deep than the issue of polity; Congregationalism and Presbyterianism are methods of government, both of which come out of the Reformation and later generations, but neither form of government is per se necessarily going to produce a Church with a particular theology.
    The issue as to whether or not a Church or congregation is Reformed is a different question, and it is that question which is supposedly being addressed by the Zero Tolerance, Vision 2020 and other schemes dreamed up by who knows who. It is that question which needs answering, rather than the polity question – even though Reformed theology tends towards Synodical and not Congregational government styles. Is the name ‘United Reformed Church’ not farcical given what its ‘leadership’ (whoever that may be) seems to think is needed?

  2. I didn’t intend my opening to be about the question of whether or not we are or should be Reformed, John. I thought I began with the question of the continuing and possibly accelerating decline of our denomination. I have written elsewhere about my scepticism about the desirability or even possibility of being “Reformed” today, My point in addressing the question of polity is not that it is necessarily the most important matter in itself. It is rather that our current chaotic structures make it virtually impossible for the denomination, as a denomination, to make any serious decisions at all. I think this matters because I believe us to be approaching a point of crisis where decisions will need to be made and fear that if we don’t decide how we can decide things we will be incapable of so doing.

  3. John S Bremner said:

    Yes, perhaps I read into your piece what I wished to say myself. Apologies!

    So to the substance:
    IMO the crisis is already upon us. Within the next two years we will start to enter into a situation of no return, the outcome of which (a further five years down the line?) will be the total disintegration of the URC – or at least the total inability of its ‘structures’ to operate.
    The decision to remove the District (in Scotland ‘Area’) Council level was pastorally disastrous, especially for our smaller congregations. The decision to go to holding GA every two years means that those who are in the driving seat become ever more powerful. Except, of course, they claim not to be powerful and, truth be told, they become ever more aware of just how powerless they are as events overtake them!
    Just as an example of how powerless our ‘leaders’ are, just look at the problem facing us in finding Synod Moderators – and I don’t mean just a situation in which these ‘plumb jobs’ remain vacant for far longer then would have been expected, but look at the theology of those who get the jobs! They are tending now to be people who belong to certain theological camps (‘one for your lot, one for our lot’).

    I’m sounding far too cynical – maybe I’m tired and need a holiday – but I cannot see a way out of this for the URC. Nor am I helped by feeling totally isolated from what is going on, Perhaps that’s my fault – I’m in a pastorate which is out in the sticks and I’m not a great one for ‘social media’, nor do I belong to any ‘groups’ or ‘links’ or ‘networks’ (no-one has ever asked if I might be interested, which would perhaps indicate something, but I don’t know what…..) so I tend not to know what is going on (even long after it has happened!).

    Anyway,,, enough from me……

    Yours aye….

    • John S Bremner said:

      @Nick

      One more thing – you write as follows:

      “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)…..

      The URC’s structures were deliberately left ‘opaque’ in order to accommodate people of differing ecclesial leanings. One senior minister I know says that Elders’ Meetings are not ‘councils of the church’, even though, in my own humble opinion, they are named as such in the relevant section of the URC Manual. The structures were also meant to survive only until the next stage of ‘union’ (meaning union with a Denomination with a different eccleseology, such as the Methodists) which never happened.
      So of course Synods rarely make decisions, because few of those now around remember what Synods were originally for, and, with the disappearance of the District Councils we don’t know each other well enough to trust those who do want to make decisions.

      We lost the plot when we put financial governance above pastoral care and a sense of the ‘local’ URC community.

      • Could not agree more John (except maybe about elders’ meeting where it’s status is deeply ambiguous as part of our incoherent polity).

  4. John S Bremner said:

    Spent much of yesterday in a Synod of Scotland day devoted to helping multi-congregations pastorates. Can’t say I found the input very specific to the title, though interesting nonetheless. The one thing which seems to have come out loud and clear is that a one minister:one congregation set up is far and away the best model for our type of church polity and theology……

    There was a lot about how to share…. and with whom (would have been useful for some of our congregations twenty years ago, but now it’s a bit late)……. but virtually nothing on the content of what is to be shared………..

    By the way, is there a site where people may share theological thoughts and questions in a way coherent with Reformed doctrine? It seems to me that your site would be an excellent forum for discussion on a way forward for the URC which does not involve total capitulation to non-Reformed thinking……

    • The nearest thing is one of the Facebook groups. You would be a welcome addition to it John!

  5. John S Bremner said:

    I’m stretching my limits by getting involved in this – is it a ‘blog’? I’ve no idea how Facebook works, nor do I have the energy (or time for that matter) to find out, I’m afraid. Why can’t people use things like this site? Or don’t I understand? The latter, probably.

    Well, if anyone ever wants my opinion they know where to find me………. I’m in the Year Book.

    • I’m afraid this blog can’t play the role of general discussion forum because it’s mine and I’m neither important enough nor interesting enough to attract a critical mass of contributors.

      James Church, Phil Baiden, Matt Stone and Paul Robinson tried a group blog (ReformationURC) but that represented too distinct a strand of opinion to get traction.

      I’m afraid there just might not be enough people in the URC with enough commitment to online public discussion for it to happen, although, as I say, Facebook does give some opportunities. I would recommend you give it a try. It’s really really easy. Go to Facebook.com and follow the instructions and you can be up and running in 15 minutes.

  6. John S Bremner said:

    Thanks, Nick.

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