“The future of the URC”: an expression of disappointment

The URC General Assembly is meeting in Cardiff as I write and among the things being offered to it for commendation is the paper “What is the Spirit saying to the churches? Affirming the United Reformed Church’s future”. I am not a member of GA and so do not have to express an opinion but if I were I would have to vote against this resolution. I cannot commend this paper but rather find myself bewildered and dismayed by it. It seems to me to be complacent and irresponsible and to evade the real questions that face us while answering the wrong questions with answers that are unhelpful and misleading.

It nowhere addresses either the real crisis of our denomination nor the opportunities this crisis opens up. It fails to take account either of our particular and unique history and identity nor of the historical trends that are shaping our present and our future. It nowhere acknowledges properly the changing contexts within which are set, both in terms of the shifting character of the societies and nations within which we are placed  and of the transformation of the worldwide catholic Church of which we are a part. As a result it offers no vision for the kind of change of direction we urgently need but rather encourages us to imagine that we can revive past glories that exist only in a nostalgic misreading of our yesterdays. All of this represents a terrible missed opportunity, particularly since some of the elements for the sort of bold discernment of what the Spirit is saying to us, but does not follow through with them.

The reality is that most of our local congregations are shrinking and aging. The rate of our decline, steady at about 3% per year since the early 70s may well be accelerating to something closer to 4% and since we now have 1/3 as many people in 3/4 as many churches there is an increasing tendency for stipendiary ministers to be spread across multiple churches just as those churches aging membership makes it more and more difficult to find lay leadership in them. As a result our congregations are either placed in a purely defensive position of maintaining the bare bones of church life or need to accept leadership from outside the denomination with attendant difficulties of their continuing really to be local expressions of any coherent denominational identity (which was always problematic for the URC anyway).

Church meetings are rendered increasingly powerless in real terms as the main locus of life for the stipendiary ministers who are to an increasing extent the backbone of the denomination moves from the local church (which is only one of several each serves) towards groups of ministers which have no coherent status within our structures.

This is against a background where denominations as such are much less significant in the life of the Church, with the growth of independent churches and of networks which structure themselves in ways that combine quasi episcopal authority of an extremely individualistic rather than institutional forms (“apostolic networks”) and the fragmentation of church life as new and unfamiliar forms of church, especially with Pentecostal backgrounds, grow.

Thus our denominational life simultaneously weakens overall (as we become smaller and less visible to others) and strengthens internally (as we become more centralised and local congregations lose their influence and the centre strengthens). This is likely to continue as more churches reach the point where they can’t continue and the money from their buildings flows to the 13 synods (to whom the property ultimately belongs). We can see this process very clearly beginning in my own synod, Thames North, where a mission fund built up from the sale of property is becoming an important source of financial support for missional initiatives. To be clear I regard this as unequivocally a Good Thing, but would like us to recognise the way it shifts the balance of influence within the denomination.

It seems to me that we urgently need to recognise that the denomination we were (or imagined ourselves to be) when we took the (in my view) mistaken decision to try to become a permanent institution in the 1990s, giving up the urgently ecumenical self-image of the 1970s, cannot be sustained forever, or even for much longer.

The great asset we have is not some elusive “Reformed identity”, nor the supposed uniqueness of our conciliarity or our practice of ordaining elders. Our assets are exactly that, our assets, and the flexibility our loose and incoherent structures give us. We are immensely wealthy (with property holdings in the hundreds of millions of pounds) and carry relatively little baggage. If we were bold enough to say that we accept that what we were (a network of mostly Congregational churches) is passing away in a world where it is no longer really relevant but that we will honour and take care of its remnants until their end comes we would be free to start imagining what might come next,

To say that we will try to preserve and renew the outward forms of a passing form of the church is preventing us from striking out into a future that will connect to, enhance and strengthen the Church of tomorrow, a Church that will be fundamentally different from the denominationalism of the churches of the Protestant Reformation.

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