What the URC might be capable of if it were braver

Assembly-sunday-worshipI attended a meeting of the Thames North Synod of the United Reformed Church on Saturday and on reflection I find I came away with some grounds for hope. I found what I observed of General Assembly (via the streaming feed and the written reports) rather dispiriting. The meeting on Saturday was primarily to report back from that Assembly so my hopes were not particularly high. However I was delighted to find that John Ellis, Elder Moderator of General Assembly, was giving an address, since his address to Assembly was the only thing about it that cheered me up.

John again stressed some thoughts that I believe are crucially important:

  • he reaffirmed the central significance of the URC’s ecumenical vocation, calling us to be sacrificial in our approach to ecumenical collaboration and cooperation;
  • he urged us to be more imaginative and daring in our vision of our denominational future, saying that stepping away from the bolder future “scenarios” by Mission Council was to be regretted;
  • he urged us to think carefully about whether and how we can justify our continuing separate structures (appearing to share some of my scepticism about the extent to which being “Reformed” can provide this justification);
  • he raised the necessity of more fully embracing the Presbyterian aspect of our inheritance in enabling more “strategic” approaches to the allocation of our resources, above all deployment of stipendiary ministry;
  • he suggested that our central and synodical functions and teams are too big for the current size of the denomination.

Even more encouraging (for me) was the report back from the Revd Dr John Parry on the resolutions brought by the Faith and Order Committee on the “Future of the Church”. I wrote at the time about how bitterly disappointing I found these. To point to church meeting and ordained eldership as features of our denominational life that can lead to its renewal and revitalisation seems absurd to me and the stress on being Reformed only very slightly less so. In thinking about the looming crisis we face they are an irrelevance and their occupying the space where we are supposed to be thinking about our future (along the lines suggested by John Ellis) is a tragic waste of the time we have before it becomes too late to do anything.

That John Parry said something along these lines (although much more moderately) as our Synod report back was, for me, hugely positive. I may not agree wholeheartedly with what seemed to be his proposed answer (which seemed to be a reaffirmation of Congregationalism and greater stress on the local church) but I wholeheartedly welcome his recognition that we need to do something different rather than try to stress some features of our common life we might imagine to be distinctive.

A decisive turn towards Presbyterianism would be a vital first step, in my view. This would enable us to recognise that ecclesial structures beyond the local congregation have their own legitimate and proper vocations and the authority to pursue them. We are evolving in this direction,anyway, with the move to grouping of churches and team ministries but unless those teams recognise themselves as genuinely corporate bodies (where the term corporate is intended to invoke the body of Christ rather than the legal personality of a joint stock company) they will not fulfill the role that is required of them,

In particular we in the URC have to recognise the need for more than one kind of ministry of word and sacraments. Our small, aging and declining fellowships (that is most of congregations) really do need ministry that focuses on preserving and enriching their communal spiritual life, that values it for what it is. Some of these fellowships can find paths to growth but many will not. Their faithful witness needs ministerial support and this is an important ministry for our denomination at this time in its history. This ministry will have particular shapes and forms in its proclamation of the word, its worshiping of God, its celebration of the sacraments and its pastoral care. Such ministry should be recognised and supported, valued and nurtured

At the same time we are an enormously wealthy denomination in terms of capital assets and we also have a range of distinctive, dynamic and vigorous fellowships and missions, of a variety of types, styles and locations. We also have within our current roll of ministers people with all kinds of gifts and callings. Alongside our ministry of care and witness in the large numbers of shrinking “traditional” URC congregations we should be equipping and supporting ministries of other kinds without looking for any return. The Special Category Ministers were a sort of attempt at this but one from which we appear to be retreating.

I am suggesting that a properly Presbyterian URC with a properly sacrificial approach to ecumenism and a properly strategic view of the use of its capital assets could do much, much more. If we looked across the landscape of the Church catholic in this country and identified gaps or opportunities where the deployment of our financial and human resources could make a real difference then the next period of our life together could be very exciting indeed, This would mean us giving up the idea that the URC of the ’70s could or should be recreated and even that the URC as a separate and distinct denomination needs to be preserved but in the freedom this surrender gave us we might hear God saying some very interesting things indeed.

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5 comments
  1. zmYJohn Bremner said:

    ‘Presbyterian’ but not ‘Reformed’? I’m quite clear that the first term refers to structures and the second to theological content, but I’m not clear on how ‘Presbyterian’ is possible without the Reformed ecclesiology.
    One of our problems in the URC is our terrible ignorance of the Reformed confessions and explanations of faith. I happen to believe that the Scots Confession (1560) and the Heidelberg Catechism (1563) form a challenging but very positive basis for church growth. This growing understanding of our faith starts with a brief discussion of the content of Reformed faith during Sunday worship. I am finding that both my congregations are responding positively to the challenge and enjoying the opportunity to discuss these matters during worship.
    That said, I repeat what I have said previously on this site: it is now too late to save the URC in its present form. And joining with the Methodists or the Anglicans is the last thing we need to do – unless they agree to a Statement of Faith which is firmly grounded in Reformed theology!
    But then, I doubt anyone is going to pay any attention……

    • Presbyterian order is not a special preserve of the Reformed tradition, I think. I would regard Methodism as Presbyterian in its polity, for example, and some Pentecostal churches. There are three basic principles of Church order, episcopal, presbyterian and Congregational and I think we need at present to tack in a presbyterian direction.

  2. Elliot said:

    One thing that struck me when reading this, Nick, is that you appear to have disconnected church polity from concerns of conformity to the scriptural pattern (if such a model can actually be discerned) and from any doctrinal grounds and have taken an instrumental view of polity as a vehicle for the management of the denomination’s assets and standards (forgive me if I misread you). If I am right in that characterisation, why not go a step further and advocate the URC adopting a ‘moderated episcopacy’ of type favoured by nonconformists of old such as Richard Baxter? In other words a system of church government based on elected but fixed bishops acting as the president and, to some degree, manager of regional synods of ministers and elders. Viewed instrumentally, it is would appear a better managerial model than rotating moderators and might clear up some of the structural oddities at the top of the URC.

    Having bishops also has the benefit of making the URC more acceptable to the Church of England. Given that most of the historical distance between the URC and the CofE is (to me, at least) no longer apparent in either denomination (e.g. the regulative principle that drives presbyterian and congregational views of church office is not (as I see it) that deeply held in the URC, neither the URC or the CofE now requires subscription to any comprehensive confessional statement but only an assent to the ‘historic formularies’ of the 39 articles or the WCF/SDF, both allow a broad approach to doctrine within trinitarian boundaries, both now permit the ordination of women at all levels of office, both now have substantial lay elements in the governance of congregations and councils). It seems to me that only sticking points is that the Church of England still does not accept non-episcopal ordination as complete ordination and many URC members like the secular political trappings of being ‘nonconformists’, whereas the CofE is part of the Leviathan of the state.

    Many of the so-called English ‘presbyterians’ of the Restoration period hoped that conditions such as those set out above would change in the Church of England so that they could rejoin the CofE and bring greater unity to the Church. It seems to me that the churches that made up the URC had already largely abandoned many of the old noncon sticking points prior to 1972 and the URC and the CofE have moved closer together.

    If, as you argue, the ecumenical vision is the primary vision of the URC, and not the Reformed understanding of the faith or the two office view of a gospel church, what is the impediment to taking steps such as notional episcopacy which would serve the cause of (re-)unity with the main denomination in England and Wales?

  3. I think you’re absolutely correct, Elliot. I am a strong supporter of the proposed arrangements in Wales that follow something like the pattern you outline and would advocate our accepting a version of the episcopacy if that would enable our re-entry into the Church of England (although I suspect establishment of the church is a more substantial problem, as you indicate).

    My endorsement of John Elliot’s argument for a “presbyterian turn” is based on a perception that this would be easier to achieve in the near term.

    I think it is possible to find congregation, presbyterian and episcopal elements in the church polities implied in the New Testament and that any really existing polity is likely to combine the three in various ways, as the URC does. The way in which they’re combined at a particular moment for a particular part of the Church will be a matter of judging what is required to respond to God’s calling.

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