I 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.