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cost of discipleship

This week (first Sunday of September 2016) the lectionary gives me the section of Luke 14 on the cost of discipleship as the Gospel reading. To be a disciple, Jesus says, you have to hate your family and even your own life, you have to take up the cross, you have to dispose of all your possessions. He adds two helpful parables saying that to set out on a building project you can’t afford to finish is to invite ridicule and that to enter a battle you can’t win is foolish and that a king should sue for peace if he thinks he’s hopelessly outnumbered.

Given the current fashion for discipleship talk in the church (here’s the URC “missional discipleship” proposal and here’s the CofE page of links) this is a scary passage. In the case of the URC “discipleship” seems to mean “becoming self consciously and confidently Christian so that you can share your faith” (or something like that) – hence “missional discipleship” (I find this an appalling phrase but I know it has its origins outside the denomination so I’m not blaming anybody for it). In the material as presented I don’t see a lot of warning about cost and completion, nor about cross-carrying and death.

I’m finding it daunting to talk about Jesus’ strong warning about discipleship in this context. Far from encouraging everybody to take some courses and explore some options in developing as disciples his attitude seems to have been one intended to frighten anybody thinking about discipleship  as much as possible. “Hate my family”, “hate my own life”, “give up all my possessions”: and what do I get in return? A cross to carry? I think I’ll pass. Why would anybody, having heard all that, decide to follow Jesus, to become his disciple?

My feeling, reading the gospels, is that Christ wasn’t at all interested in accepting anybody into his circle of disciples. All the times I can think of when somebody approaches him (and there aren’t that many, unsurprisingly) he brushes them off. The demonaic burdened by Legion is sent away, the rich young man is scared off with unreasonable demands, Nicodemus is insulted. Nathanael in John 1 might seem to be an exception but even here Jesus has chosen Philip who calls Nathanael. The pattern seems to me to be that Jesus calls those he wants and pushes everybody else away. He seeks people out and rejects or at least strongly discourages those who seek him.

Now that isn’t necessarily problematic for those of us who are inside the fellowship of the Church, particularly those of us from “dissenting” or “voluntarist” rather than “Christendom”, “national” or “Catholic” “universal” traditions. We are (or should be) used to the idea that those in the Church are those who have been called. God chooses those whom he wills to be part of the Body of Christ, which we may think of in terms of discipleship.

What is more difficult, for me at least, is the contrast between what thay appears to mean to us and what it means in the Gospels (where the word “disciple” belongs, being used very sparingly in Acts and not at all in the Epistles or in Revelation). We seem to have an inclusive, gentle and gradual approach to discipleship. All are called to be disciples and it is something that one can embark on tentatively and in an exploratory way. What it means can vary from one person to another and doesn’t have to be too alarming.

That’s a long way from willingness to give everything up and carry the cross as minimum condition for entry.

I’m starting to think we should be a lot more hesitant in using discipleship language and a lot more humble about our relationship to Christ.

Maybe true disciples are few and far between. Maybe the rest of us depend on them and need to recognise how special they are. Maybe Jesus knows us for what we are and has tasks for us that fall short of what he meant by discipleship. Maybe.

At any rate I’m not comfortable with us using the word while ignoring what the one to whom we are supposed to be discipled has to say about its cost.

For the last weekend in August my wife Pam, our daughter and I and our daughter’s friend, drove up to Edinburgh and back from Hertfordshire so I could preach at Morningside United Church. We (the Brindleys, not the Friend who had never previously been to Edinburgh) had been part of the congregation there until we moved to Potters Bar in August 2012. My friend Steven Manders, who was also a member of the congregation until he went to be ordained at Nairn United Reformed Church in the North of Scotland in 2008, has been minister at MUC (as it is always known) since last summer. He had invited me back to preach and I was keen to see how things were going and to catch up with old friends. It was the first time I had been at MUC since our very emotional farewell service marked the end of fourteen years of membership there.

Steven’s predecessor at MUC, John Smith, preached at my ordination. His ministry had only just begun when we joined in 1998 and he retired from there in 2012. Steven and I are two of the seven people who went into ministry from MUC during the fourteen years John was there, which gives a sense of how fruitful this time was. We had highly successful youth work, around 20 new members joining every year, a succession of impressive young people ordained to eldership in their twenties and thirties and a range of other signs and fruits of the work of the Holy Spirit among us under John’s leadership.

When John left many things changed it is only fair to say that the period of the vacancy and the first year of Steven’s ministry have been difficult. It is a blessing that he is also a highly capable person with a wide range of experience, especially from a career in social work, and that things are now being stabilised.

For me and for Pam it was strange and difficult to be back. MUC is not, quite, the church we joined and left, although we still have many friends there. We stayed at the manse with Steven and shared his minister’s view of the church. At worship I stood in the pulpit rather than sat in the pews where I had sat so many times. We had a hectic weekend seeing friends (and our oldest son who still lives in Edinburgh) and visiting familiar places. We sat up late talking to Steven and his other house guests. Then on Monday morning we set off to drive back to Potters Bar.

My sermon (on Luke 14:1-14) had two related messages for the congregation, for Steven and for me. First the church is a banquet where God decides the seating plan. We sit where He decides not where we think we belong. That is true of every single one of us and perhaps most of all for those of us called to serve in ordained ministry. God has put Steven in the chair at the front of MUC and me in Hertfordshire. Those are our proper places. Secondly God invites those whom he chooses to the church party and Jesus is clear that the host should concentrate not on his or her friends and family, nor on those who can do something for him or her. When throwing a party invite those in need, the “poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind” (v 13). If that’s who we’re supposed to ask then we have to assume that that is who God will have asked and given that we’re at the party we have to assume that that is who we are.

As we approached Potters Bar along the B556 on Monday evening Pam and I were both struck by how much of a home coming it felt. We were back where we lived, where we were supposed to be. We felt this even though for both of us Edinburgh is and will remain “home”. We fully expect and intend to return there some time, when we retire or perhaps for a last ministry, but now home is Potters Bar and Brookmans Park and we thank God for placing us in our seats here and for inviting other “cripples” to join us in this part of the banquet.

 

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.

 all is vanityI imagine I am not alone among full time ministers of the Church in having days when I feel I have totally lost sight of what I believed myself called into the Church to do and to be. My vocation was a deeply personal one. I felt myself compelled to serve but unable to discern what that service consisted of. I looked around for additional things to do that would satisfy God’s claim on my life but couldn’t find them. I knew that my calling was first and foremost one of service to God rather than to anything or anybody else but I couldn’t get any sense of what God could possibly want or need from me.

In the end all I could think of was to put it into the hands of the Church, to trust that the Church would guide and support me in responding so I offered myself for full time stipendiary ministry. 

 

This, I think, is effectively what all stipendiary ministers do. They surrender their lives to God through the Church hoping and trusting that this will lead them to the service to which they are called. The call is to the individual and he or she passes part of the responsibility of discernment to the communal body of Christ in the Church. 

We are thus in a peculiar position of having to work our way through a triangular relationship in which the line joining minister and congregation (or other ecclesial authority) gets its authentication from lines joining both parties to God. This can go disastrously wrong, as anybody with any significant experience of Church life will know. Congregations and ministers can have different expectations of the relationship that lead to conflict and ultimately to breakdown.

In my case this has not happened. Two years in to my ministry here in South Hertfordshire I feel that we are finding our way to a sense of what I am here to do and what the churches are called to alongside me. There have been a range of exciting developments and experiments and relationships within and beyond the congregations are deepening and opening up avenues of exploration for our life and mission.

What I continue to struggle with, from time to time, is the ultimate question for all of us, always. “What’s the point of this?” My conversion to Christianity, in my late twenties and early thirties, was in large part driven by a sense of futility. I’ve written about this elsewhere but it came to seem to me that those areas in which I had sought meaning and direction turned out to be empty and pointless. Political action could not effect any significant change in the circumstances of life and the injustices and agonies of the world. Ethical integrity was illusory and foundationless. Personal relationships were haunted by the impossibilities of communication and of self-knowledge, always full of unknown and uncontrollable pathologies and mysteries.

The Christianity I encountered in the writings, especially, of Hegel and Kierkegaard acknowledged and accepted this assessment of our capabilities and the ways of the world but was not overwhelmed by them. It was able to live without illusion about what we can do but beyond the despair this might occasion. In their different ways these two giants of the nineteenth century offered, through faith, a way of finding strength and hope where futility and collapse threatened in face of the conflict between what we must necessarily want and what we can possibly have and do.

The danger, for me, of service in the Church, is over investment in the importance and effectiveness of what the Church can do. My denomination has a sort of slogan about “making a difference” which, to me, is poison. A tiny, aging and shrinking organisation like ours can’t really hope to make a difference that makes a difference. We can, in little pockets and to individuals, make a difference but when this is seen against the background of the needs of the world it is not a difference that matters. Even these little differences can look pretty laughable when set against the vision of God’s new creation, of the end of sin and death, of eternal life in the presence of God.

In itself this is unproblematic except where the making of the difference, the improving of the world, the growing of the Church, or the saving of souls, is seen as the purpose and goal of the Church. These things all need to be done, to fulfill God’s promise of salvation, but not by us, not by the Church. God will do these things using whatever methods and through whatever people God determines. After all Nebuchadnezzar of of Babylon, was unknown to himself, the servant of God and agent of his plans when he conquered Jerusalem, overthrew the Davidic monarchy and destroyed Solomon’s Temple.

We in the Church are called to do certain things, but the point of them is not the things themselves but their witness to God’s promise and God’s action. The Church has not purposes, goals, or objectives of its own. It exists only to point beyond itself and does well always to remember that.

As soon as it begins, self-importantly, to imagine it can “make a difference” everything it does is vanity, is sin, is subject to death and emptiness.

In the UK United Reformed Church we are in the midst of a discussion about whether to pass an enabling resolution that would allow those of our churches that wish to register for same sex marriages to do so. The agreement of the denomination is required under the legislation in order for any church to proceed in this way. The Baptist Union has already expressed such agreement on the grounds that their understanding of church polity is such that this is exclusively a matter for decision by the local church. The URC has taken the view (almost certainly correctly) that our ordering by our manual means that a positive decision by the denomination that we are prepared to allow local churches the decision is required.

In brief I am uncomfortable with what we in the Church may seem to be saying about sexual difference and gender by accepting same sex marriage although I am quite comfortable with our affirming and blessing same sex relationships. This is chiefly because of the very bad arguments being presented by many of those in favour of this development. I thus find myself in favour of something while rejecting almost of the reasons put forward for it, indeed of finding those reasons harmfully misleading and thus in the difficult position of being able neither wholeheartedly to support nor to reject the suggestion that we enable same sex marriage in churches.

The core of my unease revolves around two problems that I have:

1) I think the arguments of those who reject same-sex marriage about the historical and traditional character of marriage are much closer to the truth than those of the people in favour. I further believe that the interpretation given of the relevant sections of the Bible offered by these opponents are more credible as statements of what those passages mean;

2) I think the arguments of those who favour same-sex marriage lead us in the direction of a way of thinking about the significance of sexual difference as dangerously misleading as that of their “complementarian” conservative opponents.

It is my considered opinion, after much reflection on this matter, that marriage has its origins in the ordering of the bearing and raising of children and in particular of making definitive patriarchal lines of descent. These origins are both historical and theological. In fact I would suggest that any attempt to distinguish sharply between history and theology is a profound mistake in the context of Christian faith. Our faith is in a God who is the creator and agent of history and whose decisive presence within Creation is one localisable in time and space and thus itself historical. To understand what marriage is, has been and will be we do indeed need to take the word of God in the Bible, discerned under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, as our highest authority, but it cannot be interpreted outside of and against history.

One of the things this means is that we need to take seriously the variety of forms and expressions of marriage in the Bible, especially in the Old Testament, and their treatment there seriously as guide to our reflection on the best contemporary accounts of the nature, development and variety of marriage through history and in the contemporary world. One thing that is clear from this is that forms of marriage dissociated from the legitimation of children and the making arrangements for their care and socialisation, from the transfer of property and other rights and the setting of their status are highly exceptional and unusual. Such forms may have existed in the past but rarely and in situations far removed from the historical experiences that have shaped the legal arrangements of the United Kingdom.

It is also clear that over the last 50 years there has been a very rapid development in the UK in the direction of this dissociation. The distinction between children legitimated by marriage between their mothers and their fathers and children not so legitimated was clear as recently as the 1960s and is now almost gone. If it is true that the core functions of marriage were, in the period before the 1960s, this legitimation and the enforcement of paternal responsibility for their support, and I believe this to be the case, then this collapse of the link between paternity and marriage is a matter of great import. Indeed I would suggest that it leaves marriage as a legal status with almost no real function, from the point of view of the state and of society. This is reflected in the ease with which marriage can now be dissolved. Where once the state acted as if it mattered that marriages endured and social pressures were brought to bear to reinforce this endurance divorce is now routine and without great stigma.

We can identify a great many contributing factors to this development but I can’t see how anyone could doubt that the achievement of a much higher degree of legal and economic autonomy by women is the key one. Women no longer necessarily need the support of a man to support and protect them. The Biblical texts. where they discuss the relationship between the sexes, assume the dependency of women on men, which has been a key feature of almost all known societies (again there are exception but exceptions are what they are) until very recently.

This is a change that we need to take into account when we read the Bible, even where we regard it as authoritative. One response, that of the “complementarians” is to reject these developments as inimical to the will of God. That the Bible assumes the dominance of men and dependency of women is taken as making this feature of past societies as being ordained by God. I will not take time here to argue against this view. I regard it as deeply and appallingly wrong.

Alternatively we have to develop an understanding of the authority of the Bible that can allow us to read and interpret it in ways that acknowledge that history did not end with the closing of the canon of scripture and that the texts we have are themselves historical documents through which God is revealed but which do not stand outside of time and cannot be taken directly to reveal eternal truth. The revelation is itself inside history and cannot be detached from it.

This means (to bring me to the second focus of my unease) we need, urgently, to understand how sexual difference is being transformed and what this means theologically and historically to the Christian church. The arguments of those in favour of the recognition of same sex marriages tend strongly towards accepting the default liberal position that individuals should be regarded as the abstract bearers of rights, understood essentially in terms of property rights. On this basis marriage is a private matter between two abstract individuals with all concrete characteristics of these individuals being irrelevant. Its significance is not a matter about which society or the state need have any view, since their primary interest has always been in children and this interest is now dealt with elsewhere (in the complex web of legislation and other forms of regulation of child support and care which no longer takes much interest in marital status).

Here there has been a strong tendency for those in the Church favouring same sex marriage to play a leading role in the generation of a new ideology of marriage in which an emotional-psychological celebration of a form of bonding between two individuals is celebrated as a wonderful gift from God and put at the centre of human life. This ideological work is not in itself hugely harmful. There is something true in it and it is anyway only a theological gloss on the common sense of our time (as any acquaintance with popular culture will make clear). What does cause me difficulty is that it distracts us from some, what seem to me, urgent tasks for theological reflection.

1) What is now the  significance for us of sexual difference? A choice between a reactionary attempt to return to a patriarchal order or a liberal denial that there is any significance in this difference is dismaying. The sexes remain different and the relationships between them remain problematic. This is not to deny the reality and importance of those people who transgress this difference. In fact it is to suggest that we (all of us) need to engage properly with this transgressive experience to understand the boundaries being transgressed.

2) How should we respond to the radically new forms of family structure that are emerging? We all know that family is now actually something very different from what it was 50 years ago. This should be a matter of primary importance as we discuss marriage but if one did not already know it it would often be impossible to gather it from our conversations and debates. Our retreat from reality in this regard is a profound failure. We need either to embrace or resist these changes, at any rate we have to have something coherent to say about them. To affirm the permanently voluntary psychologised and privatised  “marriage” that is emerging as if it were the same historical institution with a few welcome improvements simply won’t do.

rings and bible

We’re talking about marriage, or more particularly marriage between people of the same sex, again. The URC General Assembly met on the weekend just past and unsurprisingly found it was unable to agree by unanimous consent that permission to register for same sex marriage be given to those churches that wish so to do. As a result a process of consultation has begun to decide whether the denomination should take this step at some (as yet not fully defined) future date. Has I been at Assembly, and I’m by no means sorry I was not, I would have favoured the passing of the resolution, but I would have done so somewhat reluctantly. This is for reasons similar to the ones that would have made me unwilling to commend the reports of the Faith and Order committee.

I have no objection at all to churches conducting same sex marriages. If the churches in which I serve wished me to conduct such weddings I would do so. My reluctance arises from my strong feelings of unease about the arguments offered in favour of this step by those promoting it. That is to say that I agree with their conclusions but find their reasons deeply unsatisfying and even misleading. even more so than the arguments of their opponents. So I would have to support their resolutions while feeling that in doing so I was appearing to give support to a set of propositions with which I not only don’t fully agree but positively disagree.

For the purposes of clarifying my own mind and in hope of being able to enter into conversation with others who can enlighten and guide me to a clearer sense of what I believe on this matter I offer the following these:

  1. Marriage is a thoroughly historical and social institution and it makes no sense to try to construct from its history a single ahistorical essence, although study of the history will point one to certain transhistorical continuities that are useful in understanding it
  2. The Bible reflects this historical development, with a wide range of marital forms being described within it, from the polygamy and concubinage of the Genesis stories, through the patriarchal marriage forms of the historical books, to the harem arrangements of the kings of both Israel and other nations
  3. The New Testament assumes and accepts the (slightly different but in many ways similar) arrangements of the societies (Jewish, Greek and Roman) of its time as normative for most purposes (especially in the pastoral epistles)
  4. All of the forms of marriage described or assumed in the Old and New Testament rest on the subordination of women to men and focus strongly on provisions for the legitimacy of children, the inheritance of property rights and the cementing of kinship relationships which almost all historians of marriage agree have been its primary social functions through most of social-historical time
  5. For the early Church (up to the middle ages) marriage was primarily a legal arrangement defined by the civil power and recognised by the Church. Until the time of Constantine this recognition was of a legal relationship which was not defined first and foremost by the Church (hence the apparent lack of any wedding liturgies until the 4th Century
  6. The New Testament witness, while accepting the legitimacy and acceptability of marriage is suspicious and sometimes hostile to it, presenting celibacy as a real alternative, and I believe, mostly seeing celibacy as preferable but not possible for all
  7. The last 50 years have seen an unprecedented crisis of marriage as an institution, through which it is being redefined in a fundamental way. Legal marriage is now an optional part of a menu of quasi-marital elements including cohabitation, joint ownership of property and shared parenthood. The choice of whether to add the legal partnership to some combination of these elements is a matter of choice and in most social contexts makes little real difference. There are few remaining social sanctions against the legally unmarried who share some or all of the other elements of marriage, and all elements are known by all participants to be permanently voluntary and thus inherently temporary.
  8. This means that marriage is either a largely irrelevant appendix to the concrete social reality of sexual partnership (if one reserves “marriage” to mean the legal status) or else its legal aspect has become just one (relatively unimportant) part of it.
  9. It is this that makes same sex marriage possible for the state. All the other elements of marriage (cohabitation, shared property, common parenthood) are now possible and generally accepted for same sex couples (despite residual resistance in some quarters, especially in the case of parenthood) so that extending the legal status makes little or no difference to anything
  10. Some churches have a huge problem with this process since they hold marriage to be a sacrament (or in some cases an ordinance) eternally set (at some point) and unalterable, which means that the churches’ definition of marriage now has an increasingly tenuous connection to the actually existing social institution. This is something new, since previously the churches’ understanding of marriage largely aligned to that of society, indeed I would suggest it was largely based on that social understanding

My problem is that both sides of the current debate argue for ahistorical definitions of marriage, one that generalises that which existed before the crisis inaugurated in the 1960s, the other that generalises the idealised self-image of contemporary voluntary and thoroughly liberal arrangements. Neither, in my view, has a real claim to theological integrity, since neither is faithful to the Biblical witness that marriage as such is a passing institution that belongs to the current age and not to the Kingdom.

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.