Where do we come from?
The United Reformed Church is one of the smaller mainstream denominations – but although it is small it plays a dynamic and challenging part in the British Christian community. It continues to punch above its weight.
It was formed in 1972 by English Presbyterians and English and Welsh Congregationalists – that is nearly 50 years ago. In 1981 this union was joined by the Churches of Christ and then in 2000 by Scottish Congregationalists.
The original vision was one which would bring unity across all our denominations – and it was envisaged that our union would be transitional – not that we would form a separate denomination. But as we all know – ecumenism has moved on and our vision now is one of working together, celebrating the unity which we know in diversity. And we are left with a rather cumbersome title – The United Reformed Church.
We have also discovered that it takes a lot of energy and time to make such organic unity work – take as an example the differences in churchmanship among Congregationalists, Presbyterians and the Churches of Christ. The transitions have been painful for many – but the lessons and the outcome surely fruitful
The URC seeks to work with all traditions and rejoices in being part of more than 400 Local Ecumenical Partnerships (Methodist, Anglicans, Baptists and others). It is also committed to theological and cultural diversity – valuing and holding together different insights and understandings. The Statement of Faith and Order, found in the Rejoice and Sing hymnal at number 761, helps us to understand this and to see how it works out in practice.
In a nutshell:
· We uphold the historic Trinitarian Creeds (Rejoice & Sing: 759, 760).
· We find the supreme authority for our lives in the Word of God discerned in the Bible, through the Holy Spirit
· We order our lives through Councils of the church, where Ministers and lay people together discern the mind of God.
“The first question I was asked when I went for assessment as a potential Minister was ‘Why the URC?’
“All I could think of in that moment was, ‘Because it allows a real freedom – in worship – in liturgy and in understanding.’ And as I reflect I would probably still say the same – there is a freedom for us as church to be and to worship in the way which is right for us and for the community we serve.”
How does our churchmanship work?
We have a conciliar structure with no hierarchy – ie we work through Councils who comprise members representing our local churches. These are the decision makers.
We have a General Assembly (which meets every two years) with two Assembly Moderators (one lay and one ordained who serve for two years). We have a General Secretary who is appointed for a seven-year term.
Then at every level there is a council in place where each church will be represented and where decisions will be made.
There are 13 Synods and we are in Yorkshire Synod. Our Moderator is Revd Kevin Watson who has pastoral oversight of both churches and Ministers in the Synod. Note it is not the Moderator who makes decisions – the decisions are taken by the Councils.
Synod meets twice a year (visitors always welcome) and it is here that our local decisions are made through recommendations from Synod Council, other Synod Committees or local churches.
Sometimes we may feel that these Councils do not matter very much for us – but they are responsible for the Ministry we receive and they are there to support the church and to support the Minister. This is becoming increasingly important for us as we consider our future direction. We cannot take anything for granted.
So back to the start of this section – every Church Meeting is part of the decision-making process.
Which leads neatly into Church Membership.
Why become a Church member?
People often feel part of a Church Family without making the commitment to membership – and on one level that is fine – so why take this step?
There are two parts to Church membership:
· 1. Confirmation – confession of faith (a re-affirmation of Baptism) which confirms us as part of the whole Church of Jesus Christ
· 2. Reception into membership of the local church – where we can be with other disciples of Jesus supporting and caring for each other so that we can live out our life as Christians day by day, week by week. We all need this support – the church is a tool/a vehicle for us to do that.
Okay but doesn’t that happen anyway?
So let’s be very practical.
As members of the Church Meeting, members are empowered to be part of the decision-making process in the church. Sometimes this may not seem important but there are times in the life of every church when it is – choosing elders, deciding vision and mission priorities, calling a Minister (or these days making a case for a Minister). Does this church warrant a Minister? How many members are there? This is in effect how the commitment in a church can be judged. How else can we measure ‘commitment’?
But for me membership goes beyond that. It is about making a public acknowledgement that this is where our commitment lies. It is about standing up and being counted.
If, as disciples of Jesus, we believe that the local church is important – if we want to ensure that the fellowship will endure into the future – then we have a responsibility to play our part in making this happen. If no-one is prepared to take that responsibility the local church (as we know it) will certainly not last beyond a generation. And you don’t need me to spell out why.
I am fond of saying that membership is both a privilege and a responsibility. A privilege to be part of the Church of Jesus Christ and to be seen to express that locally, and a responsibility to do that well as faithful disciples.
So what about Elders? Where do they fit?
Each year we hold our Annual Service of Rededication and affirm those who have felt called to serve this church as elders.
United Reformed Church Elders are ordained. Elders in the URC are not stewards or deacons or PCC members. Elders are not managers – they have responsibility, with the Minister, for the spiritual well-being of the church. Elders are part of the leadership team of the local church sharing oversight and leadership with the Minister. They are responsible for making provision for worship and teaching, for promoting witness and mission in the community and world, and for the peace, unity and welfare of the church. Elders, with the Minister, have a pastoral responsibility for members and friends.
It is also their duty to ensure that buildings are fit for purpose, and that finances are managed wisely. At Stainbeck we have a Management Committee with a Property Sub-Group which undertakes this and reports to the Elders’ Meeting..
Notice they are not asked to do all these things but to ensure that they are done and that all is in good order. It is the responsibility of members to support them in this.
Elders are ordained for life but they are inducted into their local church. In the same way as members are confirmed and received into the whole Church of Jesus Christ and then received into local membership.
Eldership is a calling – very different from filling vacancies on a committee. Elders are a gift to the church and one of the strengths of our denomination.
Revd Angela Hughes.