You May be United Reformed If

  • You think the right colour to paint a church is blue
  • Your Church sells Marmalade to raise money
  • Your Church has a walking group
  • On receiving an important document you first proof read it
  • You regularly make soup in large quantities
  • Psalm 23 is ok but nothing compared with the Scottish Psalters version of Psalm 24 or Isaac Watts version of Psalm 122 it really is just another psalm
  • The right tune to any hymn is that which is sung by your own congregation
  • You put your hymnbook down to sing “When I survey..”
  • Having candles in church is heatedly debated on the grounds of fire risk

I will add as I think of fresh ones

The Reformed Look

This church should feel very familiar to many people in the URC; the plain wood, the clear glass the white washed walls, and the communion table at the centre in the front with a pulpit above and the Bible open. If it was not for the red carpet you’d almost be sure you were in a URC.

However look closer and you see the heating systems a bit different to what we are used and there is writing on the wall which is not in English. You are actually looking at a Waldensian Church in the Alps in Italy. If you click on the link it should take you to a webpage that tells you more about the Waldensians. However it is enough to say they are the Italian branch of the Reformed family of churches.
Some of the more ornate traditions within the faith look at us and see cheapness, they are of course wrong. The chairs and furnishings may be plain wood but they high quality oak, the windows may let through plenty of light but if you look carefully you see they are not plain glass, the drape across the door may not be spectacularly embroidered but is of heaviest quality velvet. This is not cheapness but a deliberate aesthetic and the quality of the goods use belies their plainness.

I have heard a number of theories, some suggest it is iconoclasm, if that is the case it is to Zwingli in Zurich it comes from not Calvin in Geneva, for whom candles and such were irrelevancy. It might have been a reaction against those who would enforce ritual upon us that we chose to be plain just to contrary, or perhaps as in many places the early churches were barns we have chosen to remember those times by keeping as similar sort of aesthetic. I suspect it is kept today largely because to us it feels right.

In what is often a light calm space comes a specific arrangement of items. At the focus is the communion table and not the cross (empty or otherwise) which puts our action in the context of a God who choose to connect with us. In quite a few churches although the communion table is the focal point the congregation is arranged so that we see each other emphasising the communal nature of worship. The lectern and pulpit are also prominent at the front, sometimes above the communion table, sometimes to the side to remind us visually of the importance of the Word. The lack of paintings and other artwork has not made the space lacking symbols but one where distractions are eliminated to allow the central symbols a more clear space in which to speak. It encourages us to pay attention to these things.

A Restless People

Firstly I have reached a bit of an impasse. I seem to be totally confused about what has been put into my local congregations Newsletter. So what I am going to do is keep posting them to the editor when finished and putting up Monthly one here, but the order will not be the same as in the Magazine. Now onto this month’s piece

It is one of the oft forgotten things that John Calvin was a refugee in Geneva to the day he died, he never took Genevan citizenship. In fact Geneva at the time had a large émigré population of Protestants from France, as well as attracting others from as far away as Scotland.  It was also a faction ridden city, not really a comfortable place to settle. John Calvin is therefore unique amongst the Reformers in not serving within his own homeland but always as an alien.

This odd coincidence has become a repeated pattern of travel and dislocation within the Reformed tradition.  There are the Pilgrim Fathers, who travelled from North East Lincolnshire to Holland, then back to the UK and onto found Plymouth Colony in what is now the United States. Gainsborough URC claims direct descent from the congregation that they belonged to. The Waldensians travelled from their valleys in Northern Italy to Geneva to escape persecution in the seventeenth century. The five mile act making people walk five miles from their homes to worship. John Bunyan’s work, Pilgrim’s Progress was very much a creation of those days. More recently, the continual moving across the Scottish border of more fervent Presbyterians, which supported the former Presbyterian churches in what is now Northern Synod and then the Industrial revolution pulling Scots south into England to provide the management for the factories. The burning bush is the start of the story of the Exodus. Reformed Christians seem to be on the move whether voluntarily, force  or in the imagination.

This seems to have entered our psyche in the URC we even imagine our buildings as connected with travel. Some think of the church building as a meeting tent that moves with the congregation; if the congregation moves, then you need a new building where they now are. Or perhaps it is a caravanserai, a place where people who are travelling, could come together from their wanderings, a place of relative safety and companionship with other travellers.  It is hardly surprising we often struggle with being a local church, somehow we are never quite at home rather we echo the writer to the Hebrews:

For here we have no lasting city, but we are looking for the city that is to come. 
(Hebrews 13:14)

Responding through the tradition

The coupling of powerful ideas
with each able to stir the imagination
that pull against the other
falling into no easy rest
a turbulent route that
has dangerous falls on one side
a whirlpool that will suck us in
there is no quiet water between
the only way to move forward
is to use the force of one
to balance the other.

Is it surprising that
those who will navigate
these waters
speak in measured tone
the risk of a missed balanced
is not the slight wobble
but an infatuation
that sends you spiralling
into the whirlpool of
a God so loving that
we can not conceive him
of him judging anyone
is beyond him
or head towards the falls
of a God who is so holy
that we are so base material
that we are destroyed
by the temerity even to approach.

However there is a third monster
that travels with the careful
tried and tested navigator
that captures the unwary sailors heart
by saying there are no monsters glories
and with careful line of thought
final safety may be assured
thus giving us deadly words
that do not speak to the heart
which sucked many careful people
dry of the blood of passion
for we have lost more to it
than too the others.


DSCF0001As I write this I am about to go on holiday (yes it was written well in advance) and amongst my plans are to do a few walks, not particularly difficult walks, maybe one out to take photos of a lighthouse, a walk around a RSPB site I have not visited before, a couple of afternoons Geocaching with my Goddaughters, that sort of thing, dry weather would be nice.

This has got me back pondering the restless nature of the Reformed, but particularly our attraction to walking. St Andrew’s has its own walking group. In that it is not unusual for a URC, the majority of those I have been in do. Indeed up until fairly recently I just assumed that having a walking group was something churches tended to do. Then for some reason I checked it out. Other traditions just don’t do it in the same way.

However by the mid-nineteenth Century many Non-Conformist churches had walking groups. These were aimed a people in the towns to provide an alternative to more hedonistic attractions for their spare time. The idea was closely linked in with the work of Wordsworth and Ruskin and seeing in nature a more spiritual connectedness than there was pleasure attractions. One Sunday in 1891 T A Leonard at the time a Congregational Minister in Colne in Lancashire got up preach a sermon extolling the advantages of a walking holiday when compared with more commercial pleasures of Blackpool. It was a sermon that was to change a life and that life was his.

The church meeting took him at his word, and he ended up leading a holiday for young men. It got heard about by a prominent Congregationalist minister and Social Reformer, John Brown Paton, who was looking for a way to keep the Book Clubs he’d set up going over the summer. The result was he approached T A Leonard about running holidays connected with the book clubs and thus the Cooperative Holiday Association (1894). T A Leonard went on to form the Holiday Fellowship (1913) and Glasgow HF Outdoor Club (1917, while serving as a minister in Glasgow) among other things. He is also credited with being one of the founders of the Ramblers Association and influential on the Youth Hostelling Association. Walking was chosen not simply because it washealthy exercise, but because the pace of it allowed a person to connect more deeply with the countryside around. It was therefore not simply a physical exercise but a spiritual one as well, and I pretty sure that the fact that they were walking together meant an emphasis on the communal and the enjoyment of being with each other. Indeed now I can say why the chores on Iona are so reminiscent of Youth Hostelling holidays in my youth, the same Reformed piety of all sharing in the work and keeping down the cost was behind both.


This month I am doing something different as no article appeared in my congregations magazine. Back in the summer I attended a conference on Reformed Spirituality. Two meditative pieces of writing came out of the conference. I have chosen the one that picks up journey as there is something very restless about Reformed spirituality. However there is another reason for this, in writing this I started to find ways of speaking from the tradition that seemed to capture the multiplicity of its threads. These meditations look as if they flow tidily through and yet with careful reading of this one you will find that in actual fact there are jumps and incongruities that slightly jar with each other:

“O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you;
my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you,
as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.
So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary,
beholding your power and glory”*

Its a long way back
along the river where perch rise
beside the trolley from last week’s shopping
past the barges named Jerusalem and Salome
the path-dirt dusts our feet
as we step between the thin bank grass
we pass youths gathered under
the generous shade of a horse chestnut
to share the dregs in a lager can
their dog barks at our imprudent approach
but is distracted by a passing cox’s yell
Still there is far to go
Past the fun fair stalls on the edge of town
selling bows for babies and lurid coloured clothes
our feet twist on the bicycle rutted path
until they hit unyielding concrete of slabs
bordered by a high walls
a heavy church door clunks closed
and coffee drinkers stare out of cafe window
while their iphones recharge in front of them
a bible carrying nun greets us
as she mounts her bicycle and rides away.
Still there is farther to go
the bridge rises to another road
that leads us by garden fence and hedges
until they are replaced by stone topped walls
a gate opens leading to a rising path which leads
across bog cotton where dark earth crumbles
as our too heavy feet make uncertain progress
and sheep drinking from peat-orange stream
are all who observe our progress.
Still we must go on.

*Psalm 63:1-2 English Standard Version

The debate over the colour of church padlocks

This is a story I have told before and no doubt will tell again elsewhere but it shows the way something trivial can have layers of meaning.

Many, moons ago, I was sitting in a classroom in Westminster college when the tutor (not a member of Westminster staff) opinined that the reason we got heated debates over the colour of church padlocks is that people felt that they were qualified to have an opinion about that.

I came back and happened to recount the story to my minister. She then recalled a heated church meeting of several years ago where one senior member got up to complain that the guttering was not painted Presbyterian Blue any more. In other words the choice of colour of padlock on the church gate might well be a sign of identity.

However what colour was Presbyterian blue, well as far as I can tell it is a light shade of Royal Blue. Well it is a highly political statement

The blue and buff of the whigs of the present day probably derive their origin from the Presbtyerian blue and orange favours, which were worn at the time of the Revolution to commemorate the deliverance by the wisdom and valour of the Prince of Orange

This is a foot note from Hudibras: a poem, Volume 2 By Samuel Butler, Zachary Grey, John Heaviside Clar.

Now lets start un picking that. Presbyterian blue symbolises both loyalty to the Protestant monarchy or maybe both monarchist and protestant.If we take the Whig reference, where they seem to have stuck with the orange or buff with their golden bird (hang on is that background Presbyterian Blue?) yet non-conformity particularly Presbyterianism and Congregationalism have stuck with the blue.

In a very short while I have taken you a long way from the debate over padlocks. Does the colour matter? If so what level of symbolism matters?

Is anybody out there?

When you talk to people about the Reformed tradition they often say that it is strong on the Sovereignty of God. God is the one in control and calling the shots. It seems to come with the territory; God is the one whose will is supreme over all of creation. We like to stress how because God is all-powerful, he is not like another human being.  God is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent ; God is not just a super human; God is different; God is other.

Hang on a tick, what was that last word “other”. As a sociologist “other” is a potent word. It is used in two distinct ways. The first meaning of “other” is that which is lost between the conceptual and the real; the intangible something that disappears when an act is said or done. If you want a concrete example think  how once a choice is made the other options are no longer available. It is essentially something we only know through loss but it is everywhere around us. Actually it is quite a good image for God, something so close it haunts every word you speak and yet so intangible that in the act of speaking it disappears.

The second definition is less comfortable; “other” also refers to that which is outside the core, the negative image of a concept. Therefore the term “other” is sometimes seen as being female instead of male, being black rather than white and being gay rather than straight. The person without a home, those who are disabled and the immigrant seeking work are all examples of the other. In which case the bible verse “He ensures that orphans and widows receive justice. He shows love to the foreigners living among you and gives them food and clothing.” (Deuteronomy 10:18 New Living Translation) has a specific potency. These are not just the people God defends because he is just but by their very outside nature they are of God, in a way that those more powerful among the chosen people were not; reflecting back at the insiders something of God’s otherness.

If that is the case, then I have been making God too small and I suspect I always will do.  The challenge (if you like the act of repentance for this) is for me to see God in the places where I am uncomfortable and by so doing to extend my image of what God is like. Maybe by so doing I will open up new possibilities and find God is there within new situations, speaking in the unlooked for opportunities.

Show it me in the Bible

 “My Uncle Dr. Duncanson,” said MacPhee “whose name may be familiar to you – he was Moderator of General Assembly over the water, in Scotland – used to say ‘show it me in the word of God’. And then slap the big Bible on the table” (C.S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength)

If you are like me, this pen portrait in three lines rings rather too true for comfort. C.S.Lewis has picked up something about the Reformed character and portrayed it perhaps a bit too accurately. This negative way of silencing arguments with “It says in the Bible” and then glaring at anyone who dares to argue ready to declare them a heretic or worse.

Don’t get me wrong there are times when it can be used to advantage as well. I can remember an Episcopalian priest (American) on Iona commenting shortly after Church Hymnary 4 had come out about the fact that several of Kathy Galloway’s hymns were included with their strong feminist imagery. I then pointed out that they got through because the imagery was not just feminist but also Biblical and therefore fine. It was in the Bible therefore it was fine to use.

Then there is the security blanket approach. When I did TLS Pastoral Care, one of the questions was, would the course involve lots of Biblical material? The answer given was positive, as I would have expected from a Church of Scotland dominated course. But that reassurance was sought and given makes me feel that just by using bits of the Bible made the course safe.

Now I know it is the first of the five Protestant Solas (by scripture alone, by faith alone, by grace alone, through Christ alone and to the glory of God alone), that for the Reformed the Bible is held to be the final standard for faith. I don’t want to change that, but I wonder if using the Bible as a club to hit people with, as a cover to get things through or as a safety device to make sure nothing dangerous is happening is actually using it with integrity. I want however to suggest another picture that of a magic looking glass. That is the Bible mainly tells us about humans and how they relate to God, but through that we catch an image of the reality of the divine. It is as George Herbert wrote:

‘A man that looks on glass,
On it may stay his eye;
Or if he pleaseth, through it pass,
And then the heaven espy.”

Reformed Democratic Pneumatology

I started this a while ago, but with the Church of England debate and the increased discussion on how church councils should be conducted. What I am doing is outlining what I see as the important balance within the theology of discernment carried out in councils of the church from the English Reformed Perspective and the disciplines that are needed by members for that to function.

Firstly let me say that URC like the Anglicans have a lot of procedures which on the surface appear to be democratic but can often lead to things that people do not see as democratic outcomes. The grumbles within the URC tend to focus particularly on the ability of the major councils (General Assembly and Synod) to engage with the local congregations. Like the Anglican church they are often seen as the provenance of the self selecting few.

Long words I am afraid, but I think this needs to be said as the URC is going once again through the “we are governed by the people” “no we are not we are governed by the Holy Spirit”. The correct answer it of course “Yes”, it is not an either or situation. Firstly there are some quite specific things that English Reformed Church has adopted:

  1. The belief that the Holy Spirit can and does speak to who the Holy Spirit chooses to speak, not to who we say she should speak with.
  2. That the Holy Spirit diverse in its revelation,that fits with the need of the person
  3. That the Holy Spirit speaks into the context into which it is sort and what applies in one context is not what necessarily applies in another.

There are however some things that equally need to be stated:

  1. We have never assumed that all people speak with the same level of guidance. There are those within every congregation who have a track record of being open to the leadings of the Spirit and these carry more weight.
  2. That the discernment of the Spirit is a communal act that requires that people who participate in the discernment are present.
  3. That the tradition of the Church is a good tool to be used within the discernment of the Spirit. Thus those who are learned in the faith carry the extra responsibility in discernment and may be called onto advise.

This is important, because the councils of the church are not exercises in democracy but exercises in discernment in which voting is often used. Votes are restricted usually to members, present and although normally a simple majority suffices that is not the always the case. You need to be present not because of some inability to read or ascertain postal votes but because you need to listen to the debate, for what the Spirit is saying through it and also to sense the mood, well what others feel the Spirit is saying.

There is a problem, we all are very well aware of the debate and voting meeting of a secular business meeting and to an outsider that is what the form of our meetings take.

I am going to suggest we need to think about how we conduct meetings and the disciplines with which we conduct them. I am not going to suggest major constitutional changes.

First of all we need at all meetings at all times to practice hospitality. No I do not mean provide food, I mean the practices that make a good host. One is to try an anticipate the needs of others, these can be simple as using a loop system so those who struggle with hearing can hear. That however means every person who speaks in a meeting must speak with a microphone. Therefore if somebody can not easily get to a microphone you need to find ways of getting to the microphone to them. It means that we should all be patient with those who struggle with words and we should all be careful not to bore others.

However I also note that often people when they want a council to change want it to change in ways that would favour them. Everyone is different and therefore have different preferences over how the meeting should be run.  Not everyone is happy standing up and speaking in a meeting. Not everyone is happy working in small groups and feeding back. Not everyone likes to write up on notice boards. Some individuals like silence to think things through others like the cut and thrust of a debate. Some people like formal approaches others prefer informality. Some like to have information in advance and will read and digest it, others much prefer that everything is presented at the meeting. Some like the routine to be the same each time and some find variety to be more engaging. As we choose approaches so we also choose the people who are most likely to contribute. There is no easy solution but we need to be aware that the way we ask people to participate alters who is comfy participating.  God has not given a standard form that must be followed but we do need to be aware if people are feeling that uncomfortable that they are self excluding from the debate. In such situations ways do need to be sort to include them without excluding others.

Another important guideline is to keep procedures simple. That is that most people will be more content and feel more happy about contributing if they know what is going on. Having complicated methods of voting and such just makes most people insecure and edgy. Also realise that people often like to suss out how something works before they try using it. Some people will always be flustered if asked to do something for the first time. If you must have complex ways of doing things then make sure that you find at least three different ways of presenting it so people have a good chance to get hold of what is happening. That does not mean three contradictory sets of instructions. It does mean something like:

  1. A written explanation given in advance that people can read and digest at leisure. Most won’t but some people will and some of those who will are highly resistant to something being put on them at the meeting.
  2. A clear verbal re-iteration of what was in the written explanation at the meeting. This is to catch the 90% who just glanced at the paper and have not taken it in
  3. Either a video of people enacting the procedure or a trial run with a pretend issue which can be taken.

If two and three take together longer than five minutes your procedure is too complicated! Equally if people start asking a lot of questions the procedure is too complicated. It may well be better to go for a simpler form. Meeting size matters, as a rule the bigger the meeting the simpler the procedures need to be. In a group of three, it is quite easy to brainstorm, talk things through, negotiate and come to a complicated consensus. Try doing it with several hundred and you will spend several days discussing the date of the next church fair as each checks their diary.

The final one is that we should spend time and energy encouraging people to listen. The real skill of participating in a church council is not speaking but in listening, in hearing not just what is said on the surface but what is also being said below the surface. In some sense this is listening for the spirit, but it is also listening to your inner voice, seeing the way that you interpret what someone else says. Are there words you hear particularly well and also words you miss? Does it matter who says something? It is not easy to listen at that depth, I am not claiming that I do it all the time, but if we are truly to do the discernment it is what is needed. It is easier to listen at this level in a small meeting than a large one. Perhaps a good reason for having smaller meeting in which people can practice doing this. Without those among us who listen at this level we are not really in a position to weigh the material and to progress the discernment. This of course slows things down and in our quick fix society this listening is counter cultural.

Given this as you might expect I do not see form as an essential for discernment, we are human all human form will fall short of the divine, God still works through it. Nor do I think we should expect the outcome to be the same regardless of situation. Because it is not a voting democracy but an act of discernment, I am quite happy with restricting the meeting to those present, with votes that are not simple majorities and with consensus procedures if used appropriately. Votes are in the end only as binding as we make them in this procedure.

If I am honest I think the one essential is that we stop assuming that members will just pick things up as they go along and start actively trying to engage members in doing this sort of discernment and understanding what they are doing in church councils is this. That may require changes in approach, teaching within and outside of church councils and also a lot of careful chairing. It certainly will not make councils quicker initially but I suspect that until we do, people will continue to gripe about them.