Groupings – A historic memory of why

There is a lot of hitting out at groupings suggesting that they are causingdecline at present. I have a memory that goes back to the early days of grouping within the URC, and I think it is time to tell the story of why they originated. I am talking of things that happened in my teenage years.

Let’s be clear Congregationalism had a loose form of groupings probably going further back than the 1950s. My father’s first pastorate was “Oundle and Wheeldon” i.e. two separate congregations who had combined resources in order to be able to employ a minister. Equally in my childhood from 1972 my father was the minister for a group of churches. The key characteristic of these groups is that a number of congregations came together to employ a single minister.

In 1976 my Dad stopped being in parish ministry, and we worshipped in an experimental group of churches. That is it had a team of ministers and also a large number of churches. It was a deliberate attempt to go against the then policy which was often to merge small churches together. The statement I remember went along the lines that merge two churches with fifty members and in then years you have a congregations with fifty members. In other words, it was a serious attempt to reduce the decline closure and merger was creating. The argument was that people were motivated to keep their congregation going but were often not motivated to keep the merged congregation going.

They worked at least short term. The group I was part of lasted from the seventies through to the nineties and maybe even into the zeros. Some of those congregations found through various initiatives a lease of life during those years and actually the level of lay leadership increased through those projects. The congregation I was closest associated closed shortly after its social outreach was taken from it. I suspect that if it had remained there may have been another decade of life in the congregation. In other words it worked, it slowed the rate of decline. There is one church (maybe two) in an area of Manchester where under merge and close there would be none.

Now the study was not academic, the ministers who were trying different things to see if they could halt decline were of course the innovative and go ahead ministers. You cannot sort out the quality of the minister from the experiment. It also gives a hint of what might be wrong with the current debate. If a successful minister is one who has a single pastoral charge may it not be that there is a tendency for ministers not to seek group positions if they can get a single pastorate?

Of course, the big problem is not that groups cause decline. The sort of grouping being talked about is what the Methodist have done for centuries and forgive me although Methodism is currently in decline, I would be very reluctant to describe it as that in the middle on 19th Century! So what to make of it.

The problem is that grouping that is often talked of is done without concern for the Ecclesiology of the tradition. The relationship between the minister and the congregation is not the a top-down relationship within the Reformed tradition. Ministers are NOT appointed by Bishops (like the Roman Catholics), General Assembly (like the Methodists)  nor by other ministers. They are appointed by the local Church. The local Church has normally been associated with the local congregation. There is however no reason why it should be a single congregation. Could not a local Church consist of a number of worshipping communities serving different  constituencies within a wider community? These constituencies could be defined by place, age, theology, worship style preference or missional service. The one thing they would need to agree on is an Ecclesial structure (or how they interact formally with each other)

A grouping of local congregations under a central-governing body is not something new within the Reformed tradition.  This is what seems to have happened with the Geneva Consistory. It needs to be noted the consistory did not belong to one congregation but to the whole of Geneva and had responsibility for discipline of ministers among other concerns.  It was however primarily made up of lay people with the chair being the senior minister and as far as I can tell no other ministerial representation. Ministers were given responsibility for specific congregations or missional work by the Consistory.

I do not think this will be popular with anyone, but I do think that it highlights what is theoretically missing in the current discussion. That is a coherent thinking on the relationship between congregation and minister. At present I see the talk of grouping and the resistance to it being a discussion about power. If the local congregation can retain the power to appoint a minister then the members understand their connection to the minister. If, however, groups are created with minister or synod appointing other ministers then we become a denomination ruled by ministers.  Unfortunately that model, I can see members deciding that the denomination has lost interest in them so there is no reason to belong.

URC and the discourse about being too diverse

First something for people to ponder and get back to me upon. Martin my supervisor started to day to ponder that the URC had more similar theological core ideas than Anglicanism did. I challenged this, I think effectively by pointing out that I have on occasions to use an “Anglican dialect” in order to get ideas across on places like Ship of Fools which is dominated by Anglicans. However my reason for challenging that was not that experience but being involved in the “Who the Heck are we?” I heard people within the URC expressing the exact same sort of opinion about the URC. So I am sceptical about both claims.

    However it is worth pondering that some people in the URC don’t feel that there is a lot in common with others in the URC. I suspect it has a number of roots.

    1. Firstly I think that some of it is due to our independent spirit. The feeling that the way the our URC does things is the way our URC does thing and is a full legitimate way of being URC in all its idiosyncrasy. 
    2. Secondly I think that when people start to encounter other URC congregations there is surprise at the different valid forms of being URC that others have. It is a richness but it also starts many people asking about what does it mean to be URC. 
    3. Thirdly I think there is some genuine bewilderment at the diversity, especially on certain hot issues. 
    4. However I suspect there is some importing of the Anglican discourse where there are real and current power struggles going on. The question is if the Anglican’s are having such a difficulty on keeping their show on the road, why aren’t these issues causing us equally difficulty. 

    That last question needs answering in multiple ways, both in terms of:

    • our independent heritage which leaves us with a much more  bottom up structure than the Anglican Communion, 
    • the commitment to unity and therefore travelling together, 
    • that tensions have been faced at other stages, remember what the 1990s were like anyone?
    • conditionality of our understanding of revelation which results in a blurred identity 
    • that we have several not just one hot topic, anyone fancy a round on whether its necessary for a Christian to be pacifist?

    What exactly do we mean by “welcoming and friendly”?

    Let me be clear as far as I can ascertain all United Reformed Churches are “Welcoming and Friendly”. By this I don’t mean all congregations claim that. All congregations of all denominations claim that. What I mean is that from my own experience, I can only think of one congregation I have ever heard of as being unfriendly and that was a decade before the report. Also I have been reading Mystery Worshipper reports on Ship of Fools it seems to be a constant theme when talking about a United Reformed congregation.

    I have sort of felt that when the growth experts, go on about how a church should be welcoming and friendly at least as far as the URC is concerned, they are preaching to the converted. We have sorted what being welcoming is at least as far as the reports go. People are not being turned away from the United Reformed Congregations in vast droves because the congregations are unwelcoming. It is not just a matter that congregation have to more welcoming and people will flood in. If I could suggest anything to the church people interested in Evangelism it would be that they let go of being a welcoming and friendly congregation and concentrated there efforts elsewhere. Being a “Welcoming and friendly” congregation only matters once you have people coming in. If those people never come in, then it does not matter how you perfect your skills at being “friendly and welcoming” you will not recruit anybody.

    However my view is changing. Don’t get me wrong, I still believe that all United Reformed Churches are doing their best to be welcoming and friendly and for the most part suceeding. What I no longer believe is that all United Reformed Churches understanding “Welcoming and friendly” to mean the same thing.

    So does a church being welcoming and friendly mean:

    1. that others in the congregation recognise you, are mildly interested in what is going on in your life and are ready to chat when you meet
    2. that the congregation provides happenings on a daily basis so that you never need to be lonely but can always go down to the church and chat with somebody
    3. that they keep a note of when you are not in church and check how you are when you are absent for a couple of weeks
    4. that you find it easy to form friendships with people there
    5. that they are ready to help you out even if this is your first visit to the congregation.
    6. that someone greets you at the door and some one talks to you at your first visit.

    I guess that the list could go on. The point is not that one of these is correct and the others are wrong but that people will construct being a “welcoming and friendly” congregation to be those of the above that they are good at. Some congregations will even decide that certain of those behaviours are anything but welcoming and friendly.