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.

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

Diversity within the URC

This is part of my response to “Who the Heck are we? Exploring identity within the URC”

On the online seminar (Webinar) I heard several people say “We are very diverse”. I want to question that. I have attended ten different URC. These include two in Urban Priority Area and it also includes liberal and conservative ones. Also there are former Presbyterian, and former Congregationalists as well at least one ecumenical partnership.  It covers membership sizes from about twenty to two hundred and includes growing and declining churches. I simply don’t see it in most areas of our life.

Let me start off stating where there is diversity. If there is theological spectrum from liberal to conservative then yes we are very diverse on that spectrum. However many moons ago, I sat in on a qualitative methodology course in the social science. One lecturer was comparing a Durkheim statistical analytic approach to Sociology with something like the approach a Barthian  postmodern experiential approach. He pointed out that although they were unlikely to agree on anything, they did agree that there was something worth discussing, and even though they were pradigmatically opposed they could have a conversation with each other because in some extent they were talking the same language. In some ways Reformed Theology is like that. It tends to lead to strongly held extreme positions (both liberal and conservative), people don’t agree, but they are working out their positions within a framework of thought.

However in many other areas we simply do not display that diversity. We go from very low to something approaching low moderate when you talk liturgically. That is weekly service of the word with monthly communion are normative whether conservative evangelical or liberal. We change the hymns but not the format.

Views of the Eucharist go from low Lutheran to pure Zwinglian with very little at either end. Ironically I suspect of those that have thought about it Calvin’s position is the one most commonly held although Zwinglian is more often taught (but then according to my supervisor that is the case even among the Roman Catholics and he is a sociologist of liturgy)! There is little or no correlation with the views on communion and the frequency of partaking!

Then there is the way the Bible becomes a symbol of “orthodoxy”. I can still remember sitting in a organising committee reviewing lent groups. One member was a liberal URC member, another a moderate liberal Anglican (at least by our standards). The Anglican said “too much bible study”, the URC said “too little bible study”. Over and over again I have come across a smattering of members in many different congregations who have a knowledge of the Bible that is only possible to attain through years of consistent study. Twice ministers from the pulpit has said that very few have read the Bible from cover to cover only to find that there are several in the congregation who have. One congregation would maybe labelled conservative; the other liberal. Actually neither name fits the complexity of the theological position of either congregation well.

Our ways of working create a similarity between congregations.

Then, congregations are proud of the “independence”. Even the former Presbyterians tend to voice independent sentiments, and quite enjoy doing things their way. Normally their way is very similar to the URC just up the road, but hush don’t tell them that. Its a bit like the no uniform days at school, where all the girls are free to wear exactly the same pink dress.

Painting things blue and selling orange marmalade are not random. The blue one is very particular and there is nothing accidental about it. The colour blue is actually a light shade of royal blue, it is called Presbyterian Blue and was coined at the time of the Orange revolution! It is a method of saying strongly protestant and loyal to a protestant monarch. I doubt that 10% of those who are choosing this colour are aware of its heritage but they feel that this is the colour they ought to use.

Selling homemade orange marmalade I first put down to it being a “Scottish thing” and therefore done in congregations with a Presbyterian background. However I am finding this common elsewhere. It may still be due to “Scottish Heritage” as many of congregations which don’t have a Presbyterian background (or not a recent one) do have a lot of Scots as members.

Thirdly we are culturally similar. Two obvious reasons for this, one is the asking of hard questions: this is not culturally normative, as far as I can make out most people, perhaps after a period of youthful rebelliousness, feel that keeping the show on the road is enough for them, and they don’t want to analyse things. Its not just our Anglican and Methodist friends. Secondly we are governed by committees. Committees take skills, and they are not skills the majority of the population have. In fact they are largely middle class and they are getting rarer in society. I suspect that you have to be upper middle class, senior management, before you actually get to deal with committees. The small local institutions that used to “train” people in this sort of process are failing, and have been for a while. There is an increasing split between the highly committed “keenies” and the majority lax membership, whether this is unions, social club or church. It is a fairly specific group within the population who will be attracted to a church where asking hard questions is encouraged and that is run by committees.