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?

    Turning the other cheek

    There once was a man employed at a Northern University on a temporary contract in staff development. Actually lots of people have, but this is a story he told.

    When he was fairly new in post, somebody in the manner of University switch boards put a lady through who wanted to send a copy of her magazine in which the University had put a job advert. Why she got his number, is one of the obscurities of University switch boards and people trying to negotiate the fact that there is not one central number. I don’t know whether she had dialled two numbers in the wrong order, or if she had been passed pillar to post as people tried to guess the right person.

    Anyway as he was new (maybe that should be especially as he was new) he did not have the number of the correct person to hand. At which point she turned on the snot. She made him feel as if she was in some lah-de-dah operation in the South of England with swanky offices and all creature comforts and he should just jump at her behest. Southerners who try and make northerners feel small don’t go down well. He obviously had assertiveness training as he managed to after some time to get off the phone with the promise to ring her back.

    He can remember doing two finger signs at the phone after he put it down.

    Then, in his words, he “took control

    He looked up the number required, which was in personnel and in the next block of offices  but not something he knew at the time. He rang the lady back, said he now had the address which he passed onto her all the time being as courteous as courteous, even offering to email the address to her so that she would have it in the future.

    When he had finished the lady apologised for her earlier behaviour, which is what he had intended her to do.

    It’s a great story as it is not one we hear told very often. The guy in “taking control” meant that he did not let the ladies unprofessional attitude rile him into unprofessional behaviour. However the maintenance of professional behaviour here seems right in line with Jesus’ instruction to turn the other cheek and walk the extra mile. I am not claiming he was a Christian but he was repeating Christ’s teaching to a secular group.

    So is the commands about forgiveness or about not letting others determine how you respond and your mood? Is it about freedom or forgiveness?

    A Welcome is not enough

    I said in the discussion that welcome is not enough. I think I can now spell out the two other stages that need to happen, one is prior to the welcome, invitation/introduction and the second comes afterwards integration.

    Firstly most people are not going to cold call a church for worship! A few, a very few and normally in my experience people who are fairly marginal to society do. The rest when looking for a church, would rather go to one where they know somebody or even know a friend of a friends. So at this stage it means people letting it be known they go to a particular church and speaking of the good things about it. You will notice that personal evangelism can be part of this process but it does not have to be. So a congregation needs to actually spend some time thinking about what it is good at and encouraging people to talk about those things.

    I also think that it is quite possible if we want people to cold call our congregations putting up the old fashioned “Public Worship” is more effective than “All welcome”. The thing is that “public” says to people “you have the right to be here”. In a world where more and more public spaces are being privatised that may be an important message to get across. Actually “All Welcome” is very problematic. It is used in many situations where all are not welcome, so people tend to disbelieve it. It sounds desperate, we will take anyone who comes. Nobody particularly wants to belong to an organisation that is desperate for new members.

    As for integration that is the real test of inclusiveness. It is very easy for someone to be welcomed the first three or four weeks they attend and then ignored once their face is familiar. This makes becoming part of a congregation very difficult indeed. At this stage people still need someone more familiar with the congregation to befriend them. For instance if it is stated “Please see Jane Bloggs for tickets for the Christmas lunch” they often won’t know who “Jane Bloggs” is even though they have been around for a while. They need to have someone they can ask in a none threatening way. Otherwise they are effectively excluded from these events. That goes further, any idea how hard it is to set up a direct debit, when you don’t know who the giving secretary is, etc. Then their gifts aren’t know to the congregation so often overlooked. There also is a need for pastoral care before they are fully a member and one gift they do have is the ability to see the congregation more as an outsider would than those who have been there for twenty years.

    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.

    Gathered and Scattered

    This is just my noticing. Many of the former Presbyterian congregations try to distinguish themselves from the Congregationalists as a “gathered congregation”. This is nonsense. All that gathered mean is that it is a church that is formed by a group of like minded people meeting together rather than one set up for an area. The fact is that ALL URCs are gathered. In fact all non-conformist congregations are gathered, technically even the Roman Catholics. Being a gathered church is the English norm.

    What the Scots members are doing is contrasting being “gathered” with being a “parish” church in Scotland and therefore assuming that somehow therefore the Congregational churches which tend to be more local are somehow “parish”.

    What they actually need to distinguish is probably local, civic and specialist. Local are congregations whose audience is defined by being in a locality, civic are congregations that are defined as being the URC for a specific metropolis (about the nearest thing we have to Cathedrals but they are spread pretty randomly: Birmingham has one, Sheffield does, but Manchester doesn’t and I don’t think Leeds has one either. Some smaller places: Chesterfield, Doncaster, (Wakefield used to) have them as well. There is no coherent structure to where they are and where they aren’t, they are town centre and will often act as a central church. Finally there are specialist churches, these are ones that have a specific bent to their behaviour, they may be into: healing, retreats and meditation, Social justice, gay rights. The local congregation tends to attract local people (although not all will be local), the civic congregation tends to attract people from around the town, and the specialist congregation has a wider spread yet.

    Now the former Presbyterian Churches are often best set to become specialist congregations, they did attract people from a wider area; although I think the fact St Andrews Sheffield for many years had a member on the Isle of Skye was a bit extreme. The problem is they need to change their speciality, as being the “Scottish” is no longer a viable option (not since the 1970s).

    All the church is called to do is to remain faithful

    I have heard this several times. It sounds good even to me and if properly understood it is true but it is rarely understood. It is interpreted to mean “All we need to do is to keep going as we are.” That is dangerous, a false lie, it is the modern equivalent of the servant who was given one talent and chose to bury it in the ground.

    The key word is Faithful. Most people associate faithfulness with things staying the same, with remaining as we are, with keeping the status quo. However faithfulness is one of relationship, it is not faithful to suggest inside a relationship that both people must remain the same to keep things as they are, there must in any relationship be space to grow and change. Indeed faithfulness is altering a relationship to accept the change in another. What would we think of mother who kept her baby in nappies as that was a way to faithful or insisted in carrying the child everywhere no matter how big they grew.  I think we would feel that such a person was psychologically in trouble. We know in our relationships with other people that being faithful is actually a matter of continual change.

    So it is with God, the call for the church to be faithful is not a call for the church to be static but a call for the church to adapt its relationship to God as its circumstances and understandings of God change. Fighting to keep things the same because that is being faithful, is a failure of relationship, and far from being faithful it is highly unfaithful.

    Who should the local congregation be evangelising?

    I have heard that someone recently preached on how the church should be doing outreach to people whose alcohol addiction leads them to drink on the streets, people who are homeless and people who are sustainably addicted to drugs. Well I admit those are challenging areas to do outreach in. It is like it is a bit of a challenge to take the gospel to groups of people who no one has tried to take the gospel before. There are challenges and I fully accept its worth doing but…

    … as someone who has been vaguely involved with it can I say there is one big problem, the area is over subscribed with those who want to be involved in it!  The people who around here fall into those categories go from one Christian mission to the next Christian mission and get food, clothing, worship etc from that.

    The real challenge, the biggie, the one I fail at is …

    To take the gospel to people who outwardly are the same as us. To cross the taboo line in society and talk about the faith with your friends. To be prepared to be ridiculed amongst those you socialise with. To be prepared to adapt church so those people who have never been to church feel welcomed and treated with respect, because they believe they won’t be. The challenge is not to bring the very different to Christ but the almost like us to Christ, who can and will ask awkward questions, may think you a religious freak and suspect you of judging them even if you don’t.

    Theory of preparedness and snow

    I have a theory about what makes a place cope or not with snow in the UK.

    Firstly there are two factors, one is actual snow fall and the other is belief that they have snow fall. These are not identical. There are places that have snowfall that don’t believe they have snowfall and there are visa versa places that don’t have snowfall but do have snowfall.

    Belief in snow fall is not simply a matter of looking at the statistics, running a model of what chance there is of heavy snow this year and planning accordingly, it is something deeper. It is given the model what sort of precautions you think are necessary. In a place that believes it gets snowfall, they will nearly always take greater precautions against snow than in a place which does not believe it gets snowfall under the same predicted circumstances.

    This comes from having watched Sheffield and Manchester cope with snowfalls. Sheffield believes that it snows in Sheffield. It believes that when it snows the city is likely to grind to a halt and it believes therefore that snow needs planning for. Manchester doesn’t. It believes that sheltered by the Pennines, snow is a rare event due to its warmth and therefore it should not make provision.

    As a rule snow is heavier in Sheffield than in Manchester. So there is some validity for these beliefs.

    However also as a rule, Sheffield has better provision for coping with the snow that does fall than Manchester. It is normally functioning again more quickly and has stocks for dealing with important path ways as conditions ease.

    What seems to me is that belief is quantum. There are levels to it. It is not a smooth line. However I don’t think these levels are a simple binary “have snow” “don’t have snow” rather they have levels like “We always get heavy snow”, “Snow is a nuisance most winters”, “If it snows we will need to adapt” “we only need minimal precautions for light snow” and “snow is irrelevant to our planning”.

    As actual snowfall is on a continuum. The people who tend to go to the level above rather than the level below in their snow preparations, tend to fair better if it does snow and have extra expense when it doesn’t.

    Another thing to note is the belief is communal. The fact is that people in Sheffield talk about snowy winters as if they were the norm. They expect snow, therefore if the council cut back on snow preparations and then there was a snowy winter, it would have a far higher price to pay in Sheffield than in Manchester where people tend to shrug and say “this is exceptional, they could not really have planned for it”.

    Inward is the direction of Christmas

    And all went to be registered, each to his own town. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. Luke 2:3-5 (English Standard Version)

     It seems that in this season of Goodwill towards all people there is a deliberate process of withdrawal from people that slowly goes on through Advent. We like Joseph in the passage above end up going back to our home town and family.

    The first stage around the start of Advent, early December is the card sending. This is about as close as many of us get to wishing universal goodwill. We send cards to people we know, regardless of whether we have spoken to them, phoned them or been in contact through email or just plain sent a letter. All that matters is that last year they sent you a card, or that you are hoping they will send you one this year. Sending out several hundred Christmas cards is not unknown even in the days before the internet.

    Next stage the office party, the Christmas drinks with friends and those you regularly see. Or just wishing people you see a happy Christmas, particularly as it can be quite a busy time  and you end up seeing people you have not seen for a while. Included here is the church carol service, the crib service, the Cristingle service and all the other special services that happen this time of year. Basically the time you spend with people around you.

    As you get closer to Christmas you start giving and receiving presents. This diminishes the circle even further, these are people who are special, people who feel close too or people with who you want to share with at this time of year. You are now getting to the people who matter to you.

    Finally Christmas arrives and we all go home to our families. At least that is what is supposed to happen and people will travel a long way to be home with their family at Christmas. You are not even really relating to your close friends. Christmas itself is heavily weighted towards spending time with your family and by family people mean blood relatives.

    You slowly have been drawing in the only level left is the self.

    It really needs some cultural rethinking of Christmas if we are to stop the crises, the rows, the bad practices that mark this time of the year. We have slowly made a focus for the event and the focus is not the Christ child but the individual.

    The people who are really being countercultural are those who go an help in the Christmas Shelters, the ones who decide on this date to have some friends around for a meal and the people who open their homes to those beyond their immediate family circle. These people are rebuilding Christmas, they are the light bearers, that give me hope that sometime there will be a celebration of Christmas when there really will be good will towards all people rather than a stress laid on the immediate family and the individual that it cannot really bare.

    A modest proposal for calculating MaM contribution

    I am firstly going to tell you why a funding purely on membership and one purely on income fail.

    The simple reason is that people are canny, to use a good northern word. They won’t do anything illegal but if funding depends on either of these they will do their best to reduce the amount they pay by minimizing the funds for this. The way not to have members is to de-stress membership and to rarely ask if people want to become members. The way to shrink income is to put money into trusts for the congregation rather than directly into the congregation funds.

    What at present you get in the URC is a swapping between these two methods of calculating Mission and Ministry contributions. I am going therefore to make a sugggestion that is more complex and harder to therefore fix.

    The contribution should be worked out as follows

    .5*ministry received+ A*(members + (adherents&children)/B)+C*(income)+D*(Financial Reserves)

    Let me take each term on its own

    Ministry component
    No congregation should pay less than half of the ministry it receives in a give year. That is why the first amount is actually calculated from the ministerial stipend. Members get to understand that MaM is tied to the Ministry they receive. There probably needs to be a cost for non-stipendiary ministry put in as well to cover insurance and such.

    Membership component.
    A is a set amount worked out on the number of members and the number of children and adherents reported. Adherents is the posh name for those who regularly come to church but aren’t members. B will be greater than 1 but less than 5, and weights the fact that there are genuinely less committed members.

    Financial component
    I have split this into two, income generated in the year. Is the money that goes through the accounts of the congregation as their income. This must include, free will offering, money raised from hire of premises, fundraising and other donation. It may exclude grants from external bodies that are ear marked  specific purposes.

    Also I have suggested that reserves which means trust funds and other savings under the control of the congregation should be rated separately. There are congregations with huge reserves and there are congregation with no reserves. Reserves in my opinion actually are a hindrance to mission as they make a congregation feel secure where it is. However I do not think this can be taken at the same rate as the actual income. So I suggest that it is rated at a level no higher than the interest it would get in a normal savings account.

    Penalties for not supplying information on time

    1. If a congregation fails to  provide its financial year end, then it will be allocated a sum of twice the (median church income per member)*(no of members)
    2. If a congregation fails to provide membership numbers its membership will be taken from last recorded figures but calculated as membership+adherents +10% for each year since last reporting
    3. If neither figure is returned the first calculation will use the figure in the second calculation to estimate the second.

    These figures should usually work out as considerably more than the figures that a congregation would have if it supplied the necessary information.


    What should be charged for a synod:
    I suggest that at a synod level the MaM should work out as:

    Cost of local ministry in synod (excluding all synod staffing)+ Synod costs(including all synod staffing) + central office costs + mission correction.

    You have noticed I have split the cost of ministry and mission into three.  I think that needs to happen. We need to know what goes centrally, what is spent at synod level and what is spent on local ministry. It is important because at present the fact that we only have stated amounts for the overally amount, and that if synods appoint a minister to a central role, they get the funding out of the same pot as that which pays for local ministers, means that there is little accountability of synods about this. If they appointed a lay person to such a role they would have to find the money for the post out of reserves. That is wrong. These posts need taking out of the calculation for local ministry and put on their own. We need to have equal funding from central for posts whether they are filled by an ordained or lay person. I would suggest that central office costs are simply divided between the number of synods.

    Finally I have put in the mission correction. This is the fiddle factor. It can for instance allow central resources to be directed towards specific work within a synod. It can be used to even out the income of synods from trust funds and the like and it may take into consideration deprivation experienced within a synod.

    This amount should be the amount the synod is expected to raise from local churches minus the amount it contributes from its own funds.