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.

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