GENERAL ASSEMBLY – SOUTHPORT 8-11th JULY 2016
Be a voice of love, hope, inclusion and compassion
This call to Assembly from the Coptic Bishop Angaelos and repeated in the Statement on the result of the EU Referendum marks how General Assembly meeting in Southport in July sought to Walk the Way.
The programme was packed with business, worship, Bible study and speakers from partner churches. East Midlands Synod sent 16 representatives, together with the Moderator and several people who serve as Convenors of Assembly Committees and Groups. The Resolution giving permission for local United Reformed Churches which wish to do so to register their premises for the marriage of same sex couples, hit the national news headlines on Saturday evening. Other Resolutions of importance to the wider world, for example on the outcome of the EU Referendum, welcome to refugees, a new environmental policy and a call for an international nuclear weapons ban treaty, did not. For local churches and members of the URC however all these Resolutions and others, including those on Walking the Way, authorised Elders, the deployment of ministers and Churches Mutual Credit Union, will be shaping our life and witness over the next two years.
URC Communications have produced a brief report on the first three days, ‘General Assembly 2016 News Round Up’ which you can find on the General Assembly home page of the URC website: www.urc.org.uk. A fuller report will follow.
We have gathered reports and comments from some of our representatives which we share here.
Quotations to ponder
This is part of God’s family - be confident in new ways of being church.
We need to reclaim our call as a people sent and a people called.
We’re in this world to make a difference.
Be the life of Christ in and for the world.
The Church is God’s gift to the world. God is not in decline even if human institutions are!
We need to bring the Reformation into the present day - and be a part of God’s obsession to mend the world.
People of the Way have many different faces….are some of us wrong or just different? We are people of the Jesus Way- but only God has the whole picture. We seek to live the Jesus Way whilst respecting the truths and treasures of all people.
Moderators old and new
Assembly began by inducting Revd Kevin Watson and Mr Alan Yates as Moderators for 2016-18 and they spoke of their hopes for the URC as we walk the way of Jesus. The retiring Moderators reflected briefly on their two years in the role. Revd David Grosch-Miler reminded us to tell the stories of our faith, to stop thinking of buildings as ‘ours’ but as resources for service in our communities. Mr John Ellis challenged us to be braver about deployment. At the end of Assembly the names of those elected to serve as Moderators for 2018-20 were announced as Mr Derek Estill and Revd Nigel Uden.
Look for the face of Christ in every refugee
Assembly unanimously passed a Resolution commending the Christian Aid campaign to ‘Change the Story’ around refugees and encouraging local churches to tell positive stories of refugees made welcome in our communities.
Bishop Angaelos of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the UK reminded us that the infant Jesus and the holy family were refugees and called on us to look for the face of Christ in every refugee and every vulnerable person. He spoke of the trouble, despair and suffering throughout the Middle East, but that there is also hope not least through the Christian communities there. Despite the rapid reduction in the numbers of Christians in the region over recent years as many have fled in the face of persecution and hardship, Christians everywhere have to be a voice of hope, love, inclusion and compassion. We are one body despite our differences and should be a source of life.
- Revd Constance Coltman, the first woman to be ordained as a minister in the Congregational church, in 1917, was celebrated in film.
- Ministers celebrating the jubilees of their ordination, two of them 70 years ago, were celebrated in a joyful presentation.
- It was announced that the Paisley church had received the Queen’s Award for Volunteers.
- Four churches received Congregational and General Insurance Company Community Project Awards
- Churches Mutual Credit Union (CMCU) John Ellis announced that the United Reformed Church is now a partner and welcomed the Ven. Antony MacRow-Wood to Assembly. Both churches and trustees of churches (and permanent members of their households) can join – via www.cmcu.org.uk.
- Greenbelt Check out the URC and Greenbelt websites. Follow #urstars. The URC will have a presence at Greenbelt and we are all encouraged to get involved.
- Assembly commended, Celebrating the Reformation, the booklet produced by Faith and Order on the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation.
Walking the Way – living the life of Jesus today
- excitement behind 'Walking The Way: living the life of Jesus'. Its emphasis was mainly on celebrating, nurturing, making and releasing disciples within the URC. It seems to be one of the answers from 'What is the Spirit saying to the churches?'
It is aimed at involving the whole URC, working in partnership with existing projects in order to make a real difference in people's lives at the local level. Revd Fiona Thomas made it clear that the Way is shaped by people who walk it, not another bureaucratic programme but rather the work from Jesus Christ, among his people, by his people and for the whole church.
This fresh discipleship current seems to merge with similar waves across many other committees. It seems to be a uniting and energizing wind. It is clearly missional discipleship, which is appealing to the very core of our Christian lives, with the potential of giving the whole church a much needed breath of fresh air for its local, national and worldwide mission. May we watch the space and keep members of the missional discipleship task group in our prayers.
Walking the Way – in Pakistan
Revd. Dr. Majid Abel, Moderator of the Presbyterian Church of Pakistan shared compelling stories with us about life as an oppressed minority in Pakistan. All church services are heavily protected by armed police – at Christmas and Easter there can be 50 or more. He said “We live in constant fear, especially for our children.” In addition, he reported great courage in developing links with local Muslims in contradiction to blasphemy laws which seems to build walls of suspicion and anger in his country. His stories of faithfulness and his experiences of faith were inspirational.
Marriage of same-sex couples (Resolution 7)
Revd David Grosch- Miller and Revd John Proctor reminded Assembly of the process leading to this Resolution. A Resolution was first brought to Assembly in 2014. It has been discussed in Synods and local churches and a revised Resolution was agreed by Mission Council and brought to the one-day Assembly in Birmingham in June 2015. The Resolution was approved by a 2/3 majority and therefore referred to the 13 Synods. All Synods discussed it and none wished for it not to proceed. It was returned to GA in 2016 for a final vote. The resolution could not be amended, it could only be nullified. Following discussion, the Resolution was passed with 240 in favour, 21 against and 4 abstentions.
The Resolution on Same Sex Marriage
A. In keeping with the 2007 commitment on Human Sexuality, General Assembly does not consider it appropriate to express a single view on behalf of the whole United Reformed Church on the matter of Same Sex Marriage.
B. General Assembly declares that the Church Meeting of each Local Church of the United Reformed Church in England and Wales is the relevant governing authority for the purpose of giving consent for the trustees of its building to seek the registration of that building for religious marriage ceremonies of same sex couples, in accordance with the provisions of Section 26A(1) of the Marriage Act 1949 as amended by the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013.
C. In the case of Local Ecumenical Partnerships and Union Churches, where the constitution makes no provision for a Church or Congregational Meeting (including a Special or Extraordinary General Meeting) the relevant governing authority of the United Reformed Church under Section 26A(1) of the Marriage Act 1949 as amended by the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 is the council which represents the widest gathering of members of that Church or Partnership. In case of doubt the council to act in this matter shall be jointly determined, in light of the LEP constitution and any sharing agreement, by the Moderator and Clerk of the Synod on which that Church is represented.
D. Noting that Mission Council has already recognised, on behalf of General Assembly, "that if a future Assembly were to allow for ministers and members of the United Reformed Church to solemnise same-sex marriages under Scots Law, the Synod of Scotland would be the appropriate council of the URC to approach the Registrar General for Scotland", the General Assembly confirms that it now lies within the competence of the National Synod of Scotland to nominate under Section 9(1A) of the Marriage (Scotland) Act 1977 as amended by the Marriage and Civil Partnership (Scotland) Act 2014 members of the United Reformed Church who have indicated their willingness in writing to the Synod to be approved celebrants of same sex marriage in Scotland.
E. The General Assembly recalls that the trusts on which Local Church buildings are commonly held empower the Church Meeting to direct in what ways such a building is or is not to be used for public worship and ancillary purposes.
F. The General Assembly authorises the General Secretary, the Clerk, or any Deputy General Secretary to sign and furnish a copy of this resolution (or a relevant extract) in the name of the Assembly, whenever such a copy may be required by law.
Guidance on registering church premises can be accessed from the front page of the URC website. Suitable worship material is in preparation.
Climate Change and the Environment
We passed a resolution focused on our response as a denomination and local churches to climate change. The resolution commends the URC’s new Environmental Policy and recommends that we engage with climate change and determine what we can do to make a difference, taking into account the recent climate change conference and goals set in Paris. Local churches are encouraged to work for ‘Eco-Church’ status (www.ecochurch.arocha.org.uk) and there are a whole host of other ideas from greening premises to worship to personal lifestyles. Synods too are encouraged to develop and implement plans to become ‘Eco-synods’. A task-group was set up to implement several aspects of the policy, including ‘commission a suitable individual or body to calculate the Church’s carbon footprint, enabling a benchmark to be set up against which future reductions in this footprint may be made’.
The first of the Resolutions carried over to the final day concerned the Israel/Palestine situation. The initial resolution had been brought to General Assembly by three Synods – Eastern, Thames North and Wessex. Extensive discussion had failed to find acceptable wording with much of the debate focussing on the reference to the Church of Scotland report entitled ‘The Inheritance of Abraham’ and Kairos Palestine’s document ‘A moment of Truth’. The revised resolution was much simplified and now ‘instructs Mission Committee to develop its existing work in connection with Israel/Palestine.’ Consensus voting was used and the revised resolution was carried while ‘recognising disagreement’.
The second resolution carried over from Sunday concerned Trident and the banning of Nuclear Weapons. The revised resolution had been amended to include a phrase recognising ‘those, who as part of their duty are required to serve their country on the Trident fleet.’ After much debate this was removed and the remainder of the new resolution was accepted which confirmed the opposition of the URC to the renewal of Trident and calling for the negotiation of a new international treaty banning nuclear weapons.
There were two resolutions on Ministerial Deployment (Resolutions28 and 29). Resolution 28 called on General Assembly to ‘note the projection for numbers of stipendiary ministers likely to be funded from the M&M fund until 2025. (A fall from 393 in 2015 to 235 in 2025 – a 40% reduction). Surprisingly it was noted, but there was little discussion. Pressure of time may have been an issue but clearly there is far more work needed on this to understand the true implications. Resolution 29 called for a change in the formula for allocating ministers to Synods. The formula currently has three elements: (1) the number of church members in the Synod (2) the number of congregations in the synod and (3) population. The resolution concerned removal of the population element due to the limited impact this has on deployment. After some debate Assembly agreed not to change the formula until further work was done.
Resolutions 14-19 concerned Authorised Elders and Presidency at the Sacraments. The resolutions sought to clarify the circumstances in which authority to preside may be given and the training support and guidance to be offered. In particular the position of retired ministers of Word and Sacrament was clarified in that they are not obliged to preside. Also the authorisation is to a local church or cluster of churches. It was not transferable from church to church. Many questions were asked about the position of those who had been presiding at the Sacraments for many years. After discussion all the resolutions were accepted by consensus voting while ‘recognising disagreement’.
Revd Dr Stephen Orchard, presenting the report on the Wider Fold, suggested that the church “is not a club” similar to a golf club and that both Mission Council and Faith & Order had wrestled with widespread unease with current ideas of membership. Wider Fold, he said, represented the first steps in a process to address church membership in the contemporary context.
Response to the Referendum on European Community Membership
There had been an at times emotional discussion on the outcome of the EU Referendum and on the final day General Assembly agreed the following statement:
In the light of the UK's 2016 European Union membership vote, General Assembly:
- Recalls that the Gospel mandates us to respect all people, love our neighbour and offer hospitality to strangers. In light of the decision to leave the EU, and the hurt and anxiety that many people across our nations feel, it believes that the Church's responsibility now is to be a voice of love, hope, inclusion and compassion;
- Affirms the value of being a diverse and multicultural society and calls on local churches to continue to build bridges of understanding and trust with all parts of their communities;
- Celebrates the URC's Reformed European heritage and identity, and commits to ongoing ecumenical relationships with partner churches across Europe;
- Celebrates the contributions that nationals of other European countries make to the UK and commits to stand in solidarity with them at a time of uncertainty;
- Calls on local churches and members of the URC to challenge incidences of racism and hate crime and report them through the appropriate channels;
- Expresses concern and sadness about the deep inequalities within British society and calls upon URC members to lobby their elected representatives calling for a fairer society;
- Calls on all those in the URC to pray for wisdom and honesty for those involved in negotiating the terms of the UK's exit from the EU and for those who currently feel marginalised by the decision;
- Recognises that the URC is a Church in three nations and so calls upon the Synod of Scotland to engage in and contribute to the public processes and ecumenical responses specific to Scotland which may emerge;
- Encourages members of the URC to continue to engage with the ongoing political and social debate on this topic and to challenge misinformation.
The World Communion of Reformed Churches
The Revd Chris Ferguson, General Secretary of the WCRC brought greetings and addressed Assembly. He reminded Assembly that WCRC brings together, as one family, 230 denominations in 110 countries and represents some 80 million Christians. The inclusion of the word “Communion” in “WCRC” emphasises the centrality of relationships. Community is both gift and task and member churches take account of each other within a shared common identity. He went on to stress that for WCRC building up of community implies the building up of the whole human community, in all its diversity. Mr. Ferguson shared the illustration of the origin of the treasured Christian Ichthus symbol. He suggested that it took two people, “on the way”, to make the symbol: the first would trace the top arc of the ‘fish’ in the dust on the ground and the second the lower curve. Their meeting to do so led to the Roman accusation of conspiration: as they breathed together so their shared witness to Christ was affirmed. We too are part of the great conspiration, breathing together in witness.
Parallel Sessions were held on several topics. These were for information and no resolutions were taken. Our representatives share some highlights.
Peter Knowles, convenor for communications, advised of the reasons behind new revised logo, being mainly to enable better digital work and provide a refreshed image. It was noted Guidelines are given for use of the new logo. However, it may be possible to consider variations in the future. ‘Make a constructive suggestion and ask permission to vary.’
A review of Rejoice and Sing is being considered but questions indicated a need to consider this in light of digital display and significant likely use of non-specific URC hymnbooks.
Responding to a question about the online version of Reform, Peter indicated the app provided a download to an individual’s device, whereas using web site for access needed an internet connection to be enabled in order to be able to read the edition.
John Ellis, treasurer, thanked Andrew Grimwade for his 10+ years work with the URC and offered best wishes for his retirement and introduced John Samson as new Chief Finance Officer at Church House.
Pensions were highlighted as an area for concern and explanation; particularly should the Final Salary pension scheme be changed for Church House staff? Responding, John indicated a defined contribution system been considered and consultations had taken place with lay staff. It would not have significantly changed the costs to the URC. As the ministers' scheme review was completed first, following the consultations it was recommended to keep the final salary linked scheme in line with the ministers’ scheme, rather than having two schemes in place.
Education and Learning
We heard that Lawrence Moore is leaving the Windermere Centre. There are interim plans and they are looking at short, medium and long term plans that also support the Walking the Way initiative.
Concern was expressed about EM1 funding for ministerial training as the Maintenance Grant is no longer paid. Revd Dr Rosalind Selby (Northern College) commented that the URC is aware of some problems (and it is important if there are issues that people speak out) but that the URC is very generous and caring towards those in training.
TLS There was concern expressed about TLS no longer being university accredited and how this may affect those seeking to go on to further training. It was said that this change (and the course aiming to be ready by 2018 to begin again) will make the whole of TLS more accessible and that the colleges are aware of what TLS will entail and this will not be a problem. Meanwhile TLS Lite is encouraged as a learning tool. Any questions, please contact the local TLS organiser (East Midlands - Charles Jolly) or Stanley Jackson.
Children and Youth
Youth restructure looked at identity, structure, continuity. From now on Youth Executive will be made up of Synod representatives and this means there should be a greater representation and diversity as the membership reflects the Synods.
The role of the Youth Moderator was outlined. They represent the URC Youth at events and also encourage youth to get involved and join in.
It was asked how Children and Youth was engaging with Walking the Way - and it was reported that the theme for 2017 of Feasts and Festivals was part of this and is being encouraged as a theme across the URC.
Dementia Friendly Churches
David Richardson, Dementia Coordinator for Churches Together in Cumbria, shared their progress and encouraged churches to take up the challenge of becoming dementia friendly.
Thanks to Martha McInnes, Bachelard Kaze Yemtsa, Geoffrey Clarke, Jenny Mills, David Greatorex, Geoff Shaw and Helen Lidgett for these reports.