The East Midlands Synod of The United Reformed Church - Saturday 18 March 2017
Here are my* personal observations of some of the things that went on at Synod. These are not official minutes, and can not be guaranteed for their accuracy. I have concentrated on the things that struck me as interesting or important, and I will have omitted reporting on some issues which you may have picked up.
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The 2017 Spring Meeting of the East Midlands Synod of the United Reformed Church was held at St Columba’s on Brent Road, Lincoln. St Columba's is a church that was planted by the Anglican, Methodist and URC denominations in what was then a newly developing suburb. It draws its shared ministry from each denomination, and attributes its strength to the fact that it was formed with people from each denomination who passionately wanted to create an ecumenical prescience in that suburb of Lincoln - and they still do.
The buildings are smaller than most venues for Synod, and so the best term to describe the meeting is ‘cosy’.
Synod itself was comparatively lightweight in its content. Starting with the news that the Moderator's review panel will recommended to the next Mission Council that Our Moderator Peter Meek be re-appointed for a second term of office.
The business of the task groups (committees) was Much improved. Taken in blocks, each groups paper was presented swiftly with minimal presentations from the respective convenor who assumed we had read the papers. Each paper was received after opportunity for questions.
We had two inspiring guest contributions - from the General Assembly Moderator - Revd Kevin Watson, and from the Youth Assembly Moderator, Dan Morrell.
Synod began by introducing us to Revd. John Motswai and Revd. Keleneilwe Kgerathwa from the Botswana Synod of the United Congregation Church of Southern Africa (UCCSA). They hold the posts equivalent to the Synod Moderator and Synod Clerk in Botswana. After explaining that they were wearing a vest, shirt two jumpers and a coat because they were very cold (while we were stripping down to our shirt sleevs!), they told us that the church in Botswana faced similar problems to the URC, and it was good to come and learn and share experiences. They hopes we could 'walk together' in the search for ways forward
Our Moderator, Peter Meek, said that UCCSA is a good model for us to learn from because as independent congregational churches they express their independence in interdependency – an attitude between local churches that is not that common in the URC.
The first inspiring address was from Revd Kevin Watson, one of the two Moderators of our General Assembly who delivered a prophetic address entitled “God is saying ‘come back to my son’ ”
He began by asking “Are we not just digging our own grave?” by trying to make a future for the United Reformed Church?
In many ways churches do dig their own graves. They do this by: clinging to buildings that have long since become impractical; by clinging on to (favourite) ministers from the past (is that what the memorabilia and those books of photos are for at the side of the church?); by gripping on to positions of control; by seeking ministry for their own ends, not Christ's ends, always asking ‘what are we getting out of this?’.
The Christian faith, he reminded us, is about the way of resurrection. Resurrection follows some sort of death.
I thought of John 12:24, “In all truth I tell you, unless a wheat grain falls into the earth and dies, it remains only a single grain; but if it dies it yields a rich harvest.” (New Jerusalem Bible”
Kevin reminded us that Jesus calls us to journey with him to Jerusalem, with all the excitement and all the pain that that involves. Dare we? He compared it to the experience many, ministers in particular, face when they retire – downsizing and moving on to a new place. The church, nationally, regionally and locally has moved into a new place, whether it likes it or not. We are the church. We need to move on to a new place. We need to respond to Gods call to ‘come back to my son’.
Kevin said “You have heard the phrase “Let go, let God”. Now is the time, so lets go, and let’s go with God. We are not digging a grave, we are planting something new - because it shows we have hope for the future.
The full text of Kevin's talk can be found here.
(To my request for the full text Kevin replied, after a few days "I don’t have much on paper and what I do rarely matches what actually gets delivered. So I have tried to write up what I think I said using the notes I had prepared")
The other inspiring guest presentation was from Mr Dan Morrell our Youth Assembly Moderator. Dan is a university undergraduate studying at Leeds to become a commercial Pilot!
In his talk entitled “If only they knew” he told us that ‘young people’ (aged 0 – 25yrs) comprise 1/3 of the membership of the URC – so much for thinking we are an ageing denomination!. Despite our declining numbers, we are not declining as a church; but we are facing a big change. Part of the challenge is to give the church to our young people; part of the challenge is to give the church to the people in our community.
These young people, he told us, are keen and full of passion for Christ and the URC, and want to be involved in shaping the denomination locally and nationally. They would, if only they knew they were accepted and trusted in doing so. That is up to us – welcome goes deeper than a welcoming ‘Hello’. That also applies to the people the church really exists for – those not yet a part of it.
The big problem is that we expect they are going to waltz into our churches. They might, if only they knew who we are and what we are about. Making it possible for them to know is our job, but it will require a radically different way of being open to them. We have to re-think the question “what is church?” and be open to the answer that it might actually be something quite different from a free church hymn sandwich!
In the “Good News Stories” we heard from Revd Lesley Moseley about Westgate New Church who had gone through a process of giving up on some of their aged buildings and starting something new by redeveloping the soundest but least impressive part.
Under the Pastoral Group Report, Synod was asked to adopt a new Deployment Policy, and this gave rise to the most discussion at this Synod. The last policy, a decade or so old, does not work in the place we now find ourselves in.
One comment was that there was very little about working ecumenically in the new document. The response was that in the current ecumenical climate, this is not practical even though it is always at the forefront of our thinking. We can not work ecumenically if the other denominations do not want this.
Another part of the debate was about whether we should focus on Mission or Growth. Are we about promoting the Church or Jesus, and is there really a difference?
Whatever happens, said one contributor, we need to accept that the role of the minister has to change as they become more like a Mission Enabler than a Pastor. One minister pointed out that most if not all ministers have been pastorally trained, and entered the ministry called to be a pastor. Those skills of ‘pastoral ministers’ need to be recognised and used, and re-training given when the ministers role in not so pastoral in nature.
Our Ecumenical Officer spoke briefly about the work being done to clarify and re-order the Ecumenical Instruments in England.
In particular he reported that "At its meeting in March 2016, the Enabling Group of Churches Together in England (CTE) commended the Framework for Local Unity in Mission to the member churches for detailed consideration. The document can be viewed here
Mrs Tricia Legge, Regional Pilot Officer, spoke about Pilots and the Big Day Out.
Graham Galeb, a retired Church Related Community Worker, told us of the formation of a new Synod JPIC Group (Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation). If you, or anyone you know, are interested in this group, please contact the Synod Office.
Synod ended with a celebration of Holy Communion led by our Synod Moderator Revd Peter Meek. He used an all-age liturgy from the Church of Scotland.
The text of his sermon will be found here.
The image is of Peter calling synod to order at the start of the meeting, with acting Duncan Smith standing in for Synod Clerk Helen Lidgett who was recovering from an operation.