Nick Seeking Understanding

Essays from an Edinburgh MTh

Dissertation outline April 2012 June 3, 2012

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The argument of this dissertation is that the decision made by the 2007 General Assembly of the United Reformed Church not to attempt to arrive at a definitive answer to the question of whether it is appropriate to ordain individuals who are active homosexuals was the right one for the URC. It will seek to establish this by examining what it means to be a denomination and what kind of denomination the URC is. It will relate the debates on ordination of homosexuals to this understanding of the URC, seeking to demonstrate that the decision to live with apparently irreconcilable differences, in this as in other cases, is essential to the role it is called to play within the Church catholic.

Crucial to this argument is the idea of “denominational vocation”. This requires an sketch of a denominationalist ecclesiology, which it is suggested here has not yet been adequately developed. Some foundational propositions for this are:

  • that no denomination is currently in a position to claim to be the Church, all are fragments;

  • that the (correct) view that this division of the Church is sinful properly resides in tension with confidence in God’s providential rule in the midst of this division;

  • that one resource for making this tension creative is the idea of “vocation”, of God’s calling of individual Christians but also Christian collectivities to participation in the missio dei;
  • that these vocations are specific to the body called, that is to say that denominations have vocations distinct from (but not conflicting with) that of their constituent elements, whether individuals, local congregations, or other collectivities;

  • that it, therefore, makes sense to explore what a denomination is called to, what its purpose is in God’s plan, allowing that different denominations will have different missions and that these will not coincide completely with that of any or all the congregations, people and other bodies that it contains.

Having established this ecclesiological framework the next step is the outline of an account of the vocation of the URC. The primary point of reference for this is the process by which this new denomination came into being in 1972 through the union of Congregationalists and Presbyterians in England and Wales and the subsequent unions with the Churches of Christ in England and Scotland in 1980 and with the Scottish Congregationalists in 2000. The Basis of Union as the founding document will be analysed and the history interpreted to argue that the vocation of the URC is primarily an ecumenical one.

It will be shown that periodic and partial searches for other “identities” (a term much used in the URC but here rejected in favour of “vocation”) including that of Reformed and of progressive as well as that of dissenting have been failures and have distracted from what has been widely recognised as the URC’s distinctive contribution to the Church. It will be argued that there are few if any aspects of Christian tradition and life that are peculiarly and uniformly the preserve of the URC. Different people and different churches within the denomination occupy a very wide range of positions. What is special about it is that at the denominational level it intentionally holds together these differences without an obvious means of doing so (here a contrast with the national churches of England and Scotland will be drawn in which it is argued that being “national” is their vocation which means they hold their differences together in a different way).

Having thus established an account of URC’s vocation the dissertation will turn to the story of debates on ordination of homosexuals that began in 1995 with a request for clarification from one of the denominations training colleges prompted by the affirmation by a Synod of the call of someone openly homosexual. It will trace the debates that concluded with the permissive stance and declaration of a seven year moratorium at the 1999/2000 General Assemblies. It will then analyse the conclusion in 2007 that the denomination was not in a position to make further decisions and that we should continue to live with our differences.

The general ecclesiological and specific denominational conclusions arrived at earlier will be drawn upon to argue that this is an appropriate response by the URC to our own situation and to that of the wider Church. It will be suggested that the unsatisfactory nature of the position that the 2007 Assembly left our communal life in is a valuable witness to the Church catholic, if properly understood and intentionally lived into as a sacrificial task of discipleship. More recent events will be reported and considered in that light and a continued patient discernment of the Spirit’s guiding urged.

Chapter 1: Denominationalist Ecclesiology

This chapter will first briefly survey the academic literature on “denominationalism” which traces this phenomenon from a beginning in English Independent and Baptist thought and practice in the 17th Century through developments in North America to the contemporary world. This literature has a primarily historical and sociological character and does not reflect deeply on the implications of the rise of the denominational principle for the theological understanding of the nature of the Church and its place in the overall scheme of the created and fallen world on its way to redemption at the eschaton.

In this chapter a sketch of the direction such a reflection should take will be presented and some preliminary conclusions offered.

No denomination is currently in a position to claim to be the Church, all are fragments

It will be argued that the universality is a necessary property of the Church and that none of its current manifestations can convincingly claim that universality. Consideration will be given to the ways in which national churches and the Roman Catholic church could make this claim and reasons offered to reject any such attempt. Similarly the class Congregationalist suggestion that the local church as gathered congregation can claim catholicity directly without reference to any wider ecclesial structure will be briefly examined and rejected (a primary source for this section will be Miroslav Volf for Catholicism and Congregationalism, sources yet to be identified for Anglican and Presbyterian versions of the national church).

Sin and providence in church division

We normally and quite properly identify the division in the Church as a consequence and expression of human sin. It is not to be denied that this is a correct diagnosis but it will here be suggested that another perspective can also contribute to understanding this phenomenon. This is the perspective that asserts that even after the fall God remains sovereign and that human actors can be seen as carrying out God’s work even where they are unaware that they are doing so. This does not absolve them for accountability for their actions but does provide another way of seeing them (as in the prophetic designation of Nebuchadnezzar as God’s servant who will nonetheless be judged for his persecution of Israel).

Such a view of Church division open up the question of what God’s purpose might be in and for the fragments of the divided Church. A number of different kinds of response will be available to this question and not all of them can be even indicated here. Instead one general answer will be offered and then the task of discernment passed to the examination of the fragments.

This general answer will be sought in the concept of “modernity” as an era of specialisation and differentiation. It is not the intention to adopt the over-confident designation of distinct eras that sometimes characterise historicist fables of modernity and post-modernity but it will be suggested that over a long historical period from the consolidation of new political authorities in Europe after the dissolution of the Roman Empire in the West certain processes may be observed. These centre on the creation of spheres and roles with ever more tightly circumscribed functions.

The Church has not been immune to this process. Tasks that were at one time carried out by the Church have increasingly passed to institutions specifically established for and dedicated to these functions (education, medicine and social welfare are outstanding examples). At the same time within the diminished sphere of responsibility of the Church the complexity of what remains has increased greatly. It will be suggested that the Church’s continuing (and increasing) fragmentation should be understood in this context. On the one hand different parts of the Church have adapted to different aspects of the changing situation within which it finds itself and on the other this adaptation has taken place at different rates. Both of these create ecclesial formations with different structures, different composition, different self-understandings, and different contexts. As well as being problematic and sinful this should also be understood as providential

Denominational vocation

It makes sense to view all these fragments of the Church as denominations, that is to say bodies that belong to the Church catholic in principle and understand themselves in this way but which have full autonomy from one another and claim theological warrant for their separation without denying the legitimacy of other denominational bodies. It further makes sense to attempt to discern God’s purpose in calling them into being, in looking for their distinct vocations within the missio Dei.

It is essential to the argument here that the vocation of a denomination is not identical, although it must be compatible, either with that of the Church catholic or that of the local church. Congregations in different denominations but similar situations may have similar or even identical vocations (as is evidenced by the success of some local ecumenical partnerships). Equally different congregations within the same denomination may have very different vocations and missions. Some denominational functions will be similar or even identical between denominations. But a key contention of this dissertation is that each denomination has the responsibility to discern its own particular vocation, what it is that God has called it into being to do, show, or be.

Chapter 2: The ecumenical vocation of the URC

The URC came into being as the union of two quite distinct traditions, English and Welsh Congregationalism, with its roots in 17th Century Independency and the subsequent history of the Old Dissent in England on the one hand and Scottish Presbyterianism as transplanted to England by migration (in both its establishment and its dissenting versions) on the other. It is important to recognise that while these two streams had some important things in common (notably attachment to the Reformed tradition and rejection of episcopacy) there were significant differences on others (church polity, the status of ministers within the church, church establishment on which the English Presbyterian position remained ambivalent).

From the beginning the URC stressed the desire for unity above the differences that continued to divide it. This emphasis was characteristic of the time, the high tide of structural ecumenism, but was also distinctive to the new denomination, one of a number of united or uniting denominations around the world which sought to embody and promote the unity of Christians as the precondition for the Church’s mission. This movement at once recognised the reality of the denominational present and attempted to overcome it through the (re)creation of an authentically catholic Church.

The tensions within the URC and its commitment to an ecumenical mission were both strengthened by the union with tthe Re-formed Association of the Churches of Christ in 1981. The Churches of Christ had hesitated for a long time because of very significant differences in approach to sacrament and ministry with their new partners. They were committed to believers baptism did not admit those not so baptised to the Eucharist. On Eucharistic presidency they were strongly committed to this not being the preserve of those ordained to evangelistic ministry and indeed as not part of the role of these people at all. On the other hand they have always had as an important part of their self-understanding commitment to Church unity. This conflict was resolved through the various compromises made in 1981.

Similarly some Congregationalists regarded their polity as essential to their Christianity, to the extent that a substantial number refused to join the 1972 union. Most, however accepted (however reluctantly) a substantially Presbyterian order for the new denomination, although one so modified by Congregationalist elements as to be barely acceptable to a committed Presbyterian. As with the Churches of Christ the strong tradition in parts of the Congregationalist world of lay presidency was also partly sacrificed, but enough of it was retained to cause discomfort among some Presbyterians.

These tensions within the denomination, present from the very beginning, are worth enumerating because they demonstrate that the union was not one of people who had found a way to agree about things. Rather it was a union of those who agreed that unity was more important that agreement about these things. There was always a limit to the disgreement that could be accommodated (as the existence of the Congregational Federation demonstrates) but this limit was quite broad.

The question this has always begged and continues to beg is what the unity means, what it is we agree about that justifies the compromises necessary to come and to stay together. The contention of this dissertation is that this is the wrong question. The right question is not about agreement but about vocation. What is the distinctive mission of the URC that justifies its ongoing separate existence?

The answer to this question must be found in the history and nature of the denomination and it is the witness to the call to unity. Even where the practical possibility of further union appears distant, as at present, and where the growth of the Church is outside the denominational range where ecumenism has ever been of real interest (in Baptist and especially in Pentecostal or Charismatic formations outside the old denominations) this witness remains vital. The URC, as a denomination formed for and in the ecumenical effort, has this role.

Its denominational vocation, it is here argued, is to be the proponents and exemplars of Church unity as an end in itself.

Chapter 3: URC sexuality debates 1995-2007

This vocation (to witness to the value of unity in difference among Christians) can be seen as active within debates and decisions on ordination of homosexuals. This is evidenced in:

  • the prominence of the necessity of union as a theological imperative in the documents informing the 1999 GA decision

  • the 2000 GA decision that in the absence of a clear decision by the denomination as a whole to adopt the 1999 GA line that ordination of homosexuals should be regarded as unproblematic future decisions on such ordinations would be the responsibility of the ordaining synods and churches

  • the 2007 GA decision that while the current ambiguous position is unsatisfactory the correct course in the absence of evidence that consensus is possible is to continue with it while encouraging further discussion while acknowledging that there exist a range strongly held and mutually incompatible views within the denomination

Many within the denomination (on both sides of the debate) regard this series of events to be a series of “fudges” that evade the issue on purely pragmatic grounds and urge the taking of the issue to a decision even if that means a division of the denomination to allow the creation of a smaller body, or perhaps more than one smaller bodies, with greater cohesiveness. What has not to date been properly articulated is the argument that our distinctive cohesiveness is not grounded in agreement about the theology of sexuality or about anything else. Our distinctive cohesion is in the witness ot the value of Christian unity as such.

The peculiar and distinctive polity that supports and enable the current ambiguity is at once itself an expression of this prioritisation of unity and the key enabler of it. It is sufficiently Presbyterian that difference on this and on other questions is visible and problematic and sufficiently Congregational that it can contain the differences without pushing most of those unhappy with the official position to schism, secession, or exit.

It is now possible for homosexual and partnered individuals to be ordained and to minister within the URC, and a significant number do. There is no necessity for concealment or hypocrisy for these people, they are known and acknowledged within thedenomination (albeit that there are places and roles it would be difficult for them to occupy). At the same time churches and synods that have theological objections to their ministry can coexist with them in our structure because no effort has or could be made to force them actually to affirm them (and this in turn makes some individuals with these beliefs feel excluded from some places and positions).

This chapter will offer a reading of the documents of the 1999, 2000 and 2007 General Assemblies on sexuality against the background of the debates that lead up to 1999 and the events that transpired between the Assemblies to support this interpretation of the URC’s evolution shaped by the ecclesiological analysis of the first two chapters.

Chapter 4: Living with difference as response to vocation

This chapter will reflect further on the way in which the current position of the URC on sexuality can be interpreted as a response to the view of its vocation developed in Chapter 2. This reflection will be worked out by brief theological reflections on:

  • recent events in the denomination surrounding the proposal for a marketing campaign based on a theology of “radical welcome” under the slogan “Zero Intolerance” (ZI);

  • the difference between the URC and the British national churches (Church of England and Church of Scotland) in the handling of the presenting issue of homosexual ordination.

In the first case the events surrounding the abortive launch and eventual abandonment of the campaign will be roughly sketched and an account based seeing this as an attempt to define a denominational “identity” in continuity with earlier explorations of this approach to the URC offered. It will be suggested that this attempt is both valuable and necessary but that one lesson of ZI is that such an attempt will only succeed if it values appropriately the distinctive history and ethos of the URC as an ecumenical project and recognises that this is its primary vocation. This means that the holding together of difference within the structure of the denomination is an imperative for it and any move to prioritise anything that divides will fail to cohere with this.

A contrast will be drawn with the national churches which have in some respects got the same task of holding together different wings and positions in a single body but which have taken rather different approaches. In both cases, although in different ways, there is a stronger drive towards resolution of the issue in a formula that can be adopted or imposed throughout their structures. It will be suggested that the difference is that for these denominations (and it will be argued that they should be seen as denominations rather than under the alternative designation drawn from the sociological literature on this matter “churches”) being “national” is their primary vocation.

The meaning of “nationality” as a vocation will be briefly considered and its consequences for the ways in which unity in difference is experienced and managed contrasted with that of a denomination (the URC in this case) for which witness to catholic unity is the primary vocation. It will here be suggested that both (“nationality” and “catholic unity”) are aspects of the being of the Church that need to be witnessed to in the current situation of Christian mission.


The conclusion will focus on the current position of the URC arguing

  • that its ambiguous and ambivalent nature should not be evaded or denied but should be affirmed and articulated as an appropriate and positive response to its vocation
  • that this requires that the differences within it be faced squarely and openly and no attempt made to minimise them or to deny their importance to those who hold positions that are incompatible with those of others within the denomination
  • that the difficulties and sacrifices this demands of those whose own personal or congregational vocations, as they discern them, are impeded should be acknowledged and whatever measures are possible taken to minimise such difficulties
  • that a positive effort should be made to articulate the ecumenical vocation of the denomination in the present moment looking honestly at the overall situation of the Church in the UK and stating the ways in which the URC’s witness in this regard can be made most effective
  • that the process of living through our differences can only be sustained through confidence that the Spirit is guiding us in discerning a distinctive and unique vocation, as it is for others, and that listening to its guiding requires patient faith from us

One Response to “Dissertation outline April 2012”

  1. […] useful and challenging meeting with Professor O’Donovan about my MTh dissertation (summary here). He put two questions to me about […]

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