My dissertation will review the inconclusive debates of the United Reformed Church (URC) on sexuality and ordination since the mid-1990s in the context of the constitution and history of that denomination since 1972 in order to discern what they reveal about its nature. This review will be placed in the context of an ecclesiological reflection on what it is to be a “denomination” which will argue that such reflection is essential to the understanding of the contemporary Church. The conclusion will be that the particular vocation or task of the URC, on behalf of the Church catholic, is repentance for the sin of division and representation of the eschatological unity of the Church.
The explicit prioritisation of unity will be shown to be a consistent feature of the URC’s discussion of the various issues raised by the question of whether to ordain individuals in homosexual relationships, the key issue at stake in its debates. On the nature of Biblical authority, the place of authority in the Church, and on the meaning of “holiness” in regard to ordained ministry insufficient agreement was found to enable the denomination to come to a clear view. Instead means were found, enabled by the particular mixed polity of the URC, to preserve its institutional integrity despite opposing views on all these matters.
I will argue that this prioritisation of unity can be seen to be continuous with the formation of the URC as an ecumenical project oriented to repairing the divisions as a central part of the realisation of God’s plan for the Church. The URC’s constitution is less concerned with finding agreement as a means to unity than with establishing unity as a response to God’s call for the Church to be one. Taking the Nicene formula, “one, holy, catholic and apostolic” as a mandate and prescription the URC’s founders believed that until the Church was one it would be in a state of sin, making holiness, catholicity and apostolicity beyond it.
In seeking to support and develop this contention we will examine the ecclesiology of a Church divided into denominations. It will be suggested that the denomination is the Church form typical of modernity. The Church has responded to the challenges of the modern world by adapting to its specialisation and differentiation, taking these into itself via the fragmentation into denominations. Further it will be argued that while this phenomenon is distinctively “modern” it is the working out of a dynamic inherent in Christian eschatology, the dynamic tension between the already and the not yet of the coming of the Kingdom of God.
Chapter 1 will read the documents of the URC “sexuality debate” from 1994-2007, especially the 1999 and the 2007 GA Reports which mark the two crucial decision points at which the denomination decided not to decide, in the first case because no effective majority could be mobilised in the second as a matter of positive intent. The ways in which difference and disagreement is handled in the two documents we will observe to revolve around the imperative to remain united, seen as a precondition for the discernment of God’s will.
In Chapter 2 we will trace this theme in the URC’s history and especially in the 1972 Basis of Union that functions as its constitutional core. It will be shown that as an ecumenical project self-consciously repenting of division the URC neither has nor can have unity around a truth, rather it upholds unity part of the truth of God’s will for the Church. It will be shown further that more recent attempts to find or create a more concrete ground for the denominations unity have failed and that the yearning for the Church to be one is the core of its life.
In Chapter 3 this will be assessed in light of an ecclesiology of the divided church. It will be argued that in acting as God’s people in a world still awaiting the return of Christ in glory the call to be “one, holy, catholic and apostolic” creates tensions within the Church and between the Church and the rest of the world that are manageable only through a “division of labour” in which different denominations represent or undertake different aspects of the Church’s mission. This is interpreted as an aspect of the eschatological tension between the realised Kingdom of our redemption and the coming Kingdom of Christ’s recognised and completed Lordship over all creation. Recent ecclesiological reflection on denominationalism is drawn on and also criticised to support this argument.
In the final chapter we return to the story of the URC in the light of these ecclesiological reflections to attempt a further specification of the vocation of the URC. In particular we observe that as an ecumenical project the URC has a peculiar ecclesiological self-consciousness, which gives it an especially penitential character. It describes itself as “repenting” of the sin of division in the Basis of Union and given its continued existence as a separate denomination it has a difficult and troubled relationship to its own being. It perpetuates and exemplifies the sin for which it repented in its founding. Furthermore given the limits of what it can achieve even its own closure would not make a material impact. Its vocation thus becomes one of living in representative repentance for the sins of the Church catholic (itself included). Such a vocation can make sense only through a denominationalist ecclesiology of which the URC is the institutional embodiment.