Nick Seeking Understanding

Essays from an Edinburgh MTh

The URC’s vocation is to repent of its existence (Dissertation draft 2 introduction) July 18, 2012

Filed under: Uncategorized — Nick Brindley @ 2:48 pm

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.


11 Responses to “The URC’s vocation is to repent of its existence (Dissertation draft 2 introduction)”

  1. Ezra Davis Says:

    I am quite sure that the URC believes itself (very confidently, actually) to be an ecumenical project of the sort you describe.

    But, I’d be very interested to explore with you the notion that perhaps the URC is standing on the ecumenical field of play with its gaze fixed towards the more sacramental and connexional churches, largely blind to the many continuing (and new) independent churches. Is it as though the URC is cutting itself off from its own roots in Independency and in the Disciples, as the acceptable (????) necessary price of the hoped-for and prayed-for wider Christian re-union ?

    If so, it’s quite a high price, and of what worth is such a re-union anyway, if it excludes churches that (if the URC had not come into being) would now be very close kin to the many former Congregational and former CofC (Disciples) churches that form the majority of the local churches making up the URC.


    (1) Baptism: At first sight, the URC gives equal regard to infant baptism and believer baptism. So far, very good. This matter has divided Christians far too long. Yet, there remains (in theory) a total prohibition on individuals baptised as babies receiving believer baptism. This is said to be justified on the basis that baptism being a sacrament of Christian initiation is to be administered once only to any individual. But, what of the person who does not regard infant baptism as a true baptism or as an adequate baptism. Why not allow room here for individual conscience. People will say that the URC would then be calling into question its own baptisms. That does not need to be the case at all. It could simply be written that where such a baptism is carried out, it is done for pastoral reasons, and it is regarded BY THE URC as a ratification of the infant baptism.

    In the context of an LEP, there can be some baptisms of people who were baptised as infants. (There is an agreed Baptist-URC joint statement about the matter). However, even here, there seems to be encouragement to write into the LEP documents that such individuals go onto the Baptist roll only. Clearly, as the scheme of union currently stands, the believer baptism should not admit the person as a URC member, but on what basis is it necessary or appropriate to imply that the person should not afterwards be admitted to the URC roll, or (if already a URC member) may not remain. Within the URC, there must be hundreds of individuals who have been baptised more than once. It is not nornally a matter for sanction/discipline, and anyway standards of church membership in the URC are a matter for local churches.

    (2) Ordination: Many independent churches are lay-led, or elder-led, or they may be. Some do not use or recognise ‘ordination’ at all, or draw no marked distinction between lay and ordained. A high theology of ordination is probably a necessary consequence of union with Presbyterians. But, given 21st century circumstances such as the growth of non-stipendiary ministry, financial constraints, smaller churches, much increased access to support materials (Internet and so on), is it necessary to maintain the sharp distinction between those ordained to a ministry of spiritual oversight other than ‘Word and sacraments’ (termed ‘elders’) and those (termed ‘ministers’) ordained to a ministry of preaching/teaching and leading at the sacraments. Theologically, both are presbyters. Perhaps some elders should be accepted as preaching and presiding elders.

    (3) Presidency 1: The provision that people other than ordained ‘ministers’ may preside is hedged about, to the effect that ordained ministers should be available everywhere and others should preside only in case of pastoral necessity. Could/should not the provision for local elders (or certain of them) routinely to preside where the local church wishes it be opened-up. (This cross -relates with the commets above re oprdination, to some extent).

    (4) Presidency 2: The provision that people other than ordained ‘ministers’ may preside applies only to URC members. There is zero provision for synods to authorise other ‘lay’ people to preside, no matter how regularly these lay-people may preach, nor how active thsay are in the local church/neighbourhood. Lay people should not be presiding in a URC context if their own church does not allow them to preside there, but there will be baptist, Congrgatinal and oter independent preachers/pastors who do prside in their own churches, but the wording of the URC ‘rule’ does not allow them to be considered. There will be exceptions available in formal LEP situations, but there are many less formal links between churches.

    (5) Calling of ministers: Concurrence should be withheld only wehere there are strong pastoral concerns, but in practice there are a numbe rof rules restricting who may be called (presumably justified on string pastoral grounds). If the minister is to be paid through the national fund, fair enough. But, where a minister/pastor is to be locally paid or non-stipendiary, are these rules/protocols necessary and justified. Congregational churches had far greater liberty in tregrd to these matters.

    Perhaps this is enough points for now.

    • I think most of your points (each of which is relevant and interesting in its own right) can be seen as related to the core one about where we see our key ecumenical partners and/or audience and/or context. I’m inclined to agree that we neglect the independents in favour of the older and more structured denominations. There are a variety of reasons for this, some good, some less so, but all threatening the catholicity of our ecumenism.

      One ordination and presidency I regard the motion for local ordination at GA as a hopeful sign and posted on it on “Love’s Work”. I’d be hesitant to do anything that isolated us any more from the CofE but would like us to be more open to the independents. A lot of it must be down to context and I look forward to exploring the ecumenical opportunities in Potters Bar and Brookmans Park.

  2. Very interesting, Nick. Very.

    • Small comment on the Baptism issue. I argue that if a person Baptised as an infant comes to faith as an adult and wants to proclaim it, then the infant Baptism was effective. Baptism is far more about what God does. We need to celebrate a wide range of ways to proclaim growing faith at many different stages of faith development. To suggest that adult/believers Baptism is the only effective Baptism is to suggest that human agency is more important than God’s agency.

      • Yes, I agree with you on the substance of the baptism question, Elizabeth, but I do wonder about the extent to which in taking a firm stand here (which we justify primarily on ecumenical grounds) we effectively both make a denominational decision against believer’s baptism (which elsewhere we say we won’t do) and also make an ecumenical choice against those who reject infant baptism. It may be that we have no real choice in this but it does make me a little uneasy.

      • Paul Says:

        Nick stated that “Within the URC, there must be hundreds of individuals who have been baptised more than once.” However, it is worth noting that the URC actually makes an ontological statement that baptism “cannot” (rather than “may not”) be administered more than once. Thus “re-baptism” (so labelled) is ruled out an actual impossibility.

        In a situation where a person is baptised upon confession of faith (credo-baptism) having formerly been the passive participant in a rite that others (but not the person themselves) described as baptism (usually paedo-baptism), the URC is then left with the dilemma of needing to decide which of these two rites was baptism since, by its own doctrinal affirmations only one of them was baptism, and the other was not. But which? Is this to be decided on a merely chronological basis (the first to occur is baptism) or on some other basis (eg: the willing participation of the person, testifying to God’s grace and responding to it in faith)?

        One thing is certain: the URC cannot discipline anyone for carrying out a “re-baptism” because, by its own statement, such a thing is impossible. It could complain about the appearance of a re-baptism, but that is a different matter entirely and not one which is mentioned in The Manual (afaik). Having upheld this case whilst at college, I myself was baptised upon confession of faith a few years after being ordained to URC ministry, about 15 years after coming to faith in Jesus from a non-Christian household, and more than 30 years after a rite that was described as ‘baptism’ when I was an infant.

  3. Dominic Grant Says:

    An enticing Introduction to what looks to be an incisive and timely study.

    On Baptism – I rather like the thrust of Elizabeth’s response to those baptised as infants who come to faith as adults, although I’m ever-so-slightly cautious about the “if… then the infant Baptism was effective” phrasing – as it stands, this begs the question “when might a Baptism be INeffective?”. I’m confident that’s not quite what was meant, though!

  4. Lindsey Sanderson Says:

    In your work so far have you encountered a significant shift in the understandings of unity within which the URC works? My observation from convening the Review of Ecumenical Relations is that the URC needs to look again at what it understands by unity, particularly organic unity as the definitions which it is has upheld based on the WCC statements from Delhi in particular, and which make their way into our founding documents, are not universally held and are seen by many as increasingly irrelevant, and merely drain energy, vision and resources. In my mind this has significant impact on the task of the URC in the way you describe it as ‘repentance for the sin of division and representation of the eschatological unity of the Church.’ I don’t think the URC is alone in struggling with a contemporary understanding of unity, it is a common struggle across the churches in Scotland (and I suspect the UK) but interestingly one which they seem to find very difficult to engage in together. I look forward to reading more of your thoughts.

    • I’m aware of the move away from commitment to organic unity in the wider ecumenical movement, Lindsey, and I think it would be possible to think about it in terms of modernity and post-modernity (little though I really like these terms). I also think that the URC’s existence is predicated on the ideal of organic unity and what’s more that this is essential to the oneness of the Church we regard as mandated by the Nicene formula.

      I’m inclined, therefore, to think that we should uphold this ideal, even when we’re totally isolated in doing so.

  5. Ezra Davis Says:

    Yes Nick. As you say, most of my specific points (examples) relate to the core question as to where the URC sees her ecumenical partners and/or audience and/or context. I quite see that there are some good reasons (though some less good) the independents may have been somewhat sidelined in favour of the older(?) and more structure denominations, but as you say all of these reasons threaten the catholicity of the United Reformed Church’s ecumenism.

    Thank you for darwing attention to a GA motion about local ordianation and to your own comments on it. I’ll look this up.

    At the moment, I’m not sure I see how the things I suggested for consideration might risk further isolating the URC from the CofE. It is owing to the fact that all ordained URC presbyters lack of what the CofE regards as ‘episcopal’ ordination that ordained URC presbyters are, in CofE eyes, disqualified for presiding at baptisms and the Lord’s Supper. How might changes to the way the URC defines the distinction between those ordained presbyters she terms as ‘elders’ and those ordained presbyters she terms ‘ministers’ distance the URC from the CofE ?

    Picking up if I may, on Elizabeth G-K’s ‘small comment’ about the baptism issue, I agree with Elizabeth. I did not for one moment mean to suggest that adult/believer baptism is the only effective baptism. But, I did (and I do) want to recognise that there are very very many Christians who are persuaded that it is indeed the only authentic or effective baptism, and some of them were ‘baptised’ when they were babies. A movement that claims to be ecumenical needs, I suggest, to be able to accommodate their need to go through an immersion ceremony described as baptism.

    Paul must be reading a different version of the basis of union from me. My version (downloaded about a year ago from the URC website) does not use the word ‘cannot’. I have even looked back at the original 1971 booklet and it does not use the word ‘cannot’. The relevant text is: ‘Baptism is the sacrament of entry into the Church and its corporate ministry, and is therefore administered once only to any person’ (1971 text) and ‘It [the gospel sacrament of baptism] is the sacrament of entry into the Church and is therefore adminsitered once only to any person’ (text downloaded 2011).

    In secular life, the concept of ratification is well known and well established in various fields. It is used where there is doubt, to dispel the doubt. It is used where one party sees doubt but other parties don’t. In many cases, the ratification will be technically/strictly redundant but is done to serve some practical purpose. In fine, ratification may sometimes be necessary, is often un-necessary or redundant, but serves a very useful purpose. It may do some good, buit it is certainly harmless.

    A wedding ceremony is a ceremony of entry into the estate of matrimony. However, in the law of England, there is nothing to stop a married couple going through as many repeat wedding ceremonies as they wish. Most of the couples who seek some form of repeat ceremony will probably be content with a renewal of marriage vows ceremony, but (for whatever reasons) some will and do repeat the full marriage ceremony.

    I am not suggesting that churches/ministers should agree to baptise people three and four times. But, there are at least two features of an infant baptism that make it different from a believer baptism by full immersion — in the infant baptism there is no opportunity for the baptismal candidate to express any form of personal assent or faith, and (usually) the infant baptism does not involve full immersion. Owing to this latter, the biblical baptismal aspect of dying to the old life and rising to newness of life that is enacted dramatically by going DOWN into the pool and beneath the water (as if drowning) and then of rising is largely absent/lost in the case of an infant baptism. For some Christians, these sort of reasons would cause them to see infant baptism as less than satisfactory, or even as not a true and authentic baptism. We should honour and respect their view even if we don’t agree with it, or don’t entirely agree with it, and (as I read the basis of union) it does indeed so honour and respect such views, in theory at least.

    To fully honour and respect such views, perhaps one should be looking for ways of accommodating the person’s need for a believer-baptism ceremony within the worshipping life of the person’s own church.

    Why oh why is there need to make this into a big deal. Pastorally, how can a church/minister refuse a gospel sacrament if the candidate is earnestly asking for it, is taught/prepared, is in a state of faith, and so on. Simply write into the basis of union that in principle baptism is administered once only to any person, and add a few explanatory words about dealing pastorally and that any further baptism ceremony is carried out for pastoral reasoins and is regarded by the church as being in ratification of the earlier baptism.

    The question as to which of the two is the true baptism or whether both are in some sense authentic baptisms is a question to which individual Christians are always going to give differing answers. An ecumenical church needs (I presume to suggest) to accommodate both views and both practices. The URC has not as yet quite achieved this.

  6. Paul Says:

    Interesting proposal, Ezra, and certainly the URC has (in practice) established a modus operandi which gives precedence to paedo-baptism simply because of chronology.

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