In this dissertation we will examine the United Reformed Church (URC) “human sexuality debates” between 1994 and 2007 with a view to understanding what kind of body the URC is, from an ecclesiological perspective. That is to say the course and outcomes of these discussions and decision making processes, centred on the question of whether it is appropriate to ordain to ministry individuals in homosexual relationships, will be analysed not to determine the correctness or otherwise of their substantive content or conclusions but rather to gain insight into the nature of the URC.
This methodological “bracketing” of the substance is invited by the inconclusive nature of the outcome, which has caused some within the denomination to regard the debates as a failure. This is not the conclusion drawn here. Rather we will see that it is possible to take a more positive view of the approach the URC has arrived at on this question as true to the intentions of its founders.
This will require us to examine both the wider story of the URC’s foundation in 1972 as its subsequent evolution. This is justified by the necessity of understanding this context to make the case that is here made about the significance of the sexuality discussions. Central to this dissertation is the suggestion of a deep continuity between this particular debate and the nature of the URC as a united denomination. This continuity is one that, as we shall see, has been noted elsewhere and evaluated differently.
The relatively positive evaluation proposed here depends on a set of ecclesiological ideas that can only be stated rather than fully defended within the constraints of a dissertation primarily devoted to the analysis of a set of events within a single denomination. However a chapter is devoted to such statement and focusses on questions regarding what here is described as “denominationalism”. This is the ecclesiological approach that believes that the Church catholic is divided into a set of denominations, each of which can legitimately claim to be part of the Church. This belief inevitably raises problems about how to understand the relationship between Church and denomination and it is there questions that are considered below.: Is each denomination a fully functioning church? How do denominations relate to one another? Should we see them as having distinct roles and if so how do we articulate these with one another? How are sin and providence to be discerned in the evolution of denominations? How is the history of the connected to that of the societies within which it is placed and with salvation history?
It is not possible to give an adequate answer to even one of these questions here but neither can they be ignored. The conclusions I have drawn depend on ecclesiological premises that are not universally or even widely shared and which therefore need to stated and defended.
Inevitably there are many loose ends and questions begged by this dissertation. Some of these are raised in the conclusion and tentative suggestions made about the directions in which further thinking on them could proceed.
Chapter 1 (here): an account of the URC “human sexuality debates” between 1994 and 2007 seeking to defend the decision not to decide as expressing the URC’s denominational commitment to unity as a precondition for Christian truth.
Chapter 2 (here): brief history of the URC and reading of the Basis of Union arguing that it was never meant to be a permanent denomination but rather to be an ecumenical project. For this reason uniformity of belief or practice was less important than a common commitment to unity. Recent attempts to consolidate a denominational identity are analysed and criticised.
Chapter 3 (here): this account of the URC is put in the context of a more general ecclesiology of a Church divided into denominations. It is argued that this division reflects both the nature of modernity as a historical period and human sinfulness. The paradox of a denomination committed to the end of denominations is justified by recourse to the interplay of eschatology and a doctrine of providential governance.
Chapter 4 (here): seeks to synthesise the historical and ecclesiological material from the previous chapters to argue for an understanding of the URC as a denomination called to repent of denominationalism and hold up a symbol of unity to a divided Church.
Our conclusion, then has been that the URC has as its task the proleptic representation of the eschatological Church in its oneness, a full and transparent unity unachievable except by the grace of God and bound up with the promise of the renewal of all creation in which the Church’s holiness, catholicity and apostolicity is also involved. This future eschatological fulfilment has been shown to exist in tension with the task of the Church of being the agent of the already completed salvific work of Christ, who has redeemed it through his mission on earth.
This tension is expressed in the existence of the Church through Christ’s presence in its preaching and its sacraments while simultaneously the Church, as sinful, fails to be fully present in time and space. It is this already and not yet of the Church that demands of it a repentant self awareness and continuous striving towards its goal, a goal only realisable through God’s gracious action, an action that is again at once present in the mysteries of the Word preached and the Sacraments administered as well as awaited in the hope of the faithful.
Essential to our argument here has been the idea that the fullness of the Church’s presence in history requires its disintegration, that the realisation of each aspect of its mission precludes, this side of the eschatological moment of Christ’s return, the realisation of other aspects. This “division of labour” (analogous to that between the Church and the civil authority in Luther’s Two Kingdoms) between denominations also requires of them that they adopt ecclesiologies that align to the self-understanding appropriate to their vocation.
This dissertation is written from within the denominationalist ecclesiology appropriate to the self-consciousness of the URC as an ecumenical project. I do not claim, though, that this ecclesiology contains or appropriates others. It has its truth in the recognition of division as at once within the Church and damaging to it, as not excluding those who meet the criteria set for the presence of the Church despite the sin of division but yet holding them to account for it. The limit of the validity of this way of thinking is when it turns back on itself in assessing what justifies the continuing existence of the URC.
In so far as it attempts to consolidate itself as a permanent and self-identical ecclesial institution it ceases to repent. In so far as it does not it has no justification other than the proclamation of that repentance. Such a bind is sustainable only because the denomination and the churches and other units that are within it are not identical. Local churches, community projects, educational institutions and other URC bodies have their own vocational integrity within the mission of the Church.
The future of the URC is uncertain but its founding impulse to repent of division and strive for unity will remain an inescapable element of authentic Christian discipleship until God acts to make all things, including the Church, new.
At the same time there are a range of problems with this perspective that must be acknowledged: in focussing on the distinct vocation of the denomination it runs the risk of losing sight of fundamental characteristics of the Church without which the denomination would lose its ecclesial status; there are difficulties about the self-consciousness of the denomination, it did not reach the conclusions it did through adoption of the ecclesiology proposed; and crucially, the content of the arguments has been neglected and would be seen by many of the participants to be more important than the matters brought to the fore here.
The question of holiness and sanctification, of the new life in Christ, is a crucial one in the present context. This features in the URC’s Basis of Union but only fleetingly and without substantial development. In Clause 11 the Church’s offering of itself to God and the reception of the renewing life of the Holy Spirit are briefly stated as central to the purpose of the Church, in Clause 17 it is affirmed as part of the statement of faith that we believe ourselves to receive newness of life and in the ordination vows ministers promise to live a holy life. None of this, though, has the same prominence as oneness. It is very much as if the URC has taken the fourfold Nicene formula, “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic” and taken the first as determinative of the others.
This approach can only make sense if either one takes as a maxim that unity is a precondition for all else (and often URC documents can appear to be saying just this) or one accepts that one’s own ability to be Church is limited and one must accept the task assigned while repenting of the inability to address the others (the approach argued for here). In so doing one runs the risk of giving up too much and ceasing properly to represent or participate in the Church at all. Further reflection on the nature of holiness would require exploration of the place of ethics in wider Christian discipleship, especially as it manifests in corporate ecclesial life. Such exploration is beyond the scope of this dissertation and would need to take account both of the classical Reformed concentration on the idea of covenant as constituting community and on the tensions between a common secular ethic understood with Luther as reflecting natural law and on the special ethical demands of the gospel.
Related to this difficulty with the relative weight of oneness and holiness is that of the self-consciousness and self-understanding of the denomination. It is sometimes suggested that the URC’s position on ordination of homosexuals is a “fudge” driven by the institutional rather than theological imperative to maintain the integrity of the organisation. Such an interpretation is not incompatible with the evidence and may indeed have been a motive of some or all of the participants. In arguing from a view of providential governance in the constitution of the denominational Church, though, I have suggested that the motives and thoughts of the participants are not necessarily the final consideration in understanding how events unfold. These motives should be analysed and understood and judgements formed about them but it is also appropriate to develop another way of seeing what happens that seeks for the meaning of events in light of the idea of a teleology beyond the scope of conscious human agency. Such a thinking of the interplay of human self-determination and providential guidance would be required to test the plausibility of the ecclesiology of denominationalism proposed here.
Finally it must be acknowledged that while a defence of the URC’s decision not to decide can be mounted, a refusal to resolve ethical questions (or questions of holiness) cannot ultimately be satisfactory, nor can their deferral to the eschaton be an excuse to evade them indefinitely. While I would argue that the replacement of faith in Jesus as saviour by an ethical system is one way Christianity can fail to be itself I would not endorse an antinomian rejection of all temporal moral judgement.
The realm of ethics, and especially sexual ethics, is one that causes profound polarisation in the contemporary Church and this cannot be wished away by appeal to the right to disagree. That there is a moral truth grounded in God’s will is essential to Christian teaching and apophatic denial of our ability to discern the truth fully does not absolve us from the duty to strive to discern and to obey God’s will, however that may be made known to us. In the present context this requirement is expressed through the determination that the differences within the URC not be ignored, suppressed or worked around. It is the duty of all concerned to express their positions with integrity and clarity and strive to live accordingly while remaining open to hearing that of those with whom they disagree. Our faith must be that the guiding of the Spirit will, in time, enable us to find and to follow the call to the holy life we promise to live.