Northern Synod at General Assembly 2016
Thank you to Lis
The sun shone on South Shields for the Moderator’s Leaving Service, held at St Margaret’s on July 16th. Friends from across the synod packed the church for an inspiring service of worship led by Moderator-elect David Herbert, with a sermon given by Moderator of Assembly Kevin Watson. And to add to the number of moderators, there were bishops too among the ecumenical guests, who voiced their own appreciation of Lis Mullen’s ministry among us over the past three years.
Presentations were made first from Lis’s colleagues in synod office, and then from the whole synod – Meg Robb voicing the appreciation of us all for the wise and reconciling
leadership that we have all enjoyed. And after the service and after the magnificent tea, all who were able stayed on for an evening ceilidh led by St George’s Morpeth ceilidh band (with extra players from various synod churches).
We wish Lis and John every blessing in their retirement in Windermere – when Lis knows she will never have to write another Moderator’s letter for Around the Synod.
Northern Synod at General Assembly
GENERAL ASSEMBLY met in the Floral Hall in Southport, 8th – 11th July. Synod reps were invited to report back on particular issues: shortage of space has made it necessary to edit some of these reports.
Thanks to Elaine and Gordon Brown, Margaret Brock, Joan Grindrod-Helmn, Margaret Humberston, Bob Jones, Matthew Prevett and Linda Robson.
Impressions of Assembly seem to have been positive….
The worship was joyful and the singing enthusiastic. The Bible Studies were all different and challenged us to think about how we should live our lives as People of the Way – the theme of the Assembly this year. It was good to be part of a large gathering, which reminds us all that we are part of something much bigger than our own congregations. – MH
Consensus voting may slow proceedings but does generate a feeling of all taking part and encourages those who wish to be heard, or have disagreement registered. Debates lively and interesting, discussions around tables less useful, other than as ice-breakers and a chance to stretch. Visiting speakers offered thoughtful background to matters before us. – EB
The innovative use of technology was also welcome. However much stays the same; there are those who wish to talk to each issue, objecting to some detail, and those who prefer to remain silent and resort to influence the debate through voting. – GB
Walking the Way – Living the life of Jesus today
This report from Mission Council was presented by Francis Brienen and Richard Church. Walking the Way is about what we know, how we act and how we live. It is about teaching others and following Jesus in our own context. More is needed for discipleship in terms of resources, personal and group study and apprenticeship. Walking the Way will help to make reflection prayer become integral for all of us. It connects with so much: ministry, the Spirit leading us in local churches and following leading of the Spirit towards renewal of the Church.
Answering a question about what constitutes worship and discipleship, Richard Church warned that discipleship is in danger of being turned into scientific exercise when it is a 24/7 lifelong commitment to Jesus which changes life and everything. In the discussion phase of the debate there was concern about the language being used: every church is different and far more people get it wrong.
Walking the Way is not a programme but is an emphasis on our relationship with Jesus today. We don’t want to lose a sense of evangelism but want to share our faith as something normal and natural in every day life. It is about how to change the culture in our local churches by looking at discipleship.
Assembly agreed by consensus to welcome the work of the Walking the Way steering group and commend it to the wider Church. – LR
Marriages of same-sex couples
Following the wide ranging debate of 2014 and the special single issue one day Assembly in 2015 a resolution was referred to the synods affirming that the Church did not have a single view on this matter, and that church meetings in England and Wales and the national synod in Scotland held a ‘governing authority’. No synod had asked that this resolution should not be put, and so General Assembly was now asked to agree that churches in England and Wales who wish to register their buildings for the marriage of same sex couples should be able to start that process. (The Scottish process is different but with similar effects.)
The debate included heartfelt appeals and the raising of issues from people with differing views, but there was a recognition that it was the right time to make this decision. The whole debate was conducted in a spirit of mutual respect and prayerfulness. A two thirds majority was required, and in fact Assembly voted in favour of the resolution by 240 votes to 21 votes, with 4 abstentions.
The General Secretary, Revd John Proctor, said: ‘the URC has made an important decision – at which some will rejoice and with which others will be uncomfortable. Those of our churches who now wish to offer full marriage services to same-sex couples are free to do just that – and those churches who do not wish to are not compelled to. All are part of this denomination. This has been a sensitive issue for many in our churches. It has been important to take our time over the decision process, and to listen as carefully as we can to one another along the way.’
He also told Assembly that advice about the legal processes would be made available shortly. No minister will be able to make a church use its building for the conduct of same sex marriages if the church meeting is against this, and no church in favour of using its buildings for the conduct of same sex marriages will be able to make a minister conduct such marriages. They will, however, be able to request another minister to do so. The Assembly decision means that the URC is now the largest UK denomination to freely permit the celebration and registration of marriages of same-sex couples in its churches. – MB
Assembly passed an Environmental Policy resolution that supersedes previous resolutions and brings our Policy into line with Vision 20/20. The new policy is not an initiative, but a statement of intent. Churches do not have to comply, but they are challenged to be good stewards of God’s creation. The Policy offers theology about caring for God’s creation and also concrete ways churches and Synods can pledge to reduce their carbon footprints. It is a process that will call for both conversion on the part of individual members and transformation of our internal structures.
To help monitor our progress toward meeting this commitment, Assembly passed a resolution that a Task Group be created. This will consist of 4 people and be in place until 2022. Their remit will be to create resources for worship and teaching, consider the budgetary implications of implementing the Policy, liaise with the URC investment committee in regards to its investments in funds such as fossil fuels, and commission a calculation of the Church’s carbon footprint, enabling a benchmark to be set against which future reductions may be made. – JG-H
Some of the work of Assembly was undertaken in parallel sessions…
The session covering the Communications work of the church introduced the new logo, designed because the original one could not easily be reproduced digitally. While this was broadly welcomed there were those who much preferred the original. The new logo is available in several colourways, and it is hoped to produce a multi-coloured one in the future. On a personal note, I think that this one, which was displayed throughout assembly, made the biggest impact.
We were asked to ensure that we did not adapt those currently available in any way. It seems that the logo cannot be downloaded without an app. The comment from the moderator was that “At one time all we needed was Jesus – now we need the app.”
We learned that Reform still needed to increase its circulation in order to remain viable, and that an on line version is available. There was discussion about how the communication team at Church House could improve the ways in which all local churches are kept up to date. This is an ongoing problem and one which has not any easy solutions. – MH
Note from the synod clerk: “No easy solutions that we’ve discovered, Margaret – but has anyone ideas and suggestions about this that they’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you!”
The Children and Youth Work Committee reported on their work on restructuring the organisation formerly known as FURY, now renamed United Reformed Church Youth (URCY). Its new structure parallels the rest of the denomination, and its mission statement relates to identity, belonging and community. There is an annual Youth Assembly in January and this is peer led as young people want to hear from each other.
One university chaplain asked that university chaplains should be used as a resource since they work on a daily basis with people in the relevant age group. It was acknowledged that the process for recommending new students to university chaplains is, on the whole, not working properly. The challenge was made that we should look to ensure that there is a URC chaplain in all places of higher education.
The focus of the Children and Youth Department for the coming year is going to be “feasts and festivals”. They are also organising a big day out with a focus on “What does Walking the Way mean for young people?” It was said that if children and young people have not come to faith by the age of 15 they are unlikely to do so. And it was stressed that children and young people are not the future of the church; they are part of the church today. – MB
Discussion on Ministries reiterated the fall in the predicted number of stipendiary ministers through to 2025. Further discussion at national level will continue and in 2018 all ministers will be called upon to give their ideas as to how ministry might best be used. This complements discussions ongoing in our own Synod.
It was pleasing to note that our synod procedure for authorising elders or accredited lay preachers to preside at the sacraments is in line with the proposed national arrangements to be implemented. – GB
(And I am relieved that synods retain some interest in caring for ministerial candidates as pastoral needs may extend beyond issues of the training environment. – EB)
Three synods had passed resolutions inviting the Assembly to be proactive in its stance towards the challenges of the Israel/Palestine situation. These had common threads and were brought to Assembly for discussion. The complexities of the issue soon became apparent with a number of people offering perspectives from a variety of differing stances. One of the resolutions, brought by Wessex Synod, commended itself to Assembly.
However, as further perspectives were sought from the Assembly divergence of opinion was becoming more marked. A number of speakers asked for prayer and peace-building to become part of what Assembly should ask for, and a variety of representatives urged justice for those on all sides of the issue. The resolution before Assembly failed to answer these concerns and the matter was referred to a facilitation group for further work.
The response of the facilitation group brought together the contributions of the synods and the ongoing work of the Assembly’s Mission Committee. The revised resolution instructed the Mission Committee to work with partners – indigenous, ecumenical, interfaith and public – with areas of interest to include, but not be restricted to, dialogue and action, peace-building, justice, and security. The resolution emphasised the need to provide awareness to synods, local churches and individuals and invited all to respond in informed prayer, grace and solidarity.
The resolution encapsulated the calls of Assembly to seek engagement in the situation in Israel/Palestine without subscribing to statements or actions that could be seen to favour one of the parties. Assembly received the resolution of the facilitation group and accepted it as a place from which synods, local churches and individuals can be invited to engage further with the issues.
The work of the denomination in this area will continue, but it is hoped that the Committee will provide greater opportunities for engagement and opportunities for solidarity and informed prayer.
Faith & Order matters
Assembly urged local churches to continue prayerfully ask themselves “What is the Spirit saying to the Churches?” and to be proactive in sharing their good news stories via communications department, social media and their synod gatherings.
For some time Authorised Elders have been on the Faith & Order Committee’s agenda as they have attempted to formalise guidelines for Presidency at the Sacraments which reflect the circumstances in which churches now operate. With fewer ministers available to preside in our relatively large number of churches, the need for alternative presidency at Communion is no longer exceptional but regular. The Committee’s resolution aimed to introduce a standard practice, modified according to individual circumstances, particularly in those synods where there are a large number of rural congregations.
Work on “The Wider Fold” recognises that the nature of membership within the URC is an important and widely-understood concept. However, there are increasingly situations in which someone who has been received into membership of a local church is no longer able to worship there regularly because of change of residence and is unable to find a church to which to transfer membership.
The concept of the Wider Fold is intended to enable such people to continue to be recognised as being in membership of the URC but without geographical attachment. This would enable such members to be maintained in contact with their original church and denomination for news and events but without them being counted by Synods for scoping or assessment.
Assembly welcomed the principles and instructed the committee to prepare a plan to implement the principles and to enable this to be brought to Mission Council in Spring 2017. – BJ
During Assembly the United Reformed Church joined the Churches’ Mutual Credit Union (CMCU), enabling ministers, elders and congregations to invest savings that will then fund affordable loans to people who might otherwise have had to use payday lenders. URC Treasurer John Ellis was ‘delighted’ by Assembly’s support and urged local churches to ‘spread the word, join this movement and do something practical [for] economic justice.’ This is a chance to point to the values of the kingdom of God.’ See www.cmcu.org.uk
Mr Ian Hardie was appointed as Treasurer of the URC from July 2017. Until then he is Deputy Treasurer. The Revd John Piper was appointed as Deputy Treasurer from July 2017.
Assembly voted to increase its budget by 15%, allowing for expenses that are currently being paid for by synods. A task group was appointed to review the form, size, duration, location and funding of Assembly.
Bishop Angaelos of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the UK addressed General Assembly, focussing on refugees and the Middle East. He said: ‘The infant Christ and the holy family were refugees; we must be able to look for the face of Christ in every refugee.’ The talk ended with a call to advocate justice, ‘not just for ourselves but for everyone made in the image of God’.
A General Assembly News Round up can be downloaded from the Assembly section of the Resources page on the main URC website.
Detailed reports on some individual debates will be found under the News tab.
From time to time, Northern Synod has agonised over how we are perceived. Yes, there is a north-south divide – and No, this may not be a northern power-house. But even if it is hard to attract new ministers when we have vacancies, we know there are so many good things going on here. And yet….
How can it be that of the 130 photos of this Assembly that Assembly staff have put online, only one includes a recognisable member of our synod?
Assembly photos in this report – all ©URC 2016. Used with permission.
The gallery may be accessed at https://flic.kr/s/aHskDdNCZM
Keep the news coming in! –
Contact Wendy Watson at Synod Office – Tel 0191 2321168