We are the United Reformed Church. We are based in Britain, with over a thousand congregations across Scotland, England and Wales, and a few in the outlying islands of Guernsey, Jersey and the Isle of Man (although none in Northern Ireland). We have strong historic links to some of the Reformed churches in continental Europe, and we value highly our fellowship with partners in CWM. At home we are known for our strong ecumenical commitment; about a quarter of our congregations are Local Ecumenical Partnerships, belonging both to the URC and to one or more other churches, for example Methodist, Baptist, or Church of England, Church of Scotland or Church in Wales.
We started in 1972, when two strands of Christian life merged together. Almost all the Presbyterian Church of England, and a large majority of local churches in the Congregational Church of England and Wales joined to form the United Reformed Church in the United Kingdom. This was a big moment, and many people hoped it would lead to broader ecumenical gains. Through the years there have indeed been further unions, but they were smaller in scope than once seemed possible. A few dozen Churches of Christ joined in 1981, and a majority of Scottish congregational churches in 2000, when we dropped the suffix ‘in the UK’ from our name.
All of this suggests that we are a recent movement. However, most of our local churches are older than the denomination. Some of them started in the 1600s, when England and Wales were strongly influenced by the Reformation, and many people wanted a pattern of worship and local church life free of government control. So they left the Church of England and worshipped separately. That is the root of much English and Welsh Congregationalism. Our other strands have different origins. English Presbyterianism came largely from Scottish people who moved south. The Churches of Christ was a 19th century movement, aiming at first to be non-denominational. Scottish Congregationalism started in the 19th century too. So we have a complex and long story to tell.
Many of our people today would be centre or slightly left in their political views. There is not much of a religious right in Britain, of the kind there is in America, and if there were, not many URC people would be keen to join it. Theologically, those who prepared the way for our Church in 1972 hoped that people of traditional beliefs and those with more liberal theology would flourish side-by-side in the URC; in some quite important ways this hope has been realized.
As Britain has become more multi-cultural in the last 70 years, the URC is glad and grateful to be part of that change. We value immensely the contribution made by our many church members whose personal and family roots stretch all around the world, as part of God’s tapestry of grace among us.
In our central office we have three staff who work in Global and Intercultural Ministries (GIM), nurturing our links with the world church and helping us to work for racial justice in our Church and wider society.
We have long-standing connections with many of the member churches of the CWM family. Some of these connections go back well over 100 years, when missionaries from here travelled to share their faith in other lands. In more recent years, as CWM came together with its vision of equal partnership, we have been greatly blessed to receive in a host of ways.
Currently we have a Mission Partner working in Zambia, and a Mission Partner from Taiwan working among us. This year we hosted a CWM Board meeting, and also the CWM Face-to-Face experience, when nine young church leaders from around the world came here to learn about migration and human trafficking as these have shaped and affected our communities.
Mission programmes/ministries of the Church
Our mission in our own land has many arms. Much of this is animated locally, often by local churches working with neighbours of other Christian traditions. For example, food banks help to cover some of the gaps in welfare provision; shelters for the homeless give vulnerable people safety and warmth on winter nights; Street Pastors offer care and practical support to the late-night community; a local church café may offer employment to people with learning difficulties.
More traditionally, many churches have done youth work through Boy’s and Girl’s Brigades, or more informal youth clubs and fellowships. Often this has a strong emphasis on Christian teaching, as well as on interest and enjoyment, and a good deal of this still flourishes, particularly the non-uniformed Pilots, which has a long-standing connection with the work of the LMS and now of CWM. A recent innovation for a younger age-group is Messy Church, which aims particularly at families, offering an informal social and worship experience for children and parents together.
For older people, many of our churches host lunch clubs, offering a decent midday meal for people who live alone. Some churches contribute to hospital chaplaincy, or to leading worship in old people’s care homes.
All of this is a story of worthwhile and committed service. Often practical care and social opportunity is blended with a definite Christian emphasis, so that faith and friendship come naturally together.
Yet in numerical terms, the URC has not grown. We are only about 30% of the size we were in 1972. Britain is generally a more secular and less church-oriented place than it used to be. It is harder to be known as a Christian – which means that those who do go to church tend to be quite committed, in heart and life. So there is vitality and energy in much that we do.
Looking to the future
In the next few years we are keen to develop a sharper emphasis on missional discipleship. We want all our people to think of church membership in terms of following Jesus, and to think of following Jesus as a life to live out in the world as much as in the church. We want to do mission – to represent the gospel in word and deed – as church scattered and not only as church gathered. With that in mind, we are writing some new training and resource materials for local churches to use, and also pursuing a gentle and persistent advocacy, to nurture the vision among our people in ways that will energise, animate and encourage us all. We need your prayers, if this is to work well, and by God’s grace to change us.
Our society feels not only more secular, but also more fragmented, than it used to be. Too often wealth ignores poverty. Different ethnic groups do not always enjoy one another’s company. Government struggles to articulate ideals, and even the best public leadership may not be better than pragmatic. Institutions are scorned; criticism, even in traditionally responsible newspapers, is not often enough constructive in intent.
Finally, there is Brexit. Our land – the collection of nations that make up the United Kingdom – is reshaping its relationship with Europe. It would be easy for Britain to think as an island, to believe that we belong to nobody but ourselves. Yet the Church stands for a different set of values. We worship a God who loved the world, our fellowship in Jesus reaches across national boundaries, and the URC is glad to have strong Christian partnerships not only within CWM but with European churches too. We mean to nurture and honour these in the years ahead. There is work to be done that crosses borders, and friendships to be kept that express the breadth of the gospel.
So in this place, and in quite difficult days, we speak of a God who shared the tangles and dust of human living, who died for and among the failures of our world, and who spoke back to death from an empty tomb. That’s good news worth telling and following, in every age and place.