A United Reformed Church minister drawn to Anabaptism

Living with struggle…..an Anabaptist in the URC

by Andrew Francis

What does URC mean to you? Perhaps nothing……particularly if you are a non-British reader of this website.

The URC is the United Reformed Church – a brave coming together of different Protestant traditions in Britain. First, in 1972, of the English Presbyterians with both English and Welsh Congregationalists. Nine years later, most of the British Churches of Christ joined them, to be followed by the majority of Scots Congregationalists in 2000. Each tradition had its own history and particular emphases.

Many of us arrived in the URC like driftwood and choose to remain in its struggle by choice.

Together, as one denomination, the URC developed a hybrid reputation, despite being an orthodox commitedly Trinitarian people, declaring the Bible to be the ‘the highest authority for what we believe and do’ (URC Statement of its Nature, Faith and Order). To many, we are a Christian denomination that leads the way in 21st-century political activism and campaigning for justice; the great majority of our congregations have declared ‘fair trade’ status. To others, we can seem too liberal, yet we were one of the first Christian denominations to acknowledge the need for our own ‘Group for Evangelism and Renewal’ (GEAR). We believe the congregation to be the primary focus and locus for Christian discipleship and mission.

It could all sound too good to be true for any budding Anabaptist……

There is more to the story and it is rooted in our history:

You may know that Presbyterians in Scotland form the established Church of Scotland and English Presbyterians have many tendencies to favour strong church-and-state links. I trust that God blesses the English monarch just as much as the poorest alternative world peasant, but I do not need the National Anthem in either our worship or hymnbook to encourage others to think there might be a difference. Yet it is only in my present congregation that I have not needed to witness this discussion.

The Congregationalists have roots in the Independency surrounding the English Civil War. Then the important thing was that you belonged to ‘their’ kind of chapel and not to the other lot. Since then, Congregationalism has joined Methodism on the ‘social escalator’ (John Vincent: OK, Let’s be Methodists, London: Epworth, 1984), gradually losing touch with its roots amongst the poor, whilst becoming institutionalised with large buildings, installing pews and organs, finally moving from being a ‘Union’ of congregations to a ‘Church’ in 1965. The streak of independency often remained, meaning that the co-operation and mission shared between several congregations seemed to be at the whim of local church meetings, rather than a matter of discipleship and strategic mission. My experiences either side of the Pennines taught me to anticipate “How much will it cost….?” as one of the first questions in any discussion; sadly this was financial rather than working out what sacrificial discipleship might mean.

I had grown up in the Churches of Christ where my father was a pastor. We were very Anabaptist – accepting only those baptised as believers until the late 1960s. We were a tiny association of (less than 200) congregations, being more like a nationwide family, making us often tremendously insular. I remember the relieved smiles of other church members when my grandparents invited any stranger in Sunday worship to lunch – one of many lessons in Christian hospitality. In the 1870s, we had been one of the fastest-growing denominations in Victorian England, yet by the 1960s our Restorationist ideas were being better practised by the growing New Church Movement.

My rediscovery of Anabaptism has been told elsewhere (in Alan Kreider & Stuart Murray (Eds.): Coming Home: Stories of Anabaptists in Britain and Ireland, Waterloo: Pandora Press, 2000); it was like ‘coming home’. Here are people:

- who share my beliefs in a marked out missionary community of disciples
- who believe Jesus and his teachings are the supreme pattern for daily life
- who have a daily commitment to justice and peace, prayer and Bible study
- who know that the church must be separate from the State

I find many of these ‘marks’ in my fellow-pilgrims within the URC but even more beyond such denominational boundaries.

Like driftwood, I arrived on the tide of ecumenical enthusiasm that swept the Churches of Christ into the URC, believing that we could bridge baptismal divides. It has not been true. Increasingly many congregations and even more ministers accept that believers’ baptism is a New Testament norm and should be our practice in the face of rising secularity and this new missionary age. Yet so often congregations are riven apart when some traditionalist says that his or her grandchild should be baptised as an infant when their own children, and now parents, are non-believers. We are continually engaging with the struggle to reassert obedient discipleship.

But following Jesus is about the way of the Cross. I was training to be a (paid) minister – a not very Anabaptist concept – when I landed on the URC’s shoreline. In each congregation where I have had the privilege of serving alongside some vibrant and unpaid elders, the struggles have been different and, as the years have gone by, have become more radical – now that is Anabaptist.

Now we live on the fringe of fast-growing Swindon, working alongside two (and sometimes more) congregations, each with their own struggles to follow the way of Jesus. We strive every week to create multi-voiced and relevant worship. We work with many agencies to create ‘sacred space’ and dialogue, in order that those searching for God can enter into friendships then faith. We run a ‘fair trade’ Saturday café, themed children’s days (the latest in December 2005 was Narnia), events with our local pub as well as the more usual churchy-type stuff; yet in the midst of folk’s busyness, we struggle to do all that we feel called to. Our study programme increasingly finds the writings of contemporary Anabaptists, such as John Howard Yoder, Alan & Ellie Kreider and Stuart Murray, inform our use of the Bible and our congregational life. At the heart of it all, we find our sense of community in meals together and not just bread and wine.

But nothing is complete – there is always the voice of Jesus inviting us to take yet another step in faith! The struggle goes on….and perhaps the URC’s present internal yet radical review will ensure more Anabaptist-style questions approach us from the horizons of our vision.