October sees the 50th Anniversary of the coming into being of the United Reformed Church. For me, it’s all I’ve ever known it as, but many of you will remember being part of either the Presbyterian Church or the Congregational Church, the two denominations which came together to form the URC in 1972. When I meet people outside of our church, they often comment on our strange name ‘United Reformed’. ‘What does it mean?’, they ask. Well, the simple answer is that it is a ‘United’ church which stems from the ‘Reformed’ tradition which has its roots back in the 16th century.
I grew up in Swanage United Reformed Church with my family. That church is a former Congregational church with a long history, dating back to the 1700s. When I was born in 1980, it had been a URC since the formation of the denomination in 1972, so I knew no different. The first minister was the Revd Louise Drake, an American woman, who modelled for me strong and caring female leadership. In fact, it was her kindness and example which helped my Dad to find his faith. It wasn’t until I was much older that I realised that female leadership was something the Congregational Church had pioneered and that other denominations had some catching up to do!
All this talk of the anniversary of our denomination has got me thinking about our identity in the URC and whether denominational distinctions really matter? On the one hand they do.
The URC brings many wonderful gifts to the church universal – the ordination of Elders as leaders in the church, a strong commitment to working together with other churches across our differences, female leadership in every aspect of church life, a strongly inclusive ethos, the centrality of the preaching of the Word, the conciliar way we govern our church…
On the other hand, the distinctions don’t really matter at all. For many people, we are just ‘their church’, the one that happened to be nearby, or where they were invited to, or where the worship just worked for them. It’s just their church family.
In my university years, I made a point of experiencing the breadth of the church universal and attended every type of church I could find. To my joy and delight, I found God to be very present and at work in each one. Some were more my ‘cup of tea’ than others, but I gained deep respect for my fellow Christians, each in their own traditions, worshipping God in a beautiful variety of ways. God is bigger than any one tradition but is present in every community of people who gather to worship and grow together.
During this anniversary my prayer for the URC, especially Woking URC, is that we seek God with all our hearts and love our fellow Christians as sisters and brothers.