The autumn meeting of the United Reformed Church (URC) Assembly Executive opened on 22 November at at High Leigh Conference Centre, Hoddesdon, with a welcome by the Revd Clare Downing, Moderator of the URC General Assembly.
Opening worship was led by the Revd Helen Everard, Moderator’s Chaplain. She introduced a hymn by Graham Adams, ‘We come to praise our God’. Its assertion that “we who commit to Christ… love diversity” was the focus of the reading from the book of Acts – the story of Cornelius, a centurion who accepts the gospel preached by the apostle Peter and is remembered as the first named gentile to convert to Christianity.
Members listened to the Revds Mike Thomason and Peter Hills speak about their “heroes” (Cornelius and Jesus respectively) and their experiences of military chaplaincy, which they understood in terms of being present, and serving others, often as “unsung heroes”. They spoke of situations in which they had made an impact that maybe they didn’t realise at the time. Chaplaincy is “walking alongside people where they are”, Mike said.
As a way of entering into prayer, each member was given a paper bag. On one side, members were invited to name situations, people or concerns on their mind that required to be “left behind” for the duration of Assembly business; and on the other, they named an issue or expectation that they felt would be important for them over the course of the meeting.
Worship concluded with the singing of the hymn “Christ triumphant, ever reigning”.
The Revd Dr John Bradbury, General Secretary, then welcomed members to the meeting. He told members that Mr Peter Pay, URC General Assembly Moderator, was unable to be present owing to the progression of a terminal illness. The meeting held Peter in prayer.
Minutes from the March 2021 Mission Council were accepted. There were no matters arising.
Paper A1: Business Committee
The General Secretary, the Revd Dr John Bradbury, presented proposed changes to the standing orders of Assembly (which also apply to Assembly Executive, synods and committees).
During lockdown, a new set of standing orders was created for virtual meetings. Now face-to-face meetings have resumed, but some meetings are still virtual, while others are now hybrid. The proposed changes to standing orders adapt them so that they now cover face-to-face, virtual and hybrid meetings.
Elements of consensus decision-making were omitted from rules for virtual meetings, said Dr Bradbury, but it has become clear that they would still be useful in virtual meeting and are so are being reinstated. ‘These proposals bring together the best parts of the virtual rules and the face-to-face rules,’ he said.
Dr Bradbury pointed out that the 2021 General Assembly, following the rules for virtual meetings, achieved the rare feat of getting through all its scheduled business on time, so it would be a shame to lose that advantage.
He told the Executive that the standing orders were a work in progress and would continue to be revised as experience required.
Assembly Executive discussed whether the requirement for 67% majority was too low to reflect anything like consensus. There was some support for raising that percentage, but the meeting decided to refer the question to the Business Committee, who may revise the standing orders for future meetings, and to continue with the proposed rules for the present meeting.
The Clerk of Assembly, the Revd Dr Michael Hopkins, moved a third resolution: ‘Assembly Executive resolves to add to rules of Procedure 1.3: “unless they resolve to use the standing orders of the 2018 General Assembly”.
The resolutions were all passed.
Paper H2: Retired Ministers’ Housing Society Subcommittee New Terms of Reference
The Revd Paul Whittle, Convenor of Ministries Committee, presented proposals for new terms of reference for the Retired Ministers’ Housing Society Subcommittee (RMHS) subcommittee, which he said were so different that they in effect created a new subcommittee.
Mr Whittle said that he had expected the Ministries Committee to abolish the subcommittee as its operations were indistinguishable from the RMHS board. But the subcommittee made a strong case for its continued existence with different structure and remit. It is needed, he said, as an advocate for ministers to the RMHS and for the RHMS to denomination.
Paper H4: Safer Election of Elders
The Revd Paul Whittle, Moderator of the National Synod of Scotland and conventor of the Ministries Committee presented Paper H4. Paul spoke about the gifts of eldership and how the role is one of the high points of the United Reformed Church, however he feared that sometimes the roles was devalued or belittle.
As the role is of importance, such as the role of Minister of Word and Sacrements, he strongly recommended that it would be good practice to have in place a process for the safer election of Elders.
He noted that as decisions are made by councils of the Church, it could seem that telling churches how to elect their elders is stepping beyond the bounds of where we should be. But he said, that the Ministries Committee had given a great deal of thought to the issue, and believed it was right to give strong advice on the matter.
Clarity was sought from the floor on whether someone needed to be a member of a church for a year, as they might have been a member of a local URC somewhere else and then moved; at what stage would a DBS be required, why not before being elected; on whether a person under 18 would need a DBS; the definition of the term ‘new’ elder.
Paul, and the Nicola Furley-Smith, Secretary of Ministries, clarified the above points saying that regardless if someone had been a member of another church for 10 years, they would need to be a member of a church for a year to be elected an Elder, all new Elders should begiven the most up-to-date guidance documents, people can only apply for a DBS/PVG once a regulated activity has begun, and so a self-declaration form is required before being elected an Elder to advise that the person is confirming anything that would need to be declared is being done so before the DBS/PVG is sought, or that nothing will be found once it has been applied for.
Questions raised included the process that should be followed regarding LEPs, where an Elder is called a Deacon due to belonging to another denomination, on whether the URC process would be followed or the partner church; the end date of Elderships; and who or what is ultimately responsible for making decisions in the URC and communicating the decision to local churches.
Paul simplified that if someone is doing the role of Elder, then the guidance discussed should be applied. In regard to decisions Paul referred to the conciliar system of the URC and that the ultimate authority would lay with the local church meeting. Regarding set terms, Paul advised that this also would lay with the local church but is a valuable point for Assembly Executive to consider.
After amendments were discussed and agreed to make the wording in the paper clearer, a vote was held, and the resolution passed by consensus.
Paper I4 Emergency resolution: Conversion therapy
Sarah Lane Cawte, Convenor of Mission Committee, presented an emergency resolution to make a statement on conversion therapy. This statement will be the United Reformed Church’s contribution to a UK government consultation on conversion therapy. It is brought as an emergency resolution, because the consultation was launched only recently and ends on 10 December.
‘It is important to do this,’ said Ms Lane Cawte, ‘as silence can convey the wrong message. The government has specifically invited Churches to participate.
The resolution condemns conversion therapy as ‘unethical and potentially harmful’. It calls on members and ministers to refuse to participate conversion therapy and bans conversion therapy from taking place in the name of the URC. It supports the proposed ban on conversion therapy and urges the government to strengthen its proposals.
‘It does not convert,’ said Ms Lane Cawte; ‘it does not provide therapy.’ She pointed out that anyone who disagrees with wording of the statement can take part in the consultation as an individual.
Assembly Executive warmed to the resolution. Some questions were asked about whether a minister who is asked by a church member to pray for them might fall foul of these proposals. Ms Lane Cawte said that the definition of conversion therapy quoted in the paper and widely accepted, clearly does not include simply praying with someone and has a specific end goal in mind.
Some changes to the wording were discussed, but not agreed upon. The resolution was then passed unanimously.
Paper B1: Children and Youth Friendly Synod Scheme
The Revd Paul Robinson introduced Paper B1, for information purposes, advising that the new Children and Youth Friendly Synod Scheme had been rolled out across the denomination successfully.
For information, the URC’s new Children and Youth Friendly Church Scheme first launched in March 2020. It replaces the old Child Friendly Church Award and is a reflective and encouraging process which any church can undertake with the support of a CYDO+ or similar to help grow their engagement with children, families and young people.
Paul explained that the proposal introduces a renewed parallel scheme for synods that would offer the opportunity to reflect, recognise and celebrate significant steps taken to include all ages in the life of a synod; in the same way that the Eco Church and Eco Congregation scheme offer the opportunity for synods to engage in environmental issues at a strategic level.
Explaining how the renewed scheme would work, Dr Sam Richards, URC Head of Children’s and Youth Work, said: “A synod would establish a working group of all ages and approach the Children’s and Youth office at Church House, and we would appoint the CYDO+ from another synod to accompany the group through a reflective process. They would be given a booklet to work through which asks a series of questions to help them identify what they are already doing well and areas for development in relation to:
- Where they are starting from
- Visions and values
- Spirituality of children. young people and families and their relationship with God
- Mission and outreach
- Equipping and supporting those working with children, young people and families
- Decision making and inclusion
- Next steps
Sam advised that the accompanying CYDO+ would then submits a summary report to herself, recommending the Synod for approval once they are happy to do so. Following approval, a plaque and certificate would be awarded to the Synod, and the award would be reported to General Assembly.
Paper N2: Initial update from the Church Life Review
The Church Life Review Group held its initial meeting held on 25-27 October 2021 and its first report was before the Assembly Executive.
The General Secretary, the Revd Dr John Bradbury, opened up the work of the review by way of leading into a “question-asking, information session”. This wasn’t to be a decision-making session, said the Moderator.
Dr Bradbury began by setting the work in what he was said was quite “the largest possible context” of God’s ways with the world and God’s people. He spoke of God’s relationship and covenant with God’s people, extending back to the divine promise to Noah (a rainbow promise that would form the basis of the Rainbow Litany in the day’s closing worship).
Dr Bradbury, a church historian, especially emphasised the way the Church has changed, living though times of upheaval – beginning a “tempestuous journey” of 2,000 years within the Roman Empire. In another millennium, the Reformation transformed the Church both Catholic and Protestant. God’s faithfulness is witnessed in eternity, he said; the Church’s experience of it is continually changing.
He asserted that the Church is currently facing a period of upheaval the like of which has not been experienced since the Reformation. “I believe God is calling us to refashion our life as a Church” – a challenging call to the Church in this corner of the globe. He admitted that this might be a scary prospect.
The traditions of the URC have emphasised in the past that “we are not the establishment – we are not conformist”. But perhaps that culture was just a little too interested in what it was not – and not primarily concerned with being the Church. Are we too concerned with a culture that is dying? he asked.
Though it may be tempting to sit back and say the Church is thriving in other parts of the world, Dr Bradbury said it is our calling to be a faithful people, open to the challenge that God may be “emerging something radically different from us”, from the Gospel and from the other side of Holy Saturday: the life of the Resurrection. The Church Life Review is a small way to respond to that challenge, but he argued that most moments of renewal come not from grand plans and schemes, but from a rather mundane returning to roots – revisiting Scripture and growing green shoots in local situations.
This is a time to stare hard at difficult issues, he continued. We are running out of people, as the review group’s report outlines. (The majority of churches that close, the report argues, do so because they can no longer find people able to sustain the practical running of a congregation.) Deployment of ministers seems broken.
Dr Bradbury said we need to think carefully about our stewardship of resources, not least financial resources. “We do not know how we spend the resources of the General Assembly and the synods,” said the report. Reflection will therefore also involve some careful theological thinking about money alongside thinking about the front line of work.
It is proposed that Theos, a think-tank that specialises in qualitative research into the relationship of faith and society (www.theosthinktank.co.uk) be commissioned to do necessary research across the denomination, and Moore Kingston Smith (the firm that audits the United Reformed Church Trust accounts) will drill down into the accounts, helping us in gaining clarity over our income, expenditure and assets as the family of the URC.
The General Secretary concluded that he was not offering a vision of what the future of the URC would look like, but he was offering the beginning of a journey – to discern “the next tentative steps” at this moment in the 21st century. “An understanding of our resources is a necessary task before we can discern what the Church can be in the future.”
In response to questions, Dr Bradbury suggested that the process of review is shared by most denominations in the UK – “but we’ve not found a way to join up those responses”. He suggested that when the going gets tough, we tend to look inward; and admitted he wasn’t quite sure how to develop collaboration ecumenically, though he said local examples (such as in Cumbria) indicate that there might be possibilities.
Money to fund the review has been drawn from a fenced “pot of money” under the direct “control” of the General Secretary that had accumulated income of £120,000. He added that the firms being used to undertake research have been commissioned on the basis of good advice: “they are people who we trust and who know who we are”.
The Convenor of Education and Learning, Alan Yates, with a background in finance, cautioned that it’s important to look beyond the figures – how much a synod spends on an area of work isn’t necessarily an indication of how much it values that work. It may simply not have the money.
Dr Bradbury said there was work to be done on how the researchers would identify representative examples of churches and ministry; however, the Church Life Review group itself includes expertise in qualitative research work, and can facilitate these decisions.
He also indicated that the Church can do some of its own research – perhaps using the annual church returns (online from this year) as one source of information; perhaps looking at some representative sets of local church accounts. We need to explore the fact that 40% of Ministry and Mission (M&M) money is spent on stipendiary ministry and 60% on “other things”. What are those other things, and are there perhaps better ways of balancing our levels of expenditure? It will be a time-consuming task to gather all this information, which is why external support is required.
Concluding questions for this session, one member asked why the Bible didn’t seem to feature very much in the report. Dr Bradbury responded that Scripture should undergird “everything we do and are”. We should not simply “do Scripture” alongside the other work. It should inform all the work, and not be referred to about certain topics.
The topic will be discussed further in later sessions of the meeting.
Day two of Assembly Executive opened with worship led by the Revd Helen Everard, Chaplain to the Moderators of United Reformed Church General Assembly, who introduced the hymn ‘Christ Be Our Light’ by Bernadette Farrell.
Tim Crossley, Yorkshire Synod Clerk, read a Bible reading from Genesis 42 1-8, where Jacob sends his sons to Egypt to buy grain during a famine. Helen then gave a reflection on the theme of masks worn by both heroes and villains (heroes and villains being the theme for URC Youth Assembly 2021). How if we didn’t know Batman was a hero, but if you didn’t know he was a hero, because of his mask he could be seen as a villain. Helen compared Batman to Robin Hood who was seen as a villain but how was actually a hero stealing from the rich to give to the poor.
Superheroes have ambiguity, they have a struggle, we cannot expect heroes in the Bible to behave well at all times, like Joseph who initially acted like he didn’t know who his brothers for the first time in many years.
Helen explained how masks hides our faces. How due to the pandemic, many of us rely on some kind of mask to go about our daily work. How we sometimes use masks as a shield, be it a smile which hides depression, or make-up to hide our perceived vulnerabilities
“Jesus sees the person behind the mask,” Helen said. “He knows what we’re thinking although we have to wear our masks every day or feel as though we have to like we do.
“Masks are sometimes useful, but we should never forget that there’s a person behind the mask”
Helen challenged Assembly to “not be afraid to remove the masks that we sometimes put on in public and share ourselves as we really are” because our vulnerabilities and weakness, that we use masks to hide, may bring a response to Jesus – to follow him as God calls us to.
Morning worship ended with the hymn ‘Not Far Beyond the Sea or Sky’ and the Lord’s Prayer.
Paper G3 – Ministry and Mission Fund budget for 2022
Ian Hardie, URC Treasurer, introduced the budget for the 2022 Ministry and Mission Fund (M&M).
Income next year is likely to be reduced as a result of lower contributions from churches due to the impact of Covid, Mr Hardie said.
Expenditure is expected to rise because of increased future service pension costs and some salary cost increases. The result is a budgeted deficit of around £2.7m which is manageable for 2022 but would be unsustainable in the longer term.
“The URC Trust’s reserves are sufficient to absorb that level of deficit for 2022 but it would not be sustainable for such large deficits to continue to arise in future years,” the budget report said.
Mr Hardie reminded the meeting that in future, pension deficit contributions and payments would not be dealt with through the M&M Fund.
The 2022 budget was carried unanimously.
Paper G1: URC Pension Schemes: A brief update
The Treasurer of the United Reformed Church, Ian Hardie updated Assembly Executive on the progress made by the Finance Committee in making new pension arrangements for the Church.
Earlier this year, General Assembly decided in principle to close both of the URC’s defined benefit pension schemes because changes in regulation would increase their costs to an unsustainable level. The Finance Committee has been investigating more cost-effective ways to provide good pensions to the URC’s office holders and staff.
Mr Hardie reported that a working group had been interviewing potential trust partners and hoped to make a decision before the end of the year. A second working group is considering the design of contributions and benefits under the new scheme. The committee expects to bring proposals to the 2022 General Assembly for consultation, ready to start at the beginning of 2023.
Assembly Executive heard that recent resolutions by the National Synod of Wales and Southern Synod have raised questions of protecting members of the pension scheme from hardship. Given the unpredictability of the standard of living they will afford, what protection from hardship will there be if markets don’t perform as expected?
Mr Hardie responded that any direct underpinning would tend to turn the new pension scheme back into a defined benefits scheme, and that if extra layers of complication were added to the present work of the committee, it would not be able to meet the 2023 target to start new pension arrangements. He agreed that the question of hardship was important, but said it needed to be addressed elsewhere in the denomination. The Revd Nicola Furley Smith, Secretary for Ministries, said that the Ministries Committee had committed to doing work on addressing hardship.
Questions were asked about what effect the consultation with members of scheme could have on the proposals. Mr Hardie said that it would be a genuine consultation, but people needed to be aware what the results would be if no change was agreed. Continuing the present arrangements, he said, would sooner or later bankrupt the Church.
Paper G2: Pension Deficit Funding
Mr Ian Hardie, Convener of the Finance Committee, introduced the report on Pension Deficit Funding as “a good news story”. The report announced that up to £4.5 million will be taken from the general reserves of the URC Trust over the next ten years to help deal with the Ministers’ Pension Fund (MPF) deficit.
The Pensions Regulator now requires a much more prudent valuation of the liabilities of the MPF. The result of that is there will be a sizeable deficit, estimated at £24 million in the fund. Further prudence will be required in the valuations in 2024, 2027 and 2030. The Integrated Risks Management Group estimate that the total amount of required extra funding over the next ten years will be around £45 million.
The Assembly Executive was being asked to approve proposed contributions from the URC Trust’s general reserves to help address the deficit in the Ministers’ Pension Fund and to authorise the URC Trust directors to amend the current guarantee given to the Ministers’ Pension Trust Ltd.
Mr Hardie said that since the report was written, assurance had been received from synod trusts (and, in some cases, synods themselves) of the sums they have guaranteed to commit to the new Ministers’ Pension Support Restricted Fund.
The reason for authorizing the URC Trust to strengthen the existing guarantee is in order that the Pension Regulators will be further reassured that the Trust will meet its commitments to pension holders.
There were no questions for clarification, or further discussion. The resolution as a whole was accepted unanimously: thanking synods and synod trusts for their guarantees; authorising the URC Trust to provide money from General Assembly funds; and authorising the URC Trust to strengthen the existing guarantees.
Mr Hardie and Mr Vaughan Griffiths, URC Deputy Treasurer, received applause from the members for their work and reports.
Inclusive and expansive language
The Revd Dr John Bradbury introduced a short film, which featured the Revd Alex Clare-Young and others who helped Assembly Executive explore the importance of using inclusive and expansive language through all levels of the denomination – when speaking to people and in correspondence.
Dr Bradbury advised Assembly that the film was for information purposes, that there would be no discussion or vote on the topic.
The film started with a look at the decisions of General Assembly over the years.
In 1984, General Assembly agreed to use gender inclusive language for people but not for God. In 1997, the Assembly adopted an inclusive version of the Statement of Faith and Order. In 2014, commitments were made to give intentional consideration to use inclusive language in worship. In 2020, Mission Council considered the importance of thinking afresh about how God is spoken about and the gendered language used for God.
Pronouns are the words we use to talk about someone instead of using their names. Alex explained that at the recent Methodist Conference, it was agreed to use inclusive language for people in general and a person’s preferred pronouns when talking about a specific individual. In light of this, Alex and colleagues believe that now is the right time to go back to the 1984 commitment to challenge and help people within the URC, committees, and churches to commit to and do something about inclusive language.
Assembly Executive then heard from three people as to why this is important.
Mair, a doctor, spoke about how empowering she found the support of colleagues referring to her preferred pronouns, she/her, and also how clarifying her preferred pronouns from the outset with patients led them to feel more comfortable and also empowered. Mair went onto say how the use of her preferred pronouns helped her feel respected, valued and that she belongs. “We need to make sure that what we say makes everyone feel like they belong,” she said. “How we say it is at least as important as what we say. If there are simple ways to make people more comfortable why not say them? Say toilet instead of men’s room, accessible instead of disabled. Make people feel that we want them here.”
Harry, who prefers the pronouns they/he, explained that pronouns matter because they stop people making assumptions.
“If pronouns are known they can gender me correctly and I feel safe in that space,” Harry explained. “Using pronouns challenges the idea that gender expressions are the way we look and express ourselves. Inclusive language is important because it’s easy to feel left out. For example, when people say “ladies and gentleman”, it removes people who don’t identify as ladies and gentle from that greeting. It’s important because we all want to be involved in the love and message of God.”
Jo, who prefers the pronouns she/her, said: “Expansive language opens up the limitless possibilities of our God. The more we expand the names and metaphors we use to describe God, the more we enhance our sense of God and experience not just the comfortable or familiar but the radical, awesome, disturbing and joyful nature of our God.
“There’s more compelling aspects of our God to be discovered. The more we’re open to imaginative ways of speaking the more we might encounter God in some of these unaccustomed ways. I grew up talking to God the father, I still talk to God the father. But it’s important to me to think about God in new and different ways.”
Jo said she wondered if some of the resistance to using expansive language was because people worried about losing something.
“It’s not about changing from God as male to God as female or from Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to Creator, Sustainer and Redeemer, but adding to that.” she continued. “Adding new ways we talk about God, adding ways that allow for the immense diversity of God, ways that allow us to think about the diversity of the Body of Christ so that we’re including the whole rainbow people of God.”
She encouraged: “Play and be creative, be poetic, be literal, be curious, be challenged, be biblical, rock, water, lion, helper, shield, tower, light, baby, breath, or be a God of love and laughter, God of song and story, God of atoms and asteroids. Be descriptive – life giver, pain bear, deep peace, soul spark, weaver of the stars, distiller of mercy.”
“Expansive language is important,” Jo explained. “Use the gifts that God the wordsmith gave us. God is far bigger than any single description. God is indescribable but it shouldn’t stop us trying.”
Alex then provided five tips to how inclusive and expansive language can be used. These are:
- Use pronouns that a person asks you to, to and about them and in writing to and about them. If you make a mistake, simply apologise and correct yourself
- Give people the opportunity to tell you their pronouns. Eg when using name badges include make sure a space so pronouns can be written. Or consider wearing a badge to tell you their pronouns. Use pronouns on email footer and on zoom.
- When you don’t know the gender of a person you’re talking about or you’re writing about people in general use they. We do it all ready. Look someone’s left their umbrella. He/she can be replaced with “they”.
- Try to use as many different metaphors to speak about God as you can. Flick through your bible and write a list. Consider writing down words and phrases you use to sing or speak about God each week so you can check how much variety there is in the way you describe God.
- When retelling biblical parables, have a think about the context in which they were written and the context in which we live today and consider playing with language to retell stories in new and expansive ways. Eg God is our shepherd, and our carer and guide, perhaps we can describe God as our teaching assistant, colleague. In what ways is God our keyworker?
If you have any questions or suggestions to make on this topic, please email Andy Jackson, Head of Communications, at email@example.com, and Alex Clare-Young, Pioneer Minister, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I3 – Pioneering and Fresh Expressions Enabling Group
Sarah Lane Cawte, convenor of the Mission Committee, gave some background to the paper which aimed to spark conversations about the challenges and opportunities that fresh expressions and pioneering offer.
“We need to reflect on God’s work among us so that it’s not static but takes us to new and exciting areas,” Ms Lane Cawte said.
Reflecting on the theme of the Moderators’ report to the General Assembly, the paper considered how we live in liminal times in the URC and what that means for the Church as it responds to God’s call to mission.
It invited members of Assembly Executive to consider in groups a range of questions generated by those involved in fresh expressions and pioneering.
The Revd Dr Peter Stevenson asked for this work to align with that of the Church Life Review Group, a view echoed by the Revd Paul Robinson.
The Revd Nicola Furley-Smith, URC Secretary for Ministries, told the meeting about the ongoing development of an ecumenical Pioneer Hub to assist with the Church’s pioneer and fresh expressions work.
Reporting back from the group work, the Revd Graham Hoslett shared the thinking about whether we live in a secular or spiritual world, and how much of our institutional nature affects fresh expressions. He added that the multiple needs for compliance, which is necessary, is deeply draining at times.
The Revd Dr Tessa Henry Robinson wondered if the URC could be seen as a fresh expression “for those looking in”.
In response, the Revd Dr John Bradbury, General Secretary, said that there would be synergy between concurrent pieces of work.
A video about the Forest Church in Sleaford was shown to the meeting and this is available for all to watch on the URC’s YouTube channel:
En bloc resolution
The following resolutions were passed en bloc. En bloc resolutions are voted on without debate, having been deemed uncontroversial. This has no reflection on their importance. The full reports and resolutions in each case can be read at urc.org.uk/november-2021.html
A2 Business Committee: Updating the Rules of Procedure
Changes to the rules to reflect present arrangements for one Moderator to serving for one year, and to simplify virtual meetings.
B1 Children’s and Youth Work Committee: Update
Following Children’s and Youth Friendly Church scheme, introduced in March 2020, Assembly Executive commends the committee’s proposals for a Children and Youth Friendly Synod scheme, which recognises steps taken to include all ages in the life of the synod.
D1 Discipleship Development Fund
The Discipleship Development Fund is now in operation and has made its first awards.
F1 Faith and Order Committee: Report
An update on recent work of the committee.
H3 Plan for Partnership Revisions
Changes to the Plan for Partnership in Ministerial Renumeration to reflect best practice in cases where a post has a synod element and the postholder’s circumstances change.
H5 Active Ministers Policy
Changes to the Active Ministers Policy to include two new categories of active minister to reflect current practice.
H6 House for Duty Policy for Ministers
This resolution introduces a policy on House for Duty and regularises current practice.
I1 Walking the Way Steering Group: Update
An update on recent work of the group.
I2 Mission Committee: Update
An update on recent work of the committee.
J2 List of nominations
Further appointments and clarifications since paper J1 was distributed.
P1 Law and Polity Advisory Group: Update on progress regarding property matters
Following consultation, the group has drafted practical guidance on the disposal of church premises which it will bring to the next General Assembly.
Paper: R1 MIND – Amendment to the disciplinary Framework
This report, with four resolutions, was brought to the Assembly Executive by the Ministerial Incapacity and Discipline Advisory Group (MIND), following consultation with synod moderators and clerks. The report was presented by the General Secretary, the Revd Dr John Bradbury, in the current absence of a MIND convenor. Its aim was to amend proposals to the Disciplinary Process agreed by the General Assembly in July 2021. This new report proposed removing provision of the Synod Standing Panels for Discipline (SSPD) and replacing this with an Assembly Panel for Discipline.
Following the General Assembly, MIND undertook a process of consultation and discussion. Out of this process, it considered that the original proposal that each synod should appoint its own SSPD was problematic, in part because of the numbers of volunteers required for the task and in part because of the need to ensure consistency in the process across the denomination. Instead of each synod appointing its own SSPD it was now proposed that a much smaller Assembly Standing Panel for Discipline (ASPD) would be formed. It would consist of six members and would deal with the early stages of any case.
The Revd Sarah Moore, Assistant Clerk, had undertaken the re-drafting of the proposed framework and was on hand to answer questions. On a point of order, it was stated that the discussion was taking place under Standing Order 7.6.4. In answer to a question, Dr Bradbury said that the changes wouldn’t need to go back constitutionally to every synod for further consultation.
All four resolutions brought by MIND were taken together and agreed unanimously.
Papers J1 and J2: List of nominations
This resolution, to appoint members to committees and other roles, was removed from the en bloc vote, as members wanted to ask questions and to debate the paper before voting on it. It was presented to Assembly Executive by Helen Lidgett, Convenor of the Nominations Committee.
The Revd Tracey Lewis of South Western Synod said that no comment was being made about any people nominated, but there were questions about the process of nominating members of the Discipline Panel and the Disciplinary Investigation Panel. She said that a Facebook post had asked for volunteers for these roles. This gave rise to a number of questions, including: What was selection process after that? Were safer recruitment guidelines followed? Were there job descriptions, interviews and references? Who oversaw the process? These, she said, are very important and difficult roles, so appropriate processes are essential.
Mrs Lidgett explained that the nominations committee used Facebook in order to cast the net wider in the difficult task of trying to fill many roles. The committee has not been instructed to follow safer recruitment guidelines, she said, but usually has done so. Not all supplied references, but new nominees were interviewed. The Revd Dr Janet Tollington and the Revd Andy Braunston oversaw the process, having been appointed to that task by General Assembly.
The appointment process, Mrs Lidgett said, is not complete and further names will be sought for the 2022 Assembly. She apologised for not having approached synod clerks directly as the recruitment was done in haste, and she asked for more names to be brought to the committee before the end of December 2021.
The resolutions were carried by a large majority.
The General Secretary, the Revd Dr John Bradbury, noted that this had been the first conversation about how nominations work to new disciplinary process. “It reveals that we need to do careful thinking about how nominations work,” he said. “Safer recruitment is vital across whole range of the work of the Church.” On the other hand, he said, finding 500 names to fulfil Assembly-appointed roles is a huge job and the nominations committee should be asked to do some thinking about this.
“Tracey is asking questions that should have been asked 20 years ago,” said Dr Bradbury. “And yet we should not underestimate the enormity of the rabbit hole that they may take us down.”
The resolutions outlined in Paper J2 were presented and agreed.
Paper N2: Church Life Review (plenary discussion)
This session was a follow-on from an introductory session about the Church Life Review that had taken place earlier in the meeting. The session began with discussion in groups, after which the members reconvened in plenary.
There being no questions relating to the report’s resolutions, the meeting moved to further discussion.
Reuben Watt, Moderator of URC Youth, began by proposing that the General Secretariat engage in “a thoughtful”(as well as “quick”) review. The General Secretary resisted the temptation to resist this amendment! It was included into the resolution. Another member requested that research by the think-tank Theos and accountants Moore Kingston Smith not be limited to the ten sample congregations initially suggested by the Church Life Review group. Dr Bradbury reassured members that research would be undertaken more widely than just with a small number of sample congregations. The initial commitment would be to do scoping and methodological work with Theos in order to work out what would be a best approach.
One member said their group had felt that people, rather than money, was possibly the greater problem to address. They indicated that the structures (and related power) around the spending of money was an area that would bear consideration. In response, Dr Bradbury said that one issue is that synods make the decisions on expenditure in different ways, but that it is in the gift of synods as to how that is done. Other areas of work are also included within the report, said Dr Bradbury, but the resolutions before the Executive were those that would involve the spending of significant amounts of money.
To another questioner, Dr Bradbury agreed that more people would be involved in the discussion in due course; it was important to include “a considerable consultation exercise precisely to draw the whole Church into it” but at the best time in the process – “a little further down the line”.
The Revd Nigel Uden, a former Moderator, expressed his gratitude for the report; he also emphasised the need for interdependence both locally and as a denomination, but said that he felt the report was about how we make ourselves “dependable” as a denomination in the UK. Dr Bradbury said this question relates to questions of trust, which are raised in the report. Levels of trust are not high across the URC at the moment, he said, “so we quite intentionally need to keep that in our minds as we engage with this process”. Responding to Mr Uden’s plea for ecumenical engagement within the process, Dr Bradbury agreed in principle but wasn’t “entirely hopeful” of how that might happen. However, he did say there have been Methodist-URC discussions about restructuring that were being taken forward.
Regarding how the process will impact on LEPs, Dr Bradbury said it’s hard to generalise about LEPs because they are all so different but he said that whatever is done and decided should be designed to make the life of LEPs easier, not harder. Being part of LEPs is “a vital part of what it means to be the URC”, he said.
The Assembly Executive then accepted the four resolutions presented as part of the report, firstly welcoming the initial report of the Church Life Review Group and affirming its direction of travel.
The meeting then affirmed the proposal to engage in partnership with the think-tank Theos to undertake research into the identity, hopes, dreams and expectations of local congregations within the United Reformed Church; and the proposal to work with Moore Kingston Smith to analyse income, expenditure and capital across the family of the General Assembly and the synods, encouraging all parts of the United Reformed Church to engage positively in this process.
Finally, the Assembly Executive requested the General Secretariat to engage in a quick and thoughtful review of present structures and bring proposals to General Assembly 2022 for any immediate rationalisation that might be possible.
Worship was led on the final morning of Assembly Executive by the Revd Helen Everard, Chaplain to the Moderators of United Reformed Church General Assembly. The Revd Andrew Mudharara read from Genesis from the story of Hagar and Sarah.
The Revd Dr Jill Thornton, a hospice chaplain, had recorded a video reflecting theologically on experience of pandemic. Technical problems prevented Assembly Executive from watching the video, but it will be available on urc.org.uk
In notices, Alan Yates, Convenor of the Education and Learning Committee, announced, with sadness, that the Revd Dr Samantha White will be stepping down as Principal of Westminster College, at the end of the Lent term. Thoughts and prayers were given to Sam as she discerns the next phase of her ministry.
The Revd Dr John Bradbury, General Secretary, told the Executive that Francis Brienen is stepping down as Deputy General Secretary (Mission) and returning to the Netherlands, which he said was a sad occasion, but it was clearly the right moment. Dr Bradbury said that to make a permanent replacement during the present review of church life would not be sensible. The officers of the General Assembly are discussing next steps in respect of the future of this role but had not yet fully resolved the question. Assembly Executive gave its approval to this continuing.
Paper N1: URC 50th Jubilee Planning Group
Andy Jackson, Head of Communications, provided Assembly Executive with an update on the plans to celebrate the URC’s 50th anniversary, which is due to begin in the new year in just over a month’s time at the time of writing, on behalf of Francis Brienen who was unwell and not able to attend Assembly.
Andy informed Assembly that what could be celebrated was the “hundreds of people who have already booked tickets; the 1,300 people who have watched a short film, first broadcast at General Assembly in July, about what there was to celebrate about the URC; the resource packs for local churches; the entries submitted to the worship resources competition; the worship resources produced; those planning the open house event at Church House and the walk to Westminster; those making plans in synods and churches, and those planning trips to London next year.
Andy referred to small cards he had given to members of the Assembly Executive, which prompted members to submit suggestions about what they thought would be good to celebrate, and to either write their responses on the back of the card, or to email him at email@example.com.
Dr Sam Richards, Head of Children’s and Youth Work, then shared with Assembly the details of Celebrate Together, the intergenerational book which has been commissioned and illustrated by Children’s and Youth Work, designed by the Communications’ Graphics team, and supported by two URC trusts.
Dr Richards advised that the book was an inclusive publication which sought to represent the people that make up the URC, with a primary aim of including children in the URC’s celebration. The book includes activities like things to find, wondering questions, short Bible passages, a flap with further entertaining pictures, and information about the life of and the activities of the URC eg party food is used to highlight how the URC engages with foodbanks.
Dr Richards explained that 50,000 books were on order, to be “bought” from the URC Bookshop, but are to be given away free to synods, churches and individuals, who in turn can give them away to be enjoyed so that those given the books can understand a bit more about the life of the URC. People will only need to pay for postage and packaging.
Questions from the floor centred around when the book will be available, and to what plans considered overbooking or lack of booking for the thanksgiving service at Methodist Central Hall Westminster.
Andy advised that Celebrate Together will be available in early January, and that free tickets for the thanksgiving service can be booked online, here. If people are unable to book a ticket, they can watch the service online. The capacity at Methodist Central Hall Westminster is 2,000, and 1,800 tickets are able to be reserved in advance, with allocation for children and wheelchair users.
Paper H1: URC Confidentiality Policy
The Revd Paul Whittle, Convenor of the Ministries Committee, presented the URC’s new Confidentiality Policy to the Assembly Executive.
“I sometimes feel as if I’m ‘policied out’. It seems as though we need policies for everything and keep getting new and amended ones. But before I get too jaded, I remind myself that these are useful tools designed to support us, and to free us to be effective builders of God’s kingdom.”
“These are living documents, and we need to tweak and amend them, and to keep them up to date,” Mr Whittle continued. “It’s needed because Ministries has been asked for this work.
“Confidentiality is important – it is part of being fair to people in all sorts of ways, about things we need to share and not to share.”
The policy sets out the procedures and principles to be used by those in a role within, or on behalf of, the URC when dealing with confidential and personal information in local churches, Synods or at the General Assembly.
It applies to volunteers and paid members of staff or Office Holders, whether voluntary or paid and gives clarity about the collection of personal information and the requirement of those handling that information to ensure that it is relevant, not excessive and accurate, and that collected data is used for one stated purpose and not for others.
The policy also ensures that confidential and/or personal information is kept securely and that individuals have access to their personal data held either in paper form or electronically.
In among several questions and clarifications, answered by Mr Whittle and the Revd Nicola Furley-Smith, Secretary for Ministries, the Revd Martyn Coe asked if the policy could be made into something accessible and digestible so that it wasn’t just lovers of such documents who read this new three-page policy on the church noticeboard.
Helen Lidgett, Secretary of Nominations, shared a cautionary tale about a church member who had not given consent to be prayed for who later left the church because she had been prayed about without consent.
After a variety of consultations with the legal adviser and the General Secretary, Revd Whittle offered a number of amendments.
In reference to section 5.5 of the Assembly Executive paper H1, Mr Whittle explained that it was very close in wording to the Methodist version of its policy. He also referred to Good Practice 5 page 29 and section 5.1. At the end of 2.1 the term worker was added to add clarification.
Section 5.3 clarified that Elders, church members and volunteers will operate in line with the Data Privacy Notices of their church.
There was a debate about the use of prayer trees, where church members and those visiting churches can ask for prayer support.
Names can be mentioned within the policy, Mr Whittle explained, and if you have the permission of those mentioned, there is no problem, if it’s in your church’s privacy notice that members names can be shared. But you should not be sharing names unless you have the consent of the individual(s) concerned or other definable legitimate interest.
Jane Baird, Deputy General Secretary (Admin & Resources) said that there was a model privacy notice for church on the URC website that the new URC Compliance Officer, Mary Fallah, would be looking at this again in light of the policy and with regard to concerns raised at the meeting.
After requests for clarification, Paul Whittle shared an example that if Nicola Furley-Smith asked for prayers then we can pray for her, but if she asked for prayers for her son, without his permission, then that becomes problematic. Anonymised prayers are good and God is big enough, Mr Whittle continued, to know who the prayers for!
Steve Faber recommended that different coloured leaves or paper be used for different days to ensure that recently added prayers, which might include information shared without permission, can be weeded out.
Simon Walking wondered if prayer request cards should come with a notice advising people to take care when sharing names that could lead to individuals being identified.
He further asked where the amended policy would be, to which the Clerk advised that The Manual or the Ministries section of the URC website, www.urc.org.uk, was the place where the amended policy would be found.
“There are bits that we don’t like,” Mr Whittle concluded, “but these are tools that will help.” The amended Confidentiality Policy was adopted.
Reporting, Andy Jackson, Ann-Marie Nye, Steve Tomkins, and Laurence Wareing