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 firstname.lastname@example.org, and Alex Clare-Young, Pioneer Minister, at email@example.com.
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.
Reporting by Laurence Wareing, Steve Tomkins, Ann-Marie Nye and Andy Jackson