General Assembly 2022 day one round-up: 8 July 2022

Last Updated on 8 July 2022 by Ann-Marie Nye

The 2022 General Assembly of the United Reformed Church (URC), meeting both in-person and online, started with worship led by the Revds Helen Everard and Lindsey Sanderson, Chaplains to the Moderators 2021-2022 and 2022-2023.

Worship included the hymn God of the Pilgrim Way, by the Revd Colin Thompson, one of the winners of the URC’s jubilee hymn-writing competition.

The assembly inducted two people to new posts: Andy Braunston was inducted as Digital Minister, and Philip Brooks as Deputy General Secretary (Mission). Mr Brooks described the URC’s mission department as ‘one of the most exciting places to serve in Church House’.

The Revds Andy Braunston and Philip Brooks being inducted.

The Revd Adrian Bulley, Deputy General Secretary (Discipleship), led commemorations for those ministers who have died since the last Assembly, and those churches that had closed, since the 2021 meeting of General Assembly. The General Secretary, the Revd Dr John Bradbury, who would normally have led these commemorations was absent because of a family emergency.

Prayers were led by the chaplain, the Revd Helen Everard, who added: “We honour the names of friends who have past. We give thanks to God for their lives and service.”

Communion was led by the Revd Lindsey Sanderson, Chaplain to the incoming Moderator of General Assembly.

Session one

At the start of the first session, matters presented on the first Order Paper (additional business deemed to be not contentious) were voted on and passed. These were Resolutions 46, 47, 48, 49, 50 and 51.

Synod Moderators’ report
The synod moderators introduced their report by singing Joy Dine’s hymn “God who sets us on a journey”. Verses of the hymn punctuated the report. Synod members joined in the last verse, which speaks of God who disturbs “complacent comfort” and prayers for “courage on the journey”.

Presenting the report, the Revd Steve Faber (Moderator of the West Midlands Synod) said that moderators have overviews of every local church in the denomination, and they see that things are not what they once were. While there are good things happening, in some places “everything has become a struggle”.

He said that the URC can’t carry on as it is; adding that statistics of decline can be rather depressing, but are they inevitable? Can we, and should we, do something new? If so, what? He invited Assembly members to suggest how we may shape the future differently. A “talking wall” (comment sheets) had been placed in communal areas for individuals to leave suggestions.

Assembly broke into buzz groups to discuss the three questions asked at the end of the report (chat rooms were created for those attending online):

  1. What are you most excited about in the report? What concerns you most?
  2. If you could make one change to your local church, what would it be?
  3. How will you raise that idea in your church and how will you take action to bring it about?

One Assembly member stressed the importance of the questions raised, saying he believed they would provide the basis for how the URC moves forward. He urged members of Assembly to take them seriously.

The Assembly Moderator thanked the synod moderators for their report – and for their singing!

Jo Harris, Youth Moderator 2022-2023, and Philippa Osei, Youth Moderator-Elect 2022-2023.

Paper B/D/M 1 Assembly Accredited Lay Pioneers and the Newbigin Pioneering Hub

The Revd Paul Whittle, Moderator of the National Synod of Scotland on half of Ministries and Sarah Lane Cawte on behalf of Mission, presented Paper B/D/M 1, which comes from a collaboration of four committees: Ministries, Children’s and Youth Work, Education and Learning, and Mission.

The resolutions (5 and 6) and aim of the paper is to recognise a new ministry of Assembly accredited Lay Pioneers and to train them through the new Newbigin Pioneering Hub – a joint venture between the URC, Congregational Federation, Church Mission Society, and the Seedbeds organisation – to train and support lay pioneer ministers – and for General Assembly to adopt marks of ministry for Lay Pioneers. Resolution 6 in Paper B/D/M1 is as amended in the first Order Paper, published on 5 July.

The paper states that if all are called, but not to the same form of ministry, then the URC needs to be creative in crafting newly accredited ministries where there is need.

Mr Whittle said: “Pioneering is making a significant mark on today’s UK church landscape and we have benefitted from some of our number who have taken that route.”

He then introduced The Revd Dr Ash Barker, from the West Midlands Synod, who introduced Assembly to the Newbigin Hub.

Quoting Leslie Newbigin on the role of the Church, Ash explained how the training of pioneers would work – formats include online, hybrid, and three weekend residentials and shared his hopes that a community of pioneers will be emerging.

He said: “Never doubt that a small, committed group can change the world.”

Queries from the floor centred on whether Stepwise had been involved in the creation of the Hub, where funding will come from, the accessibility of the Hub, in terms of neurodiversity, the role of CRCWs, whether any consideration had been towards the Newbigin Pioneer Hub linking in with the Northern Pioneer Hub, and the inclusion of an emphasis on children’s and youth work.

Paul explained that Ministries has an element in its budget, set aside previously, for special initiatives. As two projects have come to an end, the money that was used for those projects will now be directed towards the Hub, instead of new money having to be found. On the link with the Northern Hub, Paul added that as the Newbigin Hub is in its early stages, flexibility and collaboration were key. In regard to children and young people, Paul explained that Dr Sam Richards is heavily involved with the Hub.

In regard to the role of Stepwise with the Hub, the Revd Jenny Mills, Secretary for Education and Learning, explained how the Hub is designed to inspire people to go on to further learning, and as such it could be looked on as part of a jigsaw. So if people first got involved with the Hub, they would want to go on and learn about other ministries eg Church Related Community Work (CRCW) or Stepwise for example.

Discussion then moved to whether the word “minister” should be included in the term “Lay Pioneer Ministers”. Some parts of Assembly felt that lay pioneer should be distinct from ordained ministry, although CRCWs can call themselves ministers. Others felt that when explaining the role to the community the word ‘minister’ would convey to someone the role of the Church. Assembly voted in favour of removing the ‘minister’ from the resolution. The resolution then carried.

Assembly then moved onto Resolution 6. In this information session queries were raised about whether Lay Pioneers will be paid or unpaid, office holders or not, employees or not. Assembly was also asked to give consideration about how Lay Pioneers would be regulated? If a formal role, the Basis of Union would need to be changed.

To give the committees involved in the Hub time to give clarity on these points, the resolution was remaindered.

Paper E1 Affirmative action towards an anti-racist Church

A report to Assembly on the work so far of the Affirmative Action Task Group was presented by three members of the group: the Revd Anne Lewitt, Convenor of the Equalities Committee; the Revd David Salsbury, Secretary for Equalities; and the Revd Karen Campbell, Secretary for Global and Intercultural Ministries.

Karen Campbell, Secretary for Global and Intercultural Ministries.

This group was set up as part of the URC’s commitment to becoming an anti-racist Church. Although the URC has often over the years resolved to promote racial justice, in practice its appointments have often failed to reflect the ethnic diversity of the Church, so the group is looking at practical ways to tackle that problem.

The report outlines actions the Church can take to improve appointment processes. Its recommendations include promoting ‘positive action’ as best practice, making anti-racism training mandatory and introducing mentoring.

Introducing the report, Ms Campbell said it was not about positive discrimination but about levelling the playing field. People belonging to ethnic minorities are underrepresented in leadership positions, she said, but ‘Why would God say to a black and minority ethnic member, “This far and no further”? There must be something about our systems that is disadvantaging people from a black and minority ethnic background.’

She said that the group had consulted widely and heard from members and ministers from ethnic minorities that their experience and authority were not accepted.

Assembly received the report with warm appreciation, and several members welcomed it as vitally important. Other comments included suggesting that the group’s work be extended to cover what the Church can learn from ethnic minorities, and that it engage with critiques of the concept of white privilege.

The resolution before Assembly endorsed the work of the group and asked them to continue with it, bringing firm proposals to the 2023 Assembly. It was passed unanimously.

Paper H1 General report
The Ministries Committee is responsible for the ministry of Word and Sacraments, Church-Related Community Work (CRCW), Lay Preaching and Eldership, chaplaincies in industry, higher and further education, prisons, in the armed forces and for ‘special category’ ministry (SCM), as well as pastoral support, supervision, self-evaluation and counselling.

In introducing the report, committee convenor the Revd Paul Whittle focused on deployment: “This is a key internal issue for us, which is not to deny the top of the agenda. I don’t want deployment to be the elephant in the room, and for us not to take the view that deployment is a problem – it’s an opportunity.

“When we talk about deployment, this is not shorthand for stipendiary ministers of Word and Sacrament. We need to remember that this just part of the picture. Our theology affirms the ministry of all believers.

“I’ve been a Synod Moderator for 14 years. I know numbers are important. But this is only part of this great resource of ministry to which we are all called.

“Difficult decisions have to be made. Priorities have to be established, and we are in this together. We do far better if we stop talking of decline but look for the opportunities that

God is calling us. Do we believe that the spirit is still moving?”

Peter Stevenson asked for figures not to be changed every year, but possibly is five-year blocks. Rosalind Selby from Northern College warmed to the language of opportunity and not challenge. But new ministers need the right support for new opportunities.

John Bremner, National Synod of Scotland, thanked the work of the committee and wished for more of an ecumenical first focus. “If we are serious about the priesthood of all believers, we all have to be serious in engaging with the scriptures in order to discern, and not waiting for others to do the hard work.”

Romilly Micklem said the URC had become dependent on stipendiary ministers, and the challenge was to teach congregations to work without them. “The problem is that we love to be needed.” Angela Rigby said that the training of lay people is crucially important.

Mike Walsh asked that we start to plan for a time when we don’t have stipendiary ministers. Tony Obi-Ezekpazu, Thames North Synod, said that the priesthood of all believers is the right direction of travel, and that we should be walking the way, “each and every one of us.”

Steph Atkins from Westminster College said that training wouldn’t be possible without the support of the URC. “We focus on lay ministry but how many times have we challenged people about the ministry of Word and Sacrament? I was told that training would be difficult because of my kids. We should be as excited about ministry of Word and Sacrament as well as lay ministry. It’s fantastic calling.”

Martyn Coe from North Western Synod based in the Cumbria ecumenical county said that we should be mission-focused in the way we deal with the calling of God.

Anne Sardeson, Eastern Synod, said we should beware of speaking about making ministers redundant. There is a culture change needed with some congregations about rethinking what it is to be church.

North Western Synod Resolution
The Revd Adam Woodhouse, Minister in the Lancashire East Missional Partnership within the North Western Synod, addressed Assembly about the government’s controversial Rwanda deportation policy.

Adam explained that the resolution was raised by John East, a local lay preacher and Elder at Central URC in Darwen, which has worked with asylum seekers and refugees for the past 20 years.

Quoting Mr East, Adam said: “The resolution calls on Assembly to be proactive for justice to displaced persons wishing asylum, and calls for a review and more compassionate thinking in dealing with these complex humanitarian issues.”

Adam added that This resolution calls on the government to rethink its policy of asylum, refugees and resettlement to be fair and equal and to give opportunities to people in need.

During the information stage, a member of Assembly advised that apart from Syria, Afghanistan and Ukraine, there is no safe and legal route at present for asylum seekers to enter the UK. That’s what’s fuelling the drive to arrive in the UK.

Sarah Lane Cawte, convenor of the Mission Committee, thanked colleagues in the North Western Synod for raising the issue and raised the fact the URC hasn’t been silent on the issue but has been advocating for the past couple of months. The Joint Public Issues Team has also been working on the matter. Jo Harris, Youth Assembly Moderator, advised that Youth Executive also supported the resolution. The Revd Geoff Felton, Mersey Synod Moderator suggested that the URC is careful about the language it uses. He said when the government talks about resettlement, we need to call it “state-sponsored human trafficking” as people are being sent somewhere that they do not want to go and against their will.

The resolution passed unanimously by consensus.

Reporting by: Andy Jackson, Ann-Marie Nye, Steve Tomkins, Laurence Waring. Pictures: Chris Andrews.


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