The United Reformed Church (URC) held a live-streamed version of its General Assembly – the URC’s main decision-making body – on YouTube today (11 July).
The Revd John Proctor, outgoing United Reformed Church General Secretary, welcomed viewers to what was the first online act of General Assembly worship in the URC’s history.
Mr Proctor said: “Wherever you are, we are glad that you share with us,” before setting out how the service would run. Mr Proctor then invited Derek Estill, Moderator of the URC General Assembly, to constitute the meeting with prayer. After Mr Estill did so, he confirmed that Assembly was formally constituted.
Roll of Assembly, and the URC’s Statement of Nature Faith and Order
This, the Revd Michael Hopkins, Clerk to the Assembly, formally placed the denomination’s Roll of Assembly – the official list of people who make up the governing body of the Church – on the Communion table of The Spire Church, a URC and Methodist LEP in Farnham. At the same time, Mr Hopkins spoke the words that allowed for the Roll’s renewal for another year. This is an important legal marker that enables the URC’s work to continue.
An organ prelude from Downing Place URC organists in Cambridge was then played.
After this, four key URC leaders (the Revd Michael Davies, Minutes Secretary of Assembly Arrangements Committee; the Revd Dr Andrew Prasad, Moderator of the URC’s Thames North Synod; Karen Campbell, URC Secretary for Global and Intercultural Ministries; and Joanna Harris, Moderator-elect of the URC Youth Assembly) then led viewers in stating the nature, faith and order of the URC. The words they read are printed in the order of service
The Revd Dr Barbara Glasson, former President of the Methodist Conference, gave the sermon at General Assembly. She began by referring to the story of the road to Emmaus.
“[It] has to be my favourite. It’s not all about the bread! I can tell you for one, if a stranger had joined me on the road after a long hard day and explained all the scriptures beginning with Moses, I am not sure I would have invited them home for tea!
“I have just completed a year as President of the Methodist Conference. I started the year by walking to Conference along the canal system from Huddersfield to Birmingham. I walked with a small core group, but we were joined by others along the way. The little group of walkers became companions.”
Dr Glasson also described how she met the Revd Dr John Bradbury, General Secretary of the URC, in Liverpool over a bowl of dough, and referred to the close partnership the URC and Methodist Churches share.
“Being partners in the gospel means that we need each other,” continued Dr Glasson. “As the URC and Methodist Churches we need to walk
“And as people challenged by diversity, racism and xenophobia, we need to be able to look into the eyes of real people and walk the path together until we realise what we would miss if these diverse companions vanished and we were alone.alongside each other as friends and companions, letting our conversations meander through agreements and controversies until we are able to sit round the table, as friends.
“To be companions literally means to be ‘together in the bread’. To be human in this way, to share the resources we have, to fall into step with those who accompany us for part of the journey, this is gospel.
“In the letter to the Philippians we hear Paul express his ache for the people he cannot see. And so too, I long to be with you but remember you in my prayers with thanksgiving as partners, companions, in the gospel.”
Prayers for the world were then held.
Thanks to John Proctor and Richard Church
Mr Estill then led thanks to the Revds John Proctor, outgoing URC General Secretary, and Richard Church, outgoing Deputy General Secretary (Discipleship) who will soon be retiring, for their lengthy service.
Mr Proctor, who retires in August, has served the URC for 34 years, and Mr Church, who retires in July, has completed 39 years of URC ministry.
Mr Estill first thanked Mr Proctor, saying: “John, we want to say a big ‘thankyou’ to you for all you have done for the URC over the years and for leading our denomination as General Secretary so well. John Ellis, past General Assembly Moderator, and Convenor of the nominating group said, when announcing John’s appointment as General Secretary, ‘This is going to be an immensely challenging job.’ How right he was. Being General Secretary is a demanding role with many aspects, sensitivities and challenges all of which you have responded to in a most gracious and accomplished way, we could not have asked for more.
“As we know John lives out the call of Jesus to love God and others as yourself, being kind, considerate, appreciative and generous in all he does, looking to promote others instead of himself whilst commanding authority and the respect of all those he works with both within the denomination and ecumenically.
“John has established effective and good working relationships within Church House as well as with Synod Moderators, certainly no small task. He has achieved this using an appreciative style of leadership combined with a winsome sense of humour and an ability to take changes and challenges that arise in his stride. He has steered the work of our church in England, Scotland and Wales, and Church House, to successful outcomes in a wise and thoughtful manner with an energetic work ethic.
“As you move into retirement, we hope you will have time to do those things you haven’t been able to due to pressure of work etc., perhaps doing some more writing, and spending time supporting your local football team and cricket.”
Mr Estill then said that someone mentioned to him that Mr Proctor liked alliteration, and so on behalf of General Assembly he added: “We say thank you for all you have done. Wish you and Elaine a long, happy and healthy retirement. Want you to know that you will be missed. Will wonder how you are getting on. Whilst remembering your good and faithful service and a job well done. Thank you most sincerely on behalf of the whole URC it has been very much appreciated.”
Mr Estill then led thanks for Mr Church.
“Richard began his calling into ministry at Ewell in 1981 continuing at Witham and Terling in 1988, as Eastern Synod Training and Development Officer in 2002, before becoming North Western Synod Moderator in 2007 and Deputy General Secretary Discipleship in 2015.
“His appointment as Deputy General Secretary (Discipleship) was the final appointment in the newly reshaped General Secretariat in Church House, working alongside Francis Brienen, Deputy General Secretary (Mission) and Jane Baird, Deputy General Secretary (Administration and Resources).
“Richard has exercised an energic, imaginative and effective ministry in local churches and in Synod posts, is highly regarded for the work that he has done and his commitment and enthusiasm for discipleship. As DGSD his focus has been on spiritual encouragement and discipleship, something which he lives out in his own life bringing real enthusiasm, integrity and excitement to the task set before him.”
Referring to Mr Church’s work on the URC’s focus on lifelong missional discipleship, Mr Estill continued: “The strap line ‘Walking the Way Living the Life of Jesus today’ has become embedded in our thinking, being accepted more and more as an aide memoire to help us live out our lives as Jesus wants us to.”
Mr Estill then, fondly referred to Mr Church and Ms Brienen, in the best possible taste, as Tweedledum and Tweedledee, the fictional Alice Through the Looking Glass characters, because of their “close, symbiotic and collegiate” working relationship.
“Richard, we appreciate and thank you for all you have done. Your legacy is assured because you have championed the fundamental importance of Discipleship. What you have achieved will help us play our part in the post Covid New Reality knowing in that new reality our Discipleship and Mission remain the same. We wish you and Sheila a long, healthy, happy and fulfilling retirement that enables you both to spend time on things that are important to you as you continue to Walk the Way and Live the Life of Jesus day by day. Thank you on behalf of the whole URC for all you have done. It has been very much appreciated.”
Narrative of call of General Secretary
The Revd Nigel Uden, Immediate-past Moderator of the General Assembly then led the Narrative of the call of the new General Secretary.
“John Proctor having indicated when he would retire, Mission Council approved the process for calling a successor and the Nominations Committee suggested those to work alongside Derek Estill and me in the search,” Mr Uden said.
“After shortlisting and interview, the Nominating Group discerned that it would be good to invite the Revd Dr John Bradbury to accept the nomination. Following his ready acceptance, the Mission Council of November 2019, acting on behalf of the General Assembly, appointed Dr Bradbury from 1st June 2020 until the end of General Assembly 2027.”
Dr Bradbury is the former Vice Principal of Westminster College, Cambridge, and in recent years has served as Minister of Emmanuel, Whittlesford, Duxford and Stechworth and Cheveley URCs in Cambridgeshire.
Describing Dr Bradbury, Mr Uden continued: “Both when reading his application and during the interview, the Nominating Group identified a person of theological acuity, strategic thinking, pastoral sensitivity, and warm personality. It commends him to the church, that we might accept the rigour and promise of John’s ministry. May we all complement what John brings with the faithfulness of our partnership with him; the frequency of our prayer for him; the Christlikeness of our love of him, which will hold him fast through everything we now ask of him and to which we proceed to induct him, at the same time as we induct Clare Downing and Peter Pay to be Moderators of the General Assembly.”
Dr Bradbury, the Revd Clare Downing and Peter Pay were then inducted at the virtual meeting of the Assembly.
First, the Revd Nigel Uden, introduced Dr Bradbury to Assembly as the incoming General Secretary and encouraged the Church to offer the General Secretary the gifts of prayer, partnership and love.
Dr Bradbury thanked all those who had helped him discern his call. He reminded the Assembly that the Church needs the help of God to read well signs of the times, and to discover new ways to proclaim the Gospel and to shape the life of the Church. We must set our faces to the cross, he said, and not perpetuate ways which are no longer our call today. Beyond loss of the familiar and loved, however, lie the new beginnings of resurrection. Dr Bradbury concluded: “I look forward to walking that way with you all.”
The Revd Clare Downing and Mr Peter Pay are the Moderators of General Assembly for 2020 to 2022. Mrs Downing, the ministerial Moderator, is Moderator of Wessex Synod. Mr Pay, who is an elder at Salisbury United Reformed Church, was inducted as elder Moderator. Their induction continues the URC’s tradition in which a minister and an elder lead our Church together.
Greetings from ecumenical and international representatives
After the induction of the URC’s new Assembly Moderators and General Secretary., the Revd Clare Downing, Moderator of the URC’s General Assembly, introduced video greetings sent to the URC from four ecumenical and international leaders.
First, Hannah Brock-Womack an active Quaker and social-justice and peace activist, who was nominated but prevented from taking up her role as Fourth President of Churches Together England (CTE) due to being in a same-sex marriage, thanked the United Reformed Church (URC) for its support.
“I wanted to take this chance to thank you for the statement that you put out last year in support of myself and the rest of the fourth presidency group at Churches Together in England, when I was prevented from taking up my role as Fourth President of CTE because of my same sex marriage,” Hannah said.
“Special greetings and thanks as well to the URC Youth Assembly for your strong statement also. I really appreciate that, friends.
“Like the URC, Quakers in Britain don’t place any barriers to service for friends who are in equal marriages, or because of their sexuality and it was really good to stand with you in that.”
Next, the Rt Revd Dr Martin Fair, Moderator of the Church of Scotland’s General Assembly, extended “the very warmest greetings”, noting that his denomination looked forward to furthering partnership, finding new ways of working together and collaborating for the good of God’s kingdom.
After that, Pfarrer Martin Henninger, from the Evangelical Church of the Palatinate region in Germany (Evangelische Kirche der Pfalz), spoke to the URC. Referencing Brexit, the coronavirus pandemic and racism, Mr Henninger championed unity, and prayed for the URC, and its new General Secretary in particular, to be blessed. Mr Henninger is Minister of the Lutherkirche and Friedenskirche, Frankenthal.
Lastly, the Revd Keith Haley, General Secretary of the Guyana Congregational Union, sent “warm and sincere greetings” to URC leaders and members. Noting the challenges that Covid-19 continues to cause the worldwide Church, Mr Haley said that he hoped “time spent in each other’s virtual company will help to shape the way we chart the course for the Church” as it moves into a new phase. His message ended with a blessing. The full texts of ecumenical leaders’ greetings can be read in the order of service.
Vote of thanks
Peter Pay, Moderator of the URC General Assembly, then expressed thanks to the Revd Nigel Uden and Derek Estill, Immediate-past Moderators of the URC General Assembly, and their Chaplains, the Revds Elaine Colechin and David Coaker.
“Friends, it is my privilege and my pleasure to offer, on your behalf, our thanks to our two departing Moderators, Derek Estill and the Revd Nigel Uden. They have provided leadership for us at an unprecedented time in the history of our nations and of the United Reformed Church. Accepting the role of Moderator of General Assembly is a significant commitment of up to six years including the run up and now, time as ‘Immediate Past Moderator,” Mr Pay said.
“As a pair of relative technophobes they have had to chair our first major council held virtually. We recognise their flexibility and willingness to adapt to changing needs and expectations. Derek and Nigel have enabled us to meet and to function in ways unimaginable even at the beginning of their term of office. We have greatly appreciated their calm, good humoured and thoughtful approach to matters as they developed. Thank you and God bless you.”
He then thanked the chaplains.
“May I also thank our two outgoing chaplains, Revds. Elaine Colechin and David Coaker; for the support they have given to their Moderators and for the worship they have led us in – both physically and virtually,” he added.
Prayers of thanksgiving were then held for Assembly and the Chaplain to the incoming Moderators, the Revd Helen Everard, prayed for the Moderators and General Secretary. She gave thanks for the work of those ministers who celebrate 50, 60 and even 70 years of service, and for those who have died since the last Assembly.
Newly ordained ministers and commissioned Church Related Community Workers, then led the Lord’s Prayer.
Finally, the Revd Clare Downing brought the Assembly to an end with words of blessing.Dr Bradbury, URC General Secretary, then advised that General Assembly had completed its business and informed that it would next meet at the Hayes Conference Centre, Swanwick, from 9 to 12 July 2021 or at such time and place as shall be determined.
Music during the service was provided by singers at Woking URC and by musicians at Downing Place URC, Cambridge.