The United Reformed Church held a unique digital version of Mission Council, the executive body of General Assembly, on 10 July.
This came after the URC was forced in May to cancel its biennial meeting of General Assembly due to the threat of coronavirus and health and safety.
The day, comprising three sessions, began with a welcome from Derek Estill, Moderator of the General Assembly
“It’s so good to be here in this format for the very first time,” Mr Estill said. “It’s good to know we are together even though we are in this unusual communication. I hope that during the course of the day, that feeling of being together will grow.”
The Revd John Proctor, General Secretary of the URC brought apologies for absence and noted changes to the agenda.
The Revd David Coaker, Chaplain to Mr Estill, led worship. Psalm 23 was read by Lythan Nevard, and Mr Coaker paid respect to those lost during the coronavirus pandemic.
“In our various places, we come together as the Mission Council of the United Reformed Church,” he said. “The past months have left their marks, we grieve for those no longer with us, but we give thanks that God was, is, and will be with us.”
Provisions for virtual meetings
Resolutions 32 and 33 were presented to Mission Council by the Clerk of General Assembly, the Revd Michael Hopkins. These add new material to the United Reformed Church’s Rules of Procedure to distinguish between physical and virtual meetings, setting out new Standing Orders for virtual meetings. Both resolutions were carried.
Many parts of business were taken as en bloc resolutions, which is a normal part of the URC’s decision-making. It is not a reflection on the importance of the business, but enables us to deal quickly with items that can be agreed without discussion.
Mission Council noted the closure of local churches, and gave thank for their worship and witness.
Mission Council celebrated Church Without Walls, a new ecumenical congregation in Milton Keynes, and received it as a congregation of the URC.
Mission Council received the ecumenical New Lubbesthorpe Project as a congregation of the URC.
Mission Council approved new Mission Projects at Love’s Farm, St Neots, and North Avenue, Chelmsford, both in the Eastern Synod.
Mission Council urged all URCs to use Fusion’s Student Link up and SCM Connect, enabling students to explore a range of churches.
Mission Council recognised the climate emergency and challenged all councils, committees and local churches to do everything possible to make URC events and activities eco-friendly, as urged by URC Youth Assembly.
Mission Council encouraged all churches without websites to set one up as a matter of urgency, and to consider using the URC’s iChurch initiative. www.interactivechurch.org.uk
Mission Council welcomed the new look and feel of print publications used since 2019, and encouraged all Synods, committees and departments to use the design and digital visual identity guidance from the communications team, so that all materials produced by the Church can share the same quality and consistency.
Mission Council encouraged all members and friends of the Church to read Reform, the magazine of the United Reformed Church, and to subscribe to it so that, as it also approaches its 50th anniversary, it can continue to challenge, debate, refresh, enrich and inform. www.reform-magazine.co.uk
Mission Council endorsed the direction for the Education and Learning Committee described in the Way Forward paper, defining its strategic agenda for the next few years.
Mission Council thanked Dr Chris Evans, on his retirement as Convenor of the Pensions Committee.
Mission Council adopted the gift policy for ministers, to safeguard them against allegations of malpractice by establishing a system of registration.
Mission Council directs the Environmental Task Group to consult on a travel and expenses policy for the URC.
Mission Council appointed committees and representatives of the Church as set out in the Book of Reports and in the supplementary Nominations report.
Mission Council appointed Morag McLintock as General Assembly Representative in the Ministerial Disciplinary process.
Resolutions remaindered from the cancelled March Mission Council meeting, which were passed by the July meeting
Mission Council commended the new Children and Youth Friendly Church scheme to be made to churches completing the approval process.
Mission Council recognised the contribution of Reform to the life and work of the United Reformed Church, acknowledged its recent financial savings, and agreed a reduced annual subsidy, not to exceed £50,000 annually from 2022 to 2025.
Mission Council accepted the plan to develop the Legacies of Slavery recommendations presented to Mission Council in November 2019, and to consult with Synods and local churches with an aim to bring resolutions to a future General Assembly.
Mission Council instructed the Walking the Way Steering Group to establish a small task group to bring forward detailed proposals for the celebration of the URC’s upcoming 50th anniversary.
Mission Council approved the proposals for Synod nominations to the Mission Committee.
Mission Council agreed to a standardised approach to safeguarding training across the Church and strongly encouraged all working with children, young people and adults at risk to access the new basic safeguarding training.
Mission Council approved the pattern for the routine reporting of Assembly Committees as set out in Mission Council Paper U1.
The final en bloc resolution was a contingency plan for the current public health emergency.
Mission Council authorised the Officers of Assembly to decide if the next meeting of the council would be physical or virtual.
Ministries Committee: Pastoral supervision. Resolution 25
On behalf of General Assembly, Mission Council has adopted a pastoral supervision policy (Resolution 25) by a majority of 97%. The policy provides a pathway for ensuring that all active URC ministers and church-related community workers receive confidential, one-on-one care and support in safely serving others and improving themselves (pastoral supervision).
The Revd Paul Whittle, convenor of the URC ministries committee, proposed Resolution 25 and addressed questions and comments about it. In his introduction, Mr Whittle reminded the council that the decision for the URC to adopt pastoral supervision had already been taken: this vote was for the policy on how supervision should work. Among questions raised were whether sanctions would be imposed for ministers who do not accept supervision (Mr Whittle confirmed that such cases would ultimately be referred to the URC’s ministerial disciplinary process); technical queries over financial implications and ministerial terms of settlement, and whether conduct codes would need updating. Council members briefly debated whether ministers should themselves train to be pastoral supervisors: differing views were expressed for and against, and personal examples were given. Mr Whittle’s view was that ministers adopting dual roles in that way cannot realistically be avoided. Mission Council voted 97% in favour of Resolution 25, in a session chaired by the Revd Nigel Uden.
Though support will be provided, individual ministers will be responsible for finding a supervisor, the policy states. Mission Council first approved the creation of a pastoral supervision scheme in 2018, when it formally committed to implementing the recommendations of the URC’s review into historic abuse cases. After significant consultation, the policy as to how this scheme will work for the URC, has today been adopted.
Safeguarding Advisory Strategy 2020-2025: resolution 29
This paper was presented by Richard Church, Deputy General Secretary (Discipleship). Proposing the resolution, Mr Church said: “Sadly in the past we have not realised that level of mutual care. However, we are in a much better place today. There are now local church safeguarding coordinators, we have a better understanding of how to take especial care of children and adults at risk, we are more careful with our recruiting procedures, and we have attended to our past through the past case review processes.”
Mr Church explained that the paper and the accompanying resolution sought to further the good work by affirming “that that we are all in this together”. Mr Church explained that safeguarding is everyone’s responsibility in the URC.
In 2018, General Assembly noted that the URC needed to adopt a more systematic and attentive approach in safeguarding matters, and nurture a culture where vulnerable adults, children and young people were prioritised. Since then the URC has worked in collaboration with governments, parliamentary groups, and contributed to public inquiries by offering insight and providing information on matters relating to child sex abuse and protection. Penny McGee, a social worker, has been appointed as URC Training and Development Coordinator (Safeguarding) and will work with synods to implement the plan over the next three years and coordinate training.
The strategic plan’s overall aim is to ensure that everyone who engages with local URC congregations, synods, institutions, groups, properties across the England, Scotland and Wales is committed to protecting children and adults who are or may be experiencing abuse or neglect.
Mission Council agreed this plan in November 2019. Mr Church added: “We [the Safeguarding Advisory Group] are inviting you to give it a following wind by directing synods, local churches and bodies in the Church to implement it so that the welfare of churches and the wellbeing of society is enhanced.
The strategy, over the next five years, requires all parts – people, councils, committees and groups – of the URC to work together on six key objectives to ensure the plan is achieved.
These objectives are:
1. Instil a safeguarding ethos of care and service within all congregations, synods and bodies of the URC.
2. Ensure initial and appropriate pastoral care and support to those who were impacted by safeguarding incidents and concerns.
3. Set up secure and appropriate systems and processes of data and information handling and reporting safeguarding.
4. Ensure that the safeguarding policies and procedures are updated, reviewed and implemented in practice throughout the URC.
5. Provide appropriate and accessible safeguarding training for all those who are accountable for and working with children, young people and adults.
6. Encourage and build constructive partnerships with statutory, nonstatutory bodies, other denominations and faith-based communities
Delivery of the strategic plan will occur in two phases: the first phase, years one to four, will focus on planning, delivery and evaluation. In year five, the Safeguarding advisory group (SAG) will carry out phase two, a review of progress against its published objectives, and will undertake planning and consultation to develop a new strategic plan for 2025 onwards.
A lively discussion was then held. Concerns raised centred around whether synods had sufficient resources to engage the full range of strategy. Others were around the wording of the resolution which came across to some as putting the Church before the community it served. Following a debate, changes were made to the wording of resolution 29, and it subsequently passed by a two-thirds majority.
The resolution now reads:
Having already endorsed the safeguarding strategic plan 2020-2025 through Mission Council, General Assembly acknowledges that safeguarding is everybody’s responsibility in the United Reformed Church.
General Assembly directs all local churches and synods and those who oversee safeguarding arrangements in the Church to implement the safeguarding strategic plan in ways that promote welfare in the URC, the well-being of the community in which the Church is placed and individuals with whom the Church comes into contact.
Walking the Way Steering Group – Where Next? The future of Walking the Way: living the life of Jesus today. Resolution 27
Mission Council has affirmed the work of the URC’s missional discipleship focus, “Walking the Way: Living the life of Jesus today”, and has voted to consider funding it until 2021. Resolution 27 was passed by an overwhelming majority of 97% after an amendment was carried to create a timeframe for further decision-making.
On behalf of the “Walking the Way” steering group, Francis Brienen, Deputy General Secretary (Mission) proposed Resolution 27. She said that up to three quarters of the URC’s local churches had actively engaged with whole-of-life discipleship, and that this work “was never meant to be short lived”. Ms Brienen expressed thanks for the Holy Spirit’s enabling of engagement with” Walking the Way”, and suggested that such work, in this new reality of Christian discipleship practice changing due to the Covid-19 pandemic, is perhaps needed now, more than ever. Ms Brienen urged the URC to put whole-of-life discipleship first, whatever happens.
In the discussion phrase, one council member noted that though her church had not yet engaged with “Walking the Way”, she supported the resolution and wanted to have the option to engage. A short discussion took place about how to focus the original resolution so that the URC was not inadvertently committed to fund “Walking the Way” indefinitely. Resolution 27 was then amended to highlight that the URC would consider funding “Walking the Way” until the end of 2021. The amended resolution was then voted on and passed by a majority of 97% in favour.
“Walking the Way” launched in 2017, funded by a Council for World Mission programme which expires at the end of 2020. The URC has now authorised the “Walking the Way” steering group to continue its work until 2021. The session that saw the passing of Resolution 27 was chaired by the Revd Nigel Uden.
URC Pension Schemes – Facing up to some serious challenges. Resolutions 20 and 22
Resolutions 20-22, on United Reformed Church pensions, were presented to Mission Council by John Piper, Deputy Treasurer of the URC, on behalf of the Pensions and Finance Committees. He apologised to members for facing them with a 28-page report, but underlined its importance to the Church.
The pension scheme report outlines in detail some serious challenges facing the URC’s pension schemes, and steps being taken to respond to those challenges.
One of those challenges is that interest rates have been historically low for more than ten years, which has disadvantaged all pension schemes. Another is that the rules of the Pensions Regulator have become stricter, increasing the cost to the Church of paying pensions. ‘The cost of responding to these challenges could have a significant impact on the activities of the Church,’ the report says. Mr Piper suggested to Mission Council that, while figures were impossible to predict, in a worst-case situation the URC might have to find an additional £50m over the next ten years to cover the increased costs.
In response to these challenges, the Integrated Risk Management Group has been set up to assess the risks faced by the URC and coordinate a broad-based conversation, leading to decisions on how best to mitigate these difficulties.
The committees’ report to General Assembly is largely for information. The resolutions affirm the URC’s commitment to honour its pensions obligations, authorise the Trust to support the Pension Fund as far as it responsibly can, and give thanks to Dr Chris Evans, retiring Convenor of the Pensions Committee.
Both resolutions were passed unanimously by Mission Council.
Wessex Synod Resolution: Provision of Public Access Defibrillators. Resolution 30
On behalf of General Assembly, Mission Council decided ‘not to put’ a proposal put forward by Wessex Synod before the Covid-19 pandemic was announced. Resolution 30 – which encouraged local churches to install publicly accessible defibrillators, machines that help restore regular heartbeats to people who have suffered cardiac arrest – was not put. ‘Not put’ is a technical motion, which less negative than saying no to a proposal, and means that it could more easily come back in the future. The decision to not put Resolution 30 passed by a simple majority of 71%.
Sue Brown, representing Wessex Synod, initially proposed Resolution 30, arguing that making an impact for good is more important than ever, in light of the pandemic. Concerns were raised over costs, cleaning and whether it’s appropriate to be asking local churches to consider installing defibrillators during what is an already stressful time for many. Out of these concerns a request was made for the resolution to be not put, and this passed by majority.
Address to the Throne
The Revd John Proctor, outgoing URC General Secretary, introduced the URC address to the throne: a statement that is usually brought to General Assembly, before being sent by letter to Her Majesty the Queen. Mr Proctor noted the significant contribution of Simeon Mitchell, URC Secretary of Church and Society, in constructing it. Mission Council voted to accept the address – which can be read in full here – by a majority of 93%.
Mission Council closes with thanks
Extensive thanks were given to the people involved in running and supporting the first-ever digital meeting of the URC’s Mission Council.. In his address, the Revd Nigel Uden, Moderator of General Assembly, also gave thanks for the URC’s new mission projects, for the life of the churches that had closed since the council’s last meeting, and for the service of those for whom it was their last meeting of Mission Council.
After Mr Uden’s closing address, the Revd Dave Coaker, Chaplain to Assembly Moderator Derek Estill, led closing devotions. His prayers asked that council members “go in peace, knowing that God is with [them] … to follow, discover and celebrate Christ.” The devotions ended with the words of John Rutter’s choral composition of the Gaelic blessing: “Deep Peace of the Running Wave to You”.