Author Archives: John Ellis

Joshua at the Somme

By John Ellis


Trinity Congregational Church, Brixton

I was invited to the launch of an unusual book at Trinity Congregational Church in Brixton. It tells the story of the Young Men’s Bible Class through a magazine The Angels’ Voice which they produced themselves from 1910 to 1913. Long before duplicators, let alone photocopiers or laptops, they described in words, pictures and poems their activities and passed round a single copy amongst themselves in return for a subscription of 3d (1p). Sometimes their sisters managed to sneak a look as well.

Life was carefree and fun. There was regularly “Our Football Page” and other features included “The Ramble” or a poem about travelling on the nearly new Bakerloo underground line. More daring was “Our Political Page” where, in a church predominantly aligned with the Liberal Party, one member of the Bible Class wrote anonymously about “Why I am a Socialist”.

The magazines are a rare survival from another world, made acutely poignant because of the fact that the authors would be plunged into the First World War only a year after the last issue. The brother of the Editor, James Godden, is one of those from the Bible Class whose names appear, joyless now, on the church’s war memorial.


Trinity war memorial including G Godden

At the centenary of the opening day of the Somme we have another reminder of the horror of it all. Of my myriad of Moderator memories, leading prayers at the Thiepval Monument to the Somme victims stands out. On that first day, the plan was that the Allied guns would have so decimated the German lines that the infantry advance would be into undefended territory. That massive miscalculation resulted in 50,000 British deaths by nightfall.


Thiepval Memorial

We mark that centenary in the aftermath of a massive political miscalculation. The Government assumed its preparatory work would ensure a Remain vote in the EU Referendum and then easier progress towards its longer term objectives thereafter. In one day of voting that plan proved fatally flawed.

Whatever the turmoil after a political misjudgement, the human damage is of course not comparable to that which follows a military misjudgement. Indeed some of us would have preferred the Referendum campaign to have focused rather more on the merits of negotiation over gunfire as a means of resolving European differences. But perhaps however uncomfortable the United Kingdom feels at the moment, we can still be grateful that our generation has been spared what our forebears faced in 1916.


Cross standing over the Lochnagar Crater, the largest mine explosion on the first morning of the Somme

And Trinity Church is still there. However different the world looks and however painfully we grieve the heart of God by human decisions and mistakes, God does not abandon us. From Joshua onwards, we hear the call to “Be strong and of a good courage”.

This piece concludes my contributions to this page of the URC website. If you have been a regular reader, thank you for that. If you have used these Blog posts to pray for the United Reformed Church, its congregations and its contacts, a double thank you.  


Postcard from Jeju

By John Ellis


Sea Wall at Jeju

I am typing this by my hotel bedroom window, looking out over a concrete sea wall to the vast blue expanse of the Pacific Ocean. A few small boats are visible and when dusk falls they will be joined by dozens more from the local fishing fleet. They will dodge around the huge cruise liners that call in to the harbour a short walk to the east. The tranquillity of the scene is interrupted every few minutes as another airliner flies in low on its approach to the airport behind me, with another load of international tourists coming here to Jeju island, off the coast of South Korea.

Slightly separated from the groups heading for the casinos are the Directors of the Council for World Mission. We each represent one of the 32 member churches of CWM, linked together by a common history of British missionary enterprise in previous generations. The representative from Papua New Guinea remembers David Grosch-Miller’s visit there last year. The representative from land-locked Zambia gazes endlessly at the moving sea. The representative from Zimbabwe gazes with less enthusiasm at meals of raw fish. The Very Revd Pamela, our Moderator from New Zealand, tries to get us to focus on business.


CWM top table: Company Secretary Reynaldo; Moderator Pamela; General Secretary Collin

The business is not always easy to identify. Huge quantities of information are provided but with limited guidance about what the Directors should focus on. Ad hoc groups study different themes and try to find what the Council should be saying to its staff. These groups report to the full meeting but as no votes are taken, one can only guess what the silent majority are thinking. These discussions attempt no conclusions. Instead, on the penultimate evening a Resolutions Committee looks back over all the discussions of the previous three days and drafts for us 31 resolutions which they think capture what they believe the meeting might want to say. The last morning is spent working through all these resolutions to adopt or reject them.

This is the last meeting before the governance structures of CWM change. That may be one reason why the key strategic questions were not progressed significantly. CWM has substantial capital but is currently spending well above its income, buoyed up by surprising assurances that its investments will produce far more income in the future than they have in the recent past. Grants to member Churches have become a central part of what CWM is about but how to distribute them fairly amongst Churches of very different sizes, wealth and administrative capacities is a perennial issue.


The seafront Ramada Plaza Hotel

With expenditure exceeding income, some Directors felt more than uneasy about holding our meeting, as is apparently typical, in a luxury five star hotel. I wondered if I was the only person who found some incongruity in listening to Bible Studies denouncing energetically the insidious corrupting influence of wealth while spending a week in such a venue. Or is wealth only corrupting when other people have it? A move to have the budgets for such gatherings reviewed was watered down to become an anodyne resolution without specific focus.

Whatever the policy questions, CWM successfully generates a family feeling. It is a privilege to live in an age when Church leaders from literally all round the globe can meet together in person, celebrate the things that unite us and share the burdens that some have to carry. Like the best of local churches, this is life-enhancing.

Scottish Dances

By John Ellis


John Knox makes a point

It was easy to feel at home on a return visit to the Church of Scotland Assembly in Edinburgh, accompanied by my Chaplain Nigel Uden. We experienced generous hospitality, warm welcomes and renewed friendships. Much of the Assembly business was also strikingly familiar, whether the subject was a marked downward trend in the number of ministers, how to respond to climate change or the challenge of balancing the central budget.


Baron Hope KT, Lord High Commissioner, arrives at the Assembly Hall





Historically and visually, a key difference is that the United Reformed Church does not see itself as “the national Church”. Seated above the Moderator as he presided in Edinburgh, there was often the Lord High Commissioner, present as the Queen’s personal representative, supported by the Dean of the Chapel Royal. When His Grace was not present in the Assembly Hall, he was visiting Church of Scotland projects around the country, accompanied by his wife, his Chaplain, the Pursebearer, two ladies-in-waiting and three military ADCs.

Being the national Church became a key point in discussion about the Columba Declaration, an agreement between the Anglican Church of England and the Presbyterian Church of Scotland which the Assembly was asked to endorse. The argument for excluding the Anglican Scottish Episcopal Church and the United Reformed Church from this was that only the Churches of Scotland and England shared the characteristic of being national Churches. Some people found this easier to accept than others but after a public apology to the Scottish Episcopal Church from a guest of the Lord High Commissioner, who happens also to be the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Assembly accepted the Declaration with acclaim.


Procession of former Moderators

The URC reps were assured publically and privately that this renewed enthusiasm for working with the CofE would not diminish the Church of Scotland’s commitment to working with the URC, eg through their membership of the Joint Public Issues Team.

Nonetheless it seems a sad feature of the English ecumenical landscape that at the same time as the Church of England reduces the energy and resources it is willing to put into multilateral ecumenical work, such as Churches Together in England, bilateral deals that exclude traditional partners are worked on and welcomed.


The Moderator, Russell Barr, celebrates the end of Assembly by persuading his wife to dance