By John Ellis
My most recent Advent Sundays have illustrated the variety of the United Reformed Church with visits to two congregations with radically different histories. I discovered they were linked by the Godfather of the minister’s wife at the first being a key luminary in the creation of the second.
The URC at Witham in Essex traces its history back to a 1662 ejected Vicar and is in the Congregational tradition. It operates from a Victorian chapel, which was skilfully refurbished in the 1980s, and occupies an excellent site in the main street of the town. Its community facilities are busy through the week, with several groups directly related to the church’s own work and led by church members. Membership today, at 170, is at the same level as it was 20 years ago, making it now one of the largest 20 churches in the denomination.
Hampton Park URC in Hereford is well outside the city centre, being built to serve a new estate in the 1960s. An influx of Scots coming to work at a local factory led to a group of enthusiasts persuading the then General Secretary of the Presbyterian Church of England, Arthur Macarthur, to support their vision for a church plant (alongside his Godfather responsibilities). A modern building was erected at a prominent road junction on the estate and close to the parish church. The church grew to around 80 members with lively youth activities in its first generation of life. Like many other URCs, an ecumenical strategy for the estate was key to their vision, but sadly this never really grew beyond friendliness with the Anglicans into a coherent common mission. Membership has declined and some of the very faithful stalwarts wondered to me where the next generation of leaders are coming from.
Pondering my visits, I once again found myself wondering about our ministerial deployment policies. At Witham there is a full-time stipendiary minister (who happens to be my brother) who although he also has pastoral charge of a small village chapel is complemented by a part-time Self-supporting Minister (what some still call “Non-Stipendiary”). By contrast, the popular new minister at Hampton Park, Martin Hardy, is the only URC stipendiary minister in Herefordshire and has four widespread causes to lead. As I heard and read about Hampton Park’s story, I was struck at how in the early years of confidence and growth there was a succession of energetic young ministers, some straight from college, able to give their full energies to the one church, even when it only had 30 members. The wider Church had caught the vision and deliberately provided substantial subsidy.
Giving our ministers pastorates with multiple churches in them is now our norm; it is easy to see why it happens. I wonder how many of our Synods would today be willing to deploy an outstanding young minister full-time in a setting with 30 members. Do we still believe in that sort of courageous risk-taking? I hope so.