The Advent Godfather

 

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.

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Witham United Reformed Church

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.

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Hampton Park United Reformed Church

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.

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Christmas tapestries at Hampton Park

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.

3 thoughts on “The Advent Godfather

  1. Andrew Kleissner

    John, your comments on deployment are very pertinent. There has been a trend across the denominations to resource larger churches well in terms of staffing, while leaving smaller ones to share ministry. I am a Baptist (although working within the URC) and this tendency has been strong in our denomination, which of course pays for ministry locally rather than nationally. But I have seen it, too, in the CofE, where some large London churches have staff members in double figures, with the parish next door struggling with only a shared Vicar.

    This sort of situation cannot be right. It is, to a degree, parochial and self-centred (although I know that there are some larger churches which give selflessly to fund ministry elsewhere). It is not a good plan for consistent mission, but will ensure that the “big” churches get bigger and the smaller ones wither away – until we wonder where they’ve all gone. And, pragmatically, it is false: the larger churches should have the people within their congregations to resource themselves amply, thus freeing up Ministers to serve in other situations.

    The URC, with its somewhat centralised deployment policy, has the ability to place ministers in situations which are initially unpromising but which hold great opportunities – even if this means that certain other churches do not get the level of ministry they might expect. We believe that we are counter-cultural people: let’s have a radical rethink in our strategy and dare to challenge the accepted norms of how ministers are deployed.

  2. John Ellis Post author

    Andrew –

    Thank you for taking the trouble to comment.

    The only point where I might question your analysis is the assumption that current practice has led to the larger churches growing: in fact for the URC I think most have declined at least as rapidly in percentage terms as the smaller ones, which makes clinging to existing practice even harder to defend. I don’t see much evidence that growth potential is correlated to current size.

    I look forward to visiting Ipswich in March.

    Regards

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