By John Ellis
The URC Mission Committee has recently agreed it should be a priority for a Moderator of General Assembly to represent us at the annual Assembly of the Congregational Federation. I was glad to do so in Oldham.
The one day Assembly had many features in common with a meeting of one of the URC’s larger Synods. Their membership, like ours, is in overall decline and across Britain is now 6,800, although with a markedly higher proportion in Scotland and Wales than is true of the URC. The worship music was more modern than at our Synod meetings but the size, style, age range, programme, levels of participation, committee reporting and business elements made it almost feel like a meeting of a 14th URC Synod. As with many of our Synods, the Federation balances its books by spending capital released from the sale of redundant churches.
A notably active part of the Federation’s life is their suite of learning options, which appeared to be meeting needs in a variety of local church settings as well as being academically validated where appropriate. The training needs of the Federation are not absolutely identical with those of the URC, but a radical mind might wonder whether the differences are really great enough to justify the URC devising another independent programme of learning now that our TLS programme is being phased out. In my short address to the Assembly I noticed that their annual theme had been “Forward Together”.
The civic greeting to the Assembly was brought by the Mayor of Oldham, whom this year is a Muslim. Shortly afterwards we heard an impassioned address from the Revd Haroutune Selimian from Syria, who is in Britain to raise awareness of the plight of Christians in his country at the hands of a very different brand of Muslim. He pointed out that Christians in his home area had faced threats of persecution ever since the time when Saul was sent to Damascus to reinforce the aggression.
As if to underline how porous the boundaries between the Congregational Federation and the United Reformed Church often are on the ground, the Assembly elected the Revd Martin Spain as President for 2017-18. Martin is a Federation minister who is currently serving the URC Landsker pastorate in South West Wales and helped as a steward at our 2014 General Assembly in Cardiff.
Local links have often been kept alive by Lay Preachers crossing the denominational boundaries so it was apt that four days before the Assembly, and on the occasion of her 100th birthday, I was able to present Madge Cleaver of Maidstone URC with a certificate marking her exceptionally long service as a Lay Preacher and in other roles. Amongst her 110 cards there was one from Coxheath Congregational Church and another from that relative youngster, Her Majesty the Queen.