In his last blog post as General Assembly Moderator, the Revd Nigel Uden reflects on reasons to sing: ‘O be joyful in the Lord; enter God’s gates with thanksgiving’
Forty years ago, I entered the gates of the Congregational College, Manchester, to be equipped for the work of ministry. I used vaguely to wonder, then, about various aspects of ministry that over the ensuing years have come to pass. Things like prioritising serving local churches, being fascinated with the world Church, and needing to play one’s part in the wider Church, too.
Pastorates of local churches in Cheshire, Johannesburg, Lancashire and Cambridgeshire have always been privileges that gave so much more to me than I to them. A period with the United Congregational Church of Southern Africa sealed my sense of the global scope of Christ’s body. And a stint as a Synod Moderator enabled me to appreciate the Church as an essentially interdependent covenant community. It’s been great, and often the words I learned as a choir boy have come to my lips, normally in Stanford’s B flat setting: Jubilate Deo: O be joyful in the Lord.
Never, though, did I anticipate being Moderator of the General Assembly. This role, too, has been a privilege, exposing me to the rich diversity of the United Reformed Church, and of some of its partners in other parts of the world. Part of the role has been writing a monthly blog, and, like Derek Estill, my fellow moderator, I have so appreciated the assistance of the Communications team – including Sara, Charissa and Ann-Marie – in preparing them. In this final essay, I would like to thank the Church for inviting me to one of the Moderators’ chairs. Like every other responsibility I’ve held, it has been a gift of grace to me. Jubilate Deo.
As my term as moderator ends, I am deeply aware that God’s people have always been, and remain, pilgrims. With Abraham and Sarah, Joshua, Ruth, Paul and Phoebe, we are constantly on the move. Water-treading does not lead the Church to thrive; status quo ought not to be in its lexicon. In Jesus, God is constantly renewing things. Pilgrimage and change aren’t synonyms, but they are related. It’s not that one gets the impression God is writing off the past as wrong, but rather that God wants the future of the Church to be as effective and fruitful as its past. And so, Church is forever bidden to continue its pilgrimage.
At the 2018 General Assembly, I spoke of my intention to listen. I have tried to do that. I have heard much. Throughout, there has been what felt like a regular drumbeat of comments urging that the URC sustains the pilgrimage of which our formations in 1972, 1981 and 2000 are significant staging posts. Sometimes the pleas for pilgrimage come from thriving places, where people want to ensure their future stays robust. Sometimes they come from struggling places, where people fear the worst if nothing is done. And sometimes they come from outwith the denomination, as the experiences of others in the ecumenical and global Church, or in the world, urge upon us, challenging ideas and opportunities to move us on.
As Derek and I pass the baton to Clare and Peter, praying God’s blessing for them, I realise that their term will include preparations for the 50th anniversary of the 1972 union of the Congregational Church in England and Wales with the Presbyterian Church of England. Indeed, over recent months, the denomination had already started speaking of it. Such anniversaries require planning; they’re not easily marked spontaneously.
There is something of jubilee about 50th anniversaries. Most often, ‘jubilee’ makes us think ‘celebration’ and celebration will be appropriate. We celebrate above all of God’s faithfulness that God has enabled a determined and durable walking of the Way through 50 years of society’s secularisation and of the URC getting smaller. That determination and durability owe much to people of vision, faith and commitment. Having joined the URC long before its tenth birthday, I have found it humbling to serve amongst you all. So often this Church arouses my Jubilate Deo.
Jubilee, though, is about more than celebration. Leviticus 25 is one of the Bible’s primary jubilee texts and it has been suggested that those verses are about ‘restoration to an original state’. Think most pertinently the liberation of slaves, the remission of debts and proper approaches to the purchase and sale of land. For me, the Levitical emphasis upon these matters reminds us that pursuing justice is the abiding purpose of God’s people here and now, too. The URC’s jubilee will not really be a celebration if that sort of restoration isn’t highlighted as key to what we’ve pursued for 50 years, and to what we still exist for. Thinking of those currently in the headlines, there’s the reimagined life required of us all by the Covid-19 pandemic, the compelling claims highlighted by Black Lives Matter, and the imperative of sustainable strategies to stem climate change. Nor should we forget every other unacceptable force of marginalisation, poverty and abuse. We strive against them in the name of Jesus – the one who embodies Cornel West’s aphorism, that ‘justice is what love looks like in public’. And justice, more than most things, excites my Jubilate Deo.
A third element we find in jubilee is reconsideration: pausing to think again, lest, burying our head in the sand, we miss the Kingdom’s goal. Earlier in Leviticus 25, the concept of a seven-yearly sabbatical is briefly mentioned, and maybe jubilee comes as if to crown each seventh sabbatical. If we weren’t already aware of the need to rethink what it means to be the Church in these islands, has the pandemic not stirred us to do so? Even as we respect and learn from the past, we cannot live there. I sense God is calling us to use our jubilee to intensify our alertness to the wind of the Spirit, increasing our pliability to her transforming will, and deepening our readiness to be changed as the ‘enemy of apathy’ continues her work amongst us. That really would get us singing Jubilate Deo … wouldn’t it?
And finally …
I am so aware of the teamworking that has made these last two years possible. Derek has been so amenable a companion on the Way, and so dedicated as a fellow moderator; John Proctor and Michael Hopkins, General Secretary and Assembly Clerk respectively, have been towers of strength and pillars of wisdom; Elaine Colechin has been exactly the chaplain I needed, and so patiently tolerant of my foibles; John Bradbury, until recently my colleague in Cambridge, bore so much of the heat of the day locally when I was frequently away; and the churches I serve, Downing Place and Fulbourn, epitomised support and understanding beyond what I had the right to expect. I thank them all, but none more than Bethan and Jess, my wife and daughter, who daily enable me to sing Jubilate Deo.
Nigel Uden, July 2020