By John Ellis
The latest terrorist attacks in Paris occurred while our Mission Council was meeting at Swanwick. This shaped our prayers and the Council asked the Moderators to write to our partner Churches in France. Part of the letter we sent said:
We express our shock and profound sadness at the senseless acts of violence, the loss of many innocent lives and the pain and grief inflicted on so many people.
As friends and partners in the worldwide church of Christ we stand with you and we hold you and all affected people and communities in our thoughts and prayers. Today we pray even more fervently that God’s kingdom will come where all tears will be wiped away and peace will reign.
Another aspect of Mission Council’s response was not to allow the terrorists to distract us from the work we had to do. The longest discussions at this meeting were on a paper suggesting a new approach to authorising Elders to preside at Communion. This had several of the features of the best Council discussions.
For a start, the topic was clearly relevant to local churches. How we use our Elders in single denomination churches and how the characteristics of URC Eldership are held in united churches are relevant all around Britain.
It was also a discussion that followed a great deal of thorough work by the committee who brought the proposal, after a request for work from the General Assembly. Not for the first time, it was evident that some would have preferred a short report giving the highlights and others a document that addressed head on the wide range of questions that could arise in different settings and amongst ecumenical partners.
Like many discussions at Mission Council, the debate illuminated the differences of emphasis between those whose instincts are for a denomination with a clear and orderly policy, that we can be confident will be delivered with a family resemblance in every place, and those whose instincts are for greater local freedom, even at the cost of inconsistency and some confusion. Some heard echoes of Presbyterianism debating with Congregationalism.
The discussion was also a good example of how Mission Council can never be just an academic discussion forum but has to grapple with how our aspirations can be worked out in practice with the people and resources available to us. Pertinent to a discussion about Elders was the information provided to the Council that while we enter 2016 with around 350 stipendiary ministers in pastorates, the number available is likely to fall to around 300 by 2020 and perhaps to less than 250 by 2025.
Mission Council asked for some more work to be done on the idea of Authorised Elders but we were all aware that patterns of local church leadership remain a key issue for the United Reformed Church.