The Congregational Federation at 50

The current leadership of this national Member Church are honouring the past but very much looking to the future

CTE’s Senior Communications Manager, Sarah Ball (SB), spoke to the Federation’s President, Rev Suzanne Nockels, (SN) President-Elect, Mark Taylor, (MT) and General Secretary, Yvonne Campbell (YC)… (In the photo above Mark, Suzanne, Chair of Council, Jim Lyon, and Yvonne are pictured left to right).

SB: What makes the Congregational Federation special?

SN: It’s quite unusual to have federation as a word in our name – as opposed to union or association. There’s something about federating which is respecting those individual localities and expressions of things but also joining together for those things which are difficult to do by yourself. We’re not so independent that we’re stubborn; but we’re not so unified that we become uniform. And for me its a really radical sense of the priesthood of all believers. There is absolutely nothing I can do as an ordained minister that someone in my church can’t if that church congregation says they have the spiritual gifting. It’s interesting to watch, say focal ministers in the Church of England, and where other denominations are becoming more congregational.

SB: One part of the statement that came out after your Spring School was that ‘you champion a model of authority that resist hierarchies and vested interests.’

SN: Yes, I hope we are counter-cultural in that. That voice is still needed.

YC: Each church responds to needs in their local community. They are governing themselves by the power of the Holy Spirit and respond to their own local needs and mission ways.

MT: This lack of hierarchy is one of the key things to me in making us flexible and responsive. Particularly when we’re pioneering because it means you come up with something that can move very, very quickly and you can be innovative without waiting for someone else to approve it. You can try things out and be prepared to fail locally…or have success and share that with others.

SB: Is it frustrating for you, who can move quickly, working with some of the more established denominations?

MT: I can tell you, working with some of the more ‘self-important churches’, I’m sorry to say that, but it’s the way it comes over, people don’t recognise the legitimacy of the less well-known churches. It can be a struggle.

The story of radical non-conformism is a long one

SN: We have a long established history too. The non-conformist narrative is also important in the life of this country. You wouldn’t have sciences and modern languages at universities if it wasn’t for non-conformist academies. As a female minister, I still get “So you’ve been around since the 1990s” and I say “No, try the 1910s” The story of radical non-conformism is a long one. I’m biased, I say it’s been around since the New Testament, but it’s a story which doesn’t often get told.

YC: The oldest non-conformist church in England is the Congregational Federation church based in Horningsham. It’s over 500 years old.

MT: So this year it’s fifty years of the Congregational Federation; not 50 years of congregationalism.

Photo of the Declaration of the Inauguration of the Congregational Federation in 1972
Declaration of the Inauguration of the Congregational Federation in 1972

SB: What’s the shape of the Congregational Federation in 2022?

YC: We’ve got 230 churches from the Shetland Isles to Isle of Wight. We’re in cities and in very rural areas. We’re everywhere. We have clusters in the Leicester area, the Oldham area, in Gloucestershire, in Devon and also in London. We have a small team based in Nottingham which supports our churches. We provide the advice, a place of gathering and the encouragement so that we can have a part to play wherever our locations are.

SN: Most our our churches are small. But I’m less worried about numbers than I was. Small groups of committed Christians can really help shape their communities and offer a depth of Christian fellowship. They can let go of trying to be a ‘model church’ and see what they can do in that place for the Kingdom of God. Over the pandemics our churches have been food kitchens and vaccination hubs.

SB: Mark, you take over as President after the General Assembly on 14 May 2022. Do you have a theme for your year?

MT: Yes, it’s ‘hope’. Suzanne’s theme was ‘joy’. So I think it follows on. It’s my firm belief that we need to look forward. Not hark back to the so-called heyday of the church 50 or 70 years ago. That’s the wrong emphasis. The world has moved and the church needs to move with it, to get in front of it. We need to do fresh things to engage with people. The spiritual quest of the human being hasn’t ended, it’s about how to engage with that in a way that makes sense for people now. The Covid thing has given us a huge opportunity actually. There is pressure to go back to how things were but we need to resist that. At my church we’re going to keep our services hybrid. Both in the building and on zoom. Zoom gives us something extra in terms of fellowship beyond those who can get into our building.

Resurrection people; not resuscitation people

SB: I was struck by another part of the statement after your Spring School, “We need to be resurrection people; not resuscitation people.” Is that a tough message to deliver?

MT: It can be. But that’s where we’re at now. We’ve had 50 years of the Federation. We want there to be another 50 and another 50… being honest if we don’t change, the chances of that happening are lower. The hope is that there are new ways of being church, which are not just sitting in pews on a Sunday morning. All it needs with the technology of today is one person with a good idea. They have almost infinite reach. They can make a difference.

SN: I’ve seen a few examples where groups have ‘died’ with the knowledge that the resources left will bless future projects. That’s a message of hope.

SB: How does ecumenism feature in the life of the Congregational Federation?

YC: We enjoy being part of the Free Churches Group and playing a full part in the life of CTE. Because of the independence of our churches, we can’t add our name to the very public statements, for example on refugees or Ukraine, but our churches work for justice and to support their communities.

SN: Being so locally based, our first instinct when we want to do something is to look for those churches who are around us. We are instinctively collaborative on the ground. We’re often further away from another congregational church so we look for those relationships more; not less.

SB: How are you celebrating your 50th year?

SN: Of course, being congregationalists a lot of things are happening in local churches.

YC: Together we’ve written a new hymn for our national assembly, we’ve published a calendar based on the parables of Jesus, we’ve got a book of reflections coming out in October and we’ve also published a joint book with the United Reformed Church called ‘Golden Threads’ about how we’ve worked together over the last five decades.

SN: I’d like to acknowledge the United Reformed Church which is also celebrating its 50 year anniversary. There was a parting of the ways fifty years ago, but there have been connecting points since that time and relationships now are very good.

MT: In fact we’ve just agreed to work with the URC to set up a joint hub to help Fresh Expressions pioneers. We’ll be training and supporting pioneers together. That’s got to be great for the future.

Explore more about how the Congregational Federation is celebrating its 50th anniversary.