The United Reformed Church at 50

Can this "instinctively ecumenical" church show the way to unity on its 50th anniversary?

CTE’s Senior Communications Manager, Sarah Ball (SB), spoke to the General Secretary of the United Reformed Church Rev Dr John Bradbury (JB).

SB: How do you see the United Reformed Church at 50?

JB: The time we are living in is actually a very complicated time to be church. I think 50 years ago there was clearly a kind of wave of ecumenical hope. The expected unity that might have followed on from the creation of the United Reformed Church somewhat fell apart as the covenant proposals fell apart in the 1980s. And so the United Reformed Church found itself existing when it wasn’t expecting to. We face all the immediate challenges of everything about the Christian faith in the middle of the 21st century in a very highly secularised and secularising context. So I think we find ourselves at this time in quite a reflective space. We’re asking questions about where our vocation takes us next.

SB: So is there a tinge of sadness that the URC has got to 50 years old?

JB: There is an element of that, yes. But there is clearly a lot to celebrate. We’re a church of roughly 1200 congregations, with roughly 45,000 members and 300 stipendiary ministers.

SB: What do you think makes the URC special?

JB: One of the things that makes us special is that we are living sign of that which is possible under the grace of God, when very different traditions come together. We’ve come to think of it as kind of quite normal that when we were formed two very different sorts of tradition came together. One is fundamentally top-down and the other is fundamentally bottom-up. When you map those on to each other you would say, OK, how are we gonna make this thing work?

We are a united church – a sign of hope when things seem ecumenically difficult. We are also a reformed church, very alert to the reality that faith is an alive, active faith, and that the Holy Spirit is always calling us on.

SB: What is the URC’s role in ecumenism in England?

JB: Although we are small, I think it’s fair to say we tend to get about ecumenically. In an enormous number of places where there is a local churches together group, you will find the URC in the thick of it. When one looks at the ecumenical instruments in the three nations, you will see our people playing quite significant roles in those. Being ecumenical is something quite instinctive to us. A third of our local churches are LEPs (Local Ecumenical Partnerships) and therefore it’s a very integral part of our identity – drawing close to our sisters and brothers in Christ in other traditions.

There are moments we find the current ecumenical context frustrating. I think it frustrates us at times that some traditions have become very wary of forming Local Ecumenical Partnerships (LEPs). LEPs can become quite bureaucratic and complicated but now there’s help to make them much more light touch. I think, you know, we’d very much wish to see everybody exploring these opportunities, particularly in new developments or places where the church simply isn’t around at the moment.

SB: Does the recent appointment of one of your ministers as a President of the World Council of Churches show you have an international role as well?

JB: Well, yes, absolutely. Susan Durber’s appointment as one of the Presidents of the World Council of Churches is a very exciting moment. I see it as one of the gifts that we can offer, helping the way to change and unity.

SB: Where do you see the URC in the next 50 years?

JB: It’s very hard to imagine 50 years hence, isn’t it? My sense is that the kind of deep commitment to social justice issues that we carry within us, the commitment to issues of inclusion and our deep commitment to community engagement will show us something of the shape of what the future United Reformed Church might look like.

SB: Do you think you’ll still be in existence in another 50 years, or will that ecumenical dream have been realised?

JB: Goodness…God only knows. I simply do not know what’s possible in the next 50 years. God rarely does anything other than that which is very surprising. So while some may say it feels like we are in an ecumenical winter. At the moment. I genuinely think anything is possible.

50th-anniversary events on Saturday 1 October

As there is now a national rail strike for this day, with the heaviest of hearts the URC has postponed the planned jubilee events.