General Assembly Day one round-up – Friday 6 July

charter bannerThe opening session of Assembly:

Constitution of Assembly: Assembly begins with laughter and prayer
The Revd Kevin Watson, Moderator of the United Reformed Church General Assembly, opened the 2018 meeting on Friday 6 July with a heartfelt prayer. To the great amusement of Assembly members, Mr Watson introduced the prayer with a quotation from the late Revd Kim Fabricius, ‘a great Christian friend’. Quoting Mr Fabricius, Mr Watson said: ‘There is a Bible verse on a plaque in the birthing unit of a maternity ward: “Jesus said: ‘Come to me all you who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you an epidural.’”’

In the prayer that followed, Mr Watson called for Jesus’ help in discerning God’s will during the Assembly. ‘Help us to come to this Assembly like an expectant family,’ Mr Watson said: ‘knowing that what happens here will bring change, and enable us to say with dignity: your kingdom come.’ Concluding the prayer, Mr Watson said: ‘When the pain comes … grant us that heavenly epidural’!

Bishop of Nottingham welcomes Assembly to Nottingham
The Rt Revd Patrick McKinney, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Nottingham, gave members a very warm welcome to the city, on the opening day of the United Reformed Church General Assembly (6 July). Introduced as ‘a great colleague and a true Christian bother’ by the Revd Peter Meek, Moderator of the URC’s East Midlands Synod, Mr McKinney expressed delight to be at the Assembly, and promised to keep the denomination in his prayers.

During his address to Assembly, Bishop McKinney said that Christian denominations are facing similar challenges, including ageing congregations, declining attendance and a lack of younger people. ‘This could be depressing if we were to allow it to be so,’ the Bishop went on: ‘But when we look outwards … the potential harvest to the Lord remains the same.’ He added: ‘The challenge is to find creative, faithful and joyful means to speak to Christ and the difference he makes to our lives. I remain confident that there are still many, many people of all ages searching for something that makes sense of their lives, that gives direction. We know that that something is of course, someone, Christ Jesus, who gives meaning to all out lives.’ Bishop McKinney ended his speech by wishing the Assembly well, expressing his hope for all delegates to ‘return home spiritually refreshed, in zeal to serve God’.

Induction of the new moderators
The United Reformed Church inducted two new moderators of General Assembly – the Revd Nigel Uden and Mr Derek Estill – as its denominational figureheads on the opening day of Assembly.

Mr Uden, Minister of Fulbourn URC and Downing Place URC, in Cambridge, and Mr Estill, church secretary and elder of Westbury Gardens URC, Blackburn, will represent the denomination. Both men will continue to fulfil their existing roles alongside their General Assembly moderatorial duties, The Revd Kevin Watson and Mr Alan Yates, who were thanked for their service to the Church during their two years as Moderators.

Mr Estill lead the praise for Mr Watson and Mr Yates and their chaplains, the Revd Gwen Collins and the Revd Mark Robinson, saying: ‘It is a great privilege and pleasure to bring you sincere and heartfelt thanks from General Assembly for the work that you have all done as General Assembly moderators and chaplains. You four are going to be a tough act to follow.’

‘You have supported each other in solemn and difficult occasions as well as joyful ones,’ he continued. ‘I know you have been uplifted by the visits you have made to our churches, the length and breadth of our three nations. You’ve taken the URC flag through foreign parts ensuring our Church plays its part on the international stage which is so important to the life of the URC.’

He also thanked Mr Watson and Mr Yates for ‘generously’ sharing their experience with him and Mr Uden.

‘Kevin, you have done all this while continuing to be the Yorkshire Synod moderator, and Alan you lead an active and busy life and have juggled these competing demands in what appears to be a seamless way,’ he added.

The theme of this year’s Assembly is Walking the Way: Living the life of Jesus today, the URC’s focus on lifelong Christian discipleship and mission, chosen jointly by Mr Estill and Mr Uden.

Mr Uden called the choice of theme ‘inevitable’, adding that it that it provided prospects for building-up the Church ‘for whatever future God offers and asks’.

Moderator’s address – the Revd Nigel Uden: ‘Let’s listen to one another’s melodies, each of us adding richness to the harmony’
In his first address as Moderator of the URC General Assembly, the Revd Nigel Uden spoke about the transformational potential of listening, through which we can hear the voice of God in one another, engage with the world and bring about change in different dimensions of our lives.

Mr Uden said he had learned a great deal from his own experiences of listening to URC people of all backgrounds since becoming Moderator-elect at the 2016 Assembly:

‘They’ve helped me hear what energises them and what scares them, what helps them feel heartened and what feeds disillusion … This listening has been at once both sobering, because the realities are hard, and encouraging because there are so many who really care about how as the URC we might “walk the way” authentically, effectively, today.’

He reminded Assembly that ‘it is the vocation of the whole church to be a listening people’ in every sphere and sector of life.

Mr Uden pointed to numerous examples from the Bible of where listening is essential to communication between Father, Son and Spirit, building a three-dimensional reality of God. He spoke of Paul telling us in Romans how the Spirit intercedes for us ‘with sighs too deep for words’ (8:26), and of how ‘in that Gethsemane garden we learn of Jesus speaking to his Father, whilst ready also to listen: “if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.” (Matthew 26:39)’

The purpose of listening, Mr Uden stressed, is that it ‘doesn’t simply interest us, but also bears fruit.’ He highlighted the ‘holy habits’ of Walking the Way, many of which – for example biblical teaching, fellowship, praying and giving – involve listening.

‘Pondering Walking the Way, I have found myself on the Emmaus road where the risen Christ drew alongside two of his mystified followers,’ he said. ‘If that wasn’t a place of purposeful listening, nowhere is… on the way, the stranger becomes a teacher, then a friend and ultimately is recognised to be their Saviour.’

He pointed to the rigorous listening demanded of conciliar methods of government like those in the URC and highlighted the importance of listening through accompanying – ‘listening to one another’s melodies, each of us adding richness to the harmony’. When we get listening right, Mr Uden said, listening becomes ‘the most potent agent of change’.

Finally, Mr Uden reminded Assembly of the interwoven responsibilities of listening and speaking and that, as speakers, ‘our challenge is to be worth listening to … [our theological engagement allowing for] the emergence of a prophetic voice, which confidently interrogates the social, political, scientific, economic and ethical issues of our day so credibly that we are listened to.’ He ended reminding General Assembly: ‘Listen to one another in the Assembly and afterwards, listen to the world and listen to God.’

The full script of Mr Uden’s address is available here.

The Assembly Communion and the Act of Commemoration:
Members of United Reformed Church General Assembly were led in Communion by the Revd Elaine Colechin and the Revd David Coaker – chaplains to Mr Derek Estill and the Revd Nigel Uden, Moderators of General Assembly. Inviting delegates to the sacraments, Ms Colechin said: ‘At this table, all are welcome and all will be made ready to walk with Christ.’ Members of URC Youth served the sacraments to delegates from a shared cup and loaf, after which the Assembly enthusiastically sung ‘Love divine, all loves excelling.’

During the service, the Revd John Proctor, URC General Secretary, led a commemoration of 97ministers, missionaries and church-related community workers who had died since the last General Assembly in 2016, and whose deaths he had been notified of. Delegates stood respectfully as Mr Proctor read out the names of the dearly departed. Mr Proctor then prayed for grieving families and their loved ones. A full list of names can be found here.

Business Session One:

Guests welcomed to Assembly
General Assembly was formally welcomed to Nottingham by the Lord Mayor of the city, Councillor Liaqat Ali. Mr Ali said that Nottingham shared with the United Reformed Church a commitment to fairness in a multicultural society. As the Chair of Nottingham Interfaith Council, he commended Assembly for welcoming and involving interfaith guests. ‘I wish you success and blessings in your business in our wonderful city,’ he concluded.

The URC Secretary for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations, Philip Brooks, welcomed ecumenical guests to Assembly, and Michael Jagessar, the URC Secretary for Global and Intercultural Ministries welcomed global partners.

The Rt Revd Susan Brown, Moderator of the Church of Scotland’s General Assembly, addressed Assembly on behalf of the ecumenical guests. Expressing her sorrow about those who refrained from joining with them, she said: ‘It is vital we still recognise that we are families and still talk to each other.’ She prayed for Assembly: ‘May your debates be full and may your decisions be inspirational.’

The Revd Joseph Kassab, General Secretary of the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and the Lebanon, addressed Assembly on behalf of the overseas guests. Thanking Assembly for welcoming and involving them, he said: ‘At a time when the world is building more dividing walls between communities, the Church presents a different paradigm, of Christ who has broken down the wall of separation.’

Procedural resolutions passed by majority
Four formal resolutions, concerning procedures of the United Reformed Church General Assembly, were taken on Friday (6 July). The Assembly passed:

  • Resolution 33 – which appointed 12 facilitation group members for the Assembly's duration;
  • Resolution 34 – which appointed Ms Morag McLintock as convenor of tellers for the Assembly;
  • Resolution 35 – which appointed three tellers (the Revd Sarah Moore, the Revd Dr John Bradbury and Ms Catriona Wheeler), and a convenor of tellers (Ms Wheeler), for the election of General Assembly Moderators serving from 2020 to 2022 – and
  • Resolution 42 – which a) appointed a replacement minute secretary for the 2018 Assembly (the Revd Andy Braunston) due the illness of the Revd Ken Forbes, b) appointed two minute secretaries (Mrs Jane Baird and Ms Francis Brienen) for the November 2018 meeting of Mission Council, and c) offered Mr Forbes best wishes for a speedy recovery and for his planned sabbatical.

Hannah carrying bibleThese resolutions were passed by majority vote.

Outgoing Moderator reflection: The Revd Kevin Watson
The Revd Kevin Watson began his address to the General Assembly by returning to Southport 2016, where, what he refers to as his ‘pilgrimage of Grace began. Remembering the historical context of Merseyside ‘of global trade and shipping, emigration and slavery, world wars and mining’ Mr Watson reflected on the recurrence of these themes during the past two years – of the reality of modern slavery, the remembrance of the First World War and modern-day conflicts.    

Mr Watson then introduced Assemby to the modern version of his favourite childhood book, A street through time: A 12,000-year journey along the same street. Each page of the book shows the same start scene as it moves through the centuries – a settlement becoming a village, a town, a city. And what excited the seven-year old Kevin is what thrilled him now – ‘a place of worship there on every page, in each age, at the heart of community, yet changing and developing as the community changed.’

At the core of Mr Watson’s reflection, as with Nigel’s, was his recognition that, in the past two years, his chief role has been to listen: ‘hearing the story of our churches and committees, institutions, and our own denomination. … And these stories have taken me to the very heart of the URC.’ He added that, right at the start of his term as moderator, when he asked God what message he needed to give, God said ‘Come back to my Son.’   Mr Watson said that, while he has met many people in United Reformed churches ‘healing, life-giving and faithful’ he was also very aware that ‘our people are feeling dismay and discouraged, under pressure to keep the local church going, or the synod structures, or even the denomination going.’

But, he asked, who has started these stories of lack? Some may be true, some are not, yet many ‘now describe us and even define us by these stories of gloom and death … none are the story we share’. The story we share, he said, was much more positive and uplifting than that!

‘But here is the truth – the privilege of being moderator has revived my confidence in the Gospel, and deepened my faith in God … Friends, I’ll let you into a secret. I have met God all over the place, and God is alive and well in the body of Christ, in the United Reformed Church, in you and me, and indeed in all of God’s universe. Now I know what “Come back to my Son” can mean. In Christ we have the fullness of God – life in all its fulness! Now I know why I was to challenge us all to be generous of Spirit – because we have so much to give!’

Mt Watson ended with a story of his surprise participation in a protest march one Sunday morning – reflecting on such occasions providing lost opportunities for Christians to get alongside the communities they serve, with our proclamation of Good News. ‘… And they’ll know we are Christians by our love.’ He urged Assembly, and through them, the wider Church, to ‘freely give … to be the People of God … to Walk the Way together with God’s Son leading us.’

The full script of Mr Watson’s reflection is available here.

Equalities committee: Encouraging equality, cherishing diversity
The Revd Helen Mee, convenor of the equalities committee, presented Paper: Encouraging equality, cherishing diversity on day one of General Assembly.

Ms Mee was supported in presenting the paper by the Revd Anne Lewitt, the incoming committee convenor, and the Revd David Salsbury, the committee secretary.

Ms Mee brought to Assembly two draft resolutions 23 and 24, of which one – that General Assembly welcomes the attention already given to diversity by the nominations committee and invites the equalities committee to seek ways of supporting the nominations committee in this aspect of work – was focused on during business session one. Resolution 23 is scheduled for en bloc decision.

Ms Mee thanked the nominations committee for its work, but added that its task was ‘compounded by our policy to ensure that committees reflect the diversity of the denomination when many of these diversities are not visible’.

She added: ‘The task we have set ourselves and which we ask nominations to do is virtually impossible; especially in the light of the fact that the only wholly reliable data we have is whether or not a person is ordained.’

A lengthy discussion was then held where members of the floor asked a series of questions.

One expressed sadness at section 8.1 of the report which suggests that a less-than-inclusive culture is emerging as the denomination shrinks; another asked how would transgender and black, minority and ethnic voices be heard across the denomination; and one queried the practical ways the equalities committee would support the nominations committee.

Several members, whilst praising the amount of young people participating at Assembly, expressed their disappointment that those present did not reflect the diversity of the youth population.

Ms Mee answered that there was a lack of diversity which was obvious in those taking up roles on committees, and that it was up to Assembly to decide on the practical ways to address the issue.

Due to time constraints, and the number of members who wanted to speak to on the topic, the business was remainded.

Assembly prepares to debate its future
Mrs Val Morrison, convenor of the General Assembly task group, presented the group’s report on the future of General Assembly, on Friday evening. The report is accompanied with 14 resolutions, which will be debated and voted on later in Assembly. Mrs Morrison took questions of clarification, but there was no debate.

The report contains extensive discussion of the future size, location and frequency of General Assembly and related matters. The issue arose, Mrs Morrison explained, because it was felt that too many significant decisions were being made by Mission Council between Assemblies. There were 574 responses to the survey, highlighting the need for decisions to be made based on good strategy, good theology and good governance. Mrs Morrison said: ‘Each of us must ask: what matters most to me, to us and to God?’

The debate on the future of General Assembly is scheduled for Business Session Three, on Saturday afternoon.

‘Hope is life’: Palestinian-Israeli exhibition opens in Nottingham
The ‘12 Faces of Hope’ exhibition opened at General Assembly today, on Friday 6 July – it’s latest stop in an international tour since launching last year to mark 50 years of the Israeli occupation of Palestine.

Part of the ‘Seek#JusticeAndPeace in the Holy Land’ campaign by the World Council of Churches (WCC), the exhibition is based on the faces, written and video testimonies of 12 Israeli and Palestinian people from different social and faith backgrounds. Its compelling stories of struggle and hope demonstrate the resilience of the human spirit and the yearning for peaceful lives that bind us together.    

The diverse expressions of hope conveyed in the campaign aim to help raise awareness about the ongoing occupation and the ordinary lives caught up in it. Explaining WCC’s vision for the exhibition, Marianne Ejdersten, WCC director of communication pointed to the importance of words and the way we tell our stories, which can either help bring peace closer or create huge barriers. Potentially, she said: ‘We are all peacemakers. Communication for just peace is all about our attitude.’

One of the ‘faces’ and voices of the exhibition, Samar Hashweh, says in her testimony: ‘When I am in doubt about coping with hope I realise my grandmother’s steadfastness with my uncles, aunts and cousins, who are determined to embrace life and to celebrate it despite the acute darkness, frequent incursions and terrible life conditions in Gaza.’

Another, Michel Sabbah, says: ‘If we had no hope we would not live. Hope is life, and history gives us hope. What is right will prevail.’

The exhibition was opened in Nottingham by Derek Estill just after his induction as Moderator of the URC General Assembly. Unveiling the image of Sam Bahour on the stage of General Assembly, Mr Estill noted that he had met Mr Bahour – an American working in the area to try to bring more investment into Palestine – and that was why he has chosen this image to be on the stage.

Mr Estill concluded: ‘Whatever your own perspective, I am sure that we, as the URC, want to be better informed so we can help where we think we can – to make a difference for the better.

More details of the 12 Faces of Hope exhibition and the WCC Seek #JusticeAndPeace campaign can be found here.

Closing Devotions: The first day of Assembly closed with a short act of worship led by the Revd Dave Coaker.