We shall all be Changed
Preacher: John G Ellis, United Reformed Church
22 July 2007, 15:15 (Mary Magdalene)
Associated Readings: Ephesians 4.1-7; 1 Corinthians 15.42-58
John G Ellis, Treasurer of the United Reformed Church. Head of the Policy Support & Research Unit of the Methodist Church
Sermon for the end of the Medway District of the United Reformed Church
In 35 years, a District Council accumulates a great deal of paper. On a nostalgia trip through some correspondence files, I was puzzled as to what could have been the context of some of the documents. One ended with this:
The best text for the babies in a church crèche is 1 Corinthians 15.52: We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed.
Some of you will not be surprised to learn that the letter was from correspondence with the Rev John Titlow.
John was one the characters that made Medway District. Before him there were heavyweights like the Rev Stan Sexton – blunt; bluff; and full of divine impatience. Alongside him was Howard Ring – unflappable; efficient; and endlessly dedicated. Then came our version of the apostolic succession as, when Howard was taken from us, son Steve took on District roles. John Titlow; Stan Sexton; Howard and Steve Ring: a vignette of the wide range of people who have shaped Medway.
There is the long list of Chairmen and Presidents, many of whom have put much more energy into the role than the minimum the job description requires. There is the short list of District Secretaries, latterly including Rosemary Anderson and Sue Wootton to remind us that not all leaders are men! There are the twenty jobs to which we have appointed people every year: mostly less public and some thankless. People who might well exclaim with John Wesley Oh what miserable drudgery is the service of the Church – unless you love the Saviour. And behind these people a series of Moderators – Cyril Franks, David Helyar, Nigel Uden – who were wise enough to give Medway District Council some space.
For all of these, we give thanks tonight.
Mix up these people with large helpings of the Holy Spirit and some interesting District policies emerge.
In the early years, the determination to make the Presbyterian minority feel at home within an overwhelmingly Congregationalist family, and now the joins don’t show. The creation of what the national Church much later called Local Church Leaders, so that over a third of our churches have at some time been led by an authorised lay person. The fruitful marriage of the concept of a Lay Ministry Enabler with the varied gifts of the Rev Andrew Francis. The creation of a District mission statement that has stood the test of time and helped us promote cell church. A pioneering exercise called Resources for Mission to rethink the ways we use building and ministers. And, when that proved all aspiration and no action, the courage to be more bold: the development of the Minster Model; the exhaustive consultations with the churches; the extraordinary votes on 23 March 2001 at Snodland when the representatives of large, rich, strong churches voted for a plan to end any prospect of their keeping ministers of their own, so that resources could move to support weaker congregations. Truly a Sermon on the Mount moment.
As well as policies for the whole District, we have also sought to find ways to support local opportunities. So, in partnership with others, in the 1980s we helped form what became St John’s, Grove Green; in the 1990s we helped form what became St Mary’s Island Church, Chatham Maritime; and in this decade the URC catalyst has helped miraculous progress in relationships amongst the congregations in the area around Five Oak Green United Church. In all these places District Council decisions have helped progress; in all these places the norm has been growth.
Over three and a half decades, we have not been entirely idle.
We have also been quite good at self-congratulation. Coming to the Communion table requires confession too. If a visitor from another URC District had been a fly on the wall at our Council meetings, I wonder what they would say to us. I suspect they would be astonished at how the movement for inclusive language has completely passed us by; would sympathise with those Medway District Church and Society Secretaries who have felt that to be the graveyard job; would suggest our debates on human sexuality did not always shout how much we loved one another; and might think we were better at talking about evangelism than helping people to share in it. Fortunately God is forgiving.
Many of us are here tonight because, for all its faults, we owe a debt to the Medway District. I guess I am standing here because I have been more involved than most in the District’s failures and maybe its successes. I am happy to pay public testimony to how much the life of the District has helped my personal spiritual journey. There have been the friendships, especially valuable in the tough times. There have been the opportunities to be involved in more than one style of church and more than one sort of community. And I am one of those who have used what we have learnt and shared in Medway in trying to serve the wider Church. When I was Convenor of the URC Ministries Committee, it was a standing joke in a certain quarter that the policies that emerged from the Committee - after many hours of debate, discussion, prayer and redrafting - were just what Medway decided five years before. I need to say this was not entirely true; but neither was it entirely false.
Then there have been the special privileges that have come through serving Medway District. Standing in a cathedral pulpit I am reminded, for example, of the honour done to the District when as its chairman I was invited to preach at the main Sunday service in Canterbury Cathedral. Afterwards I signed the Cathedral service book a few pages after His Holiness the Pope. I wondered whether in the long history of Canterbury Cathedral the number of URC lay preachers signing that book was as small as the number of popes.
Equally memorable, for a different reason, was the District event at Sevenoaks when, due to a curious combination of circumstances, I ended up having an experience the Pope has probably never had. I ended up locked in the ladies’ lavatory.
Death and Resurrection
We can multiply memories; but what exactly are we here for tonight? It is somewhat odd to celebrate the ending of the District when most members of the Council voted against that happening. I think God wants to point us to something more interesting than a wake.
About half way through the life of Medway District I drove one sunny afternoon to the far extremity of the District on the Isle of Grain. The chapel there is possibly the only building in the country with a District Council roof. When the chapel was a vibrant little centre of witness, its roof was condemned and they had no money. They explained the problem to the District and the Council promised to pray for them. But the Council also realised it should be the answer to its own prayers; it launched an appeal around the District. I hope the District archives will preserve the heart-stopping letter from Ron Huggett, then Secretary at Grain, in which he tried to put into words his overwhelming sense of gratitude to people whom he had never met, and churches he had never visited, whose commitment to the Medway District family meant they sent a cheque. The roof was rebuilt.
But on this occasion I was in Grain for the funeral of Ethel Merrill. The story around that event seems a parable for what we are about tonight. Ethel is a reminder of what the district is really about: not committees and procedures but supporting local missionary congregations. Ethel would never have put herself forward for District office but went around doing good in the village – hence the packed chapel for her funeral. The last Church Meeting she attended was unique in my experience of the District: attendance was 100%. All four members were present. As we discussed the future, it was Ethel who said that the chapel meant everything to her, but if it were part of God’s wider plan that is should close, so be it.
On the Sunday after her funeral, I went to Grain as Interim Moderator. I found that the Interim Moderator’s role was going to include playing the organ as there was no organist. By 1105 I realised it was also going to include leading the service and preaching too, as no preacher had turned up. It was clear old patterns of church life were not going to last much longer. But when the chapel closed, some saw the death as an opportunity for something new to emerge. The Synod agreed not to sell the building and some of you know the story since then. Now the values of the Kingdom are shown to the village not by providing homemade cakes to those who need cheering up but by providing computers to those who need to be online. Ethel would never have become a computer nerd but she would have recognised the Spirit.
Tonight Medway District must let go of its old body, with its patterns and processes. Accept a death has occurred. Let the spirit of Medway District Council now range more freely in West Kent in less constrained and formal ways.
In the 1 Corinthians 15 passage, Paul paints a picture of death that makes it exciting because of what can follow. And that passage was also written to counter a heresy around in Corinth: that Jesus did not really die but somehow by-passed death, avoided what was planned and was alive later because he never died. Paul is adamant that Jesus had to really die if the resurrection was to have any meaning. And the word to us may be that we have to let Medway District really die, however much we might have preferred another script, if what comes next is to be as rich as possible. So we do not recreate the Council by another name; we do not seek to reinvent what has officially been abolished. Instead we believe the best next step is to let the spirit of Medway go free around West Kent.
What might that look like? Let me sketch two suggestions.
Defending Religious Freedom
One of the themes of Medway District has been that being a Christian should make a difference. It means we shall not always behave in the same way as the society around us.
Over the life of the URC, one of the surprises has been the shifts in the Government’s relationship with the churches. In the 1970s Government was usually indifferent to the churches. In the 1980s under Mrs Thatcher, the churches were initially not sure how to react to Government but then became what some suggested was more like an official opposition than the Labour Party. When a longstanding member of the Christian Socialist Movement became Prime Minister ten years ago, a new approach emerged and the Blair Government actively encouraged contact with the churches. Some of us were invited periodically to have breakfast at 11 Downing Street with Gordon Brown so he could hear what the churches thought of his economic policies.
Recently there seems to be another shift of mood. Islamist extremists – not of course remotely typical of Muslims in this country – have provided an excuse for some to argue that religion is a bad influence on society. It is then a short step to arguing that Government should control religious behaviour. In particular, Government will decide how churches should be allowed to behave.
If we believe Christians should be allowed to be different form the rest of society, then some battles we thought were won long ago may need to be fought again.
The URC inherits a tradition of fighting for State protection for religious freedoms: just read our Statement of the Nature, Faith and Order of the Church. In the 17th century this revolved around the freedom to worship and govern church life; in the 19th century our forebears fought for the universities to be open to all and not just the C of E; and a century ago some of our forefathers were in prison for the principle that education should respect Nonconformist belief. Today our battle is not with other Churches; instead, united with them and our sister faith communities, the battle is with the militant secularists.
We all know Councils who want the extra spending in the High Street in December but want no link to the birth of Christ; it is harder now to employ a Christian in a church-related job than it was five years ago. And this week the United Reformed Church resumes its battle with Government about its Ministers Pension Fund. The Directors invest the Fund’s money in accordance with their understanding of the Gospel. The Government wants to impose Directors on the Pension Fund who are not even Christian. The Government is not happy that the Church’s own Pension Fund should be run according to the Church’s priorities; the Government thinks it should be run according to the Government’s priorities.
If the spirit of Medway District is to be set free to have a wider influence, some of the energy that used to be consumed running the District Council might go into ensuring our Councillors and MPs realise the importance of religious freedoms to a healthy society.
I have little doubt that there are more battles to come in this area. My question is whether our people are trained to realise the importance of those battles.
A second challenge for our released energy also goes to the heart of what is distinctive about the United Reformed Church: our yearning for Church Unity.
Our founders would have shared the regret of some of us that the District Council is ending after 35 years; but their regret would not be that it is ending but that it has taken 35 years to disappear. They hoped the URC would be a catalyst for wider structural unity long before now.
Formal structural unity is not now going to happen, for since 1972 our culture has become postmodern. Our culture no longer wants single structures and certainly does to want central authorities. The watchword is choice and flexibility and something for everyone’s taste; a fractured society made a virtue. And before we say we Christians have not been affected by such shifts, ask yourself how many channels there are on your TV compared with how many you had in 1972.
Nonetheless the task still matters. Look at Richard Dawkins’ website and you’ll see that modern atheists say a key reason for dismissing the Church as a ludicrous institution is that they cannot see how it is in any sense united. Or go to a more logical and systematic thinker and see how in Ephesians the stress is on the unity of the Church being of its essence. In Ephesians 4 we are not asked to run around trying to organise the Church to be united; rather the Spirit has given unity and we are called to discern that unity and to find ways of making it evident to those within and beyond the Church.
And Postmodernity opens up opportunities that were not around in 1972. People today are much more willing to explore outside traditional boundaries than they were. The Bible Society reports that Christians are far more likely than ever before to buy resources from outside their own traditions: the number of Catholics buying classic Protestant texts, for example, is unprecedented. And we know that in our churches it is hard to find anyone under fifty who cares at all what denomination the congregation belongs to.
With the District Council gone and its spirit set free of structures, will it drive us to explore how the unity of the Church can find expression locally? I don’t know whether God will be pleased if in fifteen years’ time there are still 26 sets of buildings around West Kent with “United Reformed Church” on their noticeboards. But if there were 26 communities where a more united Church presence was evident and making a greater impact on that community, I think there might be a smile on the face of God.
Against all the Odds
So we give thanks for the Medway District; we discipline ourselves to let it die properly. We release energy, perhaps used to safeguard religious freedoms and to promote expressions of the Church’s unity.
But will we really achieve anything? In the words of the Catch the Vision prayer, will we make a difference for Christ’s sake? After all, there are not many of us, and far fewer than there used to be.
St Paul would encourage us. At the end of that Corinthians chapter he says Therefore our labour for the Lord will never be wasted. If we have grasped the truth of the resurrection, we will see that every act of faithful service will be gathered up one day by the God of history in the consummation of all things.
Fast forward 2,000 years and a few weeks ago I was invited to a celebration to mark the first ten years of Gillingham Youth for Christ. 90% of those present were younger than me and most of them were born much more recently than Medway District. We were reminded how GYFC had evolved from fragile beginnings to its present thriving state. It reaches sections of the teenage community that few of our churches are anywhere near. Those who know the story know that at a vital point the URC was able to provide something distinctive which probably made the difference between collapse and expansion. Meanwhile the speaker at the celebration mused on the craze for rebranding and updating names; he thought that if we should wish to rename the Bible he would call it Against all the Odds – the story of how God achieved the unlikely through ordinary people and how God intervenes in unexpected ways.
As part of the United Reformed Church, we are Reformed people – the people of the Book. So if we let the spirit of the Medway District out of its old body, we dare to believe that, against all the odds, we can still make a difference for Christ’s sake.
Thanks be to God.