General Assembly day one round-up: 30 June 2023

The 2023 General Assembly of the United Reformed Church, meeting both in-person and online, opened on 30 June at The Hayes Conference Centre in Swanwick and began with worship led by the Revd Lindsey Sanderson, Chaplain to the Moderator 2022-2023.

“Spaces of grace” is the theme underpinning worship throughout Assembly, and this was the starting point for prayer – that we might become a “community of grace”. This opening service found its focus in the theme of “forming community” and began with the words of Brian Wren’s hymn, “Great God, your love has called us here”.

The Statement concerning the Nature, Faith and Order of the URC was led by the Revd Lesley Thomson, ordained just six days previously, and the Revd Dr Stephen Orchard who recently marked 55 years of ordained ministry. This was followed by a reading from Paul’s letter to the Philippians 2:1-11.

We need grace in communal life, said the Revd Fiona Bennett, the Moderator of the  General Assembly. It is through God’s grace we become able to laugh, cry, to wonder, and through that grace we also have hope for the world and God’s community of disciples. Fiona then drew on the imagery of multiple coloured fish created for the URC’s jubilee celebrations to suggest we are like those jubilee fish – swimming in an ocean of grace.

The Moderator reminded Assembly of the popular contemporary phrase “get over yourself” – something she admitted she’d said to herself many times over the past year. Alluding to Paul’s words in Philippians, she said we need to step over our ego and hubris to see and act on what is truly important. This, she said, is true humility: lifting our gaze beyond ourselves to the needs of others and the world. Paul was talking of unity born out of humility and this is the model we need to use in order to be people of the Gospel. Such humility is only possible in the ocean of grace where we can indeed “get over ourselves”.

Fiona concluded by inviting Assembly to look not only at our own interests but to the interests of others, within the URC and ecumenically, and to trust each other enough to share with each other our vulnerability and resources. In Assembly, she said, let us open our hearts, minds and hands to the ocean of God’s grace.

Following the decision of the 2022 Assembly to create the role of Chief Operating Officer, the Moderator welcomed and commissioned Victoria James to the position. Victoria started in the role earlier in the year and regards the work as her vocation. She was welcomed with applause.

The Revd Canon Helen Cameron, currently Moderator of the Free Churches Group and one of the presidents of Churches Together in England, brought ecumenical greetings, in particular from the conference of the Methodist Church, where she had just recently been elected President-designate.

Following a time of prayer, Assembly joined in a celebration of Holy Communion, concluding with the sharing of the peace in sign language and the singing of “Brother, sister, let me serve you”.

Session one

Paper Z1 – Synod Moderator’s Report

The first item of business at General Assembly 2023 was the report of the Synod Moderators of the United Reformed Church, presented to the meeting by the Moderators.

The report looks back on the URC’s 50th anniversary in October 2022. The Church is not now what its founders envisaged in 1972, but, the report says, we are not called “to try and be what we are not”. Rather we are called to be comfortable in our own skin – to love ourselves as Christ’s Body, as the presentation put it – and to adapt to our changing circumstances, which can be liberating. “We already have all we need to be the people of God.”

The paper concludes with questions for local churches to discuss. Explore the questions in the Synod Moderator’s Report entitled Paper Z1 – Life after 50?

Speaking on behalf of the Moderators, the Revd David Herbert Moderator, of Northern Synod, said that being more comfortable in our own skin is not about complacency or resignation. It is about remembering how God works through unlikely lives in surprising ways, as the story of David and Goliath illustrates.

One example of this, they said, was the way that being slimmer than 50 years ago allowed the URC to respond to the pandemic in ways that were ‘lean, light, and fleet of foot’.

“We are in transition, not dying, but we need to be prepared to change as our mission context changes and as the Holy Spirit leads us into new ways of being.”

Paper X1 – East Midlands Resolution for Ukraine

Out of concern for the churches in Ukraine which, like the URC, are members in the Communion of Protestant Churches in Europe (CPCE), the General Assembly sent greetings to the United Methodist Church in Ukraine, the German Evangelical Lutheran Church in Ukraine and the Transcarpathian Reformed Church, the Reformed Church of Ukraine.

Derek Graham and Luke Framji, members of St Andrews-with-Castlegate URC, Nottingham, proposed the resolution on behalf of the East Midlands Synod.

General Assembly further instructed the Mission and Finance Committees, in conjunction with Synods and ecumenical partners, to determine what help might appropriately be offered to the Transcarpathian Reformed Church as a result of the Russian invasion and the ongoing consequences of the war in Ukraine

The resolutions and exploratory work were accepted once clarification about how the committees would carry out this work, either under delegated powers or by further resolutions at the next General Assembly.

Paper X5 – South Western Synod: Bristol Korean Church

The Revd Douggie Burnett, Minister of Redland Park and the Bristol Korean Church (BKC) delightedly proposed Resolution 78, that General Assembly receives BKC as a local URC.

The Revd Yohan Song was then formally greeted by the Moderator of General Assembly who called the occasion “really exciting”.

“Every time a new member joins, the whole body changes as we have new limbs – or rather, new gifts. With these new limbs, we are a new body.”

Fiona then asked Yohan what prayers he would like as a “new limb within the URC body”? Yohan responded that he was truly grateful for the opportunity and that Bristol Korean Church regards itself as a seed planted in fertile soil, the URC. He asked for prayers that the Bristol Korean Church would be a proactive, fertile church, filled with hope and joy.

The Revd Lindsey Sanderson then led Assembly in prayers for the church, asking for God to fill the BKC with insight and purpose.

Day one concluded with evening prayer, including the commemoration of ministers, Church Related Community Workers, missionaries, clerks and moderators of General Assembly who have died and congregations which have closed since the last General Assembly.


Reporting team: Andy Jackson, Ann-Marie Nye, Stephen Tomkins, and Laurence Wareing. Pictures by Chris Andrews.