General Assembly day four round-up: 11 July 2022

The Revd Helen Everard, Chaplain to the Moderator, led prayers on the fourth day of Assembly at The Hayes Conference Centre in Swanwick.

Session ten

Remaindered business

Paper B/D/M 1 Assembly Accredited Lay Pioneers and the Newbigin Pioneering Hub

This paper, having been remaindered from session one to give the committee involved in the Hub time to give clarity on points raised, was discussed again in session ten.

Concerns in session one centred around Resolution 6 and whether Lay Pioneers will be paid or unpaid, office holders or not, employees or not, and how they will be regulated.

The Revd Paul Whittle, Moderator of the National Synod of Scotland, acknowledged previous comments and accepted that there is more work to be done. As Resolution 5 had passed, Paul explained that it would be helpful to take the next step but one that recognises the additional work needed.

The Revd Paul Whittle Moderator of the National Synod of Scotland.

He added that ten people had already signed up to the course that is shortly due to start. Paul asked for permission to withdraw Resolution 6 in its original wording, as outlined in the Book of Reports, to propose the resolution in its amended form, as follows:

“General Assembly adopts the marks of ministry of a Lay Pioneer and requests the Fresh Expressions and Pioneering Enabling Group to consult with the relevant committees and the Synods in the development of guidelines for the recognition and exercise of this ministry.”

Paul explained that in proposing this, the request relayed in Friday’s second order paper would be retained to remove the word ‘just’ from the middle of para 3.5. Additionally, permission was requested to amend the examples cited in para 1 by deleting the two given examples, and replacing them with ‘Lay Preachers and local leaders’ as these better model the intention of the paper and the resolution.

Several Pioneer Ministers took to the floor to express support for the resolution, others felt that the paper had a narrow view of pioneer ministry, and others felt that they did not want chaplaincy to be forgotten, that it is equally a pioneer ministry and equally transformative. Others explained that the marks of ministry did not contain vital aspects. Further comments regarding amending the marks are invited to be submitted to Paul before 31st August, by emailing [email protected]

Assembly was wholeheartedly in support of the amended resolution which subsequently passed.

 Paper I6: Legacies of (transatlantic) Slavery
In 2017, the Council for World Mission (CWM) held a series of hearings which identified racism and deprivation as key legacies of transatlantic slavery impacting African and African descent communities around the globe.

Responding to those hearings, the URC established its own Legacies of Slavery (LoS) Task Group under the Mission Committee, which produced ‘Healing: Hope in Action’, considered by Mission Council in autumn 2019. The paper argued that apology alone is an empty gesture unless accompanied by some practical.

The disproportionate damage caused by Covid-19 to black and ethnic minority British communities, as well as the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement, stimulated by the murder of George Floyd, have highlighted the continuing scourge of systemic racism and the need to make the URC actively anti-racist.

In preparation for General Assembly 2022, the LoS Task Group consulted with Synods and local churches on the proposals for a URC Apology and reparations. You can read the responses on the URC website

Sarah Lane-Cawte, convenor of the Mission Committee, said that the committee brought Resolutions 20 and 21 knowing that they may be difficult.

Does the URC know, asked Karen Campbell, Secretary for Global and Intercultural Ministries, “how it feels to walk in our skin? … does the URC know what we encounter and what it means to be black in the URC?”

“The hurt of slavery it still real for millions of people. You may not see the wounds bleeding, but they are still not healed. I was born in Britain, but I stand before you as someone who belongs nowhere. I’m cut off from my history… we follow Jesus and I want us to employ that in our thinking.”

Karen Campbell, Secretary for Global and Intercultural Ministries.

“Where does Jesus lead if not to abundant life for all people equally? If one part of Christ’s body hurts, all parts hurt. There are parts of our body that has been hurting for centuries.”

The URC, Karen continued, was formed in a society that continues to benefit from the profits of slavery, and some of our forebears were slave traders and apologists of the slave trade.

Professor David Reynolds, Chair of the Legacies of Slavery Task Group, and Professor of International History (Emeritus) at the Cambridge University, said that one of our blind spots was race and history, and enslaved labour was part of that.

“I had the sobering privilege as black British people of African heritage opened up to the group about the ways they are abused in daily life, including ministers of our own URC.

“Saying ‘I’m sorry’ comes from the heart. It means that I am ashamed that our country behaved in that way and that it still poisons life today.

“Words are not enough; we also have to do something to show we are sorry.”

Some speakers were concerned that the resolution was limited to the Caribbean. Bridget Micklem, asked for a range of actions that ordinary Christians could do could.

Resolution 21, taken on Monday, General Assembly affirms its commitment to practical actions to address the continuing negative impacts of the legacies of transatlantic slavery on black communities in the UK, the Caribbean and Africa, and instructs the Legacies of Slavery Task Group to bring concrete and costed proposals to General Assembly 2023 for a considered programme of repairing justice.

“If we don’t pass the resolution, the job is incomplete. We need to add to our words, it will make a difference,” said Sarah Lane-Cawte. It will also affirm the work of the LoS Task Group, Sarah continued.

Sarah Lane-Cawte, Convenor of the Mission Committee.

Ash Barker asked about how this work related to restitutions from others, such as the UK Government. Karen Campbell responded by saying that further listening and action, such as asking the question ‘what will make a difference?’.

Geoff Felton, URC Mersey Synod Moderator, a resident of Liverpool, a city that benefitted from the slave trade, and has faced up to its past, such as being the location of the International Slavery Museum. The city seeks to educate people. “There’s a lot of work still to be done in the URC; there are still 44 million people still in bondage, held against their will and exploited for the benefit of the powerful.”

Geoff suggested that the URC become an abolitionist church, and to commit to partnering with stop slavery organisations and to set up a bursary fund for students studying at the International Slavery Museum.

Others shared stories about racism taking place, even now, in the URC, and thanked members of the Task Group. Sarah Lane Cawte said that more work would still be done.

The Resolution was carried unanimously.

 Paper N2: Assembly Committee and Church House structures

Continuing with the work of the Church Life Review group, the Revd Steve Faber on Sunday presented the group’s proposals for reworking the URC’s committee structure and the role of Deputy General Secretary (Administration and Resources). The paper came with a draft resolution on each of those two matters (resolutions 27 and 28).

Both proposals attracted considerable comment and discussion.

The thinking behind resolution 27, Mr Faber explained, was to reduce the hundreds of volunteers and the large amount staff time now taken up by committees. The smaller structure would fit better the present size of the Church.

Asked what would happen to the work of the equalities committee, Mr Faber explained that equalities would become part of the remit of each committee.

Comments on this point included: ‘When a job becomes everybody’s job, it’s a short step to nobody doing it.’ ‘This is not the time for the Church to take its foot off the equalities pedal.’ And that equalities is a cheap committee with no staff, popular with volunteers and was already meeting virtually before Covid.

There were other areas of comment and discussion on the proposal. Members said:

  • It is a mistake to start a review with restructuring. We first decide what processes are needed, then what resources they require, then what organisational changes need to be made
  • Realise the value of automation
  • The Methodist Church might have an equalities staff member?
  • The paragraph on the business committee does not adequately cover the work it does
  • The proposals concentrate too much work in Church House.
  • Faith and order work needs to be proactive, not reactive

Mr Faber assured members that the task group had heard their concerns and would consider them before bringing their proposals to Assembly Executive in November.

Resolution 27 was amended, ‘receiving’ rather than ‘welcoming’ the report, and asking the task group to report in November rather than be required to bring a final proposal, and then carried.

Questions and comments on resolution 28 followed, about changes to the role and title of Deputy General Secretary (Administration and Resources).

Mr Faber explained that the nature of the job was unchanged but the new job title opened recruitment out to wider field. It would not become a bureaucratic role that could override the will of church.

Discussion was eventually deferred while a facilitation group looked for a way forward. The group proposed an amendment making clear that the job title was provisional.

Further discussion focused on two questions: whether Assembly wished that it be essential that the post-holder be a Christian; and whether to recruit a short-term post-holder (on the retirement of the present Deputy General Secretary) while the details are finalised.

Mr Faber cautioned against making it a temporary role, saying there was little chance of recruiting successfully twice in two years and Church House did not have the capacity to fill the post internally. He ardently agreed with those who said it was preferable for the person to be a Christian and that the paperwork must make it clear that the work is about serving God, but the question was whether that could be made an essential requirement within the law.

Mr Faber repeated that all this work would be subject to scrutiny by Assembly officers, and on that reassurance Assembly passed the resolution by an overwhelming majority.

Address to the throne
An address to the throne was presented by Mr Derek Estill, Moderator of the General Assembly 2018-2022. In sending loyal greetings to Her Majesty, the Assembly noted that in this year both Her Majesty and the URC are marking a jubilee. The Assembly thanked Her Majesty for her “steadfast and faithful service” over the seven decades of her reign. Praising her example of “duty, integrity and public service”, the Assembly placed on record its appreciation of “Your Majesty’s public witness to your Christian faith and the way in which you have sought to live your life as a servant of Christ”.

The address not only celebrated the beginning of “a pioneering ecumenical experiment” with the formation of the URC in 1972 but also recorded some of the key issues under discussion at this year’s Assembly: “we have been reflecting on the challenges we face and how our church life might be renewed in faithful response to them”.

In particular, the address noted that, “given the Biblical understanding of jubilee as a moment to set right past wrongs, it is fitting that the General Assembly has also agreed a confession and apology for the role that we and our antecedent bodies played in the transatlantic slave trade, and its legacies in the scars which continue to blight our society, our Church, and the lives of black people in our midst and around the globe today. We have supported too an impassioned plea for those fleeing war or persecution to be treated fairly and compassionately by Your Government.”

The Address concluded with a prayer that God “will sustain and guide Your Majesty in all the days to come”.

 Moderator-elect acceptance speech
The Revd Dr Tessa Henry-Robinson addressed Assembly by accepting the role of Moderator of the General Assembly 2023-2024.

I will take this opportunity as the first woman of ethnically minoritised background — the first Black woman to be elected to this important leadership role — to bring a welcoming and hospitable spirit, ensuring that all feel seen, and understood; and their personal dignity recognised and respected,” said Dr Henry-Robinson.

The Revd Dr Tessa Henry-Robinson, Moderator -Elect 2022-2023.

“I understand this as an opportune and poignant moment, in my theological and pastoral journey, to open the way for others to follow.”

“As an observer to this year’s General Assembly, I see that the URC is beginning to be more intentional about moving towards its vision of an anti-racist church, with an intercultural habit, where all are welcome.

“Still, we have a long way to go, and I intend to continue to embrace and uplift this vision, and to champion it within the Church and in our communities. I applaud the work that has gone before and commit to assisting the URC to be ever-changing, attentive to the movement of the spirit.

“This is a gift and an opportunity, not only to inspire people in our communities to better find and understand God, but also to reassure those who question whether they even belong or are welcome.

“As Moderator-elect, I look forward to meaningful conversations and engagement with our outgoing and incoming Moderators.

“Then as Moderator 2023-2024, God willing, I hope to intentionally channel my insight into how the URC might claim and advance its identity to foster the spirit of unity, peace, and justice as followers of Christ.

“I offer very special thanks to my husband Revd Mark Robinson and our precious, loving family; and to good friends and well-wishers for their confidence in me.”

Dr Henry-Robinson went onto thank the Revd John Grundy and the congregation of St Andrews URC in Brockley for putting her name forward after prayerful and careful consideration, and the Southern Synod, for “courageously” nominated her at its March meeting held earlier this year.

Tessa also thanked General Assembly for its trust in electing her.

Moderator’s reflection
The Revd Claire Downing, Outgoing Moderator of General Assembly, offered her closing reflections on her term of office.

Time had seemed “all the more stretchy” she said, over the last few years, and it was incredible that it was only four years ago that she made a speech to accept this role.

She and the late Peter Pay were elected, she said, as the last Moderators to serve as a pair and part of her job was to reduce expectations of what a Moderator would do. A tradition had built up that one Moderator would be at every committee meeting; “Well, I stopped that!”

The Revd Clare Downing, General Assembly Moderator 2020-2022.

The pandemic meant not having quite the induction expected, learning how to hold large meetings over Zoom, and, in the first year, “having to do virtually everything virtually”. It meant having meetings in places she later couldn’t remember being. Some people were excluded by virtual meetings, she said: “But other people were included in new ways. We had never realised how many people we were excluding from our meetings in the first place. Keep thinking about who you’re including and who you’re excluding.”

Ms Downing paid an emotional tribute to Peter Pay who died during his term as Moderator. “He was an amazing colleague to work with,” she said.

Highlights, she added, included seeing the field at the back of one church transform into a community garden; being at Youth Assembly and inducting Jo Harris as Moderator; inducting synod moderators; Parliamentary prayer breakfast; visiting Poland with the Council for Christians and Jews.

Ms Downing thanked General Assembly for giving her the opportunity and especially thanked those who had prayed for her.

Closing worship and the Induction of the Revd Fiona Bennett, Moderator of the General Assembly of The United Reformed Church, 2022-2023

In the sermon at the Closing Worship at the General Assembly, Karen Campbell, Secretary for Global and Intercultural Ministries, wondered if you have ever had the experience of knowing that God is calling you.

“I am talking about feeling something in your spirit – in the very fibre of your being – that says God is calling you to ‘this’.

“I’ve had that experience. It can be incredibly uncomfortable, sometimes scary, often painful. That is how it feels for me to talk honestly and try to engage directly with issues of racial justice in our Church. People often don’t believe, but by default, I am a real introvert… and a nerd. (Fellow nerds, let’s embrace it!)

“Yet, I find myself in this place, feeling the weight and responsibility of what I am called to be and do.

“I wonder if any of this is how Fiona (Bennett) felt when she was elected to become Assembly Moderator, or today as she officially takes up her duties? Or Tessa (Henry-Robinson), when she allowed her name to go forward for the same role, and as the realisation sinks in that she really has been elected to serve as the first Black woman GA Moderator of the United Reformed Church?

“Or Philippa (Osei), when she was elected to be the first Black moderator-elect of Youth Assembly back in January?

“I wonder if any of this is how Alex (Clare-Young) feels when putting themselves on the line to try to help us not even understand – but be open to engaging at all – with the issues faced by trans people.

“There are many others putting themselves ‘out there’ – not because they want to, because they have to. Because God has laid it on their hearts.

“God calls. Calls us to speak up and speak out and do what is right – in the power of the spirit – because it is simply the right thing to do. I think, in this Assembly, that’s what we have been striving to do.

“I don’t know which of us God may be calling for what purpose. I don’t know which of us feels compelled to draw our line in the sand. I do know how daunting it can be to have the feeling ‘it’s definitely you!’

“But I also know that who God calls, God equips – even when we may not recognise we have been given what we need.

“So, those who feel called – dare to answer. Those who aren’t sure – listen, engage, challenge – in love!

“And all of us together – let’s proclaim God’s jubilee. Amen.”

Induction of Fiona Bennett

After an introduction by the Revd Clare Downing, an affirmation of faith, prayers, promises and the signing of the Assembly Bible, the Revd Fiona Bennett was inducted as the Moderator of the General Assembly. Fiona was welcomed by the Revd Philip Brooks, Deputy General Secretary for Mission, who said: “Know that you are held in our love, support and prayers. We are blessed to walk alongside you in this coming year.”

The Revd Fion Bennett, General Assembly Moderator 2022-2023.

Commissioning of Assembly representatives

How might the Spirit continue to through the story of Jubilee to us the United Reformed Church in our Jubilee year, the new Chaplain to the General Assembly Moderator the Revd Lindsey Sanderson asked.

“The Jubilee year was a time of celebration. So, what do we celebrate about what God has done in the URC over the last 50 years? The Jubilee year was a time of liberation. Are there any church burdens that, if freed of, would liberate us to flourish?

“The Jubilee year was a time of economic transformation and hope for the poorest. If money was no object, what could we invest in to make our local church more effective in recognising God’s Kingdom in our local communities?

“Those of us in the Church Life Review Group have come to think of these as the Jubilee questions and we invite you, in fact we urge you, to take these questions to every corner of the United Reformed Church so we can all get talking about the God of Jubilee and the celebration, liberation and transformation God offers to us and the world.

“As we respond to God’s invitation to be people of the Jubilee, who share in celebration, liberation and transformation, we offer back to God this Assembly and the work received and decided upon in this Council and which will now go forth to the other councils of the church and in our partnership working with others.

The Assembly then joined in with the Confession and Apology by the United Reformed Church prepared by the Legacies of Slavery Task Group, led by Fiona Bennett and Adrian Bulley, URC Deputy General Secretary for Discipleship.

Apology for the role in transatlantic slavery

We, the General Assembly of the United Reformed Church, mindful of our own history and that of our antecedent bodies, wish to confess and apologise for our role in transatlantic slavery, and the scars which continue to blight our society, our Church, and the lives of black people in our midst and around the globe today.

This action is firmly rooted in the gospel call to repentance and gives life to the commitment in our Basis of Union to be ‘formed in obedience to the call to repent of what has been amiss in the past and to be reconciled.’

As a Conciliar Church, we have listened to one another as we received the report of Mission Committee on the ongoing Legacies of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. We have heard the pain of sisters and brothers who have been hurt, and are still being hurt, by these legacies, including the continuing scourge of racism.

The Revd Adrian Bulley, Deputy General Secretary (Discipleship), and Fiona Bennett.

We have heard God in Christ speaking to us at what we believe to be a Kairos moment. In a spirit of humility and vulnerability, we are urged on by a movement of God’s Spirit, calling us for a journey of words and actions towards a future built on equity, justice and love.

To this end, the General Assembly of the United Reformed Church, gathered here in Swanwick, in the year 2022:

  • humbly acknowledges our share in and benefit from our nation’s participation, and that of some of our own antecedent bodies, in transatlantic slavery
  • recognises our failure to honour the efforts of our abolitionist forebears by permitting the legacies of transatlantic slavery to continue shaping our world
  • offers our apology to God and to our sisters and brothers in Africa, the Caribbean, and their descendants, for all that has created and still perpetuates such deep hurt, which originated from the horror of slavery
  • repents of the hurt we have caused, our reluctance to face up to the sins of the past and our silence in the face of racism and injustice today
  • admits that these sins are part of our continuing failure to see and hear God in all our neighbours, whoever they may be
  • commits, in a true spirit of repentance: to find constructive ways by which we can move from saying ‘I’m sorry’ into concrete actions of ‘repairing justice’ and so contribute to the prophetic work of God’s coming kingdom
  • to continue working to promote racial justice as part of our Christian commitment to justice for all
  • to encourage the whole United Reformed Church to be engaged in this journey.

The Assembly was then led in prayer.

The 2022 General Assembly concluded with the singing of the hymn We are bearers of the story and a blessing.

The 2023 General Assembly meets in Swanwick from 30 June – 3 July.


Reporting team: Ann-Marie Nye, Laurence Waring, Andy Jackson, and Steve Tomkins. Pictures: Chris Andrews.