Sermon for URC Fiftieth Anniversary Service Sunday, 16 October 2022
By Revd Geoffrey Clarke, Moderator of the URC East Midlands Synod
Deuteronomy 7: 7–12
(used within the uniting service at Westminster Abbey on 5 October 1972)
Luke 1: 46–55
Text: The opening phrase of Mary’s song of praise, Magnificat:
My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations shall call me blessed,
Luke 1: 46b–48
I shouldn’t be here! – We shouldn’t be here!
I shouldn’t be here because you and I were expecting Helen Cameron to be preaching the sermon, but she is currently undergoing radiotherapy. (She sends her greetings and is watching this livestream; she is, understandably, feeling tired and is in our prayers.) And I shouldn’t be here, as a minister of the United Reformed Church, given that my family roots and heritage were Methodist. When I shared with the Circuit Steward back in 1986 my conviction that I should test a call by offering as a candidate for URC ministry he was horrified, saying: ‘But your family is a Methodist family! How can you?’ But it was the United Reformed Church that won my heart back in 1979 precisely because of its quest for unity and as someone jointly confirmed as both Methodist and URC at Emmanuel, Bungay, a Local Ecumenical Partnership created just four years after October 1972 and three before my confirmation.
And we shouldn’t be here in that those who were there at the formation of the United Reformed Church five decades ago hoped and thought they had birthed a church born to die as and when further unions changed it.
But here I am – and here we are – marking its Fiftieth Anniversary. And it is particularly apt that we celebrate that anniversary here in a church and city where ecumenical commitment is the foundation for our worship, witness and service. A church such as Christ the Cornerstone embodies the conviction that unity is itself a sign as well as a prompt to mission – that a fractured world might see, through the unity of those of differing convictions and allegiances, that difference does not need to divide; that there is something bigger and better than:
me and mine,
my denominational allegiance,
my preferred way of doing things.
So, in the company of sisters and brothers of partner denominations, I want to use those opening words of Mary’s Song – Magnificat – as prompt for saying something about what I cherish and commend as your United Reformed Church family …
1 Sing ‘Magnificat’ – not ‘Monopoly’
Mary invites us to sing, My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour
… not: My soul magnifies my denomination alone as sole arbiter of truth.
One of the treasured convictions of the United Reformed Church is that no denomination or chapter of the unfolding story of God’s engagement with God’s people can claim unique and sole possession of truth. As our ‘Statement of the Nature, Faith and Order of the United Reformed Church’ affirms:
We accept with thanksgiving to God
the witness to the catholic faith
in the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds.
We acknowledge the declarations
made in our own tradition
by Congregationalists, Presbyterians
and Churches of Christ
in which they stated the faith
and sought to make its implications clear.
By drawing upon the catholic and reformed elements of our heritage; by treasuring insights from Congregationalist, Presbyterian and Churches of Christ forebears, the United Reformed Church seeks to be a church that counters the notion that any one church has a monopoly on truth. We are invited, instead, to be open to learn from others – those that have preceded us and those alongside us here and now – enlarging our vision and enriching our glimpse of God.
Mary regarded herself as lowly. Only through God’s presence in her life could others come to regard her as blessed. So, too, centuries before, the people of God, servile and captive in Egypt, were assured – in the words of our reading from Deuteronomy:
It was not because you were more numerous than any other people that the Lord set his heart on you and chose you – for you were the fewest of all peoples. It was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath that he swore to your ancestors … the faithful God who maintains covenant loyalty with those who love him …
Deuteronomy 7: 7-8a, 9b
The United Reformed Church knows all too well that we are not … more numerous than any other people. Over the past five decades we have known decline in numbers and in many a postcode we are few and far between. People still struggle to get our name right, dropping the ‘-ed’ from ‘Reformed’ and we cannot pretend to be famous and well-known. But our song is Magnificat, not Monopoly. God is to be praised and magnified – wherever and among whomever God is manifest. And God, all too often, is manifest in diversity of conviction. As the Statement of Faith and Order goes on to affirm:
we rejoice in the diversity of the Spirit’s gifts
and uphold the rights of personal conviction.
For the sake of faith and fellowship
it shall be for the church to decide
where differences of conviction
hurt our unity and peace.
This commitment has enabled us, across the five decades, to hold together in fellowship those of differing conclusions and convictions on issues. Through the invitation to uphold the rights of personal conviction we have been urged to strive for unity and peace rather than denounce those with whom we differ. Sing ‘Magnificat’, not ‘Monopoly’.
2 Sing ‘Magnificat’ – not ‘Monochrome’
My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour
… not: My soul magnifies my way of doing things right, belittling your wrong ways …
Another treasured conviction of the United Reformed Church is that no one way of worshipping and serving deserves to qualify as ‘the only way’. The local congregations and their worship and witness are examples of very different styles and practices. Sometimes it is frustrating – in that what is common practice in one has never been known in another. But it is also refreshing. I like to think that, while our forebears refused to accept that Cranmer’s Prayer Book was the only source for worship, they did not necessarily have to regard all of its content as unworthy or unhelpful for worship. Ours are ecumenical genes – g-e-n-e-s (not the denim ones!) – ever open to working and worshipping with those whose worship and convictions differ from ours.
As the Statement continues,
We affirm our intention to go on praying and working,
with all our fellow Christians,
for the visible unity of the Church
in the way Christ chooses
so that people and nations
may be led to love and serve God
and praise him more and more for ever.
Any one denomination, any one congregation, on its own, risks being monochrome. We are called to sing Magnificat in chorus rather than as soloist – seeking harmony by being willing to add other lines to our melody and thereby enriching the church’s sound and songs of praise. I’d like to be able to claim that United Reformed Church congregations are the most open to experience and embrace a rich diversity of worship styles, but I need to be honest: they can sometimes be as resistant as any other. Speaking personally, unashamedly, I continue to treasure worship and insights from other traditions. We are urged to go on praying and working … in the way Christ chooses. And across the five decades the United Reformed Church has ‘punched above its weight’ where ecumenical commitment has been concerned.
Sing ‘Magnificat’, not ‘Monochrome’.
3 Sing ‘Magnificat’ – not ‘Monarchy’
My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour
… not My soul magnifies human institutions and sovereignty …
Some of our United Reformed Church forebears knew the reality of ejectment and championed dissent. When it came to worship and church governance they refused to be coerced or cajoled by any one person claiming to have the right to absolute sovereignty and strove in their gatherings to discern the mind of Christ the King. With Mary theirs was a song that [God] has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. [God] has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly. (Luke 1: 51b–52).
The Statement continues:
We believe that Christ gives his Church a government
distinct from the government of the state.
In things that affect obedience to God
the Church is not subordinate to the state,
but must serve the Lord Jesus Christ,
its only Ruler and Head.
Civil authorities are called
to serve God’s will of justice and peace for all humankind,
and to respect the rights of conscience and belief.
I delight in ministering in a denomination whose governance is conciliar – where the mind of Christ is sought together, in the councils of the Church. On my own I have no personal authority; nor does any one single member. We are not a democracy but a theocracy – through openness to one another’s insights in response to the prompting of the Holy Spirit we are better enabled to be obedient to God. Through others’ insights and contributions, I can be enriched and led. Ultimately, with Mary my soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God, my Monarch. And God’s monarchy will always prompt and challenge the people of God to strive for justice and peace for all humankind. God (fills) the hungry with good things and (sends) the rich away empty. (Luke 1: 53). And across the five decades the United Reformed Church has been passionate in its commitment to social justice, inclusivity and diversity – through Christian Aid, Commitment to Life, and countless programmes aimed at challenging the Ithat favours some and hurts others.
It doesn’t begin with ‘M’, but the United Reformed Church is committed to singing ‘Magnificat’ not ‘Immutability’:
we affirm our right and readiness, if the need arises,
to change the Basis of Union and to make new statements of faith
in ever new obedience to the Living Christ.
Semper Reformanda – always reforming in ever new obedience to the Living Christ – but testing each new step and insight according to God’s Word in the Bible alive for his people today through the help of the Spirit. Not cast in stone or statute but discerned in council through the Holy Spirit.
We should not be here, but while we are let’s Sing ‘Magnificat’, not ‘Monarchy’; ‘Magnificat’, not ‘Monochrome’. ‘Magnificat’, not ‘Monopoly’. And wherever and whenever you can, sisters and brothers of other traditions, sing ‘Magnificat’ with us: in the midst of the common challenges of life, during a preacher’s radiotherapy and the people’s robust challenge of the financial crisis we face; against the backdrop of war and climate crisis, famine and futility. We should not be here but [God looks] with favour on the lowliness of his servant … and helps his servants … according to the promise he made to our forebears, Huxtable and Slack, and to (their) descendants for ever (or at least for as long as they are around).