The Congregational Way of Being the Church

For those who follow the Congregational Way of being the church each local church is a ‘gathered community’ of people who share together in Christian faith, in Christian living and in Christian mission.

Gathered together in Christ
Believing that where two or three meet together in the name of Jesus Christ, He is present with them, they do not accept that anyone or any institution has authority over the local church.

Church Meeting
Those who belong and share a faith in God and in Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour meet not only to worship and to pray but also to plan and organise the life of their church.  That church meeting, often held monthly, is a fundamental part of their church life.

It is very much more than a business meeting.  It is the place where in a spirit of worship and prayer those who belong to that particular local church come together to seek the will of God for them as a church.  With the guidance of the Spirit they believe God then empowers them to act on what they decide.

God’s rule through the mind of his people
This form of Church government is sometimes mistakenly called ‘democratic’.  It would be better to think of it as ‘theocratic’.  Democracy means rule of the people.  Theocracy means rule of God.  Church meeting is not about majority rule.  Those who come together in Church meeting come together to pray, to worship and then to seek the mind of Christ on the strategic planning they need to do together.  You might say that the principle governing a Church meeting is:  God’s rule through the mind of his people meeting in the presence of Christ and guided by the Holy Spirit.

Ministry, Service and Leadership
They will often delegate specific tasks to particular people.  A Church will appoint a team of Deacons to help in the leadership of the Church, and often call a Pastor or a Minister to exercise a preaching and pastoral ministry as well as leadership of the Church.  Sometimes a Congregational Church will also appoint Elders.  Scottish Congregational Churches speak of Church Office Holders.  The role of Church Secretary in many Congregational Churches is more than a ‘secretarial post’.  It carries with it an element of spiritual leadership too.

 

Sharing Resources through the Congregational Federation
Individual local churches pool their resources together with other similar churches in a fellowship of Congregational churches.  The Congregational Federation is just that ... a federation of Congregational Churches.  It is quite wrong to think of it as the Congregational Church nationally.  It is a fellowship of equal and like-minded churches who come together as equals to support each other and where it helps the cause of Christian mission to pool their resources.

The English churches are grouped into ten Areas.  The Scottish and Welsh churches are grouped into The Congregational Federation in Scotland and the Congregational Federation in Wales.

Each Area in England sends a representative to each of the three committees of the Congregational Federation, the Congregational Federation in Wales sends two, and the Congregational Federation in Scotland sends three.

 

 

 

 

So, how did it all begin?
What prompted our forebears to follow a Congregational Way of being the Church?

Something happened in the Fifteenth Century that resulted in a process of change for the whole of the Church in the Sixteenth Century.  One way of answering that question is to see what happened then.

The Third Great Information Revolution
In his book, The Dignity of Difference Jonathan Sacks suggests that ‘there have been three great information revolutions in the past, and we are living through the fourth’.  First, was writing; second, the alphabet; third, printing; and fourth, the world-wide web.

“No sooner had printing been developed,” observes Jonathan Sacks, “than Bibles started flying from the presses in their hundreds of thousands.... One sixteenth-century writer said that ‘It almost appeared as if the angels themselves had been their messengers and brought them before the eyes of all the people.’ ... Nothing did more to challenge ecclesiastical authority than the fact that the Bible in vernacular translation was now readily available to large masses of people, who could read and debate its words in the privacy of their homes.” [Jonathan Sacks, The Dignity of Difference (Continuum, 2002), 126f.]

Reading the Bible in your own language for the very first time
People began to do just that.  They began to read the Bible in their own language for the very first time.
Ordinary people applied it to their ordinary everyday lives.
Martin Luther prompted people to re-discover the Good News at the heart of the Gospel.  Faith was the key to it all: not doing the right thing.
John Calvin teased out the heart of the gospel even more and shared the Good News that salvation is by the free gift of God’s grace and is made real in our hearts by the response we make in faith, a response that is prompted by the unseen working of the Holy Spirit of God.
These great thinkers and other like them made people think quite differently about the heart of the Christian faith. To re-discover the Gospel in this way excited people.  William Tyndale in Gloucestershire determined to make the Bible available in such an ordinary everyday English that even the ploughboy at the plough would understand it.  Cranmer determined to enable English people to use a prayer book in their own language.

Re-forming the Church ... without waiting for the permission of the State
Getting the church to change was a marital convenience for Henry VIII, was resisted by Mary Queen of Scots and put firmly in place by all the power of the State by Queen Elizabeth.
By the second half of the Sixteenth Century many wanted to take things further.  Before Constantine the Church had always been independent of the state.  Couldn’t changes in the Church be taken further?  Couldn’t the Church be separate from the state?
By the time he was 50 Robert Browne was one of those whose imagination was fired by such a vision.  Why do we have to wait for the state to agree before we can make changes to the church to restore it to the simplicity of the New Testament church?  In 1582 he published a ground-breaking book Reformation without tarrying for any.  Here he set out what later came to be thought of as ‘congregational principles’.  A graduate of Cambridge University he had put his ideas into practice in a church fellowship that had had to flee to Holland where there was greater religious toleration.

Separation from the State
Small groups of Christians began to take these ideas seriously.  Called ‘separatists’ because they believed Christian people covenanting together to form a Christian Church should be separate from the world and its values and much more importantly separate from the State.

Separatists covenant together and go underground
Many of those churches had to meet in secret.  The Elizabethan state had no time for them and saw them as a threat to the establishment.  The church that met in the woods north of London in what is now Islington was not untypical.  Some of their members were imprisoned for their faith.  At communion they would take a special collection that would then be taken to the Fleet prison in central London to support the imprisoned members of the congregation.  Many Congregational churches keep up the tradition of taking a special communion collection for pastoral care of the church family or the work of a local charity.

Martyrdom - Penry, Barrow and Greenwood
In 1593 three key leaders of churches like this were imprisoned.  Penry, Barrow and Greenwood.  John Penry, a fiery Welshman who had cultivated links with Scotland had a passion for religious freedom.  In prison he wrote comments on the Bible, letters to supporters and appealed to the council of state.  In one of those appeals he said stirring words:  ‘We crave but the liberty to live openly and to do justly in the land of our nativity’.
Their appeal was turned down.
In the middle of that year they were burned at the stake.
Within a year or so a popular playwright who lived just fifty miles north of William Tyndale’s Gloucestershire home in North Nibley produced a play all about the destructive effects on a city of warring factions whose activities end in death.  Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet has little to do with distant Verona.  It is a powerful critique of London in the 1590’s.  Set it in modern dress and locate it in Belfast as a recent 400th Anniversary production did and you come un-nervingly close to the London of the 1590’s.

The seed is sown
Martyrdoms like that were few and far between.  But the clamp-down of the state was pretty severe.  Things didn’t get better in the reign of King James I of England.  Once the seed of an idea is sown it is very difficult to stop it growing.
Another Cambridge graduate, John Robinson, by the time he was in his 20’s was pastoring one of these radical, separatist churches based at Scrooby Manor in Lincolnshire.

Pilgrims together on A Journey into the [New] World
In 1609 John Robinson’s church fled to Holland setting sail from Boston Spa to avoid a fresh surge of persecution.  They became established in Leyden where they remained for eleven years.  Basing their church life on Congregational principles the church decided to emigrate and make a fresh start.  As a group they returned to England where they chartered a small fleet of ships, foremost among them The Mayflower.  Before they embarked on their momentous Faith Journey, their Pastor, John Robinson, bade his flock fare well.  His parting words inspired that wonderful hymn, We limit not the truth of God to our poor reach of mind.  The refrain reads, The Lord hath yet more light and truth to break forth from his word.  [You can find the full version of this hymn in Peculiar Honours, (Congregational Federation /Stainer & Bell, 1998) number 99.]  The Pilgrim Fathers as they came to be known set sail from Plymouth and started a new life in New England.

Much of the history of what became the United States owes its roots to the Separatists, Independents or Congregationalists and their longing for congregational church government that would be separate from the state.

Commonwealth and Country
Many more churches were by now coming into being and the ideas of congregationalism and separatism were beginning to take a hold of the imagination of more and more people.  When King Charles I attempted to clamp down on these ideas in the name of the Divine Right of Kings, many joined forces to oppose the King and set up a Commonwealth where Parliament and the People would be supreme.
Some of the great names of this Commonwealth period owed their thinking politically, socially and theologically to the principles of Congregationalism with its emphasis on the importance of the small unit of people meeting together under the guidance of God to make their own decisions.  Oliver Cromwell, John Owen, John Milton.

Religious Freedom and Toleration
Advocates of religious freedom for themselves, they also defended the right of people who thought differently to exercise their own conscience.  The great English declaration of freedom of speech was made by John Milton in The Areopagetica.  The return of the Jewish people to England after a period of 300 years in exile was due to Oliver Cromwell.

State repression once more
The backlash came in 1660 with the restoration of Charles II.  In 1662 a sequence of Acts of Parliament were passed forbidding independent congregational worship led by the Spirit in which the Preacher would be free to preach as the Spirit prompted.  Ministers in charge of Parish Churches were given an ultimatum.  By St Bartholomew’s Day, 14th August 1662 they had to conform and preach only according to the lectionary of the Book of Common Prayer and conduct worship only according to the words of the Book of Common Prayer.
On that Sunday 2000 of them were ejected from their livings.  At Mansfield College, Oxford, the walls of the corridors are adorned with wonderful portraits of these remarkable preachers.
They could not meet with more than five other people at the same time, and were not allowed to come within five miles of the church they had once ministered to.
The idea could not be suppressed.
Anglicans may talk with pride of the 1662 Prayer Book.  That hurts those who know their Congregational church history.  For that was a year of severe persecution and repression.  It is also a treasured year in our history.  Many of our Congregational churches came into being that year.  People met in a barn or some other building in small numbers and just over five miles from their old parish church.
A challenge.
If you live in England or Wales, or the next time you visit England or Wales try to find a 1662 Congregational Church and find out about its history.  Nearby there may be an Anglican parish church that is older.  There may well be a list of the church’s Vicars.  Have a look at what happened in 1662.  You often find that there was a change of Vicar in 1662 - this may well be the reason.

In the face of persecution the preaching goes on
Bedfordshire was not untypical.  There the Congregationalists and the Baptists shared their church life together.  One of their preachers, a tinker by trade, would travel through the countryside visiting the small churches that had sprung up since 1662.  He was imprisoned for his efforts more than once.  And on one such occasion in Bedford Gaol John Bunyan wrote the all time great classic Pilgrim’s Progress.
The museum at the united Congregational Federation / Baptist Church in Bunyan Meeting Bedford is well worth a visit.  A postcard of Bunyan’s Christian was the only thing to get through to Terry Waite in his long imprisonment in Beirut and was an inspiration to him.
Why not try getting hold of a copy of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress.  It would make an excellent read in the context of our Faith Journeys!!  Many have found it a wonderful help on their own Journey of Faith.

Religious freedom ... in some measure
In 1688 Britain experienced another revolution.  Again it was the Dutch who provided a degree of freedom that had not been accepted by the previous English, Welsh and Scottish dynasties that had ruled as Kings and Queens.  The so-called Glorious Revolution resulted in a greater degree of religious toleration.

A Revolution in worship
Now with the freedom to worship that they desired people worshipping in Congregational churches wanted to express their faith in words that were different from the creeds and the prayer book, but no less memorable.  They had only sung metrical versions of the psalms and other scripture passages. The music they used in worship was limited and not very lively.

One of their ministers came up with a novel idea that was to take Britain and all the churches by storm.  Isaac Watts started setting Psalms, paraphrases of the Scripture and statements of faith to the popular music of the day in the popular rhythms of the day.  He has come to be known as ‘the Father of English Hymnody’.  He gave birth to a form of singing that was to prevail in Congregational churches for the next 200 years.
Younger contemporaries took up the idea.  The converted slave trader John Newton and his depressive friend William  Cowper worked together in the Buckinghamshire town of Olney to publish the Olney Hymns, Amazing Grace, Sometimes a light surprises.  It was as if the Spirit was moving in a remarkable way.  The wind of the Spirit swept through these islands thanks to the inspiration of the Wesley Brothers and their hymns too.

The Power of Preaching
They had a commitment to vibrant preaching of the Word of God based on the latest biblical scholarship.  John Wesley equipped his preachers with a new translation of the New Testament complete with commentary.  It was a thorough revision of the Authorised Version based on the latest manuscript evidence and research.  The power of that evangelistic preaching caught the spirit of the age in a remarkable way.
By the end of the Eighteenth century there was an upsurge of preaching in what had by now become the churches of ‘the old dissent’, the Congregational and Baptist churches.

The Influence of Education
Limitations were still imposed on people who worshipped in Congregational Churches.  In particular their children were denied access to Higher Education.  To go to University in England you had to be an Anglican.  Congregational ministers responded by opening their manses to young people. Philip Doddridge was one of those who founded such an Academy.
The story of the Academies, written up by Bill Ashley Smith, first secretary of the Congregational Federation’s Training Board, played a big part in the development of the Higher Education Curriculum in these islands.

 

Church Planting
The 1790’s and 1800’s saw two things happen.  On the home front this upsurge in Academies equipping people to preach more effectively led to the establishment of colleges.  They were instrumental in planting new churches in the new towns that were springing up at that time.

A number of academies in London came together in 1820 to build the Highbury  Congregational College.  People linked to the college planted many churches, often giving them the name, Highbury Congregational Church.  The one of which I am minister was planted in the rapidly growing new Spa town of Cheltenham.  In 1842 the college was sold to the Anglicans who in 1915 sold it to a football club from south of the river.  Ever since Arsenal have played in their Highbury stadium just as we have worshipped in our Highbury Congregational church!!

World Mission
At the same time the ease of world travel prompted people to broaden their horizons.  William Carey, the Northamptonshire cobbler, had challenged the Baptist people to look to India to spread the Gospel.  In 1794 the challenge went out to Congregational churches to meet regularly each Monday for a time of prayer.  The prayer meetings led to the establishment of a London Missionary Society.  Although supported by Congregational churches its foundation principle forbade it to be ‘denominational’ - instead it was simply to take the Gospel to all the world.

 

A Zeal for Mission in Scotland
It was this missionary zeal that led in Scotland to the formation of the first Congregational churches there.  Up until the end of the eighteenth century there had not been the same move towards separation from the quite different established church which itself held to so many reformation principles.

In the 1790’s,however, the Presbyterian Church of Scotland would not accept the Missionary vision. Only the predestined would be saved, so missionary zeal was not called for.  Many broke away from the Kirk as a result and the churches they established later came together as the Congregational Union of Scotland.

 

Joining together in Union ... in England
With the growth of the missionary movement abroad and a passion for church growth and evangelism at home it became necessary to bring Congregational Churches more effectively together in fellowship with each other.  In 1832 the Congregational Union of England and Wales was formed.

... and in Wales
This brought together the English speaking Congregational Churches of Wales with the Congregational churches of England.  A parallel story was unfolding among the Welsh speaking churches of Wales who formed themselves into the Welsh Congregational Union, Undeb Yr Annibynwyr, the Union of Welsh Independents.

The Nonconformist Conscience
It is perhaps no coincidence that the CUEW came into being in the same year as the Great Reform Bill reached parliament.  Through the Nineteenth Century Congregationalists were at the forefront of radical reform in society at large.  One of the greatest thinkers, R.W.Dale of Birmingham not only wrote a classic Manual of Congregational Principles but also worked out a theology based on a reforming appeal to conscience.  [R.W.Dale’s Manual of Congregational Principles has recently been re-issued and is a very valuable resource for understanding the principles that underpin our churches.]

Congregationalists became very much a major force to reckon with in the nation.  The nonconformist conscience was the driving force of much social reform.  It is again perhaps no coincidence that when the Labour party came to be formed they met for the first time in the Congregational Memorial Hall that had been built in 1862 to mark the 200th anniversary of the Great Ejection of 1662.  Incidentally, the Labour Party also adopted a voting system based on the customs of the Congregational Union.  The impracticalities of the card voting system were dropped by the Congregational Federation before the Labour Party cottoned on to its drawbacks!

A Gospel of Grace and a Social Gospel
Some Congregationalists at the beginning of the Twentieth Century took their commitment to the Social Gospel to extreme, losing sight of the Gospel of Grace and the power of the Word.  Others, followed the pioneering theological work of P.T.Forsyth who advocated a re-discovery of the authority of the Word and the power of positive preaching of the Gospel.

New forms of liturgy and worship
Up until the end of the Nineteenth Century worship in Congregational Churches had focused on preaching, hymn singing and extempore prayer.  Something happened at the end of the Nineteenth Century that was to take hold of many Congregational churches through the twentieth century.  Increasingly some churches turned to set liturgies and the use of written prayers.  The middle years of the Twentieth Century saw an upsurge in this way of worshipping that coincided with moves towards an organic union with the Presbyterians.

Union in a different way ... this time with the Presbyterians
A series of commissions resulted in 1966 with the Presbyterians refusing to continue conversations with a Union of independent churches.  The Congregational Union invited its churches to covenant together to form a single churchly body, The Congregational Church in England and Wales.  In 1972 that body just got a big enough majority to join with the Presbyterians and form the URC.

The Congregational Federation
About 2000 of the approximately 2,700 Congregational churches joined with the 300 Presbyterian churches in England to form the URC.  An evangelical fellowship of quite large, evangelical churches had already come into being following the 1966 move towards a national Churchly body.  They continue to function as An Evangelical Fellowship of Congregational Churches.  The Congregational Federation brought together about 300 churches of a wide spectrum of theological views.

International links through CWM and ICF
The Federation continued many of the traditions of the old Congregational Union becoming a full member of the newly formed Council for World Mission in 1977.  CWM was a new way of doing mission that brought the churches that been founded by the old LMS and other Missionary societies together in a world-wide partnership of equals sharing the resources of mission.

The Federation also joined with the International Congregational Fellowship that has continued to support Congregational churches throughout the world.

The Scottish experience
When the Congregational Union of Scotland followed a similar path to the old Congregational Union of England and Wales thirty years later and became the Congregational Church of Scotland in readiness for amalgamation with the United Reformed Church 40% of their churches decided to join the Congregational Federation, making the Federation for the first time a fellowship of Congregational churches throughout England, Wales and Scotland.

Core Principles of the Congregational Federation
Those who joined the Congregational Federation were convinced of two things.

 

Rooted in the Bible
As I tell the story of Congregational churches I find myself coming back to one thing over and over again.  People were not consciously trying to do something new.  They believed passionately that they were returning to the heart of the Christian faith as it could be found in the experience of the New Testament Church.

 

 

 

 

 

How important for us to ensure that our Congregational way of being the Church is firmly rooted in the Bible.
In my telling of the story of the Congregational way of being the Church one question still haunts me.  I began my story with the invention of the printing press and the third great information revolution.
Is that really where our story begins?  If our roots are in the New Testament way of being the church what about the intervening 1400 years?

Back to the beginning
This is where my telling of the story of the Church would differ from Micahel Keene’s.  I would argue that that kind of emphasis on the local gathering of believers meeting together in the Spirit in community based on the Scriptures can be seen throughout those years.

Pre state-control
Until the time of Constantine the church was very much more loosely organised.  The first ‘episkopoi’ or ‘bishops’ were ‘overseers’, people exercising ‘pastoral oversight’ often linked to a particular congregation.  It is possible to argue that the Diocesan Bishop didn’t quite become what it later came to be until after Christianity had become a state religion.

Travellers on their journeys take the Christian faith with them
In all likelihood the Christian faith arrived in this country first of all as people who had become Christian travelled on their journeys to this far-flung part of the Roman Empire.  They wanted to pass on their faith and so they formed small Christian communities based on their own home.

The evidence for that interpretation of what happened is here in Gloucestershire.  The earliest Christian inscription in the United Kingdom is a word square also found in Pompei in AD 79.  It was found on the wall of a Roman house during excavations in Cirencester.  Corinium was a major Roman city, a colony with the same status as Philippi.

The earliest chi rho monogram the P and X sign that brings together the first two letters of the Greek word Christ can be found around the spring that feeds into the baths of the Roman Villa at Chedworth also in Gloucestershire.  Clearly the Villa was lived in by a  Christian family who in all likelihood carried out baptisms in the spring and worshipped in the courtyard and the rooms of their villa.  The villa is much the same design as the houses that would have hosted Christian churches in places like Colossae.

Celtic Christian communities centred around the preaching of the Word
The Celtic Christians had links with Rome, but they observed a different date for Easter and had quite a different understanding of the nature of Christian community.  Individual preachers would gather a small community around them at key places in Ireland, Cornwall, Wales, Scotland and Northern England that to this day bear the name of those great early saints.  Until the seventh century and the Synod of Whitby the Celtic church followed a pattern of being the church that was not subject to the absolute authority of Rome.

Monastic communities centred around the preaching of the Word and Prayer
That Celtic monastic tradition was then supplemented by St Benedict whose rule sought to return to the simplicity of the New Testament church and create autonomous monastic communities under an Abbot who would give pastoral oversight.  Within those monastic communities where the Scriptures were faithfully copied out and read something of that community idea that later came into its own in our Congregational churches prevailed.

Reforming movements of the 13th and 14th Centuries
In the reforming movements of the Victorines and then the Lollards in the thirteenth and fourteenth century the idea came to the fore again.

Back to the third revolution in communication
But it was only with that revolution in communication that the idea took on a new and well defined shape in the Congregational churches we have come to know.

And what about the fourth revolution in communications?
Returning to Rabbi Jonathan Sacks he suggests that we are now living through the next pivotal revolution in information technology.   The web has the potential to fragment the world.  It also has the potential to enable the small communities that are at the heart of our way of being the church to support and encourage each other and share their ideas too.       

Which way that revolution takes us is for all of us to determine as we follow our Journey into the World.

Top