About the URC

Our Origins

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The United Reformed Church is part of a world-wide family of over 70 million Christians which grew out of the religious changes of the 16th Century in Europe. These changes are now called the Protestant Reformation.

We play a dynamic and challenging part in the British Christian community, despite being one of the smaller mainstream denominations. Sixty-eight thousand people make up 1500 congregations, with nearly 700 ministers, paid and unpaid.

John Calvin

 

Our roots lie in the work of some of the Protestant “reformers” in particular John Calvin (1509-1664) – a French theologian and pastor who worked for most of his life in Geneva. Calvin’s ideas changed the Church of England, and many of its leading ministers, under the reigns of King Edward VI, Queen Mary (when many of the leaders fled to Europe) and Queen Elizabeth I. His ideas led to the development of, amongst others, Presbyterian, Independent, and Congregational churches.

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Nowadays, in the UK, this Reformed tradition is represented in the United Reformed Church, the Church of Scotland, the Free Church of Scotland and the Congregational Federation. Four streams of reformed Christianity (the Presbyterian Church of England, the Congregational Church of England and Wales, the Churches of Christ and the Congregational Union of Scotland) united between 1972 and 2000 to become the United Reformed Church.

Reformed Christians developed values that are now part of our everyday lives - freedom of thought, democracy and equality, separation of Church and State and a healthy suspicion of those who govern. Use this section of our website to explore the URC in more detail, at the hallmarks of the United Reformed Church, in particular, and Reformed Christians in general.
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Driven By Grace

Saved By Grace

The Reformers of the 16th Century drew the Church’s attention, again, to the New Testament message of God’s grace - God’s loving kindness. This meant that instead of trying to earn God’s love by ritual, behaviour, or obeying various laws, Christians came to realise, again, that God’s love is given to us even though we don’t deserve it. We can’t earn it, but have to learn to accept it - and to accept it in the context of a community of faith.

God Is Love

God’s love is greater, more radical and wider than we can ever imagine. God’s love motivates us to include others, to live lives of love, and to accept that we’re loved and accepted unconditionally. This is what we try to emulate in the Church. God’s love drives us to find ways to meet the needs of our world, to help people find healing and wholeness, and to find a spirituality which nurtures them, helps them grow and understand more about God.

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As a grace-driven community we involve ourselves in practical ways to help others - getting involved in the local community, giving money to our “Commitment for Life” programme which helps the developing world, and trying to be a positive blessing for our world as a sign of God’s loving kindness. Being grace driven also leads us to try and include all those who come along.

 

In the words of Marty Haugen’s hymn:

Let us build a house where love can dwell and all can safely live,

a place where saints and children tell how hearts learn to forgive.

Built of hopes and dreams and visions, rock of faith and vault of grace;

here the love of Christ shall end divisions:

All are welcome, all are welcome, all are welcome in this place.

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A Thoughtful Faith

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Reformed Christianity has had a powerful influence on our modern world - contemporary ideas about marriage, science, capitalism and forms of government can all trace their roots back to Calvin.

Yet Calvin had no political authority - he wasn’t even a citizen of Geneva for most of his ministry there. There is doubt about if he was ever ordained as a minister, he didn’t lead an army and wasn’t rich.

His thought influenced much of what we now take for granted in modern liberal democracies.

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Christianity today is often relegated to the sidelines and many thinkers like Dawkins and Hitchens represent a new, attractive, atheism. We encourage people to think - to think for themselves, to share their thoughts with others to hone them, and to try and change our world for the better by putting thought into action.

As we wrestle with applying our faith to our lives we stand in a long tradition of thoughtful Christianity which is open to new ideas, new perspectives and new ways of recognising what God is up to in our world. We have to be careful, however, not to let our thinking distract us from action as committed disciples of the Lord Jesus.

 

As Church of Scotland minister and hymn writer, John Bell, writes:

Heaven shall not wait

for the dawn of great ideas,

thoughts of compassion divorced from cries of pain:

Jesus is Lord;

he has married word and action;

his cross and company make his purpose plain.

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The Bible

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One of the insights of the Reformers of the 16th Century - both Catholic and Protestant - was that the Bible needed to be nearer the centre of the Church’s life and thought. Calvin was, first and foremost, a reader and teacher of the Bible.

The new technology of the time - the printing press - meant that it was possible for many more people than before to have their own copy of the Bible - in their own language (instead of in Latin) so they could read and interpret it for themselves.

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The Bible is the sole historical basis from which our faith is sprung - it tells of God’s dealings with the Jewish people - choosing them from the nations of the earth, telling of their victories and struggles, highlighting their strengths and weaknesses - as well as telling the story of Jesus and the earliest Church. The Bible does more than tell the story of God’s dealings with humanity - it also interprets those dealings and encourages us to continue to interpret our religious experiences and yearnings in the light of our own contemporary reality.

Calvin himself recognised this as, whilst he thought the Bible was central to his understanding of God and the Church he also used the ideas and insights of his own age believing that philosphers had been stimulated by God “that they may enlighten the world in knowledge of the truth.”

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In the last 100 years or so many Christians have interpreted the Bible in a very fundamentalist way - this has led to: intolerance of those who are different; a dogmatic way of viewing the world and conflicts with science. Fundamentalism has distorted the core message of the Bible which urges us to pay attention to God - not the Bible!

In the URC we believe the Bible - interpreted under the guidance of the Holy Spirit - is the highest authority for what we believe and how we behave.

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Always Reforming

The Reformers of the 16th Century believed that the church would always need to be reformed; as soon as the Church stopped being self-critical it would fossilize. Over the years this has meant that Reformed Churches have been able to adapt to, and learn from, what God was saying to us through our surroundings.

  • equal2We were, therefore, the first mainline tradition in the United Kingdom to recognise that God was calling women to the ordained ministry.

  • We recognised that God was telling us that marriages don’t always last forever and we should offer healing and a non-judgemental welcome to those who wish to remarry after divorce.

  • When much of the Church has been divided over the place of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered people we have heard God’s call to live with difference and diversity of opinion whilst, at the same time, ensuring that membership and ministry is open to all.

At the heart of our tradition, therefore, is a need to be self-aware and self-critical.

All our structures, ideas, theology and ways of working are provisional - as God is still speaking.

This idea is encapsulated by George Caird in his hymn:

 

Not far beyond the sea, nor high above the heavens,

but very nigh your voice, O God, is heard.

For each new step of faith we take

you have more truth and light to break forth from your holy word.


Constance Coltman was the first woman ordained to Christian ministry in the UK. She was ordained within the Congregational Church. In 2015, a film about her call to ministry was made:

Trailer (2m28s)

Full Film (19m07s)

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