A while ago I had to write an essay on Congregationalism and the Church meeting, and after a conversation with a church member thought that this might help us to understand what we stand for. It’s a bit academic but it may help us to discuss some things at our next church meeting.
What is the Theological basis of the Congregational Church, church meeting? Alan Argent explains that:
‘Congregationalism as a movement has its origins in the Protestant Reformation in England and Wales… Congregationalism affirms that neither priest nor ruler should insert themselves between believer and God’ (Argent 2012, p.11)
Alan Argent continues: ‘the Congregational church is made up of truly Christian people, who agree that the body of Christ consists of church members who seek to obey the Spirit. It does not recognise any human body as head of the church, only Jesus Christ.’ Robert William Dale in his book ‘A manual of Congregational principles’ says: ‘Principle IV, by the will of Christ all members of a Christian Church are directly responsible to Him for maintaining His authority in the church.’ (William 1901, p.21)
Dale points out that ‘The New Testament does not contain any law declaring that a particular scheme of church government is of universal and permanent obligation’ (William 1901, p.2). He explains that because there was little written literature in early apostolic churches, it was important for them to meet regularly to receive oral instruction. These meetings were not possible without organisation.
It is true that every Christian church was independent of other churches, governing themselves, but this could be explained by the small numbers of Christians in each town. He questions if this is enough proof that these churches could be called Congregational, but suggests that:
‘It is necessary to prove that congregational principles are permanently rooted in the central truths of the Christian revelation, and that the Congregational policy is at once the highest and the most natural organisation of the life of the Christian Church. (William 1901, p.3)
Janet Wootton explains that ‘without claiming that the congregational way is the only way of being church that is rooted in Scripture, we can make a very strong case that is thoroughly scriptural.‘ She continue to explain that there are not just a few quotes in the New Testament, but a ‘sustained strain of dissenting writing through the Hebrew scriptures, which is taken up in the teachings of Jesus and carried into radical ecclesiology of early Christians.’ (Wootton-biblical-origins.pdf n.d., p.91)
In the early apostolic churches, scripture tell us that both men and woman took part in the decision making. It is probable that in the early life of the Congregational church, the order of who was allowed to join in Church meetings was different from today. R Tudur Jones writes in the time of John Owen (1616-1683), a Calvinist. Church meetings were held regularly:
‘But only men were allowed to vote. The ministry, too, was confined to men. The theologians in their manuals of church order were meticulous in distinguishing between the functions discharged by ‘pastor’, ’teacher’, ‘elder’ and ‘deacon.’ (Jones 1962, p.85).
Jones explains that in November 1876, R W Dale in an address he made, pointed out that people were moving away from Calvinism. He notes that: ‘the two men who contributed most to the future of theology amongst Congregationalists were Robert William Dale (1829-1895) and Andrew Martin Fairbairn 1838-1912).’ (Jones 1962, p.266)
Martin Camroux, says that:
‘The latter part of the nineteenth century witnessed profound changes in what is now called congregationalism. By the mid-1850’s biblical criticism began to be accepted…Calvinism was abandoned.’ (Camroux and Cornick 2016, p.25)
He continues to point out that Liberal theology from Germany had a significant influence in Britain. The Leicester conference of 1877, was the decisive moment for the Congregationalists. And in 1917 Congregationalists were among the first to ordain a woman minister, Constance Coltman. Liberal theology and Bible Criticism changed the way Congregationalist worked, but has this searching for a Theology lost the contact with the biblical scripture and the Holy Spirit? Jesus’ first followers were both men and women, but Jesus did challenge the authority of the state.
R Tudur Jones explains that Congregationalists have an ancient political tradition that went back to the Puritans. Nonconformists still suffered during the mid-nineteenth and early twentieth century from injustices in some civil matters, burials, marriages, church rate and education. This brought Congregationalists back to politics for a short while. Alan Argent agrees he says: ‘Nonconformist support benefited the Liberal Party in the 1906 general election.’ (Argent 2013, p.30).
Liberalism declined, but Jones notes that Congregationalists started to take more notice of the socially underprivileged. The creation of Independent Labour party in 1893, (whose leader James Keir Hardie, had close relations with Congregationalism,) once again brought Congregationalists back into political influence. ‘Modernist theologians were actively sympathetic and R J Campbell said of his own particular version of modernism, that it was the theology of the Labour movement “whether the movement knew it or not”.’ (Jones 1962, p.344).
These actions have a first impression of God working for his Kingdom, but underneath are there opportunities for self-advancement, social status? Jones, questions and sites Thomas Binneys sermons published in 1985 and titled ‘Money’, which he dedicates to Samuel Morley (c1809-1886) (Morley; religious man, hosiery businessman, Treasurer of Congregational Home Missionary Society, M.P. Daily News Proprietor, interest in Temperance in later years. (Peel 1948, pp.173–174).
‘Binney teaches that money in itself is morally neutral… Men, however, are a steward of wealth and are responsible to God for its disposal…because money when wisely distributed is as a seed that brings forth more wealth…Binney has no general rules to suggest about the way to dispose of wealth…no hint that there might be something wrong about huge profits made by the merchants…no feeling that their workers might have some share.’ (Jones 1962, p.290)
As Congregationalists, we should strive to use the opportunities that we are given. We need to safeguard against using these opportunities for self-advancement, and not the the advancement of God’s Kingdom on earth. Many wonderful Congregationalists have had a profound influence on our country and on world mission. Because Congregationalists have no Arch Bishop to state the churches’ case, we need the guidance of the Holy Spirit, so the Theology of our Church meetings is a good guide for any actions we take.
Using the theological basis of a church meeting, in a congregational-ordered church, and using examples from Lapford congregational church, church meeting I will continue to discuss the problems and opportunities it offers.
Janet Wootton gives a list of suggestions as to what are the marks of a spirit lead church. She also provides a list of Questions and Discussion points about how a Spirit lead church could work. Charles Edward Jefferson tells us that if Congregationalists believe that every Christian has the right to go straight to God, then all Christian believers, every one of whom has access to the mind and heart of Christ, can be entrusted with church administration and church affairs without interference from Bishop, Pope, Council or General Assembly. ‘The congregation of believers has the right to rule, and Christ alone is head.’ (Jefferson 2013, p.234).
Alan Argent advises: ‘Church meetings try to determine Christ’s will through prayers and thoughtful and considerate discussions, relying on the guidance of His spirit. The involvement of every church member is necessary to safeguard against human sin’. Suzanne Nockels and Janet Wootton ask in what way a meeting of Christians should be different to a business meeting. They suggest visiting Acts 1:12-26. Our Study notes remind us that the Church meeting is an important aspect of Congregational ecclesiology. ‘A Congregational church meeting is a coming together of church members to discover the guidance and power of the holy spirit in the work of the church of which they are part’ (Argent, Pickering and Richard 2017, p.83)
Are Lapford Church meetings business meetings? Adrian started to move the church into a different way of working; I am continuing to move them on, there are still things to do. We are starting to look at our gifts as the body of Christ and are looking at the way in which we can serve our community. Lapford church is also working with the other two Churches in the village, and is meeting with them regularly since I became Pastor. I am now doing the pastoral visiting. Lapford Church is a very generous church, supporting many charities here and abroad. Yes, there are still the day to day running of things on the agenda, but the church is using opportunities in a more thoughtful, prayerful way.
What is the relationship between the Deacon and Church meeting? At Lapford the Pastor uses the Deacons as a sounding board, and support system for pastoral matters, there are two deacons nominated as her support. When looking at the agenda of both meetings, they do reflect each other and could be seen as we are repeating discussions. But the members are older and it is hard to get them to come to a monthly meeting. Traditionally this church has always had Deacons; this relationship could be a point to talk about at the next Deacons’ away day. Should this be open to all church members who would like to come? Does the church meeting need to look at what is delegated to the deacons?
Is everyone in the church being listened to? There is a children’s work team at Lapford but I have seen little evidence of regular meetings of this group. I got them and the children together in the summer to talk about what they and children wanted. Does the church need regular children’s group meetings, are the children being included in the decision making in the church? There are a group of 11-13 year old boys who need to think about church membership. Does the church need to run a membership course? An opportunity here is the taking on of a youth worker.
In conclusion, when you look at the theology of a church meeting and evaluate how it is working in a church, it throws up lots of questions. The questions above have helped me to see what we are good at and what needs to be addressed. They have shown that the church is still a work in progress. The change in pastor has made the church think about how the church is run and who is really in charge. When I first came I saw myself as the servant of the church and not the leader or the one in charge. The spirit is back in charge, I now just need to get them to have faith that God really is in charge, and that they can trust him to lead us. We are now praying and studying and bringing the things that need action to the church meetings for discussion. We are starting to be the body of Christ, in the village of Lapford with other Christians.