When the builders laid the foundation of the temple of the Lord, the priests in their vestments were stationed to praise the Lord with trumpets, and the Levites, the sons of Asaph, with cymbals, according to the directions of King David of Israel; and they sang responsively, praising and giving thanks to the Lord, ‘For he is good, for his steadfast love endures for ever towards Israel.’ And all the people responded with a great shout when they praised the Lord, because the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid. But many of the priests and Levites and heads of families, old people who had seen the first house on its foundations, wept with a loud voice when they saw this house, though many shouted aloud for joy, so that the people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people’s weeping, for the people shouted so loudly that the sound was heard far away.
Fifty years ago the United Reformed Church was presented as the first step towards a greater union. There were many who, unimpressed by that rhetoric, saw it as the end of a process that had been debated for centuries.
During the 16th century “Marian Exile” Presbyterians and Independents argued over the nature of the Church and how it should be governed. The return to England, after the death of Mary Tudor, enabled these arguments to continue. Whilst the Presbyterians gained a victory during the English Civil war the restoration of the Monarchy in 1660 and the subsequent enforcement of Episcopacy led Presbyterians and Congregationalists, now persecuted religious minorities, to the first of several attempts to overcome their differences. The Happy Union of 1690 proved neither happy nor a union and collapsed after a mere four years. Nevertheless, attempts to reconcile the differences between the two communions continued. The 18th Century saw most English Presbyterian Churches drift into Unitarianism leading to a de facto union as many orthodox Presbyterian Congregations became Congregationalist. The 19th Century saw several Presbyterian groups unite to create the Presbyterian Church of England and, at the same time, Congregationalists organise themselves into County Unions – later into a Church in its own right. Presbyterians and Congregationalists then had several attempts to unite until finally, in 1972, union was achieved by the creation of the URC.
Sadly at each stage some found themselves unable to join into the larger union and remained outside. Both Presbyterianism and Congregationalism, and later on the Churches of Christ which joined the URC in 1981, experienced the pain of having to part from those whom they considered family. Thus while for some the fact that after 50 years the URC still exists is seen as a failure of ecumenism, for others it is a successful conclusion of a four hundred year struggle.
O God, we give thanks for those who down the ages have been moved to build and sustain our Church. We remember with gratitude the worship, prayer, and witness of those whose efforts created the United Reformed Church. We give thanks for those with gifts in hymnody and prayer who during these 50 years have enriched and encouraged the whole of Christ’s church. Amen.