Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’ And they said, ‘Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’ And Jesus answered him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.’ Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.
As many stained-glass windows remind us, Peter gets the keys. When that wonderful passion for visible unity brought the United Reformed Church into being, many of the most tricky negotiations were around who would get the keys. Presbyterians were anxious that the Elders would have to hand them over to an ill-equipped Church Meeting; Congregationalists wanted them kept in a local cupboard not held by some remote authority body.
Assumptions about where the keys to church life are held seem to have shifted markedly, if gradually, over our fifty years. In the early years, debates at General Assembly about baptismal practice, or who could preside at the sacraments, or whether Elders could be Freemasons, implicitly assumed that these were matters on which the whole denomination should be held within a consistent policy. A generation later, the Assembly decided quite explicitly that it did not need to have a policy on same sex relationships and would choose not to have one; instead it handed those keys over to local congregations to lock or unlock as they deemed right in their settings.
Across local congregations diversity rules. There are examples where the dedicated service of an individual Minister or Elder has sadly degenerated into that person clinging tightly onto all the keys and strangling initiative. There are the examples where the Church Meeting still is the real centre of discernment, with the aid of high attendance, lively respectful debate, and much prayer. Perhaps in the majority of cases the keys are now with the Elders, heightening concern about whether the congregation is growing enough excellent spiritual leaders to fill the seats on the Elders Meeting. And if those who pay the piper eventually call the tune, we should notice that the Synods are accumulating wealth at an unprecedented rate.
One way of asking what the URC will evolve into next is to ask who will hold the keys.
Jesus, Messiah, Son of the Living God We join in Peter’s affirmation but shrink at Peter’s responsibility. We rejoice in freedom from State control but wonder about our structures. As the United Reformed Church continues to evolve: give us honesty about who holds the keys; give us wisdom about who should hold the keys; give us creativity in matching aspiration with reality. Make us the people who help others access the kingdom of heaven. Amen.
John Ellis is the Leader of the West Kent and East Sussex Synod Area