4. A church that affirms freedom

You may have noticed the part in that section where we talk of the Church
being ‘both Catholic and reformed’. We have already seen (in earlier sessions)
that the United Reformed belongs to the whole catholic Church. The catholic
Church is all those in heaven and on earth who have been called by the Holy
Spirit to be Christ’s friends and followers. The local congregations to which
we all belong are the whole Church in microcosm. When we are received
into membership within a congregation we are received as members of the
universal Church in one of its local expressions. The ‘reformed’ part of our
title refers to our particular roots in the period called the Reformation and
especially our links with the communities who, like John Calvin’s church in
Geneva, came to call themselves Reformed. It’s worth remembering that we
come from those who never wanted to set up a separate ‘Reformed’ church,
but who wanted to reform the whole (catholic) Church. You might say that
the Reformers did not want to be anything but good catholic Christians. Of
course we also believe that reformation is a continual process and that we do
not reach a point of being ‘reformed’. (Perhaps those who call us the United
Reform Church make a good point, through their mistake!). God’s Spirit is
continually reaching out to change us and to make us more like Christ.
Because of our particular inheritance through our history, the United
Reformed Church has things to say about freedom. We say boldly that we
are ready to take up the freedom to state the faith in new ways, to change
the way we structure our life and to seek new ways of living in obedience
to Christ. We also affirm the rights of personal conviction and conscience,
and the right of the church, in things that affect obedience to God, to be
independent (‘free’) of the state. Both these freedoms, of conscience and from
the state, are anchored in the gospel.
This valuing of freedom, in these different ways, we have learned through
sometimes bitter experience. We also shouldn’t be deceived into thinking
that we have always lived up to our aspirations and proclaimed the
importance of freedom, allowed it to others or lived it to the glory of God.
Through the turbulent years of the Reformation there were those amongst
the Reformed who had no qualms about compelling everyone in a nation
to share their views. There are Reformed churches which do have a close
relationship with the state, and respect for freedom of conscience has
sometimes been hard won. Equally, there are those who would argue that
although we make much noise about the freedom we have in Christ, it proves
very difficult indeed to persuade us to stand up and exercise it!

We need to be careful not to idealise our own history in retrospect. However,
it remains true that ‘we’ have known what it means to face persecution. In
the reign of Elizabeth 1, some whom we can number among our predecessors
were executed for believing that it was not in the power of the monarch or
parliament to tell the church what to pray, how to worship, or how to order
its life. In 1660-62, when the Church of England ‘ejected’ those they called
Dissenters (some others of our forebears), ‘we’ were nearly wiped out through
various forms of social exclusion. We were excluded from the universities and
the professions and not able to worship in the ways of our choosing in the
parish churches. We learned over centuries the harsh lessons of coming out
on the losing side of history. This experience has taught us the importance
of certain freedoms and the desirability of a society that allows more than
one form of faith expression. When we acquired the name ‘nonconformist’
(in England and Wales) we turned this often to positive value as a label that
suggests the kind of courage required sometimes to resist or to question the
status quo. We also had considerable political impact as those who spoke
from somewhere else than the ‘ruling’ class. As many of the freedoms for
which we have stood are now commonly accepted, and since many in the
Church of England now question the rightness of an ‘established’ church,
these stances are not ours alone. However, in a culture which is increasingly
multi-cultural and multi-faith they have new force and importance. We have
experience of weighing in the balance questions of freedom of speech with
the need to be careful of causing offence. We have experience of living in a
society where we are not the dominant voice. We have experience of thinking
about the proper relationship between church and state. As we think today
about such things as blasphemy laws, faith schools and ‘defender of faith’
versus ‘defender of faiths’, we have something to offer into the discussion.