Telling the story of our Congregational part of the Church Family

Even at the outset in the time of Jesus the church family was richly varied. By the end of the period covered in the book of Acts it had grown enormously across the known world. They had a sense of being part of the one world-wide family of Jesus Christ. Over the next 250 years or so that one world-wide church family had within it a rich variety of ways of thinking and of ways of worshipping and of ways of organising themselves.

It was when the Roman Emperor Constantine hijacked the church and made it subservient to the Roman state that tendencies that had already emerged were pursued to their logical conclusion. An attempt was made by the state to tame and control the church in order to make this richly diverse family into a monolithic organisation.

There continued to be a rich variety of churches that were outside the influence of the Roman state. Within the western church dominated by the Roman empire, movements sprang up in the church wanting to return to the simplicity of the New Testament church. For the thousand years of this state-centred Christendom most of those reform movements were monastic movements led by people like Benedict, the Celtic church leaders and later people like St Francis.

With the translation of the Bible into English by John Wycliffe you can see some of our roots in the radical thinking of the Lollards.

But it is when the Bible is translated into English and printed that our forebears come into their own. It’s not long after that they seek the freedom to worship as the Spirit leads them and for their preachers to preach as the Spirit moves them.

The Elizabethan state clamped down and our forebears faced persecution as the church went underground. Our custom of having a second collection at Communion goes all the way back to this period when church members were often imprisoned and at a communion service a collection was taken to meet their day to day needs. Now we use that collection to support a local charity.

It was some of our forebears who shaped the church in this ‘congregational’ way who went as the Pilgrims on the Mayflower to found America. And some of our forebears also shaped our parliamentary democracy with its freedom of speech and tolerance of other faiths in the middle of the seventeenth century. A short spell of going underground again during the reign of King Charles II led to a number of our churches being founded.

It was following a period of the Spirit’s renewal in the early 1800’s that there was a passion to spread the gospel that led to the formation of Highbury in 1827. The church was at the forefront of social reform in Cheltenham in the mid-nineteenth century.

In 1972 a large number of Congregational churches joined with the Presbyterian Church of England to form the United Reformed Church. We decided to continue as a Congregational church and have been part of the Congregational Federation ever since. We shared with many the conviction that the Congregational way of ordering church life where are all are equal as they take decisions in the life of the church is still very much an exciting way of being church. We also shared the conviction that Christian unity is not so much about getting everyone into a single organisation: instead it’s about valuing each other in a spirit of love and sharing the work of the kingdom together.

As we treasure our part in the whole of this story, one thing is fundamentally important to us. That we affirm one another’s differences in a spirit of love that enables us to work together with Christians of all churches in sharing God’s love today.