David Grosch-Miller interview
Steve Tomkins interviews moderator-elect David Grosch-Miller
How do you see the role of moderator of General Assembly?
I see it as a privilege. I see the task as helping the United Reformed Church to communicate with itself but also to represent all of us at events outside the family. I hope it’s an opportunity to help the denomination have some trust and confidence in who we are. We need to restore relationships and rebuild confidence, and renew hope. Hopefully we can carry on from the initiative that Michael Jagessar began, which is getting people to engage in conversations. We tend to live down to the stereotype which contemporary culture places on us: church is for old people, and it’s irrelevant, and it’s got nothing useful to say – if we’re not careful we start to conform our actions to that. We may not be able to reverse what contemporary culture is saying, but we ought to be able to address it. If you start off with the fear that you’re going to be rejected, that determines how you act. The antidote to fear is hope – the hope that we still have something useful to offer through this beloved church of ours, a church which is the fullest example of being a messy church that you could find.
We are different, we are unique, we have something distinctive to offer to the wider church and the world. Our messiness is both opportunity and challenge: it means that at a local level we can adapt to changing circumstances; we can see an opportunity and we can respond. The messiness is in trying to get the whole denomination to do it together. Speaking with one voice is very difficult. The freedom which allows a local church to react quickly is the very thing which stops the whole church doing it together. As Moderator I want to say to folk: revel in the messiness, don’t worry about it, use it and be confident in who we are. The church has been through periods of decline before and it will come through this one.
How do you see your role complementing John Ellis’s?
We’ve both been around the denomination for a long time. John clearly has great expertise in finance and economics, and he’s a member of a local church and is a lay preacher. My experience has been very much in local church – my first pastorate was in what we’d now describe as an urban priority area but in those days was simply the church on a council estate. Then I went to a relatively large suburban church, St Andrew’s Roundhay in Leeds. Through those experiences I’m very conscious of the relationship between local churches and Assembly. I know that Assembly and Mission Council decisions can help local churches but sometimes, to the local church, it can appear that they have not been heard and life is made more difficult. Having served as moderator of a Synod I am very conscious of tensions that can exist between congregations and ministers, and their expectations of each other in our changing cultural times. I think this is a significant moment in the story of the church. For many of our folk it is something of a mystery how we went from a culture where attendance at church was the norm to one where it’s seen as a minority interest for those who are slightly peculiar? That’s part of what I’m trying to understand.
What will your priorities be?
My priorities will be to learn about the parts of the URC that I don’t know so well. Which I hope will mean visiting lots of local congregations and hearing their stories. I want to know what is undermining their trust and confidence, how can we help each other during these difficult times? How can we do better at recognising that ministry is the task of all of us and encourage one another in that? The priority has to be helping people whether their congregation is 20 or 200 to know that they are doing an important job of faithful witness. It’s not size that matters, it’s the way we demonstrate our own trust and confidence in the gospel.
Can we hear a bit about your story?
I was brought up in the faith. My parents took me to Low Fell Congregational Church, now Cromer Avenue URC, where at three months old I was baptised by one of the early women ministers. When I went to grammar school age 11, all the boys were given an audition and if you could sing a scale you were instructed to be at the parish church on Sunday morning. So for the next four years I sang there morning and evening and went to the Congregational Sunday school in the afternoon.
In the mid-1960s, I became the chairman of the Fellowship of Young Congregationalists in Durham and Northumberland. I attended my local church spasmodically and was persuaded to run the youth group, which was a challenge. We had live music bands and discos and hundreds of kids came along. One of the lads was an apprentice bar fitter and we got some old hand pumps that were chucked out of a bar, and we set them up to serve orange juice and soft drinks in the hall – the women’s Bible study group were not impressed!
I wasn’t a church member, but FYC put me on the executive of the county union – then discovered I was not a church member. I had no desire to become one, I was happier being on the outside. A minister persuaded me that anybody could stand on the outside criticising but to make changes you had to be on the inside. So I did, and I am still trying to change the church. It’s an odd feeling that won’t make sense to anybody else, but having served as a minister for 40 years, been synod moderator, interim assistant general secretary, about to become moderator of General Assembly, in some ways I still feel like an outsider. It makes no sense, but I feel more comfortable outside the church than within it.
My problems with the church from the beginning, and probably still, are that it too often seems more concerned with itself and with its own members, and defensive of what it is, instead of opening itself to the risk of change through being involved with other people. Throughout my ministry, I’ve tried to open the church to the communities around it.
I eventually did candidate for the ministry of the Congregational Church. I had been a sales rep for Marley Tiles and depot manager – living the kind of lifestyle that sales reps in those days did – I really didn’t see myself as a church minister. I candidated with the hope and expectation that the church would have the good sense to say No. It didn’t. I trained from 1970 to 1975, at what was then Congregational College, Manchester. I spent more time than some of the staff would have been comfortable with in the Manchester University Student’s Union. I was heavily involved in student politics during the time when we were protesting about apartheid in South Africa. In a protest about increased Hall fees we took 4,500 students on a rent strike for a full academic year, that was an interesting experience.
My first church was St John’s, Fagley in Bradford. The union between Congregationalists and Presbyterians happened while I was a student and I chose to be part of the URC – I could have chosen to candidate for the Congregational Church – because I was convinced then as now that the church that can let go of the past in order to grasp a new future is a better witness to the Christian faith than one that closes its arms and says, “We’re not going to risk losing what we’ve got by talking to somebody else”.
I was at St. Johns for ten years and during that time we built a Youth and Community centre. We were running a Youth Club in the church premises, an open one. The building had lots of nooks and crannies and the kids would go and hide there, it was a nightmare, so we formed a community association and decided to raise the money for a purpose built youth centre. The total cost was £100,000 to build. We had £50,000 as government grant, £25,000 from the local authority, and the rest from William Morrison of Morrison’s supermarket, who are a Bradford-based firm. All we had to raise was the money for the soft furnishings. And yet here we are nearly 40 years later in a supposedly more affluent society, but you would never get those kind of grants to build a youth centre. An interesting commentary on our times.
We had so many people coming to the manse asking for advice on benefits, or with letters they couldn’t read – there was a degree of adult illiteracy and they wouldn’t want the kids to read the letters – so we opened an advice centre, again with Local Authority money. At one point, we had a Hindu advice worker and a Muslim outreach worker, which made our coffee breaks interesting. On the estate, every other professional went home at 5 o’clock and for the weekend, but I was there; so my relationship with the community was based upon being part of it.
People in those days turned to you for all sorts of things. People with whom you had no other contact would ask for advice. We held regular meetings in the local pub with the ward councillors. Local head teachers and community constables would come to the church to discuss the needs of the community. Social services would ring me up and say: “We’ve been to see somebody and really their problem is they’re lonely. Could the church do something?” You’d never get that these days. Looking back the wider church never fully supported that work and when a neighbouring congregation at Eccleshill went into vacancy the District Council asked us to form a Joint Pastorate. With two congregations to serve what suffered was our outreach. A case of the church putting its needs before the communities it is called to serve.
Then I went to Roundhay, Leeds, which is suburban middle class, full of professional people. It was a very different experience. People would come up with different kind of questions. I always remember one of the early elders’ meetings, somebody coming up to me and saying: “I’ve just been reading Descartes, and I’m not sure I believe in a personal God anymore.” I said: “Can I come and see you about this next week?” Slightly different problems from “How do I get my benefits?”
In Bradford, we had a rat problem, and when they were poisoned in the cellar I had to go down and shovel them up. Compare that with Leeds, which was a big building with a paid caretaker and I was only given keys to the car park entrance and the vestry. I said “What if I want to go in one of the other rooms?” and the Senor Elder said: “We’ve called you to be our minister, not the caretaker. If you don’t have the keys, then people can’t ask you to do that”.
But he was right, because this was a church of 230 members, 35 groups that met every week. The level of strategic leadership, worship preparation, teaching and critical pastoral care meant that you didn’t have time for anything else.
We started doing musicals, and wrote them ourselves, which involved the whole church in doing the Bible study and preparing and performing it. We put in staging and hired lights. The first production cost £1,500, and the elders agreed to underwrite it. Just before I left we did another with side stages and TV cameras, and realised we’d forgotten to ask the elders if they would underwrite the cost. If you do something and it works it gives you confidence to go on and take more risks. Our churches can’t all do something like that but the problem is that if you lose confidence you stop taking risks.
From Leeds I went to be Moderator of the South Western Synod. Vastly different. People don’t appreciate the size of the synod. Swindon to Land’s End is the longest stretch of synod there is. There are problems of seasonal economy, rural poverty. It’s a region which goes at its own pace – you need to learn that if you’re going to survive. It’s a place of immense beauty. There were challenges over deployment – how do we use our ministers more effectively? We’re in danger of doing the same as all other mainline denominations, simply dividing ministers’ time more and more between more and more churches without any real thought about whether that’s an effective strategy.
It’s a conversation we keep putting off: what are the reasonable expectations we should have of ministers and that ministers should have of one another? I regularly tell ministers they can’t do ministry in the way I did it in Bradford and Leeds. There was very little difference between work and leisure because my social life could all be occupied within the life of the church: I shared leadership with people who were my age, so the social life of the church reflected what we wanted. You could debate with yourself: “Is this jazz concert in the church work or leisure? If it’s leisure I can choose not to go – but then the people who I’d spend my leisure time with will all be there.” So you go along – and think well I may as well do the grace and give the vote of thanks and help. Whereas many of our younger ministers find that the social life of the church is being dictated by people who are in their 60s and 70s – whose tastes are completely different. So I tell them you really need to make sure you have a social life outside the church and need to maintain contact with your own peer group. If you lose contact with them the church will become even more disengaged from contemporary culture.
There’s a tension in there, because many congregations are still looking for ministers to be the kind of minister I was 30 years ago. And they can’t.
I retired from the South West in July and agreed to be interim assistant general secretary during this restructuring period.
The key moment on my journey of faith was when I understood enough about Christian theology to realise how little I knew and that was OK – to realise it’s OK that you only know a bit and stop pretending that you know all the answers. There’s always something new to understand.
How would you describe the United Reformed Church to someone who is not familiar with it?
The URC is a church that tries to be faithful to the teachings of Jesus but is not hidebound to the past. It believes it’s in the process of understanding what God says to us – a process we’re all engaged in, and it’s important everybody has a chance to contribute. It’s not afraid of letting go. It’s a messy church, doesn’t always get everything right. We struggle over issues that threaten to divide us but at least we don’t ignore them and we generally do it with grace. It doesn’t believe in hierarchy, but the ministry of individuals is appreciated. It can change very quickly at local level to respond to local needs. At our best we are creative and inventive in worship. At our worst we squabble over things that don’t matter.
The Revd David Grosch-Miller will be inducted during the United Reformed Church’s General Assembly in July