Interview: Pulling together
John Proctor, General Secretary of the United Reformed Church, talks to Stephen Tomkins and Charissa King
The Revd John Proctor retires in August 2020 as General Secretary of the United Reformed Church, after six years in the post. Before that, he spent 28 years teaching the New Testament in Westminster College, Cambridge.
As General Secretary, Mr Proctor has had oversight of matters including the introduction of marriage for same-sex couples, the URC’s review of past cases of abuse, the closure of the Windermere Centre.
Also prominent during this time have been the URC’s fresh focus on discipleship, Walking the Way: Living the life of Jesus today, and the redevelopment of URC House.
His books include Bible commentaries on 1 and 2 Corinthians and Matthew, and a series of Grove booklets introducing books of the New Testament.
When you started as General Secretary, you told Reform: ‘I have no doubt that I’ve got a lot to learn – there will be things I learn on Tuesday morning that I should have known on Monday afternoon.’ How have your Tuesday mornings been?
Things have occasionally caught up with me. I recall what a previous General Secretary said: ‘I can either be a general, or a secretary’, and it seems to me that the Church actually wants administrative tightness more than leadership. Sometimes it asks for leadership from this office; and when it does, it sometimes wishes it hadn’t.
This Church has some very diffuse ways of taking decisions and is quite proud of that. That means central work might be service or coordination, but it’s not really a command-and-control operation. It’s about helping people to pull together rather than trying to direct them.
I had to learn new skills and new rules and met new people. I’ve seen a lot that I’ve admired. I’ve seen some things that have left me grieving or angry. I’ve worked more intensively than I might have expected to at this stage of my career.
It sounds like a change of pace from academia.
Yes, I taught in higher education for nearly 30 years and the thing I missed when I came into this job was having a lot of time to think about things. Generally when an academic goes into a lecture, or a tutorial, they’ve thought about the subject matter quite carefully, maybe for years. When someone comes into your office with a practical issue and puts it on your desk, you sometimes have to respond pretty quickly, bringing your experience to bear, and perhaps ten minutes later you’ll be dealing with something else.
What were the major practical issues facing you as General Secretary?
Certainly the building project at Church House. Also in the first years here I spent a lot of time dealing with the decisions on marriage [of same-sex couples] that the Church took in 2015 and 2016. For a variety of reasons that was a testing time for the unity of our denomination and for a lot of people in it…
This is an extract from an article that was published in the March 2019 edition of Reform