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Reform Magazine | December 6, 2023

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Interview: The same thing differently

Interview: The same thing differently

Clare Downing and Peter Pay, Moderators of the United Reformed Church General Assembly, talk to Reform

After Peter Pay and the Revd Clare Downing were elected as Moderators of the United Reformed Church in 2018, Peter predicted: ‘Our period of office is likely to be one of change.’ By the time they were inducted in July 2020, it was clear just how right he had been. The coronavirus pandemic has changed the way Church leaders fulfil their responsibilities, and the way the Church they oversee fulfils its mission.

Nine months into their term of office, Clare and Peter talk to Reform about the new challenges facing the Church, and what the future might hold.

The United Reformed Church, at present, elects two Moderators, a minister and an elder, who serve together for two years, providing oversight in the Church as well as chairing General Assembly. From 2022, there will be one Moderator at a time, serving for one year.

How did you imagine your term as Moderators, in contrast to how it’s turned out so far?
Clare Downing: We were expecting to visit churches around the country and represent the United Reformed Church physically at events, whereas most of what we’ve done has been from behind the desk and for Peter that’s even more so than me, I think.
Peter Pay: I haven’t done anything that required me to leave the house yet.

You visit churches virtually?
PP: Oh yes, we lead worship regularly, but either recorded or Zoomed.
CD: I think I’ve led worship in person at one Sunday service, and I’ve done one induction that actually involved people being there, which was Samantha White’s as Principal of Westminster College. I also represented the URC at the Cenotaph, which was a reduced event, but was in person.

What impression do you get of how churches are coping, and how they’re responding to the crisis?
CD: There are churches that seem to be, relatively speaking, thriving. They have found ways of connecting with each other, of connecting with people who are normally outside of the church. They’re managing to include people who have previously been excluded, while recognising that, however worship is being done, some people are feeling excluded from it.

There are other churches that don’t have the means, or don’t have the confidence. I keep using this included/excluded language, but there are churches where the general congregation are not included in the digital world. And, in some cases, they are managing to support each other very well through phone calls and through sharing physical copies of services, whether that’s written copies or in some cases recordings, but there’s less of a community around that.

I think churches made decisions quite early about how they were going to meet, and most of them have stayed with their original decisions. Those that decided to use Zoom have continued with that, and those who decided to do a livestream on Facebook, or to share recorded services on YouTube, have stayed with that.
The recorded worship has included more people on the fringe, at times, and one or two churches are working very hard at actually connecting with those people, even though they’re relatively anonymous. But for most churches, I think a lot of worship and fellowship has focused more internally, on keeping each other going through the pandemic.

PP: It is very difficult to generalise. In some cases, churches have really got their act together and are making it work. Other churches are sort of coping with it and surviving. And some seem to have pressed the pause button and are encouraging their members to go online elsewhere or listen to recorded services like the URC’s Daily Devotions Sunday service, and that’s it.

CD: Some churches are using something like Daily Devotions and then talking about it to each other afterwards, which is possibly more positive than the average after-church coffee time conversation. So there are people who are using the opportunity to develop spirituality.

PP: Some make active use of breakout rooms at the end of a Zoom service, so they get more coffee time chats happening. I was preaching last Sunday and ended up in a chatroom afterwards, chatting to a family from Cameroon who had joined us. My wife was on a separate computer chatting to somebody from Russia. There was also somebody from Skye. It’s really fascinating how online worship has opened up possibilities for people to link in who might otherwise not have been able to, or might not have been comfortable to take part…


This is an extract from an article published in the May 2021 edition of Reform

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