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Reformed but not United

23 May 2014

David Tustin reads a well-told story of Congregationalism and the birth of the URC

The Transformation of Congregationalism 1900-2000
Alan Argent
Congregational Federation* £35
*phone 0115 9111460 to obtain

THIS handsomely bound volume of more than 500 pages is a scholarly survey of changes affecting English Congregationalism throughout the 20th century. Well researched, thoroughly documented, and attractively written, it traces the main developments from the heyday of late Victorian liberalism, through the enormous moral and social challenges of both World Wars, to the virtual disappearance of Congregationalism as a notable entity in the ecumenical scene by the end of the century.

The author's standpoint is that of the Congregational Federation, a small minority who declined to join the United Reformed Church. His own conviction is that the basic principles of Independency were fatally eroded and diluted during this period. Nevertheless, he endeavours to paint a fair picture, and pays tribute to a wide variety of gifted individuals in the denomination's life. The sketches of leading personalities are particularly illuminating.

Three chapters set the context in the opening years of the century, especially regarding the pressure for more centralisation within the Congregational Union and the crisis of "New Theology" in response to biblical criticism. Chapter 4 shows what a dramatic effect the Great War had on church life, and what searching moral issues it raised - a topic of current interest during this centenary of the outbreak of the First World War.

Ensuing chapters draw out key strands within Congregationalism, e.g. the ideal of the pastor/preacher, the part played by regional Moderators and national Secretaries, the collapse of reunion talks in the 1920s, the impact of liturgical renewal on church architecture and forms of worship, the involvement in world movements and missionary societies, and the influence oftheological colleges and their principals.

After describing responses to the Second World War and measures to rebuild church life afterwards, the author considers the part played by periodicals and official publications in shaping opinion. A key chapter then indicates shifts in theology and ecclesiological self-understanding among Congregationalists.

Controversially, the author writes of the "tidal wave for ecumenism" and its growing threat to the autonomy of local congregations. His true sympathies emerge in chapter 16, "Vision and Destruction", depicting the formation ofthe United Reformed Church in 1972 as a necessary parting of the ways.

Readers must decide for themselves whether four-fifths of the Congregational Church rose heroically to its ecumenical vocation, or betrayed its origins. Though I hold firmly to the former view, I still enjoyed reading this book, which is a mine of fascinating information.

The Rt Revd Dr David Tustin is a former Bishop of Grimsby.

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