At were called to make a special covenant

At the time of
the reformation stress was placed upon the church being the community of the
New Covenant, the New Covenant being Christ Jesus. Being confident in Gods
unconditional and unending grace and the infinite gift of God’s Love in Jesus,
the reformers, separatists and dissenters believed that they were called to
make a special covenant with God as an act of obedience. (Ellis & Blyth, 2005, pp. 94 – 95) Alan Argent writes
that the early Congregationalists adopted the practice of framing and using a
covenant when planting a church very early on in their work. For them, the
covenant was a summary of the beliefs and principles held by those gathered,
written down and then signed, rather like a contract, by all the members. As
the fellowship grew and developed down the years, new members would be asked to
sign the Covenant as a sign of their entering into this spirit centred
agreement. (Argent, 2014, p. 44)Denominations
which conduct themselves in a congregational way claim that their way of
understanding church and scripture leads them to a deep rooted belief that God
makes an unbreakable covenant with each congregation. As each local church and
congregation – and the believers within them – live their lives under the rule
of Christ, the mediator of the Covenant, God himself takes charge, the
believers pledging to be obedient in their living out of their faith. (Wright, 2005, pp. 4 – 5)Ellis and Blyth
develop this covenant further than the simple but hugely strong vertical
agreement between God and His people. They write of the profound horizontal
dimension to this promise made. Due to the persecution which dissenters found
themselves suffering at the time of the reformation, members of the local
church would make covenants with each other where they promised to walk with
each other and watch over fellow members every day. (Ellis & Blyth, 2005, p. 94) Alan Argent
develops this again by writing that the horizontal relationship between
brothers and sisters in churches is enriched and strengthened by the member’s
vertical relationship with Christ just as the vertical relationship with Christ
will enrich and strengthen the horizontal relationship enjoyed between members.
He also writes that the promise made within the covenant of membership is not
light – it comes with the full endorsement and binding of the one held between
the believer and Christ. (Argent, 2014, p. 44)Albert Peel and
Nathaniel Micklem noted that the principle of Congregational Churches and
Congregational fellowship shows the essence of Covenant Fellowship due to the
fact that they regard Christ as the head of the church and are fully Spirit
led, therefore the members are bound to one another and to Christ through their
pledges at membership. (Argent, 2012, p. 18) By trusting God, and
trusting the members whom God has called together in a covenant relationship,
congregational Christians open the door to the power of God’s Spirit.By being bound
together by the work of the Holy Spirit there are radical implications for
member’s commitment to each other and their surrounding community. Covenanted
congregations follow the example set by Christ and the expectations of
brotherhood set by God and express this commitment through their public promise
in this way.Argent uses Richard
Mather who says that the Covenant is a solemn and public promise made to God by
the gathered church. The promise, he writes, cleaves the gathered church both
to Christ and to each other. This unity with each other and with Christ, Mather
argues, allows each gathered church, and the individuals within it, to fully
enter into the life and work of the church in confidence of Christ’s leading,
endorsement and protection. (Argent, 2012, p. 18)Geoffrey Nuttall
wrote of the mutual trust which is brought about through entering into a
Covenant relationship. By promising to both God and each other, a Christian commits
to place as much trust in their fellow members as they do God, and to look
after each other as Christ would, therefore forming a hugely strong bond which
is strengthened even more by the integral involvement of the Holy Spirit. (Argent, 2012, pp. 18 – 19)The act of covenanting
invites Christians into an act of obedience, to acknowledge God’s gift of love
and life by responding with a promise to commit that same generous and costly
love to one another within the church and covenant, but also to our community. (Ellis & Blyth, 2005, pp. 94 – 95)

Most Congregational
churches will enter into a covenant relationship when a new church is planted,
however most churches now like to incorporate all members and attenders into
the promise every year. The special service celebrates God’s unparalleled love
for His people and calls for us to emulate that love within the covenanters
gathered, with other covenanters ecumenically and in the wider world. (Ellis & Blyth, 2005, pp. 96 – 97)Secularly, the 20th century was a truly
international century which was bookmarked by the two world wars. The wars
divide the century itself into three distinct periods. The Communist State
which emerged in Russia in 1917 ultimately led to the eventual polarising of
World Politics into ‘East’ and ‘West’ societies by 1945. The commercialisation
of air travel and telecommunications such as radio, television and much more
recently the computer have all contributed to the ‘shrinkage’ of the world and
lends a hand in the cultural diversity which society appreciates, and sometimes
struggles with, today. (Cornick, 1998, p. 145)The 19th Century had been a period of
exploding population which accompanied the industrial revolution and followed
the theological trials which spread through Europe from Germany and engulfed
virtually the entire Christian World. In order to reach the ‘Lost Souls’ – as
was their passion – the Congregationalists of the day produced preachers and
evangelists who were determined to bring the Gospel to them with zeal. Going
into the 20th Century this led to many new churches being planted,
especially in the ever expanding industrial towns and cities, as well as the
tiniest villages in the countryside. This was really the birth of ‘Home
Mission. (Rhyn, 2003, pp. 17 – 18) The ‘Home Missionaries’ of the time were caught in
the middle of certain ambiguities brought about by a clash between Empire and
Imperialism, but this mixed with the new travel opportunities made Christianity
a much more ‘portable’ World Religion. (Cornick, 1998, pp. 145 – 146)One of the most celebrated Evangelists laid claim
to by the Congregationalists is Lionel Fletcher. The churched he planted became
some of the largest ever seen, mainly down to his pastoral gifting. His robust,
soul-winning proclamations saw meeting centres regularly filled to capacity,
even seeing the Wood Street Congregational Church in Cardiff – which can seat
3000 people – filled to capacity! (Rhyn, 2003, p. 18)It was this concern for salvation which is thought
to have brought forth the formation of County Unions and Associations. It was
felt that, while recognising their independence and familial identity, the
Congregationalists as isolated churches, could not achieve their evangelistic
aims. So, by co-operating with each other they managed to act as effective Home
Missionaries whilst keeping their independence.The Liberal party won a landslide victory in 1906,
and with that, more Nonconformist or ‘non-Anglican’ MPs were returned to their
seats than ever before and there have never been as many since. This seemed to
be a message to the contemporaries of the Congregationalists of the day, that
the Nonconformists were the future of the church in England.  The Church of England appeared to be too
authoritative and separated from scripture, and their people in the Free
Churches were enjoying more and more influence. 
Unfortunately, this confidence and appearance was short lived, especially
with the advent of the 1st World War in 1914.  (Argent, 2014, p. 34)The Congregational churches were the first to ordain a
woman minister (Cornick, 1998, p. 141). Constance Coltman
(1889-1969) who was a Presbyterian, but was ordained in 1917 (Evangelical Presbytarian
Church, 2014).  The Congregationalists in Scotland first
ordained a woman in 1929, and Baptist’s first woman was ordained and appointed
in 1918. (Wright, 2005, pp. 169 – 171) Other denominations
were slower to accept women in full-time ministry. The first female to be ordained in the Presbyterian
Church in England came in 1965 (Evangelical Presbytarian Church, 2014) and the Church of
Scotland took until 1968 to admit women ministers and the English Methodists
were as late as 1974 (The Methodist Church Of Britain, 2014). Of course the
Church of England only allowed women to become priests in 1993, however, the
Anglican Maude Royden achieved fame, or maybe infamy, in the 1920s, as a
preacher when she was appointed as assistant at City Temple in London. The few
women who came after these early pioneers were all too often poorly treated.The 1920s and 30s saw the economic depression set in,
but the heavy industries – coal mining, ship building and iron and steel –
experienced artificial boosts due to wartime needs.  Congregational churches suffered greatly in
these conditions. With the loss of 5 million men during the 1914-18 war, not
only were congregations greatly reduced in numbers but the philosophies and
theologies of the people were negatively affected – and the religious
authorities were rendered speechless. (Cornick, 1998, p. 146)The Second World War 1939-45 caused further carnage
due to bomb damage, the dislocation of settled communities, and personal
loss.  This war waged unparalleled structural
destruction upon communities due to the advances in air technology. Church
buildings were hit by bombs, lives were lost, both away fighting and on the
ground at home, and families were split through the evacuations. (Argent,
2014, p. 34)
But it was the twisted horror of the Third Reich, which only became apparent at
the end of the war, which revealed inhumanity that the world today still has
difficulty comprehending. The experiences of the British people during the two
World Wars, that of bombs, brutality, genocide and extreme loss, played a huge
part in the people’s disillusionment with all forms of authority – political,
social, industrial as well as religious leaders which had formed such an
integral part of pre-war society. Team that with people’s questioning of a God
who would ‘allow’ such atrocities, what followed was another troubled time.As was previously mentioned, the evangelistic growth
of the Nineteenth Century was the ‘heyday’ for British Christians and churches.
The ‘Free Church’ had entered the century on the crest of a wave of powerful
preaching and record meeting attendances, but the post-war numerical decline
in, not only formal membership but also simple church attendance as well as the
apparent decline in trust in the church and personal theology was a sobering
experience for the nation’s church. (Rhyn, 2003, pp. 18 – 19)Partly due to the decline in numbers, the question
of whether Congregational Union of England and Wales (CUEW) –  established in 1832 and ran until 1965 – should
unite with other ‘Free’ churches such as Baptist or Methodist denominations.
Congregationalism’s leading officials urged the union to join in union with the
Presbyterian Church of England.  This
finally occurred in 1972 when the two groups joined and became the United
Reformed Church (URC).  John Huxtable,
who was the CUEW secretary from 1963 was the main architect of the merge and is
credited as being the person behind the formation of the URC. (Argent,
2014, p. 34)There were a number of Congregationalists who remained
unconvinced of the benefits of uniting and resisted the call to unite at all
costs. This group therefore opted out of the URC.  These
Congregationalists went off on their own and created their own groups. One
group, seen as being more conservative evangelicals but who were broadly
sympathetic to independent evangelical churches, founded the Evangelical
Fellowship of Congregational Churches. Those Congregationalists comprising of both minister
and lay members who shared a concern for upholding the theological breadth and
freedom which was embraces and celebrated by the CUEW, including evangelicals
and liberal Christians, worked hard to continue and honour the 400 year long
Congregational traditions, so ended up forming the Congregational Federation in
1792. The Federation initially emerged in the 1960’s as the Congregational Association.  Among the champions of continuing
Congregationalism in this way were Reginald Cleaves (1915-80 – minister at Theale, Bucklebury, Maidenhead and Clarenden Park,
Leicester. Pacifist and a huge advocate of ‘Unity in Diversity’ and eventual Chair
of Council 1972 – 1979), Viscountess Stansgate, John Wilcox, and, a late
recruit, the leading woman Congregational minister, Elsie Chamberlain (1910-91 – minister in Liverpool, Friern
Barnet, Richmond Upon Thames, Kentish Town and Hutton Free Church, RAF Chaplain
and CF President – 1973-75 and President of Free Church’s Council 1984-85).
These were the pioneers of the time who became the founders of the CF. (Argent,
2014, p. 35)In
England now, there are three main groups of continuing Congregationalists.
These are the Congregational Federation, whose offices are in Nottingham,
the Evangelical Fellowship of Congregational Churches, and about 100
Congregational churches that are loosely federated with other congregations in
the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches, or who are completely unaffiliated.
(Jenkins, 2013)Membership
in Congregational churches in Great Britain has declined in the 20th cent.
Congregationalists have been active in ecumenical activities, and in 1972 most
British Congregationalists and Presbyterians merged to form the United Reform
Church. (Jenkins, 2013)

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Today, The Congregational Federation exists
to be a federation of independent churches who are united by their diversity.
The aim of the Federation is the advancement and proclamation of the Christian
faith and the good news which is offered by Christ’s love and sacrifice. The
Federation looks after churches who are directly affiliated to it from England,
Scotland, Wales as well as France. It provides support – both financial and spiritual,
guidance and a sense of unity and family to congregational churches.  This
is achieved by making grants and loans to individuals and churches and by
providing a range of services, resources as well as by providing a community of
churches who strive to see God’s Kingdom proclaimed throughout the world.The belief in ‘The Priesthood of All
Believers’ is based on scripture.5 You also, like
living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy
priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus
Christ.  6 For in Scripture
it says:”See, I lay a
stone in Zion,
    a
chosen and precious cornerstone,
and the one who trusts in him
    will
never be put to shame.”7 Now to you who
believe, this stone is precious. But to those who do not believe,”The stone the
builders rejected
    has
become the cornerstone,”8 and,”A stone that
causes people to stumble
    and
a rock that makes them fall.”They stumble because they disobey the message—which is also
what they were destined for.9 But you are a
chosen people, a
royal priesthood, a
holy nation, God’s
special possession, that
you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his
wonderful light.1 Peter Chapter 2 Verses 5 – 9. New International Version.A study of the New Testament reveals
that all Christians are priests. (Manser, 2009,
pp. 310 – 311)
The Priests of the Old
Testament were chosen by God, not self-appointed; and they were chosen for the
purpose of serving God with their lives by offering up sacrifices. The priests
served exemplify the coming ministry of Jesus Christ. A picture that was, of
course, no longer needed once Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross was completed. When
the temple veil covering the doorway to the Holy of Holies, which was an area
where only the Priests could go as it was believed that this was where God
resided, was torn in two at the time of Christ’s death (Matthew
27:51), God indicated that the Old
Testament priesthood was no longer necessary. His people could now come
directly to God through the Ultimate High Priest, Jesus Christ (Hebrews
4:14-16). There would now be no need
for earthly mediators between God and man (1 Timothy 2:5). (Manser, 2009, p. 312)As priests had once offered other kinds of sacrifices in the
temple, so it becomes clear from 1
Peter 2:5,9 that God has now chosen Christ’s followers “to offer up
spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. By Christ making
this one ultimate sacrifice for sin (Hebrews
10:12), no more sacrifice for sin
can be made (Hebrews 10:26). This passage speaks of two aspects of this new concept
of the priesthood of the believer. The first is that believers are privileged! Being
chosen by God to be a priest was a huge privilege. Believers being told that
they were chosen by God: a “chosen generation…His own special
people” (verse 9) was revolutionary and would have turned the religious
hierarchy of the time on its head. (Pawson,
2007, pp. 1172 – 1173)Secondly, in the Old Testament tabernacle and temple, the
Holy of Holies, was a place where only the High Priest could go, and where only
once a year, on the Day of Atonement, he made a sin offering on behalf of all
of the people. But now, because of Jesus’ death upon the cross of Calvary, all
believers now have direct access to the throne of God. What a privilege to be
able to access God directly. (Page, 2002, p. 372)According to Barton and Muddiman, the recurrence of the word
‘stone’ in this passage suggests is a further reference to the Temple building,
as in the spiritual house of God, but less in the sense of a literal ‘house’,
nor the temple of Jerusalem, but that Peter was referring to a metaphorical
house within His chosen and faithful people – those who have chosen to believe
and follow rather than the historical ‘People of Israel’. They suggest that
such forceful language and symbology is used to convince people of their worth
in Gods eyes in the face of the hostility which they were facing. (Barton & Muddiman, 2001, pp. 1265 – 1266) They also write that, in referring to Christ as the
‘Cornerstone’, who was rejected by both the Jews and by humankind, and His
followers as living stones, that they themselves are to take up the mantle of
Christ their example and exhibit an outward and costly love to their fellow
humans, even in the face of great adversity. (Barton & Muddiman, 2001, p. 1266)When Peter describes all believers as priests, he is
repeating Paul’s declaration (Romans 12:1-2) of the ability and duty of each
and every believer to share the good news of Christ’s love both with the church
and the world at large, and uses the difference in language to only emphasise
the importance of the message. (Drane, 2010, p. 397)This passage
gives a message to all Christians of the concept of the ‘Priesthood of all
Believers’ which should encourage all believers, but especially
Congregationalists to not only live their lives within Christ – in Communion
with Him – to live their lives as both an example and reflection of Christ’s
life, ministry and death, but also to open their Communion Table to everyone
who loves the Lord Jesus Christ. (Carson, et al., 2005, p. 1376)

In following this clear
direction, Congregationalists, both historically and today, continue to work
with Christians of other traditions and have played a pivotal part in the
Ecumenical movement internationally. In the middle of the 20th century, there
was a move towards a union between the Congregational Church in England and
Wales and the Presbyterian Church of England. This resulted in the formation of
the United Reformed Church and in turn, when a large number of Congregational churches
believed that a better and more scriptural road to unity was not to be found in
uniformity, but in a joint rejoicing in diversity, these Churches came together
to form the Congregational Federation – A Priesthood of All Believers – who’s
first President was an un-ordained woman.

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