1972: The Year we Nearly Passed Away

I suspect that our Church Meetings, what elsewhere are called members’ meetings, are something of an anti-climax to new initiates. Although a member of a congregational church has more say in his fellowship's running than an Anglican or Pentecostal, most of what we discuss is fairly hum-drum. A repair requires funds, a policy needs approving, a tract-stand needs buying. All very worthy, but not earth-shattering in terms of significance. This was not the case at a series of Church Meetings held in the spring of 1972. I’ve obtained the notices book from that time. The secretary announced on Sunday February 20th of that year that there would be a meeting held on 2/3/72, led by Rev GW Curry ‘on the possible alternatives if we continue as independents’. I understand this was a preliminary discussion ahead of a formal vote regarding the chapel’s future, the various options to be weighed.

Back then, the English Presbyterian Church and the Congregational Union had decided to merge. The Presbyterian congregations had little say, but each congregational church- which are independent by definition- had to individually vote. It was a big deal.

On Sunday March 5th, the secretary announced there would be ‘an important Church Meeting on March 21st at 7.30pm. Leaflets explaining the importance of this meeting will be distributed to each family. Please read them’ (original emphasis). Fearing a low turnout or casual attitude, the secretary announced on the following Sunday:

“March 21st. Special Church Meeting. It is very important that church members should attend as this is different to what we voted last and does concern the future of the church.”

The brief minutes of the meeting read thus:

The secretary opened the meeting with a Bible reading and prayer then welcomed the Reverend GW Curry.

The secretary read a report of a special church meeting held on March 2nd. At this meeting, the Rev. GW Curry invited those who had voted for or against joining the United Reformed Church to give their present views on the subject, from this it became clear that there were now more members against uniting.

Rev. GW Curry then explained our position now we are an independent group of at least 350 churches who have not joined the United Reformed Church. There are now 50 ministers with us in the Independent group.

The Congregational Federation and other independent groups have no set creed and no barrier against opting out.

All funds of the present Congregational Church of England and Wales must be shared in strict proportions between uniting and non-uniting churches.

URC: 60%

CF: 40%

The vote was then taken, a decision to join the Federation was unanimous.

The minutes are then signed by one H.K. Moorhouse, approved by the next meeting held on 16th May, 1972.

A majority actually voted to join the exciting new denomination. It made sense: in those years of decline, wouldn’t it be better to pool resources and work together? Independents and Presbyterians discussed union back in the 1670s, so the idea was nothing novel. To persuade uncommitted ministers, enhanced pensions were offered, which must have proved a tempting prospect for many. Martin Top has always been a somewhat isolated church; perhaps we were flattered that a wider movement wished us to be a part of it. Well the 60% majority was not deemed sufficient; perhaps 75% was sought and missed. I understand that Pastor Curry, the first meeting’s chairman and minister at Grassington, helped persuade some to vote against. Furthermore, a chapel member called John Willie Johnson, who lived in Newby, a successful shoe manufacturer in Rossendale, spoke out against the move. Had a greater majority been obtained, the church deeds would have passed to the new denomination, and the members’ right to define their own affairs- the essence of congregationalism and independency- would have been lost forever. How long Martin Top URC would have survived, I cannot say. Like many others, this unpromising chapel would have been sold off to liquidise its assets and re-allocated to plug the pension fund or support more encouraging prospects. The URC has a theologically liberal leadership; the dead hand of religious doubt would have weighed down on so evangelical a chapel, crushing its spirit and negating its life. By electing to join the new federation of those congregational churches unwilling to surrender their independence, the local members retained their privileges and responsibilities, steering away from the then popular but sapping spirit of gospel denial.  

Pastor Curry and Mr Johnson are no longer with us. In fact, only one member from that meeting still darken our doors, who is an officer in the church. Their foresight and deference for the ‘congregational way’ kept our little beacon shining longer.

“Let us now praise famous men, and our fathers that begat us.” Ecclesiasticus 44:1

This day, we celebrate our 204th anniversary. I pray we shall remain open until the Lord Jesus returns. Against the gates of hell, theological liberalism and brittle denominationalism, we shall stand firm.