Old Meeting House Congregational Church (1643)

The Best Hidden Church in Norwich

Congregationalism – where its origins lie and what keeps it going by Rev. Colin Price, Retired Congregational Church Minister

Congregationalists see themselves in the main stream tradition of the Christian churches, that is, to carry out the Great Commission (Matthew 28.19): to go into the world and preach the gospel.

The first Congregational  principle is that of the “gathered church” – “where two or three meet in my name there am I in the midst”,  said Jesus (Matt 18. 20). In this is expressed the will of Jesus that believers ie Christians are to form Christian societies  that they might find fellowship with one another and with him. 
To this is added the autonomy of such a society, that the local church as the Church Meeting, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit is its own authority (a theocracy). 
It is in this self-sufficiency of the local church’s own spiritual life that we begin to see how independency differs from most of the other denominations 
This idea of the gathered church is not a rule book principle or an item of canon law. It is an insight discovered and rediscovered, by believers gathering round the word of God.  They may not have seen a text book on doctrine or have even heard of the word Congregational. For sure there is no bishop in view or priest, or provincial moderator or superintendent minister.  And they may be unaware of being in a particular parish, diocese  district, province, presbytery or circuit, which would indicate respectively Anglican or Catholic, United Reformed Church (URC), Presbyterian, and Methodist. They come to it themselves, that gathered together in His name, they are the church and are in that  situation given authority to be the church.


Four possible ways of organising a Church

Congregationalism is but one of four “polities” or ways of organising large groups of churches. Of the other  three main types of church government the most important is the Episcopalian (meaning, having priests and bishops) which includes the vast majority of Christian churches, Anglican, Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox.  The Presbyterian Church has ministers and elders and is organised through councils and a general assembly whose president is the Moderator of the General Assembly.   Methodist churches are Connexional and organised into circuits and areas led by an Area Superintendent Ministers and this pattern  covers all the Methodist churches worldwide.


Congregationally organised churches

Those churches whose government is a Congregational polity includes the Congregationalists (or Independents) but also the Baptists and many Community and Black churches as well as larger house groups and some Pentecostal churches such as the Assemblies  of God.


Centres of authority

In Episcopalian churches authority  lies with the bishop and within the threefold ministry and bishop, priest and deacon. The basic area of authority is the diocese. 
In the URC, it is with the district council, the synod and the general assembly. 
In the Presbyterian Church, similarly through a system of councils. Both are conciliar. Both are derived from practical experience in Calvin’s Geneva in the 16th cent. 
The Methodist connexional system of local circuits, county-sized areas and  an annual general assembly, called the Conference was devised John Wesley in the 18th cent. It is Conference which assigns ministers to the local churches.


Congregationalists and the importance of the local church meeting

Congregationalists on the other hand have no further authority than the local church meeting.  In essence the Church Meeting is both the local bishop and the diocese; the centre of authority in, for instance, appointing ministers and removing them.

The gathered fellowship would recognise itself as a church by covenanting together, appointing a minister or pastor and electing officers - deacons etc to serve in the running of the church.   A covenant can be very simple,  “We, the fellowship at… in this year….[and named below] gather together in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by joining hands solemnly covenant together to serve him and walk together in all God's ways and ordinances with one another in this place and in the world….”  Added to this or separate might be a constitution on how the church should be run. Further, if the fellowship goes on to buy a building for worship, they will want to set up a trust  whose managing trustees will be the church meeting.  The trust deed itself  will specify in the most general terms what sort of worship and worshippers would be deemed appropriate to carry on for perhaps the next hundred years or so. For instance it may require the church to remain independent or to practice infant baptism or not as the case might be.  It is to the custodial trustees to insure these requirements are carried out by church meeting.  All of this is in accordance with charity law, regulated by the Charity  Commission.


Making churches

This, in short, this is how Congregationalists under the guidance of the Holy Spirit make churches and “plant” church fellowships. They can be “planted” by other fellowships to grow into the church at that place or  the making of a Congregational church can arise spontaneously through the Holy Spirit and by believers gathering together with the intention of being the church.

The second Congregational principle is “the priesthood of all believers” which is taken from 1 Peter 2.9 You [ie the Church] are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation.   The priesthood (Hebrew: cohen) in the Old Testament  was an inherited order that was given special religious privileges in the Temple. The New Testament  gives this privilege to Christ (in the Epistle to the Hebrews) but in this passage also through Him every Christian has access to God, through Christ, unlike the priest of old who alone had access to the Holy of Holies. In short the “priesthood of all believers” means no distinction between priest and people or more simply, no priest. In practice this means  among other things that Congregationalists allow any approved by the Church Meeting to administer the sacraments or conduct church worship. But it does mean that within the fellowship ordinary people can do “priestly” things, such as serve at the table, offer a blessing or hear confessions.


Congregational seminal influences

Congregationalists see themselves as coming from no particular founder or time or  place, but certain times do present key ideas and shape the current pattern of Congregationalism. We shall look at these in turn:

1972  In England and Wales most Congregational churches joined with the Presbyterians to form one United  Reformed Church and were thus ipso facto lost to Congregationalism but helped and clarified just what role Congregationalism might have in the modern world. (Considered lastly.)

1662 Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Baptists and others refused to conform to the 1662 Act unifying the Church of England and re-identifying it as Episcopalian.

1517 The commonly held date of the beginning of the Reformation being the year Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses against the Church of Rome to the door of Wittenberg Cathedral. Congregationalism is rooted in the age of the Reformers.

1100-1500 The medieval precursors of the Reformation;  the Cathars and the Lollards and the Hussites. 150-664  The spread of the British Celtic church tradition and ideas.

50-150  The church in New Testament; Congregationalists ask what was the Church originally intended to be like?


The nonconformists of 1662

Congregationalists are nonconformists – having been separated and excluded from the Church of England in 1662 by the Act of Uniformity. Previous to that they were often called Independents  This Act laid down conditions for the parish church incumbents (ie rectors and vicars) to return to the episcopal system of church government abandoned during Cromwell’s Interregnum.  It meant acceptance of the 39 Articles and the exclusive use only of the Book of Common Prayer, which became the uniform and set form of worship.  Close on 2,000 ministers of the puritan persuasion, mainly Presbyterians, Congregationalists and Baptists (“intruders”) but including some Episcopalian Puritans were ejected from their livings and many of the previous Episcopalians were returned.


The Reformation

Likewise Congregationalists are also a product of the Reformation, of the process begun by Martin Luther in 1517 and later by Jean Calvin and the Reformers.

The main points the Reformers preached on, in opposition to the Roman Catholic Church were:

  1. the centrality of the Bible (in one’s own language) for guidance in Christian thought and doctrine  (sola scriptura).
  2. the importance of justification by faith in Christ and not works, pious or otherwise.
  3. the priesthood of all believers  and the understanding that everyone can approach God without the need for a priest to prayer, pardon or absolve sins.

There were many other issues brought to bear and questioned ; for instance the intercession by saints, prayers for the dead, vestments and elaborate clothes; and of course, indulgences and other ways of buying God’s favour. All  of these were well opposed by the Puritans in the Church of England some of whom  would later separate and emerge as Congregationalists and Presbyterians. But as well serious questions were raised about how the church should be organised. Was not the Western Church, the Roman Catholic Church, but the old despotic Roman Empire under different management?  Was not the Pope, the Supreme Pontiff,  the inheritor of the old Roman Empire whose emperor was also chief high priest, Pontus Maximus?  Was all this entirely Biblical?  Was it what Jesus intended?  Was not  Rome at the seat of the problems even as far back as the time of Jesus?

Two alternative and reformed schemes came from those Separatist Puritans in a hurry for reformation and willing to leave the Church of England to pursue that end: Congregationalism and Presbyterianism.  For Presbyterianism, Calvin took the New Testament  word Elder (presbuteros) where it often, in the New Testament , did similar duty to Bishop (episcopos) and made it the basis of an alternative non-episcopalian system.

To be sure one system or government of any organisation is often not crucial and may depend on size or other factors.  Rule by bishop is not simply the name of the head or boss, but implies, a priesthood and a whole category of things that some Christians can do and some Christians are not allowed  to do.  The Elder is not a priest and though ordained for life, unlike the minister, is a layperson.

For Congregationalists, the re-introduction of the New Testament  gathered church came from Robert Browne  (1550-1663)  who wrote Treatise of reformation without tarrying for anie. Richard Fitz was reckoned to have ministered to the first church in the 1560s. There was certainly a congregation meeting at Plumbers’ Hall, London in 1567 because a number of them were brought before Bishop Grindal and others in that year, it being unlawful both to meet together as an assembly or to worship in any place other than the parish church.

The idea that the Church should be made up of Christians committed in faith to the Lord Jesus, a notion lost since the time of Constantine when he and later others joined the Church for multiple, rather than singular reasons, was re-emphasised  by many Congregationalists, but early on in particular in Robert Browne’s Booke which Sheweth the life and Manners of all true Christians.

And there were martyrs to the Congregational cause. In 1593 Henry Barrow, John Greenwood and the Welshman John Penry were among those executed.

In 1620 a goodly number set off in the Mayflower to find peace from persecution in the New World. They were later to be called the Pilgrim Fathers.


Dissent in the late Middle Ages

The earliest dissenters were the Cathars (or Albigensians) in the Languedoc in Southern France in the 12th and 13th centuries and the Lollards following John Wycliffe in England and John Hus in Bohemia in the 14th century.  These were followers of a very mixed bunch of politico-heretical ideas, but also including some of the touch-stone issues of the Reformation.

These pre-Reformation movements had this in common that they resented the exclusive right the Roman Catholic Church held over religion and upheld the view that belief was also a personal affair between man, that is ordinary men and women, and God. They often resented the minor role the laity had in, for instance the Mass (receiving the host but not the cup)  and often denied the Fourth Lateran (1215) definition of transubstantiation – that the bread and wine became physically the body and blood of the living Christ.  The Cathar Church was relentlessly persecuted in the Albigensian Crusades from the early 13th century as were the Lollards in the 14th century. The Hussites likewise were persecuted on similar grounds in Bohemia, Jan Hus being burnt at the stake in 1413. Resistance was ultimately hopeless, for until  the Reformation, there was no real alternative power base; religion was the Roman Catholic Church and that church was religion, for all; from princes down to the common man. Yet the main persecutors, the Dominicans (of the Inquisition) together with the Franciscans were both originally formed as orders of  mendicant friars, whose social and preaching work among local communities was an inspiration to later itinerant Protestant preachers.


The Celtic Church

The (British) Celtic church and Celtic spiritual  tradition predated the (English) Roman tradition famously remembered as  St Augustine’s mission from Rome, in 597. The Celtic church on the other hand had its beginnings in the mists of ancient times. Certainly, three British bishops or leaders (from York, London and Lincoln) were at the Council of Arles in 314 according to the historian Gildas, so that Christianity must have reached these shores early, but perhaps, not quite as early as the legendary accounts of Joseph of Arimathea at Glastonbury would indicate. The story of Pomponia Graecina, wife of Aulus Plautius, conqueror of Britian in the 1st cent AD, was reputed to be a Christian and as such was accused of "foreign superstition" - superstiteo externa probably (pre- Roman) Christianity.

When the Roman church was established  for a while both churches ran parallel ; until Easter dating controversies forced a resolution in favour of the Roman Church at the Synod of Whitby in 664AD. Little is known of the Celtic tradition in detail, but what is known seems to correspond well to the loose, dissenting spirit maintained later by the Lollards and later still by the Reformers, Puritans, Quakers, and  the nonconformists. It is interesting to speculate on whether or not the original Celtic sense of spirituality was ever entirely lost in these islands.


The New Testament pattern of the church

Ultimately and most importantly, Congregationalists take their beliefs from the pattern of the New Testament church in the first few centuries as described or inferred from the New Testament itself. This is seen particularly in Acts (the story of the growing church) and in the Letters (letters to the early churches). Here we read of the church actually being the church, which later centuries of tradition obscured as the church became more formalised and institutional and acquired more and more secular power, wealth and authority over kings and countries.  For many Congregationalists the church as  seen in the New Testament was a simpler, truer church. There were no priests or bishops and for the most part they worshipped in houses, and had yet to build large basilicas and huge cathedrals and moreover  were often led by ordinary folk including women like Priscilla, Tryphaena, Tryphosa, Persis, Junia, and others (Romans 16).  They and others led caring communities who shared things in common. Up to this point it was a ministry of gifts of the Holy Spirit, like gifts of preaching, teaching, tongues and healing.   Whereas the church which developed after Constantine (313AD) and say the Councils of Nicea in 325AD and Chalcedon in 451AD tended more and more to creedal and dogma institutionalism until eventually the church split  into East (Orthodox) and West (Roman Catholic) in 1054AD. The ministry of gifts came to be a ministry of clerical orders; bishop or elder, priest and deacon.  As the church grew worldwide it was perhaps inevitable that it would lose sight of its origins, but it is the pristine church which Congregationalists look to as their pattern and model.


1972 The formation of the United Reformed Church

In 1972 the United Reformed Church (URC) was formed from the English Presbyterian Church and the Congregational churches in England and Wales 3   by agreement and by Act of Parliament.  Of the  2,000 or so Congregational  churches that were invited to join the newly named URC, about 300 refused to so.   Two home grown organisations were independently set up to carry out some of the functions of the old Congregational Union, such as mission and training;  the Congregational Federation (CF) and An Evangelical Fellowship of Churches (EFCC). These became the inheritors as continuing Congregationalists.

The main Congregational  arguments against joining the URC actually go a long way to explain what Congregationalism is and why this paper is being written.  It was plain that to join the URC meant first to abandon the church meeting as the local church’s sole authority and its replacement with a nested system of councils, synods and a general  assembly, each of which had some say in how the local church should be run and what it ought to believe. This highlighted the importance of the church meeting for those wishing to continue as Congregationalists.  Secondly, it meant an abandonment of the principle of “priesthood of all believers” and to accept the synodical ordination of ministers and elders. To do so, for continuing Congregationalists, meant the loss of a genuinely spiritual laity. Thirdly, to join the URC meant  the loss of one’s own church property which was automatic when the URC Act (1972) came into force.  Too late many ex-Congregational churches realised this and have continued to bemoan the fact 33 years later. Fourthly, there were sound ecumenical reasons for distrusting the structure of the URC .  The raison d’tre of the URC was in fact ecumenical, as a means for full organic union among all the Protestant denominations.  And after its formation the thought was the URC would then bring all the free churches together, that is, the Baptists and Methodists in particular.  It was to be a  “half-way house” towards unity with the Anglicans at some even later date.  But although the Churches of Christ joined in 1981 -  a not very significant denomination in this country but fairly extensive worldwide - as an ecumenical strategy it was almost immediately overtaken by events and further ecumenical desires for “diversity” rather than “uniformity” among the Christian churches.  Many Congregationalists, even then, thought that Congregationalism, as the very simplest system of church government, was itself the better standpoint to talk ecumenically with the overwhelming majority church system – Episcopalianism.  To the Anglicans (and Catholics)  little that was new could be seen in the URC that was not evident before in Presbyterianism, except that were there were once two denominations, there was now one and a few fragments.

Many Congregationalists then, thought  that the Congregational  churches which did join the URC abandoned  Congregationalism for what was basically a Presbyterian or Reformed church. In 1972 I personally might have joined the new denomination had the structure been genuinely innovative and a means of spanning the Free churches and the Episcopalians, but the Basis for Union(which brought together the two denominations) broke no new ground and would have saddled Congregational churches with an unnecessary  and unneeded burden of additional bureaucracy, re-inventing a wheel which already existed, Presbyterianism.


What makes a Congregationalist?

I don’t think there is a particular mind-set for a Congregationalist as there might be for, say, a Quaker, to give one example.  John Milton and the Brownings were poets.   Oliver Cromwell was a parliamentarian, soldier and mystic. Daniel Defoe (educated at a Dissenting Academy) was one of the first novelists as was John Bunyan (also claimed as a Baptist). Isaac Watts was the first popular hymn writer, whose hymns are still sung to this day. There have been industrialists like Lord Leverhulme of Port Sunlight and Sir Titus Salt of Saltaire. And reformers like John Howard, the penal reformist and Benjamin Waugh founder of the NSPCC. And missionaries like David Livingstone; Gladys Alyward portrayed in the film Inn of the Sixth HappinessEric Liddell of Chariots of Fire fame.

What they hold in common, if anything, is an independence of mind and a freedom from conventionality and that perhaps it is what Congregationalism taught them.

As to what is the appeal of Congregationalism, perhaps its simplicity, its appeal from reading the New Testament itself; its spontaneity; its re-discovery from age to age; its freedom.



1. The sub-title of this essay comes from two separate inquiries from members of the  United Reformed Church. One was to do with how “reformed” is Congregationalism? - which was put by Dr David Cornick, General Secretary of the URC, at a conference at Westminster College, Cambridge in September 2005 and the other from the Congregational lecture given by Dr David Thompson at Dr Williams’s Library, London in 2003 and entitled The decline of Congregationalism in the Twentieth-Century (2002), which failed to distinguish between ideas (which don’t decline) with institutions (which may do so). Congregationalism is no more confined to the Congregational  Federation than the practise of adult baptism is confined to the Baptist Union of the United Kingdom.  Even in the days of the Congregational Union of England and Wales, the trust deeds of individual churches often specified that they “might from time to time associate” with various denominational bodies. Congregationalism arises spontaneously whenever two or three are gathered together as a church as the simplest and most immediate form of church organisation coming, for  instance, from house groups. What has harmed any advancement of Congregationalism, in the late 20th century  was the steady and unremitting decline of the United Reformed Church since its formation in 1972 and the undermining but false belief that this was a new form of Congregationalism, which it isn’t. In this country, Congregationalism was largely abandoned in order to form the URC but spontaneously keeps springing into life for it needs no overarching organisation to maintain it.   It is also still very much alive world-wide  in the International Congregational Fellowship (ICF) and elsewhere.

As to the first question, Reformed  to Congregationalists usually means Presbyterianism and when is doesn’t means, rather more narrowly, Calvinism, both of which can be clearly distinguished from Congregationalism even accepting there is some degree of overlap.

2. On the question of what the New Testament church might have been like in organisation (polity) and worship, I refer the reader to The Ecclesiastical Polity of the New Testament (1878), by the Rev G A Jacob DD. In this work Jacob sought to describe the nature of the New Testament Church before it moved from being a Christian Society with a  ministry of gifts (1 Corinthians 12) to an organised institution based on a hierarchy ministry of orders (deacon, priest and bishop) which in Jacob’s opinion (and writing as an Anglican) is where the Church went badly wrong, somewhere in the late 2nd century.  This is part of what he says.

The ekklesia [church]  “Somehow the workings of the Christian Church so obviously based from the start on the synagogue ultimately arise to parody the Temple. Originally the office-bearers were those of the synagogue (teachers, preachers etc.) not the Temple.  As places of worship, they were based on synagogues and unlike the Temple they were everywhere. Also unlike the Temple synagogues had and have  no altar, no vestments, no sacrifices, no restrictions of persons, no holy places.  It was the Temple which had priests, sacrifices, vestments, degrees of holiness, hereditary office,  and exclusion on grounds of bodily defects. Sadly most of these features the Christian Church followed with the exception of singularity, of place, of altar, and of priestly family.” [The church is the people, the body of believers, not the building.]

"Such  words  as 'iereuV, 'ierateia, 'ierateuma, 'ieoupgew, quw, qusia, qusiasthrion, [hiereus = priest, hierateuma = priesthood, thusia = sacrifice (verb and noun)  thusiastyion= altar] or any others of sacerdotal meaning, are never so much as once in the New Testament spoken of the ministerial services in the Christian Church.."

For instance 
 qusia thusia - present your bodies a living sacrifice    Rom xii 1 
                        - the sacrifice of praise    Heb xiii, 16 
 'ierateuma    - You [plural ie all] are a holy priesthood  1Pet ii.5,9 
  hierateuma  - ...a royal priesthood

On Priests. It appears to me that the Epistle to the Hebrews shuts out the possibility of there being any other priest in the Christian Church besides Christ Himself.

On Altars. "We have an altar" Heb xiii.10 is sometimes put forward as opposed to what here is advanced [ie no altar, no sacrifice, no priest] but rightly understood only confirms the preceding arguments ... - Yes the Jewish Church had an altar, one altar, not an altar in every synagogue, but one only divinely sanctioned altar in the Temple, on which acceptable sacrifices were placed.  And we have an altar, one altar, not an altar in every church but one, only divinely sanctioned altar, the Cross of Christ on which the one, perfect and accepted sacrifice was offered for once and for all p309

On The Church Meeting  All members are called upon, in accordance with the words of Jesus in Matt,vii.15 to form an opinion on doctrinal questions, and to judge whether what they are taught is true or false. The Beroeans [Acts 17] are commended for testing the truth of St Paul's own teaching. p161

On Celibacy It is clear that a Christian minister was expected to be a married man  p125

infant baptism  It remains indisputable that infant-baptism is not mentioned in the NT..and that it is not an apostolic ordinance    p272

Ordination  ..has been declared to be the same power that was given to the Apostles, continued and handed down in the Church; it has been called the power of forgiving sins, or of conferring the grace of absolution; of effectually administering the sacraments or making the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist; or generally and vaguely the power of acting as a Christian priest, whatever that may be held to mean.  But with all due respect to the antiquity of such opinions, and to the Churches and theologians who held them, I must, with the New Testament in my hands, venture to affirm that, according to its divine teaching, it cannot be shown that ordination confers any power at all...The word "ordain" occurs very often in our English version... [but] It is given as the translation of no less than twelve Greek words of very different force and meaning, but all implying some kind of causation, appointment or selection....etc. [there is nothing about giving or affecting power] p117

3.  In fact the old Congregational Union of England & Wales had reformed as the Congregational Church in England & Wales some few  years previously in order better to negotiate with the English Presbyterians on the one hand and in particular with the Charity Commission over questions of ownership of property on the other hand.  The property in mind was not only church buildings and manses but houses, shops and colleges. Property was held in different ways by the Presbyterians, organised from a General Assembly and the Congregational churches each separate and organised individually.  And whereas such properties as were held by the Presbyterians (which included colleges) could be transferred to the new ownership, the URC,  by vote of the General Assembly,  no such powers could be exerted by the CUEW.  Nor as the Charity Commissioners ruled by vote of the new CCEW which might have looked like it held that authority.   Legally,  each Congregational church owned and held in trust its own property, typically church building and manse but also other properties willed to the church for investment.   These could not be easily transferred to another body.  Majority voting ensured the will to join the URC was present; an  Act of Parliament (URC 1972)  changed the existing trust deeds in favour of the URC.  Too late many ex-Congregational churches realised they had lost not only their independence,  but also their property which in the case of house and shops included loss of the income too.  In effect they had become overnight,  Presbyterian, in all but name and had given their property to the local URC Provincial Synod.

4. see for instance A Hundred Eminent Congregationalists  by Albert Peel (Congregational Press 1927).

5. Although a hierarchical structure is the most obvious way to organise or govern a church, it is not the simplest nor might it be the best. There is a parallel here with  business practices which face a similar problem of how to run organisations, but with the difference that they can alter the system of organisation to what is most appropriate for the smooth running of the business.

In a recent book by Gerard Fairtlough– Three ways of getting things done – Hierarchy, Heterarchy and Responsible Autonomy (Triarchy Press, UK, 2005, ISBN 0-9550081-0-7)  he makes the following points. The  most obvious way of running an organisation is hierarchical. This is both instinctive and natural. In the farmyard there is a pecking order among fowls; in most human organisations there is similarly a hierarchy, typically of management and workers. In the church likewise whether Episcopalian or Presbyterian, there is a hierarchy, generally of priests (comprising of deacons, priests and bishops – all ordained) and the laity or of ordained ministers and elders and the laity in the case of Presbyterianism.

There are alternatives though, says Gerard Fairtlough who was a one time manager at Shell UK.  In a heterarchical (Fairtlough’s word) organisation, no one is boss, or all have boss powers. Compare here the priesthood of all believers.  The second alternative is responsible autonomy which (like the local church meeting) is an autonomy, independent but  responsibly co-operative to or with similar bodies. This is like the local churches in a Congregational union or Baptists in their Associations. They are each independent but not isolated. 
Congregationalists in their  mutual associations have implicitly adopted the Roman Catholic precept of subsidiarity (formulated and promulgated by Pope Pius XI  in 1931) – that the central body should not attempt to do what can be done adequately by the local body or bodies. 
 Colin Price © 2005

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