Tapton Hill Congregational Church
An independent church founded in 1853 - A member of the Congregational Federation  
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Overview of Congregationalism

Congregationalism has been a feature of English life for nearly 350 years. 

Congregational Churches are independent churches in which the members are in charge. We don't have priests or bishops and although we are part of an Area and associated with a national body they cannot tell us how things should be done.  Congregational beliefs are in the mainstream of Christianity and belong to what is sometimes known as the ‘Free Church’ tradition. Within most Congregational Churches there is a healthy degree of different understandings of our faith, and tolerance of different points of view.
Most Congregational churches call a pastor or minister (it basically means the same thing) to lead them in worship and in spiritual matters, but pastors are there to serve church members, not to have authority over them. This comes from our belief in the 'priesthood of all believers'. The highest authority in Congregational Churches is the Church Meeting, made up of all members of the local church, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. This church meeting isn't infallible, but it is at the heart of Congregational Life, as it is where we come together to jointly and prayerfully try to see where God is leading us. 

Relationship to Other Denominations

Congregational Churches share a number of features with other well known denominations but have important differences too.   

  • Like the URC we are a 'Reformed Church'. As one of the types of church that has its roots in the Protestant Reformation we are part of the family of Reformed Churches. In 1972 most Congregational Churches in England and Wales joined with the Presbyterian Church of England to form the United Reformed Church. They were also joined in 1981 by the Churches of Christ. About 300 Congregational Churches, like this one, voted to continue as independent churches and not to join the United Reformed Church.  But given the Congregational background of so many United Reformed Churches we are close to them in many areas of belief and worship. However, the URC has combined the Congregational focus on the local church with other traditions and so it combines local decision making with a national and regional church set up, which is different from purely Congregational Churches.   
  • Like Baptist Churches we are independent. You could equally describe both traditions as 'Congregational' as the Church Meeting is the highest human authority in both Baptist and Congregational Churches. (Congregational Churches were for many years known simply as Independent Churches). However, Baptists practice 'believers' baptism' which means that they will only baptize people who are able to make a free and mature profession of faith, whereas Congregational churches practice Infant Baptism.
  • Like Methodist, Baptist, URC, Quaker, Unitarian and many other denominations we are a 'Free Church'. This means that we are not part of the establishment or government of the country, unlike the Church of England, we do not have members appointed to the House of Lords and the monarch is not expected to be a member of our denomination. 
Congregational Churches are proud of those features that make them distinctive but we enjoy warm relations with other denominations at local level, and the Congregational Federation maintains friendly relations with other denominations at national level. 

The  Birth of Congregationalism

In one sense Congregationalism can be said to have begun in England when in 1662 the Church of England brought in the Book of Common Prayer, telling local churches exactly what form their worship should take. A number of pastors, supported by their congregations, refused and broke away from all central authority in the church. This was a very dangerous thing to do at the time and many 'non-conformists' suffered terrible persecution for not worshipping in the way the state and the Church of England said they should. Perhaps this bit of our history is why we try to be tolerant of different points of view within Congregational churches today.

In fact the events of 1662 came after the English Civil War, and over a hundred years of religious tumult. Throughout this period radical Christians were starting to question the official line, and were pushing for their churches to become more and more independent. This was the time of the Protestant Reformation across Europe, when the writings of Martin Luther and John Calvin caused a religious earthquake that still shapes Christianity today.  

After Henry VIII broke away from the Roman Catholic Church, the Church of England emerged as a compromise between Catholicism and Protestantism. Those radical Protestants who thought this didn’t go far enough, among them Congregationalists, became known as 'non-conformists' because they wouldn’t be part of the new 'national' church.

The Reformation gave birth to many of the Protestant churches we know today.  Among these are the Baptists, Presbyterians and Quakers. Churches that followed Calvin's teaching rather than Luther's became known as ‘Reformed Churches’. Congregationalism has historically been Reformed in its belief and teaching (like Presbyterianism e.g. Church of Scotland) but on the question of how the church should be governed, we have more in common with Baptists than with Presbyterians. Like ourselves, Baptists believe in the independence of the local church, in which the highest authority is the church meeting. Unlike Baptists, however, we practice infant baptism.

The first Congregational churches were known simply as Independent Churches, and Congregationalism is still sometimes referred to as Independency.

Although  Congregationalism can be said to have begun in 1662, it is claimed by Congregationalists that the Congregational way of being church corresponds to the practice and teaching of Jesus, the apostles and the early church.  This would make Congregationalism the original form of church and so traces its history back over 2000 years to the time of Jesus' earthly ministry!

Making Worship Understandable and Correcting Errors

Another important feature of the birth of Congregationalism was the desire to communicate the Gospel to people in a way that they could easily understand, to let people read the Bible for themselves and have a direct relationship with God. At the time, church services were in Latin and ordinary people only heard from the Bible what the Priests wanted them to, often having to rely on the stained glass windows for their knowledge of the Scriptures.  Things changed for the better, however, thanks to two innovations:
Firstly, scholars around Europe started to study the original Greek and Hebrew texts and to translate them anew into the peoples’ mother tongues. It became clear, thanks to the new learning in Universities, that the Latin translation used by the priests included many mistakes and misunderstandings – so the scholars were not only making the Bible comprehensible to ordinary people, they were correcting mistakes that had crept into church practice and teaching. 
That’s one reason why the churches that were inspired by these new insights became known as ‘Reformed’ churches – they were trying to remake the church and its teaching in a way that was closer to what was originally intended according to scripture. These translations of the 17th century were a great improvement on what had gone before but they weren’t perfect – maybe no translation of the Bible ever will be. There have been many new translations over the years, all with the same aim of trying to get as close as possible to what Jesus, the Apostles and the Prophets really meant. 

Secondly, the invention of the printing press meant that these new translations could be made more widely available – something that the authorities were terrified of. There were many Congregational (and other non-conformist) martyrs who were executed for simply trying to let people have their own copy of the Bible in their own language. Many more were imprisoned or exiled – often leaving for America to enjoy the freedom they were denied in England, hence the strong presence today of Congregationalism in the USA. 
Persecution became less severe in time, but even so for many years Congregationalists and other non-conformists were not allowed to attend Universities or work for the government and their freedom to worship was carefully controlled. This was what drove wealthy Congregationalists to found their own educational institutions many of which are still highly respected colleges today.

Revival in the 18th Century

There was a second wave of growth in Congregationalism in the 18th Century, a time known as the time of Revival. This is the time associated with John Wesley and the birth of Methodism, but Congregationalism benefited from the spirit of the time and enjoyed considerable growth in numbers, strength, and in freedom to become prominent in national life.   

The Industrial Revolution made some Congregationalists wealthy, and many of these self-made men then sponsored charitable works and built new churches. Congregationalists also took a leading role in missionary activity and the founding of the London Missionary Society.

The End of Congregationalism or a New Beginning?

In 1972 many Congregational churches joined with the Presbyterian Church of England (also Reformed in belief but without the same form of church government as Congregationalism) to form the United Reformed Church. But a minority of Congregational churches (like this one) voted to carry on being independent. Those churches that have remained fully Congregational and independent formed a federation to offer advice and support to individual churches. This is not the same as a national church as it has no power over member churches, who remain totally in charge of their own affairs. Tapton Hill Congregational Church is a member of this body which is called the Congregational Federation.  Please visit their website to find out in more detail about Congregationalism, its meaning, its history and its beliefs.

While many Congregational churches ceased to be Congregational in 1972, Congregationalism has not gone away. There are three main reasons:

  • The faithfulness and staying power of Congregational Christians who believe strongly that churches should be organised in the Congregational Way. The approximately 300 Congregational Churches in the UK at present are testimony to this.
  • There are Congregational Churches throughout the world, so whatever the fortunes of Congregationalism in any one country this does not necessarily affect the international picture – and Christians should remember that Christianity is a global religion and Jesus died for people of all races and nationalities.
  • The idea of Congregationalism just won’t go away. Even if every Congregational Church in the world was closed it wouldn’t be long before a group of Christians met together and agreed that they didn’t need anyone else’s permission to form a church and that it should be governed by them all equally.

In our modern (and increasingly postmodern) world the Congregational way of being church is looking more and more relevant. Independent and local, democratic and tolerant, these are the qualities that people of today are looking to, and so it may be that, by the Grace of God, the golden years of Congregationalism are not in the past but are just around the corner!

Soup and Roll Club 

RASCALS Breakfast Club Monday - Friday 7am to 8.30am
RASCALS After School Club - Weekdays in term time
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