Since the mid-1960s, the word “Partnership” has had a special significance in Purley URC, since this congregation is part of what we believe to be a unique five-way linking of local reformed churches:
Czech Republic – Českobratrské církve evangelické, Ostrava
The Partnership is an important part of Purley URC’s life, providing opportunities for members and friends of the congregation to learn at first hand about the lives of fellow-Christians in other countries and to understand more about the challenges that they face in their local situations – challenges which are often remarkably similar. It is also notable for the depth, breadth and diversity of the personal friendships which have developed, and provides many opportunities for dialogue and the sharing of experiences across national boundaries that do much to break down stereotypes and prejudices and helps us all to gain a better understanding of the world in which we live.
What is the Partnership?
The Partnership has its European roots in contacts developed in a spirit of reconciliation between local congregations in England and the Palatinate (Federal Republic of Germany) after the Second World War. The first visit by three young people from Shelley Road Worthing to Wolfstein in the Palatine took place in August 1949.
A “Communion of Pulpit and Lord’s Table” was established in 1957 between the Congregational Church in England and the Evangelische Kirche der Pfalz: arising indirectly out of that, our local link with the Gedächtniskirche in Speyer dates from 1967.
The American link developed as a consequence of an exchange of pulpits in 1968 between Revd Cyril Franks, then minister in Purley, and Revd Bob Edwards of Immanuel Congregational Church, Hartford. A first three-way conference was held in 1971 in Purley.
Links established after the partition of Germany between West German churches and those in the former German Democratic Republic led to the connections with the Petruskirche, Dessau and, indirectly, the Ostrava congregation of the Evangelical Church of the Czech Brethren. Contact with these two churches was initially mainly limited by political circumstance to exchanges of letters between individuals, although a number of people from Purley paid private visits to both the GDR and Czechoslovakia during the 1970s and the 1980s: but after the momentous events of autumn 1989, all that changed. A high point in the history of the Partnership was undoubtedly the conference in Purley in July/August 1992, attended by about 120 visitors, of whom nearly half came from Dessau and Ostrava. It was covered by the BBC for ‘Songs of Praise’, and the broadcast generated an amazing number of letters and comments, including some from as far away as Australia.
Purley URC also maintains an informal bilateral link with Woodvale Presbyterian Church, Belfast. They do not wish to become full members of the Partnership, but a few of them have been keen supporters of recent gatherings. This link is maintained through regular correspondence and an annual visit, and provides us with opportunities for insights into the Northern Ireland situation which are of equal value to our Partnership contacts.
How is the Partnership maintained?
The format was developed at quite an early stage and has remained fairly constant for about 20 years.
Every year two Sundays are set aside in the calendars of all the congregations to mark the Partnership in a special way during our regular services, with each congregation taking it in turn to prepare materials.
- On the last Sunday of January, we share elements of worship – a letter (or epistle), a sermon outline and prayers of intercession.
- On the first Sunday in September, prayers for peace are shared in all congregations. Fittingly, this Sunday was chosen to mark the anniversary of the outbreak of the Second World War and thus to remind us all of how the Partnership has its origins in the reconciliation in Europe which followed that war.
The major event is a conference that takes place every third year, usually lasting for about ten days and hosted in turn by each congregation. The programme includes talks and discussions, worship and Bible studies, social events and outings; and participants stay in families from the host church. The last conference was held in Speyer in July/August 2010, with the theme of ‘Gottes Gabe – unsere Aufgabe’ (God’s gift – our vision) and focussed on the environment, God’s gift of creation and our stewardship of it. It was attended by about 75 people from the five congregations plus Belfast.
In the years between conferences each congregation also prepares and circulates a calendar of important events in its own life, offering an open invitation to anyone in the other partner churches who would like to take part. Informal visits also take place on an intermittent basis, when all visitors try to ensure that their stay in the partner congregation includes a Sunday, thus enabling them to meet a wide range of members and friends.
Purley URC most recently hosted a conference in 2007, when we took as our theme “Living faith, growing community: what it means to be people of faith in our multi-cultural world”. The programme included visits to a local Islamic centre, a gurdwara and a synagogue as well as a panel discussion between representatives of different faith groups in our area, and was attended by about 80 visitors from the partner churches. Happily, the conference also provided us with an opportunity for a special celebration of the 50th anniversary of the ‘Communion of Pulpit and Lord’s Table’ between the United Reformed Church and the Evangelische Kirche der Pfalz: among those present that day were two of the three people who originally visited the Palatinate in 1949.
The next conference
In July/August 2016, it will be the turn of our friends in the Českobratrské církve evangelické, Ostrava (Czech Republic) to host the 16th Partnership Conference.
Purley URC’s World Church Partnership Committee takes the lead in the development and maintenance of the partnership links. If you would like to get involved in any way, or would like to have more information about the partnership, please contact any of the World Church Partnership Committee members.