Love, Grief, and Hope: Emotional responses to death and dying in the UK
Madeleine Pennington and Nathan Mladin’s report examining emotional responses to death and dying in the UK. 27/11/2023
Nathan Mladin’s report exploring the life, identity, and flourishing of the United Reformed Church. 04/07/2023
In late 2021, the United Reformed Church (henceforth the URC) approached Theos to conduct research into the life, identity, and flourishing of the URC. The key objective of the proposed research was to provide a snapshot of the URC today, exploring its identity rooted in practice, what flourishing looks like, what resources exist or need to be sought, and what barriers there are to flourishing in the future.
The project was conceived as a partnership, reflecting Theos’ belief that the proposed research, while immediately relevant to the United Reformed Church itself and the ‘Church Life Review’ it was undertaking, would also be of wider interest and help nuance the picture of Christianity in the UK at a time of complex change in the religion and belief landscape.
The public conversation surrounding religion and society in the UK is often dominated by certain recurring themes, namely disagreement, secularisation, and polarisation. In contrast, this review would consider the life of the church on the ground through a particular case study: the lived experience and practices of local URC congregations, including how these congregations interact with their communities, and how they are supported (or not) by the church structures of the URC.
We adopted a mixed–methods approach to the project, with the research consisting of desk–based study, qualitative and quantitative components.
The qualitative element consisted of 56 semi–structured interviews, conducted in person and online, with local church leaders and volunteers in 12 local contexts, synod staff from
two representative URC synods, Church–Related Community Workers (CRCWs), and members of the URC Youth Executive, among others. 39 out of the 56 were individual (1:1) interviews, and 17 were group interviews. The size of each group ranged from 2 to 8 people. In effect, we were able to hear from over 90 individuals, across 7 synods, and at different levels of church structures and responsibility.
The local contexts chosen as case studies included single congregations, but also pastorates and Local Ecumenical Projects (LEPs). Pastorates are congregations grouped together in a particular geographical area for administrative and pastoral purposes that are under the care and leadership of a single minister or team of ministers. Local Ecumenical Partnerships (LEPs) are – as the name suggests – formal partnerships in which two or more denominations work together in mission and ministry at the local level. This can take a variety of forms, including shared worship services, joint outreach programs or the sharing of resources and facilities.
These locally–based case studies, along with the ones run at synod level (Yorkshire and South Western) were chosen in consultation with the project’s steering group and synod moderators. The aim was to achieve, within the constraints of the project, a cross section of the denomination, capturing the shared challenges and opportunities, the diversity (theological, churchmanship, and ethnic) and different levels of flourishing within the denomination.
The quantitative element, developed to complement the qualitative data, consisted of a short online survey sent to all URC churches. The survey gathered 402 responses, with the data providing additional insight, nuance and clarity to the picture resulting from the qualitative element of the project (see Appendix 1). We also made use of data collected through the ‘Jubilee Questions’, a survey run in–house by the URC to mark the denomination’s 50th anniversary in 2022, which yielded 40 responses. 62.5% of respondents to this survey were individuals, while 37.5% of respondents completed the survey on behalf of a local church/pastorate. This phase of the research ultimately enabled direct consultation with over 30% of URC congregations across the UK.
In addition, we engaged in a limited mapping exercise, matching URC church closure data in England, Scotland and Wales to deprivation data, the purpose of which was to ascertain whether URC churches are disproportionately closing in deprived areas. A summary of the findings can be found in Appendix 2.
This report consists of three main parts. The first chapter unravels positive examples of church life and flourishing in the URC. The second examines some of the key barriers to flourishing that we identified during the research. Some of these are found at the level of local congregations, while others emerge at the level of wider church structures, including synod and other conciliar forums. The final part of the report presents a series of recommendations and possible pathways to flourishing for the URC.
Read the full report here.
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Nathan joined Theos in 2016. He holds a PhD in Systematic Theology from Queen’s University Belfast and is the author of several publications, including the Theos reports Data and Dignity: Why Privacy Matters in the Digital Age, Religious London: Faith in a Global City (with Paul Bickley), and ‘Forgive Us Our Debts’: lending and borrowing as if relationships matter (with Barbara Ridpath).
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Theos researches and investigates the intersection of religion, politics and society in the contemporary world.