ICF International Congregational Fellowship
ICF International Congregational Fellowship

The Congregational Way

The Congregational Way is a pathway to Jesus Christ were Christians are called to worship free from creeds and church hierarchy, lead instead by the Holy Spirit. Ours is a free church tradition where congregations are gathered under the headship of Jesus, bound in love through covenantal relationships between each other and like minded churches.

 

The Congregational Way began as the Puritans who wanted to purify the newly created Church of England. As some lost hope in real reformation in England and Wales a number of Christians began to dissent.  This formed the roots for not only Congregationalism but also Baptists, Presbyterians and Quakers.  Known at first as "Separatists" those that were eventually defined as Congregationalists became defined as "Independents" as each congregation was autonomous.  Although there were spontaneously formed Congregational churches, Congregationalism is generally understood as emerging in the latter part of the 16th Century in the United Kingdom.The term "Congregational" comes with the formation of associational bodies of these independent churches from the early 19th Century.

 

One church was gathered by covenant in the town of Scrooby in 1606. Those Christians met in the home of the local postmaster, William Brewster, each Sunday for Bible study and prayer. Worship in any way other than the State Church was against the law and subjected early Congregationalists to fines and even prison. "When the threat of persecution by English authorities became severe, the little church of Scrooby, led by its pastor John Robinson, fled to Holland.

After a few peaceful and prosperous years in Leiden, the Scrooby congregation made plans to establish a Separatist colony in America. Sailing on the Mayflower from the port of Plymouth, England, in 1620, the 102 voyagers arrived off Cape Cod in late autumn and landed in a harbor they named Plymouth. Before stepping ashore, they drafted an agreement as the basis for the civil government of their colony. This Mayflower Compact was the first written expression in history of a social contract, in which the people agree among themselves to form the state. It can be seen as a civil counterpart to the covenant by which they had formed their church in Scrooby."

 

As some moved to the New World, others returned to England as laws and attitudes changed. Reflection on the spiritual journey they had taken led to a growing awareness that this new form of ecclesiology (how churches are structured) resonated with the biblical pattern and, more importantly, with the teaching of Jesus.  In 1658 it was given a formulaic definition in the Savoy Declaration.

 

Many outstanding theologians, hymn writers, scholars, and reformers are to be found within the history of Congregationalism.

 

At the end of the 18th Century in the UK the Congregationalists, in partnership with some others, formed the London Missionary Society.  Although the aim was never to propagate Congregational churches around the world but rather to spread the gospel of Christ, their labours inevitably led to the establishing of Congregationally ordered churches in many parts of the world.

 

In the US it was the Congregationalists who formed the American Missionary Association that planted over 100 anti-slavery churches throughout the midwest. The AMA helped fund the Underground Railroad prior to and during the Civil War. During Reconstruction the AMA founded eleven historically black colleges and cofounded Howard University in Washington, DC. It also created the Freedman's Aid Society that recruited teachers in the north for these new schools and provided housing for them in the south. The AMA also brought missionaries and new churches to the far reaches of the globe. Throughout the 19th Century the Congregational Churches were the largest protestant denomination in the United States. 

 

In the latter part of the 20th Century many Congregational churches and Associational bodes united with other denominations and are often now found within "United" or "Uniting" Churches.  But many thousands of Congregational churches continue around the world.  There is probably no such thing as "a typical Congregational church" but, to varying degrees, the following characteristics will be found:

 

  • Each (local) church is autonomous
  • Governance is through a meeting of all the church members
  • The churches are non-hierarchical (no bishops etc)
  • The ministers are non-priestly and remain accountable to the local church that has called them
  • While trinitarian and orthodox in matters of faith the churches are usually non-creedal
  • Membership of a Congregational church is usually upon confession of faith alone and not dependent upon any rite such as baptism
  • There is often a covenanted membership
  • They are commonly (but not exclusively) paedo-baptist in belief and practice.
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