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Who is Janet Wootton?

Janet WoottonI grew up in congregational churches. As the family moved house every few years with my father’s job, my parents took on a variety of roles – Sunday School, youth work, lay preaching, running social activities. My mother is still going strong as church secretary at the Congregational Centre Church in Nottingham. I became a church member in my teens. This felt like a natural and significant step, from childhood dependence, to a mature share in responsibility under God.

I was involved in the discussions which eventually led to the formation of the URC and continuing congregational churches, in 1972. I learned to think and debate, I discovered that Scripture could be interpreted in different ways, and Christians could ‘disagree without being disagreeable’ - but didn’t always manageit! I became convinced, as I still am, that the radical ideal of congregationalism is a valid and effective expression of the gospel, too tough for many, but worth the effort, for the freedom in Christ that it brings.

In 1965, aged 13, I received a powerful call to ministry, and my life choices through my teenage years were trained on that goal. I studied Classics at St Hilda’s College, and then Theology and ministerial training at Mansfield College, both in Oxford. While there, I met Chris, and – quite unexpectedly - fell in love. That hadn’t been in the plan – but I thank God every day! We married in 1975.

I was ordained in 1979 to Haverhill West End, and Steeple Bumpstead Congregational Churches. It was great to see both churches grow and develop. There were over 130 children in the Haverhill Church; at Bumpstead we ran a ‘Rainbow Club’ each summer on the Village Green. In both places, it was brilliant to see streams of children pouring in to hear about God’s love and challenge.

I was also working on a PhD on the Philosophy of Religion, which set a pattern of thinking and doing (study and ministry) that has stayed with me through life.

I moved to Union Chapel, Islington in 1986, and, with an amazingly courageous, visionary group of church members, developed a multi-faceted enterprise. We set up a charity to run the various projects, with directors drawn from church and community; and a trading company when we started earning too much! From a practically derelict building, we grew to encompass two theatre spaces, a drop-in and winter night shelter for homeless people, refugee nursery, bar, public meeting space, broadcasting and recording studio, and so on. You may have been there for the Assembly in June 2018 – the building is no stranger to controversial debate!

I have always been enthusiastically involved in CF’s national life. It was fun to be part of two major reorganisations, which were largely amicable – it can be done! I served on several committees and boards and was elected President 1990/1.

Closest to my heart always was the Training Board, founded in the late 1970s by a group including three young ministers: Richard Cleaves, Alan Argent and me. Through the years, this has drawn on some of CF’s best talent, and several hundred ministers, national leaders and local church members have trained through its various programmes.

In 2003 I felt a strong call to the role of Director of Studies, in which I served till I retired last summer. I have loved seeing people develop their potential, and churches learning for service and mission. It has been wonderful to work with so many colleagues, tutors, Learning and Development Group, and staff.

I have been given some wonderful opportunities to serve God in the wider world. This included involvement in the formation of Churches Together in England and Council of Churches for Britain and Ireland in the 1990s, where, among other things, I served as Moderator of the Churches Commission on Mission, visiting Hong Kong with a church delegation in 1997 at the transfer of power from Britain.

I have been involved in the International Congregational Fellowship from its formation in 1977, as Moderator from 2001-5, and as co-chair of its Theological Commission to the present day.With CWM, I have acted as worship leader, speaker or representative at various global events.

I have campaigned for human rights in areas such as gender justice, homelessness and human trafficking, through organisations such as the Ecumenical Forum of European Christian Women, and Inner Cities Religious Council.

A thread running through everything has been a passion for publishing – newsletters, hymns, journals, books, online resources. Over the years, these have included Feminist Theology Journal and Worship Live, a variety of church resources, and several books. I have had a life-long interest in hymnody, and I have seen my hymns published in the UK and USA. I am now Executive President of the Hymn Society. I love writing and editing – taking the rough diamonds of ideas and thoughts, my own or other people’s and cutting and polishing till they shine!

Many of these activities continue into retirement. I am enjoying being an active member of Bunyan Meeting in Bedford, a lively and forward-looking church, where Chris and I feel very much at home.

I owe CF a great debt of gratitude, and I am enormously looking forward to working with you all, and contributing to God’s vision for the future.
Janet Wootton
President Elect