Trinity United Reformed Church of Visalia, California, served as the convening consistory and host church for the United Reformed Churches in North America’s ninth meeting of the Synod. The pleasant surroundings of this central valley of California provided a warm atmosphere for Synod in both the climate and the mood of the delegates. The beautiful facilities of Trinity URC gave the delegates ample room for committee meetings, deliberations, and fellowship. Trinity’s two pastors, Rev. Adrian Dieleman and Rev. Robert Godfrey, went out of their way to make delegates feel welcome. The staff and volunteers were exceptional in their willingness to help and serve.
The week began with a prayer service on Monday evening. Rev. Adrian Dieleman offered a message of encouragement to the brothers from 2 Timothy 3:14 entitled “Ministry in Terrible Times.”2 Various delegates also offered up prayers on behalf of the upcoming meeting.
On Tuesday morning Rev. Bradd Nymeyer was elected as chairman, Rev. John Bouwers as vice chairman, Rev. Doug Barnes as first clerk, and Rev. Greg Lubbers as second clerk. Shortly after the election of officers, the delegates met in their various committees.
The Proposed Songbook
Each day of Synod began with devotions and the robust singing of songs from the proposed Psalter. Singing from the proposed Psalter also took place each time Synod was led in a time of devotions. This singing, no doubt, led to the Psalm portion of the new hymnal being adopted by the delegates without dissent. After being led in devotions and singing, the chairman suggested that if Synod had fifteen minutes of “free time” it could be filled with a time of singing. Unfortunately, those fifteen minutes never materialized.3
The new songbook should be completed by May 1, 2015, with possible publication in 2016.
Throughout the first full day of Synod, delegates were greeted by fraternal delegates who reminded us that the church of Jesus Christ is much bigger than just our federation. During the deliberation of Synod, greetings were received from
Canadian Reformed Churches—Rev. Willem den Hollander4
Orthodox Presbyterian Church—Dr. Alan Strange
Heritage Reformed Churches—Rev. Bartel Elshout
Reformed Church in the United States—Rev. Jonathon Merica
Free Reformed Church—Elder Edmund LeMahieu
Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America—Rev. Bruce Backensto
Hearing fraternal delegates address Synod is normally a delight. Several of them picked up on Rev. Dieleman’s opening message on the struggle the church of Jesus Christ as it wages war against the evil forces around us. They called upon our federation to work with them in the battle assuring us that the victory has already been won by our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. We were often reminded that there is more that unites us than separates us as federations and denominations.
In addition to hearing fraternal delegates, a letter of greeting was read from the Reformed Church of Quebec. Delegates also voted without dissent to enter into ecumenical contact with the United Reformed Churches of Congo.
Overture 1 (35–36): The editorial change replacing “council” to “consistory” on the Classical Credentials was approved.
Overture 2 (37–41): Synod did not accede to adopting a particular translation of the Belgic Confession in light of the ongoing work of the Liturgical Forms and Confessions Committee. Synod did encourage the churches to review the various creeds, confessions, prayers, and forms in preparation for Synod 2016.
Overtures 3 and 4 (43–46): Synod appointed a study committee to review various ways by which members leave a local congregation. Under consideration are transfer, withdrawal, resignation, desertion, and so on.
Overture 5 (47–48): It was decided that a Missions Coordinator hired by the URCNA should be an ordained minister.6
Overture 6 (49): Synod instructed the Liturgical Forms Committee to include the doxology at the end of the Lord’s Prayer7 in every instance where the prayer is included in the liturgical forms.
Overture 7 (51–58): Synod approved the Form for the Baptism of Infants proposed by Classis Ontario-East and referred it to the Liturgical Committee for further refinement.
Overture 8 and 9 (59–62): The delegates at Synod did not approve limiting the number of forms to one per liturgical event. Nor did the delegates find it necessary to remove Baptism Form 2 (in the Blue Psalter).
The Canadian Reformed Church
Wednesday evening offered a wonderful interactive theological discussion between professors Dr. Robert Godfrey and Dr. Cornel Venema, representing the URCNA, and Dr. Jason Van Vliet and Dr. Ted Van Raalte, from the CanRC. The professors acknowledged the historical and contemporary nuances within continental Reformed churches of Dutch heritage in relationship to the doctrine of the covenant. As the professors interacted, emphasis was placed upon the common ground and mutual understanding shared by each federation. Most of the delegates to Synod have become convinced that there are very few, if any, theological differences between our two federations.
Even so, Synod voted to table indefinitely, and therefore without prejudice, the move to Phase 3A with the CanRC. This vote was based not on theological differences but on different practices within our respective federations. The word “anecdotal” became the word of the day as various delegates told of events they experienced in their dealings with local CanRC consistories, congregations, and members. Although a few anecdotal incidents may be pushed aside, a large number of them does constitute a pattern that needs to be addressed.
Both federations have to acknowledge that there are huge differences between the URCNA and the CanRC in practice. Over the last decade our Synod appointed three synodical committees to work with the CanRC: the Theological Education Committee; the Songbook Committee; and the Church Order Committee.8 The Theological Education Committee was dismissed after no agreement could be reached. The Songbook Committee was instructed to work with the CanRC in their formulation of a new song book. Apparently there were enough differences to make this committee jump ship and work with the Orthodox Presbyterian Church instead. The Church Order Committee sold the farm and proposed that the CanRC church order be adopted when the new federation is formed. While delegates learned the word “anecdotal,” the committees found the word “compromise” a difficult one.
In spite of the difficulties our synodical committees experienced as they worked toward unity with CanRC committees, the Committee for Ecumenical Relations and Church Unity (CERCU) seems determined to move forward to complete unity. In light of disagreements with synodical decisions of the past that led to the eventual formation of the URCNA, it may well be that many of our congregations are more afraid our own synodical committee than they are afraid of the CanRC.
Several delegates from the states found the report written by CERCU to be condescending toward them as it accused them of not having “the opportunity to discover this truth firsthand”9 concerning the CanRC. Many consistories within the states have made an effort to work with CanRC consistories. They have had CanRC ministers fill their pulpits; they have been in discussions with their members. Rev. W. den Hollander has spoken at several US Classes meetings and has been a wonderful, positive spokesman for the CanRC. What seems to be forgotten is that a decade ago, when Phase 3A was first introduced, it was a delegate from the United States who made a motion from the floor to move immediately to Phase 3A.10 If one reads the guidelines for Phase 3A, it is easy to see that our federation is already in this stage.
A lot of time has been spent on pointing out the similarities our two federations have in common. Most ministers who have done premarital counseling do not spend a lot of time discussing the similarities of the couple. Before a couple are brought into union with one another, they are encouraged to talk about their differences and come to a mutual understanding. If we are proceed toward full unity with the CanRC, we must begin to discuss our differences.
How will our federation respond to
1. Regional Synods
3. The Book of Praise
5. Delegated Authority
6. Federation Seminary
7. The Proposed Church Order
How will their federation respond to
1. Weekly Communion
2. Women Voting
3. Variety in the Order of Worship
4. Children’s Sermons
5. Special Music During the Service
6. A Variety of Seminaries
7. A Variety of Song Books12
Before the CERCU Committee “informs Synod that it recommends we proceed to phase 3A,” many of these differences need to be discussed. As congregations from both federations continue to interact with one another and discuss these differences, we will grow closer together and our union will be all the stronger.
I have been familiar with the CanRC for well over thirty years. Although my experience was limited for a time to the churches in Blue Bell and Grand Rapids, they were almost always pleasant. Over the last four years, I have had the pleasure of getting to know two CanRC churches north of the border and currently serve as afternoon pulpit supply for a vacant CanRC church. My experiences have been very positive.
The Proposed Joint Church Order (PJCO)
One of the biggest concerns expressed in discussions over coffee and mealtimes was the proposed church order. The new church order that has been proposed implements various changes that are unfamiliar to many URCNA congregations.
Of major concern is the hierarchical nature the new church order appears to introduce. Taken away from the elders and put into the hands of broader assemblies are everything from who grants a license to exhort to who decides what can be sung during the worship service.
A federation that has only eight Classes will be introduced to Regional Synods. Instead of delegates from each church attending broader assemblies, those attending them will be appointed by the narrower assembly. Instead of two hundred delegates at the General Synod, the number would be greatly reduced as Regional Synods appoint only a few delegates.
There may be some very positive aspects to this method. General Synod could be more deliberative in nature. A quick review of our own Synod would show that even though we have two hundred delegates, only 10 percent of the delegates do 90 percent of the talking.
However, if Regional Synods appoint the delegates to General Synod, a particular Classis may not have a delegate at General Synod. One of the CanRC observers noted over breakfast that while their General Synod is more deliberative, the URCNA Synod seems more like a reunion. He also commented that the frequent devotions made our Synod more worship-filled.
If the new church order is adopted, a member in good standing at one church would need an attestation in order to partake of the Lord’s Supper at another church within the federation. An individual’s testimony of his total dependence upon the sacrifice of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins would no longer be a valid declaration for admittance to the Holy Supper. Instead, one would need visible proof in the form of a letter signed by the clerk of the individual’s home church to authenticate his love for the Lord. In addition, approval of Classis must be received before admitting anyone to Lord’s Supper who is not a member of an ecumenical church.
Synod instructed the PJCO Committee to await further work on the proposed church order until after the federation votes to enter into Phase 3A with the CanRC. This decision gives consistories opportunity to study the PJCO and write overtures to change any articles with which they may disagree.
In a rather ironic side note, it is my understanding that Synod Burlington of the CanRC was able to receive letters from consistories that had concerns about the PJCO whereas the hierarchical- fearing URCNA consistories must send letters to Classis for approval before Synod receives them.
The missionary labors of the church of Jesus Christ were also dealt with by the synodical delegates. The Missions Committee produced a manual on church planting entitled “How to Plant a Reformed Church.” Recognizing the wealth of material contained therein, Synod received this manual for distribution to the churches.
In addition to a manual, Synod interviewed Rev. Richard Bout for the position of a Missions Coordinator. After the interview and deliberation, Synod, by significant majority, elected Rev. Bout to be the first Missions Coordinator of the United Reformed Churches of North America.
Time was taken to note of the deaths of three ministers who have served the churches honorably within the federation. Since the last meeting of Synod, it has pleased the Lord to call home Rev. Rein Leestma, Rev. Arthur Verburg, and Rev. Al Korvemaker. The churches were encouraged to remember their widows and families in prayer.
Synod also gave careful attention to completing their work in connection to providing honorably for the ministers of the federation while they are both actively serving in their office and when they reach retirement or become disabled.
Other items taken care of on the final day of deliberations included receiving reports from the federation’s treasurers and boards of directors, electing various functionaries for the federation, and setting a budget for the next two years.
In one of Synod’s final actions, Bethany United Reformed Church, Wyoming, Michigan, was appointed to be the convening consistory for Synod 2016, DV. With humble gratitude to the Lord God and words of encouragement from the chairman, and for the first time in the history of the URCNA, Synod adjourned on Thursday evening.
Overall, the meeting was delightfully directed by the chairman, who kept the delegates moving forward without rushing the discussions. The surroundings were wonderfully warm13 and welcoming. The overall mood of the delegates was very uplifting and positive. Having been dismissed a day early, many delegates who had departure flights scheduled for Saturday took advantage of the free Friday by visiting the Pacific Ocean, Yosemite National Park, or Sequoia National Park.
May the Lord of the church use our efforts for his glory.
1. With special thanks to Rev. Gregg Lubbers for his daily press releases.
2. This address can be found in this issue on page 28.
3. While the delegates regretted not having the fifteen minutes to sing from the proposed songbook, not one of them complained that Synod finished its work a day earlier than expected.
4. Rev. Den Hollander’s address to Synod is on page 28 and 29 in this issue.
5. Page numbers in parentheses refer to the agenda.
6. The hiring of a Missions Coordinator was taken up later in the meeting.
7. “For yours is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever.”
8. A subcommittee of CERCU.
9. Page 77 of the agenda. The claim was made that only one third of the URC has discovered that the CanRC are our dear brothers and sisters in the faith. Not only does it cast a disparaging tone toward the US churches, but also it assumes all the Canadian congregations are in agreement with the merger.
10. Although this motion received support from another US delegate, it was ruled out of order.
11. Several CanRC consistories remain convinced that a person is not permitted to drive past one true church in order to attend another true church. This policy may work when CanRC and URC churches are some distance apart; churches in proximity to one another would have to do some member shifting.
12. In addition to the Psalter Hymnal, a vast variety of supplemental song books appear in many URCNA pews.
13. Something especially enjoyed by Northern Canadian delegates who received reports of snow and frost warnings back home.
Rev. Wybren Oord is the co-pastor of Trinity United Reformed Church in Lethbridge, AB, and the editor of The Outlook.