I had the privilege of being a delegate to the 2010 URCNA Synod in London, Ontario. Cornerstone URC is to be commended for providing synod with facilities that were very accommodating to the needs of the delegates and with volunteers that kept the gears of synod moving. So often overlooked are the men and women behind the scenes who deliver committee reports to the assembly, prepare and repair electronic equipment, and who make sure that the delegates finish their coffee breaks on time and get back to work.
Synod had four days to work through an agenda that was over five hundred pages. Those elected as officers had the daunting task of keeping the delegates focused on matters at hand and following proper procedures to move things along.
The United Reformed Churches in North America seem to be very united on major issues. Historically we appear to be unanimous in anything that militates against Scripture and the Three Forms of Unity. That unity was clear at this synod, as well, as delegates were united in their opposition to Federal Vision. As a federation of churches, we know what we are against.
On the other hand, we are terribly divided on other issues. As one fraternal delegate noted, we are no longer a new federation but in our teen years and, as such, we are an independent lot. This became very evident in two non-theological issues that were discussed on the floor of synod.
The New Songbook
In 1997 the URCNA formed a committee to develop a new songbook for the federation. The committee has spent thousands of hours reviewing songs from a variety of sources. Financial support for this endeavor has been minimal. Some say it is because the churches no longer really want a new songbook; others say it is because, after over a dozen years of meeting, the committee has produced no tangible results. The latter of the two reasons was dispelled at this synod when the Songbook Committee provided delegates with spiral bound copies of proposed hymns. These hymns are to be reviewed by the consistories, who may propose deletions and changes.
One thing the committee failed to do was point out or give grounds for the changes they had already made. Some of the changes already being discussed by the churches include:
Word changes: Why was “Jerusalem the golden, with milk and honey blest” changed to “Jerusalem the golden, descending from above”? Were there theological reasons—bringing the song out of the Old Testament into the New Testament, perhaps? The committee’s mandate was not to change phrases that it felt were antiquated. It was to provide synod with songs to approve for a new songbook.
From Thee to You: Another change that took place without any mandate from synod was changing “Thee” and “Thou” to “You” and “Your” in many of the songs. This seems to have been done in a very arbitrary way. While we may still sing “Great is Thy Faithfulness” we are now asked to sing “Jesus, With Your Church Abide.”
Arguments for this change have been around since the sixties. I remember a few decades ago the then-editor of The Outlook asked the board of Reformed Fellowship to publish an article on why people should pray “You” and “Your.” The article made the argument that we need to modernize our language because young people today do not understand the King James language. Such church-exclusive language is not known to the outside world, making the church less user-friendly. One esteemed retired minister challenged the members of the board to find one person in the United States who did not know what “Thee” meant. Then he started singing, “My country ’tis of Thee, Sweet land of liberty, Of Thee I sing.” “If the Queen’s English can be used to address my country, it certainly can be used to address my Lord,” he ended.
If the argument that people no longer understand “Thee” and “Thou” is valid, then the change should be made in every song. Certainly no one would want people to be ignorant when they sing “Great Is Thy Faithfulness.”
Gender Friendly: Without explaining why, the committee decided to change “Christ the Lord is risen today,’ Alleluia! Sons of men and angels say; Alleluia!” to “Christ the Lord is risen today,’ Alleluia! All creation, join to say; Alleluia!” Why was “Sons of men” changed? Why were the feminine pronouns referring to the Church in “Jesus, With Thy church Abide” made into “our” and “us”? Why was “Faith of Our Fathers” completely removed?
In an effort to be young and relevant, the committee has unwittingly alienated many people who have grown up with a song book they love. A group already wary of any new songbook will quickly recall the Brinkisms that took place twenty years ago when another hymnal was introduced and resoundingly rejected because of many of these same changes.
Of great concern to the delegates of synod was the phrase that the new songbook “will be purchased and used by all URCNA churches.” Although eventually approved, this statement was met with resistance, as many felt that synod was overstepping its authority by dictating to elders how to oversee the singing in worship.
Perhaps it might be wiser for the URCNA to produce a supplemental songbook that includes all the songs proposed by the committee. Most all of our churches already have song books in addition to the Psalter Hymnal. If those secondary songbooks could be replaced by the proposed songbook, it would be less threatening to those who currently resist the replacement of the Blue Psalter Hymnal. Over time churches would become familiar with the proposed songbook and wonder why songs such as “How Great Thou Art” and “And Can It Be” are not in the Blue Psalter. As the new book is used more and more, the Blue will eventually simply fade away.
The Canadian Reformed Churches
The other area where the delegates to synod are very united yet incredibly divided is in the federation’s relationship with the Canadian Reformed Churches. There is a great love for our brothers and sisters in the CanRef. No one would argue that they are not a true church or that they teach false doctrines. We are indeed sister churches in harmony in our interpretation of Scripture and the Three Forms of Unity.
While everyone agrees that we may be sisters, throughout the week many delegates maintained that we do not have to be identical twins. Rev. Mark Stromberg (Belgrade, MT) said, “We should recognize the unity that is there, not force the unity that is not there.” Rev. Christo Heiberg (Sheffield, ON) told delegates, “We are getting close to seeking uniformity, not unity.”
A very pleasant fraternal delegate from the CanRef, Rev. William den Hollander, spoke of how Christ had been bringing the two federations together and encouraged us to move ahead in our mutual pursuit of unity. He plead with delegates to take seriously a loving letter promoting unity that was sent to all the URCNA consistories after the URCNA agenda became public. It was a very eloquent and wonderful speech. He ended by asking delegates to vote in a particular way on three matters: the proposed church order, a federative seminary, and the Genevan tunes.
Those are exactly the matters that divide us. Already three years ago, delegates to synod addressed overtures that sought to slow down the merger between the two federations. This time, several overtures sought to end the process completely.
The trouble is that the URCNA is always made to look like the bad guy in this relationship between the two federations. Take for example the federative seminary. The CanRef has proposed that a new united federation have one federative seminary in Hamilton, Ontario and two independent seminaries (Mid-America Reformed and Westminster California) from which to draw ministers for our pulpits. This has been their stand from the beginning. The URCNA has repeatedly argued that there is no biblical basis for a federative seminary. Although the CanRef agree that there is no Scriptural demand for a federative seminary, they argue that the concept is “rooted and grounded in God’s Word.” Because the CanRef would not budge on this issue, and for the sake of unity, delegates at the URCNA synod considered whether or not the above proposal would be a viable option for a new federation. After a lengthy debate the concept was defeated.
One cannot help but wonder how rooted and grounded this concept of a federative seminary would be if the stakes were changed. Let us suppose that the URCNA had agreed to one federative seminary, but declared that it wanted Mid-America, Westminster, or Greenville to be the seminary of choice. Instead of promoting unity, I dare say that such an agreement with their concept would have caused further division. It seems to be not so much the concept of one federative seminary that is being promoted as it is one particular seminary for the new federation.
The Synod of 2010 recognized the diversity within the URCNA and decided that it would be good to meet again in two years. Responding to different questions about the CanRef prior to Synod, Dr. Visscher wrote that there is a mutual trust within the CanRef between churches. That is missing in the URCNA. We have to get to know one another; we have to learn to trust one another. As Rev. Joghinda Gangar (Walnut Creek, CA) summed up near the end of synod, “We are more interested in what churches outside our federation think of us than we are what churches inside our federation think of us.”
1. Emily Brink was very influential in the editing of three hymnals in
Rev. Wybren H. Oord is the co-pastor of the Trinity United Reformed Church in Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada, and the editor of The Outlook.