Following the fall 2014 meeting of URC Classis Pacific Northwest, it was clear that the landscape with regard to unity discussions between the United Reformed Churches in North America (URCNA or URC) and the Canadian Reformed Churches (CanRC) had become muddy. This particular classis forwarded two separate overtures from two of its member churches for consideration at the next URCNA Synod scheduled for 2016. The first overture requests that further effort towards unity be discontinued or suspended at this time with the caveat that at some future unknown date the process might be continued. This overture provides the general grounds that such discussions have diverted federational energies away from much needed work. The second overture, more narrowly focused, argued that the Proposed Joint Church Order (PJCO) in its current form not become the basis for organizational unity, arguing that a study committee of classis had found “…that one of the principles of church government that is especially dear to the churches of our federation is that "the church is governed by elders, not by broader assemblies" (Foundational Principles, 5). Yet, in going through the PJCO we discovered, again and again, that our particular expressions of this principle are consistently being violated”i. Broad support for these overtures within classis suggests significant reluctance to further engagement at this time, at least in Classis Pacific Northwest, and perhaps in the rest of the American classis districts.
Of course it is still unknown what URC Synod 2016 may decide with respect to these overtures, but it would appear that previous URC synods have inconclusively danced around the question, leaving the impression that there is some reluctance to move forward at this time. It is possible to discern regionalism to the reluctance. My experience at synod 2010 in London gave me the sense that there is greater support for moving forward among the URC eastern Canadian churches while the American churches display a greater level of reluctance. I can’t claim data that would show this, but my evaluation is based on inferences from ecclesiastical decisions on the URC side as well as anecdotal conversations while serving as a delegate at broader assemblies. The impression has been sustained by several ecclesiastical decisions that have left the process in apparent limbo. These include:
1. Disagreement on the relationship of the seminaries to the supporting churches.
2. The content of a common Psalter for use in liturgy.
3. The structure and character of federational governance.
The first two of these have received most of the press time however I suspect that the third item will be even thornier than the others. Discussion of the governance issue hasn’t been urgent because the other two issues have effectively stalemated the process. The absence of discussion on this issue should not be viewed as acquiescence.
URCNA Classis Pacific Northwest, at its Fall 2012 meeting, appointed a committee of six, (four ministers and two elders) charged with the task of harvesting the fruit of the PJCO effort with a view to recommending changes to the current URCNA church order. The effort was started because the PJCO was deemed to be a well written document. The committee functioned with a remarkable sense of unanimity as it made progress, but suspended efforts approximately 18 months later after detailed investigation of the first 60% of the document; producing a variation on the PJCO that was almost unrecognizable from the original. The conclusion of the committee was embodied in the second overture listed above. Problematic articles included 4, 5, 6, 9, 12, 14, 25, 27, 28, 29, 36, 37, 38, 52 and 53. This conclusion was received and accepted without dissent, signaling that at least one URC classis has effectively decided that the PJCO was unacceptable as an organizational document for unity.
Why such resistance? A word of introduction is perhaps in order. I am a member and elder ofImmanuel’s Reformed Church in Salem Oregon, a URC congregation, having served in that role since 1998, either active or inactive. Prior to arriving in Salem in late 1996, I was a member of Emmanuel Canadian Reformed Church in Guelph Ontario Canada having just completed a term as elder and clerk of consistory before moving here. My reasons for moving were essentially economic, and the decision to make Salem our family home was informed by the optimism expressed at the time that the CanRC and the newly independent Reformed churches coming out of the CRCNA would eventually work towards union. At the same time I was a Canadian with an amateur’s love for reading history, the political process and the forces that make culture. Now many years later, a citizen of my adopted country, still interested in reading history and theology while delighting in the grace of the gospel, I find myself reflecting on the factors that seem to prevent our two federations from getting closer together. There is no question we have many things in common, we subscribe to the same historic reformed confessional statements, and many of us share a common ethnic heritage as well, circumscribed by the reformed churches in the Netherlands. At the same time our churches are collectively divided by an international border that defines more than a line in space. Initially thinking the mindset of the typical continental reformed believer had little reason to be radically different north or south of the border, I have come to appreciate that a difference exists.
In 2010, following my return from Synod 2010, our family spent nine days on the Oregon Coast and during that time I recall reading David Hall’s “Calvin in the Public Square”ii. That was an identifiably providential experience. As an expatriate Canadian, I suspected I had a reasonable handle on Canadian history and the milieu in which it developed with its institutions, forms of government and underlying principles. But it also reinforced my growing understanding of the significant distinctives between our two countries and it gave me a sense of why orthodox reformed American Christians might not welcome the proposed joint church order as might be hoped.
Hall’s book reminds me that while our two countries may share many things, there are also differences that need to be recognized. At the time of the American War of Independence, justification for throwing off the yoke of Britain was largely predicated on the idea that the rule of tyrants must be curtailed. That idea interestingly enough has support in the Reformation with a proponent no less than Calvin. Conversely the English speaking population in Upper Canada and the Maritime Provinces were heavily made up of United Empire Loyalists, citizens of Britain who were generally prepared to label the “American War of Independence” as the “American Revolution”.
In the previous century, Great Britain had also dabbled with republicanism, but following the death of Oliver Cromwell, the conservative tradition restored the English crown. In Canada, prior to confederation and the British North America (BNA) act (the original Canadian Constitution), there were rebellions in both Upper and Lower Canada in 1837, but both were squelched in favor of the prevailing British Tory culture. Yes, these rebellions were useful in pressing the argument for the rule of law, but the results came slowly and developed as a new layer onto an existing system. The American Experiment on the other hand seems to be one of those rare instances where the forces of apparent tyranny are turned back to make way for an experiment in governance, particularly governance by the rule of law.
From experience, Americans are considerably more suspicious of structures that allow the few to govern the many without significant checks and balances and ultimately the right to re-call. For instance: both at the State level and the National level, the Houses of Representatives operate on a two year election cycle, here in Oregon, both in the spring and in the fall I can expect voter’s pamphlets and mail-in ballots in my mailbox, even with potential turnover in representation every two years my ballot typically includes a number of ballot measures requiring either assent or dissent for the proper function of government.
Given this context, it is hard to imagine how the PJCO committee arrived at some of its conclusions. Two articles dealing with Regional Synods as well as the appointment of Deputies of Regional Synod come to mind. There are other issues that the committee of classis Pacific Northwest identified in relation to Foundational Principles of Reformed Church Government, principle 5 appended to the URCNA Church Order that won’t be addressed here, but these two items deserve some attention.
Prior to forming the URCNA as a federation of churches, many of these churches came out of the CRCNA. It is interesting to note that according to Van Dellen and Monsmaiii, The CRCNA had considered proposals for the establishment of regional synods from as early as 1894 until as late as 1957 and 1959. Although in 1957 a proposal was adopted to establish Regional Synods, the ensuing years before the next General Synod produced a significant number of overtures challenging the wisdom of moving forward. From 1957 to 2015 is a long time. In the meantime our world has very much become a digital world, with information of the most detailed nature available to even the most disinterested. The arguments that favor Regional Synods as an intermediate broader assembly have simply evaporated. Relaying overtures through such a body for consideration by General Synod is an unnecessary bureaucratic step, while the potential to resolve appeals seems unnecessary in a system which produces very few appeals.
The reluctance to appoint deputies has a slightly different history. The CRCNA had a process for appointing deputies, with one appointed by nomination from each classical district. Their role per the church order was primarily directed towards the examination and appointment of men to the ministry of the Gospel, although secondarily they were permitted, when asked, to advise classis on particularly thorny issues. This is where the local history in Salem Oregon really matters. Although these events occurred before my time in Salem, I did get to hear one side of the story regarding the separation and establishment of Immanuel’s Reformed Church, on more than one occasion. IRC in Salem was started after an interesting debacle in the Northwest CRC Classical region. Sunnyslope CRC in Salem at that time was arguably the most conservative CRC in the classis. The hermeneutical innovations that exercised sway in the CRC in the 70s through early 90s, (and still exist), were a problem for some of the elders and the issue came to a head at a meeting of the NW classis sometime in 1991. This classis meeting was somehow manipulated by two deputies, and the end result was that three of Sunnyslope CRC’s elders were deposed at that meeting of classis. From a church order perspective this was altogether unwarranted. While one such instance may not be enough to jettison the entire concept, it will take at least another generation, perhaps two, to resolve the damage caused by deputies who abused their appointments.
There is one final area of difference that hasn’t been addressed all that much. The typical URCNA Synod differs significantly form a typical CanRC Synod. I do run into URC pastors who sometimes wistfully look at CanRC Synods and declare that they must be more deliberative than URC Synods. I’m not sure where that impression comes from. URCNA Synods are convened with two delegates from each of the churches in the federation. Each of these delegates arrives at Synod bearing the authority derived from their respective consistories, not the derived authority of a less broad assembly. In a growing federation the prospect of an assembly with 300 or 400 delegates seems daunting and perhaps unwieldy. Appearances can be deceiving. Oddly enough, the harmony experienced in a large assembly may in fact work out beneficially. The URCNA is a relatively young federation, however in its short life it has seen very few appeals with regard to previous decisions, either of a previous synod or of one of the classis districts. From past experience the denominational energy expended on resolving appeals is much higher in the CanRC. Is it possible that with the larger size of the assembly, decisions are simply more broadly based? I am reminded that Proverbs 11:14 tells me; “But in the multitude of counselors there is safety”. Weren’t the great councils of the church historically broad based and large, Dort, Nicea, Chalcedon, Westminster?
The Proposed Joint Church Order is the product of a process that began with discussions that culminated in a decision to move forward into a phase 2 relationship of Ecclesiastical Fellowship, per Article 31 of the Acts of Synod Escondido in 2001. Article 45 of the same Synod defined a mandate for a joint church order committee consisting of the following:
a. That the current Church Orders of the two federations be evaluated in the light of the Scriptural and confessional principles and patterns of church government of the Dort CO.
b. That the CO committee work together with a Canadian Reformed CO committee to develop suitable and agreeable adaptation of the Church Order of Dort, retaining and maintaining its principles, structure, and essential provisions.iv
The historic order of Dort is a product of its time, and conservative tendencies in reformed churches have allowed the underpinnings of pre 1776 history to remain much longer in the principles of church governance than would be tolerated in the American church. It was at first hard to understand the charge that the CanRC CO was more effectively hierarchical than the arguments for reformed church polity might otherwise allow, and yet, I discovered that here in the US, the notion that the consistory receives its authority from the Lord of the church had greater practical weight. The broader assemblies are understood to have derived authority, and the practice, so far at least, has been to deem that consistories are competent to deal with many more issues than current practice in the CanRC might allow. And that perspective takes a dim view of added layers of church bureaucracy, which regional synods and particularly deputies of regional synod would generate. In fact there is a perception that the appointment of deputies is very patristic, an indication that the churches meeting in classis are potentially unqualified to conduct the collective business of the churches set before them without outside advice. The American mindset simply bristles at that idea.
At its core a church order must be designed to ensure that within the churches everything is done “decently and in order” (1 Cor. 14:40). However the question that needs answering is what activities and behaviors should be regulated and at what level of organization should they be regulated. That is not a new question. It has surfaced in our circles before. J. Jansen a Dutch attorney, in his church order commentary noted: “The order under which the churches live is regulatory but does not work by compulsion. It should prescribe matters exactly so that there may be no deviation from Scripture and the Confession. Yet the application of this principle must leave a great deal o ffreedom in churchlife.”v In its report to Synod Calgary of 2004 it is interesting to note the following statement from the PJCO committee:
The committee that developed the PJCO did not appear to understand the milieu of the URCNA particularly in the USA. By focusing on the preparation of a document that looked back at Dort’s historical roots it argued simply that 200 years of history can be ignored. We cannot afford to perpetuate organizational mechanisms that in our current milieu are simply anachronistic. That milieu must be understood if the process is to be productive, and in order to be productive both federations will need to accept changes, but the final form needs to be understood as a significant improvement on historic forms from both sides, while retaining the essence of reformed church polity. Those changes cannot affect the essential doctrines of Grace.
It is perhaps hard to imagine today, but the development of the Church Order of Dort in the 1600’s might best be viewed as an attempt to develop a new direction in governance that parallels the significant cultural and political shifts that were happening in Europe at that time. As such it was a document that looked forward rather than back at historic forms. In the meantime, the American experiment of the 1770’s and 1780’s, outpaced the development of forms of governance used in a more conservative Europe. So when the committee developing the PJCO decided to work on developing a CO in line with the historic order of Dort, it missed the mark by ignoring the significant changes that have occurred in western society since the 1600’s. By way of example, if the Canadian Government set out to roll back forms of governance to those prevalent in immediately post feudal society, there would be a revolution. In the same way, attempting to reestablish a CO on historic Dort principles and practices without distinguishing between principle and practice, would inevitably lead to unrest in the churches.
This is the challenge that I think was missed by the PJCO. As a document it represents a particular view of church governance that may function in one cultural context but fails to recognize the existence of another deep seated context that may be equally valid.
i From the report of the PJCO Study Committee appointed by Classis Pacific Northwest Fall 2012, and quoted in the overture adopted by Classis Pacific Northwest at its Fall 2014 meeting.
ii Hall, David W., Calvin In The Public Square, Liberal Democracies, Rights, and Civil Liberties (Phillipsburg NJ: P&R Publishing, 2009)
iii Van Dellen, I and Monsma, M, The Revised Church Order Commentary, An Explanation of the Church Order of the Christian Reformed Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1967) Pages 111 and 112.
iv Acts of Synod 2001 of the United Reformed Churches in North America, page 24. 2001.
v See J. Jansen, Korte Verklaring van de Kerkenordering, (1st. ed., Kampen: J.H. Kok, 1923), quoted in Bound Yet Free: Readings in Reformed Church Polity, in a paper by J. Van Dalen entitled “The Scriptural Principles of Church Polity” Dr. J. De Jong editor, Winnepeg: Premier Publishing, 1995.
vi Acts of the Fifth Synod of the United Reformed Churches in North America, page 89. 2004.