Dear brother Oord,
Thank you for your excellent and thorough summary of Synod Visalia as it appeared in the July/August 2014 edition of The Outlook. I am particularly interested in and wish to interact with your remarks concerning our relations as United Reformed Churches with the Canadian Reformed Churches.
It is encouraging to read your personal testimony with regard to your own interaction and engagement with the Canadian Reformed Churches, that over the past thirty years and particularly since moving to serve a URC congregation in Canada, your “experiences have been very positive.” That, by God’s grace, has generally and increasingly been the experience of many of us.
You present a number of good suggestions as to what would need to happen if ever we are to make more progress toward complete unity with the Canadian Reformed Churches. With appreciation, I would like, however to address some of the matters that I believe tobe either incomplete, inaccurate, or uncharitable.
With regard to what was for many a real highlight of the Synod, the Colloquium on Covenant, you very helpfully conclude that “most of the delegates to Synod have become convinced that there are very few, if any, theological differences between our two federations.” It is very important that such a significant conclusion not be minimized. Specifically, it was the aspect of Confessional agreement that was demonstrated and experienced in the public discussion between the four professors. Dr. Venema concluded for both of the URC participants as follows:
the discussion that we’ve had thus far confirms what Dr. Godfrey and I have experienced in our discussion with Drs. Van Raalte and Van Vliet. That is, though we have some difference by virtue of history and other kinds of influences, I don’t think that we’ve found in the course of our discussions back and forth that there was a matter of substance that touched upon our integrity in terms of the Confessions.
As such, many delegates expressed their great appreciation for the Colloquium. One fraternal delegate from the OPC expressed to many of us that his experience of witnessing the Colloquium that evening contributed to that day being for him his best experience ever at an ecclesiastical assembly.
The demonstrated Confessional agreement provides the necessary foundation for any progress that might ever be hoped for, ecumenically. Perhaps the Colloquium itself, and the general concept of more face to face interaction, will also provide something of a model for continued discussion on the sticky, practical challenges, as was suggested both on the floor of Synod and in your recent review article: “If we are proceed toward full unity with the CanRC, we must begin to discuss our differences.”
This is sound advice.
At the same time we need to be careful not to exacerbate our differences by speaking inaccurately and uncharitably. It is suggested, quite uncharitably, that our CERCU committee for Ecumenical Relations and Church Unity is viewed with fear by many of our congregations. Whereas it shouldn’t surprise anyone that the committee has always sought to promote the cause of ecumenicity, working “with a view toward complete church unity” according to the synodical mandate given it by the churches, it also needs to be appreciated that the committee sought to be somewhat tentative in alerting the churches to a potential move toward a Phase 3a relationship in 2016, not 2014. That the response of Synod Visalia was, effectively, not to encourage the committee to come with such a recommendation in 2016 is a speaking of the churches that the committee takes seriously. According to the committee’s mandate, however, continued encouragement toward greater unity ought to continue, ideally with all of the churches of NAPARC, not least of which, the Canadian Reformed. Real, practical challenges will certainly continue to have to be addressed.
That certain American brothers appear to have been offended by the language of the recent CERCU report to Synod to the effect that progress in these relations is much more advanced in Canada, generally, is unfortunate. Perhaps the manner of this communication was somewhat clumsy, but the comment was meant merely as an observation and was not meant to be offensive. Nevertheless the reality remains, and the reaction demonstrates it, there remains a certain unfamiliarity between us as URC churches ourselves. In addition, the American/Canadian differential in terms of the way URCs relate to the Canadian Reformed remains a real challenge. It is also a simple fact that the willingness to engage the matter of getting to know the Canadian Reformed has not been embraced with the same enthusiasm in every US classis. Some of our US classes have done an outstanding job in these efforts, others less so. This may reflect other concerns that require continued discussion, but, it is what it is.
Speaking as a Canadian pastor in the URC, I would have to say that, in some very significant ways, I have more theological and practical affinity with brothers in the Canadian Reformed Churches than with some American brothers in our own federation who live at great geographical distances from me. I do not say this to be at all disparaging of the unity we certainly do enjoy within the URC. In fact, I find the diversity we already do enjoy to be a great blessing and encouragement, especially when that diversity is anchored with a robust commitment to Confessional integrity. I would only maintain that such diversity within confessional bounds ought to argue for the inclusion of the Canadian Reformed, among a number of others, as the Colloquium recently demonstrated.
So, let’s continue to talk, as you suggest, and get down to brass tacks. Some of the matters you itemized may be a helpful starting point. On a number of the matters, it should be borne in mind, we have already made more progress together than your article suggests.
On the Song Book, you speak of our own committee “jumping ship” and hopping on board with the OPC instead. The language is a little uncharitable and sensationalistic. It also fails to appreciate acknowledgments already made from both of our respective synods. With the realization that our respective musical inheritances are somewhat more disparate than we might have initially thought, in 2007, the synods of both of our respective federations went on record to acknowledge that agreement on a songbook should not be a precondition for unity.1
When it comes to the matter of the Proposed Joint Church Order, your language is again a trifle uncharitable and sensationalistic. To say that the committee from the URC side “sold the farm” and “adopted the Canadian Reformed Church Order in its entirety” is quite irresponsible and inaccurate. Ask someone who is Canadian Reformed if the proposal has adopted the Canadian Reformed Church Order in its entirety and you will soon realize that the careful work of the Joint Church Order Committee involved a lot more mutual “accommodation” (which is not the same as to say “compromise”) than you are giving them credit for. Aa a case in point, you go on to suggest in your article that according to the PJCO the only way of being admitted to the Lord’s Supper is by means of the typically Canadian Reformed practice of presenting a “travel attestation.” A careful reading of PJCO Article 43 reveals, however, that while this approach is allowed, so is the way most of our URC churches presently do it.2 None of this is to suggest that all of the challenges have magically disappeared, but as you also acknowledge, helpfully, there is still a lot we can learn from each other in the process of working through the challenges. There are even, ironically as you say, but not surprisingly, as many of us have come to witness and experience, many things we can learn from the Canadian Reformed, particularly in the way the local churches engage themselves in their general Synod that would actually help protect from hierarchicalism that we so much dread.
Once again, there was much that was positive and helpful about your reporting of Synod. Please receive this interaction as an expression of the desire to continue to engage the matter, to grow in trust and understanding together, and to address together whatever challenges and obstacles that stand in our way.
With warm fraternal regards, in Christ,
Rev. John A. Bouwers
Immanuel ORC (URCNA)
And, just one further brief note: the fraternal observer from the Free Reformed Churches should be Ed Laman.
1. CanRC Acts of Synod Smithers 2007, Article 126.96.36.199.1 and URCNA Acts of Synod Schererville 2007, Article 78.10.
2. From the 2012 edition of the PJCO:
Admission to the Lord’s Supper
The consistory shall supervise participation at the Lord’s Supper. To that end, the consistory shall admit to the Lord’s Supper only those members who have made public profession of the Reformed faith and lead a godly life. The consistory may also admit visitors who profess the Reformed faith provided that it secures from them a satisfactory testimony in either written or verbal form about their doctrine, life, and church membership.