October 26, 2010
The Editor of The Outlook
I read with interest your editorial reflections on the URC Synod 2010 in the September-October edition of The Outlook (pp. 31,32). I appreciate very much your observation about the strong degree of unity we enjoy as United Reformed Churches with regard to matters Scriptural and confessional. We had opportunity once more to be very much encouraged together in our mutual concern for Scriptural fidelity and confessional integrity when we could adopt recommendations coming out of the report on justification with unanimity. I thank God for that commitment in our midst and for the precious unity that results from it by His grace.
I am troubled, however by some of your comments regarding the disunity you have perceived exists amongst us when it comes to our calling to seek unity with other federations of churches who share with us a like and precious faith. There is a strange irony, isn’t there when we are disunited with respect to the pursuit of unity. No doubt you are correct that there are differences among us as URC with regard to the practical challenges involved in the pursuit of unity, but I am convinced that the differences are perhaps not as great as you would make them out to be. With our strong commitment as United Reformed Churches to Scripture and confession I am confident that we are also united amongst ourselves in a fundamental commitment to pursue the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace as our Saviour Himself enjoins. To be sure, working it out practically is where the difficulties arise, and where time and wisdom is required. I also believe you are right to distinguish as you do between unity and uniformity. Indeed one of the challenges we face with regard to the calling to seek complete unity with our Canadian Reformed brethren is the fact that in light of our respective histories and development there is much more uniformity of practice among them than among us as United Reformed. We addressed this very challenge with them directly in a fraternal address to their Synod 2010 in Burlington in May as follows:
We would also say, in regards to concessions, that the nature of the unity you already enjoy among yourselves (even to the point of much uniformity) is such that it is inevitable, if unity is to go forward, that more [of the] concessions come from your side. We as United Reformed Churches are already a broader umbrella, you might say. There is a broader diversity of practices and even of theological perspectives among us than exists among your churches. The cost of unity for you may well have to come at the price of some of that uniformity. I don’t believe that that means everything, or perhaps even much of anything, would have to change among the churches that are presently Canadian Reformed, because potentially all of what you are can function under a bigger umbrella, and be greatly beneficial towards the well-being of that umbrella. The ongoing challenge for us is to seek to understand together from out of the Scriptures and our confessions, whether our umbrella is too large, reaching out and embracing and giving shelter to unconfessional practices or ideas, or whether at times it might not be opened up high enough and far enough, not including what the confessions would allow.
Uniformity, it needs to be admitted, can be an impediment toward unity.
This is precisely the challenge, or, as you say in your editorial, “those are exactly the matters that divide us.” Nobody should pretend that this is not a challenge, and this is exactly where work needs to be done if there is to be further progress in the pursuit of unity. You conclude that whereas there is mutual trust among the Canadian Reformed, such is lacking among us. It’s these remarks in particular that compel me to write in response to your editorial. It is for the sake of the upbuilding of mutual trust among us and in the interest of getting to know one another that I am conscience bound to address and seek to correct some of the misleading statements that you have made.
You spoke of the “eloquent and wonderful” speech of the “very pleasant” Can Ref fraternal delegate to our synod. It would appear from the tone of your remarks that you went on to imply (I acknowledge I could be wrong in my perception) that there was something untoward about the fact that he urged us to take seriously a loving letter that had been sent to all of our consistories after the agenda had become public, and that in his remarks he asked our delegates to vote in a certain way that favoured the advancement of unity between our federations. The Outlook readers should be aware that the loving letter being referred to was a letter written by the Canadian Reformed synod which took place after our agendas were distributed, but prior to the meeting of our own synod. This synodical letter was signed by each of their delegates, and it was addressed to the churches that would gather at our synod. It humbly sought to encourage the ongoing pursuit of unity and graciously invited dialogue on any matters that remained of concern to us as URCs. Certainly there could be nothing untoward about that. Neither was it inappropriate for a brother who expressed to us just how great a blessing the pursuit of unity has been for him and the Can Ref federation to express the desire to our synod that through our deliberations we would also continue to move forward together.
You went on to state: “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.” I am particularly troubled by this last sentence and wonder how a horribly misleading statement such as that could possibly serve to build the trust you rightly conclude is needed among us? Several overtures? End the process completely? There was in fact but one overture (Overture 13) that came anywhere close to asking something like what you suggest. This particular overture was explicit, however in its intention not to end the process of unity with the Canadian Reformed, but rather to “seek a new path to unity.” Only one other overture (Overture 18) sought the disbanding of the Joint Church Order Committee (not the ending of the process completely). Neither overture gained the full support of the assembly, however. The upshot, difficult as the challenges remain, is that we have an obligation to continue working on these matters, to continue to seek to build trust both within the federation and without.
Then there is the matter of Theological Education that you address, with your concern that “we always end up looking like the bad guy.” It is again misleading to suggest that the Canadian Reformed have simply been holding out for their own federational seminary in Hamilton. You even wonder in print how they would feel if, for example, Mid-America Reformed Seminary were suggested by us as the proposed federational seminary for the new united federation. Perhaps you would be surprised to learn that such a proposal would find a large degree of support among the Canadian Reformed. As dearly as they love “their seminary” in Hamilton, it is not this particular institution but the principle of federationally governed theological education that they are most concerned about. I am not for a moment suggesting that this particular impasse can be easily resolved (we have our own historical and emotional reasons to be hesitant with regards to denominational seminaries), but there should, at the very least, be the humble and grateful recognition on our part that with what the Canadian Reformed have been proposing, they have already been willing to have “their seminary” taken over by the new united body of churches (the large majority of which would be United Reformed).
The path toward unity will continue to require much time, wisdom, effort, and much give and take. May the Lord continue to give us such wisdom, and as you say, a growing sense of appreciation and trust for one another.
Rev. John A. Bouwers
Immanuel ORC (URCNA)
Greetings in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ!
I received issue 5 of The Outlook magazine today and I read your article entitled “Some Observations of URCNA Synod 2010” with interest. At the same time I would like to comment on two matters that you raise.
In the first place, you write, “the trouble is that the URCNA is always made to look like the bad guy in this relationship between the two federations.” After this you raise the seminary issue.
Now let me say that I am not aware that anyone was made to look the bad guy in the discussions that took place between our respective federations. If that was the impression that was created, then I surely hope it did not come from the side of us Canadian Reformers.
In the second place, you write, “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.”
Now, you should know that I was a member of the Theological Education Committee from the outset serving alternately with Bradd Nymeyer as chairman. In the course of our discussions we had as many as thirteen different options on the table. They included as follows: making Mid-America or Westminster West the new federational seminary. In other words, the Canadian Reformed Committee was prepared if necessary to recommend the closing down of Hamilton and the adoption one of these two American seminaries if it would agree to become the federational school. Our offer was politely but firmly refused.
In the end the only option that was left to us was to close Hamilton or turn it into an independent seminary and be part of a federation that would be served solely by independent seminaries. This was something that we were not prepared to support.
At the same time you state that “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.” I regret this statement. As Canadian Reformed Committee we were more than prepared to endorse both Mid-America and Westminster California as the two independent seminaries for a united federation. As a matter of fact, we recommended that three seminaries serve the needs of a new federation, namely, two independent and one federational. We even went out of our way to recommend and promote a funding formula that would have greatly helped both the fiscal positions of Mid-America and Westminster California. So to suggest that it was one seminary that was being promoted is simply not consistent with the facts.
Much more could be said about this matter, but let this suffice for now.
Wishing you the blessings of the Lord,
Pastor of the Langley Canadian Reformed Church
Convener of the Theological Education Committee of the Canadian Reformed Churches