Among the various summer activities the Lord decreed for the year of 2012, the United Reformed Churches of North America (URCNA) found themselves gathering together in Nyack, New York for their eighth synod. It was the author’s privileged responsibility to attend these meetings as a delegate. While a reproduction of the forthcoming Acts of Synod in this setting is neither possible nor desirable, it is my goal in this article to provide a brief, objective overview of synod’s work while adding some personal, subjective analysis and commentary.
The URCNA Synod, as “an assembly of . . . church delegates that discusses and decides upon church affairs,” is a sacred assembly. The sacredness, or unique character, of a synod is found in the nature of its work, that which focuses on the holy church of our Lord Jesus Christ. The approximately two-hundred URC and fraternal delegates and observers that gathered from the USA, Canada, and abroad gave evidence of a spirit that recognized the sacred nature of the work of synod. Eight is not a large number for the times a denomination or federation’s broadest assembly has met. Yet the number eight shows that the history of the URNCA is continuing to develop and progress under the Lord’s blessings. Upon reflection on the deliberations and decisions of Synod Nyack, there is evidence that the URCNA, as a federation, is maturing, communicating, cooperating, and centralizing.
Synod Nyack Evidenced Federational Maturation
In some contrast to Synod London 2010, Synod Nyack 2012 displayed evidence of maturity within our federation, for which we rejoice and give thanks to God. If Synod London can be compared to the unruly teenager analogy, Synod Nyack can be compared to a young, responsible adult. Maturation was evident in both the manner of deliberation and the matters for deliberation.
The stage for the mature manner of humble deliberation was set by the exemplary display of leadership by both the chairman pro tem, Rev. Richard Kuiken, and the elected chairman, Rev. Ronald Scheuers. By God’s grace, the delegates followed the chairmen’s lead in seeking to heed the apostolic command to “walk worthy of the calling with which you were called, with all lowliness and gentleness, with longsuffering, bearing with one another in love, endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:1–3). This humble spirit was evident on the floor of synod as officers and delegates repeatedly sought to ensure that no personal offense was given to a brother in speech and that any misunderstandings or misperceptions were cleared.
Synod also displayed a mature manner of unified deliberation. Although the week gave plenty of opportunity for the healthy expression of various opinions and views, the delegates stood unified in biblical, reformed doctrine and polity. This beautiful display of unity was a result of each delegate submitting to the Word and the Spirit seeking to follow and submit to the headship of Jesus Christ and the authority of the Holy Scriptures.
Synod displayed maturity not only in the humble and unified manner of deliberation but also in the matters for deliberation. One of these matters was the adopted request to divide the large Classis Ontario into two classes, Classis Southwestern Ontario and Classis Ontario—East. Maturity was also evident in the ongoing development of revised liturgical forms for use within the URCNA federation. Provisionally adopted forms will be electronically distributed soon, and synod instructed the churches to review the forms and offer editorial comments back to the respective committee. However, as the federation continues to mature, a question is whether the churches of the federation will actually do the work of reviewing and offer comments on these forms.
Maturity in matters for deliberation was seen clearly in synod’s adoption of an appendix to the Regulations for Synodical Procedure entitled “Definitions and Authority of Synodical Actions.” This appendix includes clarified provision for synod to state “doctrinal affirmations,” give “pastoral advice,” receive a “study committee report,” or declare a “synodical judgment.” While these are helpful and clarifying terms that ought to serve the federation well, the danger of synod overextending its reach and authority is always present. As the URCNA continues to mature, it will be vital to remember the lessons history has taught in relationship to the abuse of synodicalism.
Evidence of maturity in matters for deliberation was displayed in the careful, diligent, and equitable way synod prepared for and treated numerous personal appeals. While the Regulations for Synodical Procedure help synod procedurally handle appeals, Nyack still had to wade its way through the complexity of lengthy documentation. Hopefully, the manner in which this body addressed these appeals sets a good historical precedence for appellants to receive an honest hearing of their alleged grievances. In connection to this, future appellants would be helped and would help synod by receiving and heeding wise advice in how to present a proper appeal to synod. Reflecting on the work of the week of synod, it is clear the URCNA evidenced federational maturation in its manner of and matters for deliberation.
Synod Nyack Evidenced Federational Communication
Another clear display at synod was the engagement in federational communication both internally and externally. Internally, synod heard the reports of numerous functionaries and committees who seek to fulfill their respective job descriptions and mandates in faithfulness. Since these persons enable the URCNA to function as a federation of churches, thankfulness ought to be expressed to the Lord and the appointed persons who serve in these oftentimes behind-the scene roles.
In regards to external communication, synod had the wonderful opportunity to hear fraternal addresses from churches with which we share ecumenical relationship near and far from our homes. Close to home geographically, after lengthy debate given the Reformed Presbyterian Church in North America’s (RPCNA) practice of allowing women to serve as deacons, the synod approved moving to phase two or establishing a relationship of “ecclesiastical fellowship.” In regards to the issue of women in office, with this closer relationship with the RPCNA, may “iron sharpen iron” between the URCNA and the RPCNA rather than iron dulling iron in our egalitarian and often feminist culture.
An ongoing point of external communication that has characterized nearly all of the URCNA synods is her sister relationship to the Canadian Reformed Churches (CanRC). While this issue did not occupy as much attention as it did in Synod London 2010, Synod Nyack continued to interact carefully and communicate with this federation with which it enjoyed “ecclesiastical fellowship.” While the move towards full, organic unity has been delayed in recent years, Synod Nyack did “encourage each classis and consistory to continue to engage the issue of an eventual merger between the CanRC and the URCNA by inviting Canadian Reformed ministers to fill our pulpits, inviting Canadian Reformed representatives to our classis seeking open dialogue with Canadian Reformed brothers regarding any outstanding areas of concern, organizing joint events with Canadian Reformed congregations, attending joint conferences, and writing columns to foster our mutual understanding and affection.” While the language sounds nice, again the question is whether or not the churches and consistories will actually act on the adopted recommendation. Hopefully, office-bearers and congregants on both sides of the aisle are motivated out of a love for Christ to interact with charity, seeking the unity of the church of Jesus Christ. Indeed, Synod Nyack gave ample evidence that the URCNA is engaging in healthy internal and external communication as a federation and with sister federations.
Synod Nyack Evidenced Federational Cooperation
Numerous items of the synodical agenda showed that the URCNA is not guilty of radical independency or congregationalism. Rather, the federation showed cooperation in regards to ministerial training, ministerial credentials, doctrinal commitment, a federational songbook, and a federational missions committee.
In regards to ministerial training, cooperative uniformity and thoroughness in theological education was the goal behind an overture requesting an additional appendix to the Church Order. After extensive debate about possible implications of the appendix, synod adopted “Guidelines for a Thoroughly Reformed Theological Education.” In the unique absence of a seminary governed and supported by the federation, numerous independent seminaries provide theological training for men aspiring to the ministry within the URCNA. These adopted guidelines give both the consistories and the seminaries objective standards by which to evaluate a path for theological education.
Synod also worked together to establish a cooperative and unified approach to the handling of the credentials of ministers and emeritation. It made some progress by amending the Church Order, clarifying the process of emeritation and the holding of credentials, but also established an ad hoc committee to study the issue of ministerial compensation and retirement policies with the mandate to report to the next synod.
Cooperation concerning levels of doctrinal commitment was seen in the much more unified report received from another previously appointed study committee. While Synod London 2010 received two reports from a split committee, with neither one being satisfactory to the body, Synod Nyack 2012 received a much simpler report affirming the URCNA as a biblical and confessional federation of churches.
It seems the issue of a URCNA songbook is as old as the federation itself and is an item that usually reveals a lack of cooperation—or at least a lack of mutual agreement—among the churches. Given decisions made by Synod London 2010, the past two years found many consistories and classes studying a proposed hymnal and formulating overtures for changes either to the committee itself or to synod. After lengthy discussion, some unique decision-making, and rescinding of previously adopted motions, the concerns that were brought to synod were simply forwarded to the Songbook Committee’s attention. It is supposed that these concerns will join the piles of others that were presented directly to the committee itself from various classes. It would seem that the Songbook Committee ought to take a long and careful look at the amount and content of the concerns raised about their work by the churches.
Nevertheless, the delegates of synod expressed what must be taken as a sign of cooperation concerning the necessity of a federational songbook, as it quickly and overwhelmingly approved a recommendation for the URCNA Songbook Committee to work with the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in producing a psalter hymnal. Perhaps the OPC can help the URC accomplish what it could not do with the CanRC—produce a federational songbook.
One of the major items delegates gave attention to was cooperation in the direction and oversight of the church’s missionary and church planting work. Prior to synod, much material had been written, making the case for more cooperation in mission work within the federation. It was apparent that the case had been made as synod quickly organized a standing missions committee with little if any dissent. A bit more discussion went into the adoption of the federational functionary position of missions coordinator. Yet synod overwhelmingly approved this step of cooperation also. Here again the proper execution of the decision will be vital to its success or lack thereof. As a member of a classis with a standing missions committee, I observe that neither the mere existence of a committee nor the diligent labors of that committee will guarantee the church’s enthusiasm for or success in actual mission work.
Synod Nyack Evidenced Federational Centralization
Reflecting on the maturation, communication, and cooperation evidenced in Synod Nyack 2012 leaves one with the impression that synod gave evidence of the federation’s centralization. Interestingly enough my dictionary defines centralize as either “to draw to or gather about a center” or “to bring under one control, esp. in government.” In reference to the church, centralization can be either good or bad. Moreover, perhaps it is a small, subtle step from the good form of centralization to the bad form of centralization. As a federation of churches who voluntarily, and biblically, have avoided independent congregationalism, it is necessary for us “to draw to or gather about a center.” However, as we “gather about a center” it would be unhealthy, and unbiblical, for us “to bring [the churches] under one control.” Synod Nyack displayed a spirit of healthy centralization as the churches drew about a center of mutual cooperation in matters of doctrine and practice. Nevertheless, the danger is always there that the churches slip towards an unhealthy centralization as they are gradually brought under one control in government. Perhaps a way to avoid the danger of being brought under one control in government is to identify clearly what the center is that we as a federation of churches gather around.
For example, if we flesh this idea out in reference to the Songbook Committee and a missions coordinator—since they received the most pre-synod press space—it is good if we, as a federation of churches, gather around the singing of common psalms and hymns and if we mutually coordinate our mission activity. However, as a federation, it will be destructive if the construction of a songbook and the oversight of mission activity are brought under the one control of a committee or a functionary.
Personally, I am not necessarily opposed to a federational functionary in the capacity of mission coordinator. Nor am I opposed to the construction of a URCNA psalter hymnal. However, as I read much of what was written on these issues, I do question the validity of the argument that a federational missions coordinator is essential to our federative unity. I question whether the concerns of the churches in relationship to the proposed songbook are really being addressed. As a side note, I also question the pragmatic argumentation that a federational missions coordinator will expedite the URCNA’s mission and church planting activity. Reflecting on and moving forward with Synod Nyack 2012’s decisions, let us ponder whether cooperation in ecclesiastical activities demands centralization in governmental organization.
As the URCNA transitions from adolescence to young adulthood, it needs to find and maintain a balance between federative unity and consistorial autonomy. Vital to this balance is identifying what is essential to federative unity and what is essential to consistorial autonomy. The federative unity of the URCNA is based on unity in doctrine, as expressed in the Three Forms of Unity, and unity in practice, as expressed in our Church Order. The consistorial autonomy of the URCNA is based on the idea that each local consistory governs the local church. Given these views, there ought to be a comfortable and healthy diversity within unity. Therefore, standing with allowable diversity, may the URCNA draw together around the center of unified doctrine and practice, and may God grant us the wisdom to discern the balance to maintain autonomous unity within the government of His churches.
Rev. Greg Lubbers is pastor of Covenant URC in Byron Center, MI. He served as second clerk at Synod Nyack.