Photo: Rev. D.M. Boersma
Today I’m going to review some of the highlights from Day 7 of Synod Dunnville, the proceedings of Wednesday May 18.
junkies observers have especially been keen to see what would be decided about the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (RCN). A lot was discussed and considered and I’ll do my best to put the end result in an easily-digestible format for you — if you want the full details, see article 104. The Canadians have had a number of items of concern such as the teaching of the Theological University in Kampen, women in office, and relations with the Nederlands Gereformeerde Kerken. Synod considered (3.2) “with sad and heavy hearts” that there is no evidence of returning to the full authority of Scripture on such items of concern and, in fact, things have actually gone further down the “course of deformation.” However, Synod 2016 decided not to fully go the route proposed by the committee (see here). While continuing ecclesiastical fellowship with the RCN, rules 4 and 5 have been suspended. These rules have to do with accepting attestations and allowing ministers on the pulpits. These things are no longer automatic. As for the future, rather than having the RCN Synod 2017 decide by repenting or not, the continuance of EF is something that will have to be determined at the next CanRC Synod in 2019. This approach is similar to that being taken by the Free Reformed Churches here in Australia. Finally, it should be noted that Synod Dunnville did recognize with gratitude that there are still faithful believers in the RCN. There are brothers and sisters who are still trying to right the ship. Yet, sadly, it cannot be denied that there is increasing evidence of “tolerance of deviations from Scripture and the confessions.” We will have to wait another three years to see whether the CanRCs will take the final step of breaking off EF with the RCN. Before then, in 2018, the next FRCA Synod will meet on this side of the world. Given that the Canadian approach appears to be more or less following the Australian, that may be the more defining moment.
- Article 111 features the decisions regarding the Committee for Bible Translation. The gist of it: the ESV continues to be recommended for use in the CanRCs. However, Synod 2016 also noted that a general synod may not forbid the churches to use the NIV2011 if they so desire, even if it’s not possible to recommend that translation. As I see it, the reasoning applied there actually opens up the possibility for local churches to use whatever translation they desire.
- In article 122, the question of how to bring in new hymns was discussed and decided upon. GS 2013 said that churches had to “go the ecclesiastical way” and propose new hymns via classis and regional synod. GS 2016 says, “No, you can send your proposals directly to the Standing Committee for the Book of Praise. They can evaluate and bring forward whatever they think is worthy of consideration.” Another course reversal.
- The question of theological students has been raised, specifically: should they be connected to their “home church”? Should they be examined by their “home classis,” rather than having all the (licensure/candidacy) examinations basically done in one classical region? A proposal came from Regional Synod West 2015 to change the way things are done. Synod Dunnville (article 112) decided to maintain the status quo. A student comes to Hamilton, becomes a member of one of the local churches, and consequently will be examined in that classical region — which means, more often than not, Classis Ontario West.
We spent the weekend (and a bit more) without Internet. As of last night, it’s back up and running and so I can continue the blogging about the recent CanRC Synod. Today let’s review what happened on Day 6, Tuesday May 17. I’m summarizing from the Provisional Acts found here. Some of the highlights from where I’m sitting:
- Article 86 mentions the appeal of Ancaster regarding Dr. Jitse van der Meer. The discussion on that Tuesday was held in closed session. We can skip ahead to Day 7 and article 103. There we find that the decision in this matter is only going to appear in the confidential Acts. And what happened to the Providence appeal? It doesn’t appear again anywhere in the Provisional Acts. I suspect that it might appear in the final, public version of the Acts. We will have to see.
- The matter of women’s voting was certainly something of interest at this Synod for a lot of people. There’s a long history on this topic in the Canadian Reformed Churches. It took a long time for the momentous decision at Synod 2010 recognizing that this is a matter for local churches to decide upon. Synod 2010 left it in the freedom of local churches whether or not they wanted to allow female communicant members to participate in elections for office bearers. Numerous churches appealed that decision to Synod 2013 and it was overturned. By then the horses were already out of the gate. Churches that had been doing it since the decision of Synod 2010 continued doing it in the conviction that this was not agreeable to Scripture, Confessions, and Church Order. More appeals were submitted to Synod 2016. Consequently, this most recent Synod decided that Synod 2013 erred in its overturning of Synod 2010 on this matter. Confused yet? Let me make it simple: the Canadian Reformed Churches are back to where they were after Synod 2010. Whether female communicant members vote or not is a matter for local churches to decide. My view on this has not changed. I remain convinced that there are no sound biblical, confessional, or church political arguments that can be brought to bear against allowing female communicant members to participate in elections for office bearers. I understand that some local churches believe differently about it and thus I think the approach of Synod 2010 (buttressed now by GS 2016) is the best approach — really, it’s the only approach that can be justified. I would urge readers to look carefully at the arguments presented by GS 2016 in the Acts. For this post, I am going to open up the comments. If you want to argue the case for the opposing view or make other comments, I’m giving you the opportunity. However, please don’t expect that I’m going to interact.
- Article 90 dealt with another topic relating to the role of women in church life, but this time in the Reformed Presbyterian Church in North America (RPCNA). The Committee for Contact with Churches in North America (CCCNA) recommended that the CanRCs offer ecclesiastical fellowship to the RPCNA. This despite the fact that the RPCNA allows for women to be ordained as deacons. The CCCNA pointed out that the RPCNA doesn’t consider the deacon to have “an office of ruling authority.” Contrary to the CCCNA’s reasoning, Synod Dunnville decided that the RPCNA’s view on this matter did, in fact, constitute a significant obstacle to EF. After all, article 30 of the Belgic Confession says that faithful men are to be deacons. Moreover, they said (Consideration 3.2.3) that the office of deacon does “involve the exercise of authority in the church.” It appears to be the end of the road for any possibility of formal relations with the RPCNA, though informal interactions will continue through venues like the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council (NAPARC).
I’ve now had the opportunity to take a closer look at the most recent batch of Acts (which you can find here). The highlights from Monday May 16 definitely have to do with the relationship that the CanRCs have with the United Reformed Churches. As you may recall, the CanRCs have been working diligently towards federative unity (a merger) with the URCNA. However, the CanRC efforts have not always been received the way that they hoped they would. I’ve been remarking on this for a few years now. While it must be said that some substantial steps have been taken forward since then (especially in discussions of theological concerns), federative unity appears to be as elusive as ever.
Article 77 of Synod Dunnville is where we find the decisions regarding the Committee for Church Unity Coordinators. Synod observes the comments of the coordinators regarding an overture from URC Classis Pacific Northwest going to URC Synod 2016. If adopted, this overture “will spell the end of the merger in the foreseeable future.” Synod Dunnville, in its considerations, is also not hopeful about the prospects for federative unity: “unification seems unlikely to take place in the near future.” However, they are compelled by love to carry on, regardless of what the prospects may be for the time being. As a result, the Committee for Church Unity carries on and, in fact, Synod Dunnville decided to double the number of coordinators to 4, two each from East and West.
In articles 78-80, the three sub-committees of the CCU are discussed: Liturgical Forms and Confessions, Theological Education, and Church Order. Synod decided to continue these sub-committees as well. Even though there are no URC counterparts mandated to discuss anything with them, Synod Dunnville decided to at least make these brothers available, should there be a change of heart. One wonders how long that approach will last — how many more CanRC Synods will appoint committees who never do any work because their URC counterparts have no mandate to work with them? I can see more churches reaching a point where the futility of this is becoming rather obvious. I might also add that Church Order sub-committee has also been mandated not to entertain any more changes to the Proposed Joint Church Order. I can understand such a decision. Yet I also lament the fact that so much good work, done in good faith, so far has been so poorly received and carries little prospect of serving its intended purpose.
I remember one of my seminary professors speaking of his dream for unity with the United Reformed Churches. He had his mind fixed on 2000, if I remember correctly. The turn of the new millennium came and went. In 2009, I wrote that I didn’t see it happening in the next 10 years. Now I can say that for sure, and not with any joy in the business. Back then I found it deplorable and today I still do. I still think the URCNA and CanRC belong together — they could be stronger together. However, let’s be realistic: it’s not going to happen for a long time, maybe not in even my lifetime. The time is overdue for the CanRCs to get real about this relationship. Rejoice in what has been accomplished and build on it in terms of a vital and mutually beneficial sister-church relationship. And, I might add, I hope that the Free Reformed Churches of Australia will also be able, in due time, to enjoy the fruits of ecclesiastical fellowship with the URC. The ball is rolling…
The Acts of day 5 of the Synod have just been published — but I haven’t yet had the opportunity to review them. In the meantime, a related video has been posted online. In this video, Rev. George van Popta makes a presentation of the 2014 Book of Praise on behalf of the Standing Committee for the Book of Praise. He explains the history of the Book of Praise, including the reasons why the CanRCs didn’t go with an “eclectic Psalter,” but rather chose to use Genevan melodies exclusively for the Psalms. After the presentation to Rev. Richard Aasman (the chairman of Synod Dunnville), you can also hear the singing of two stanzas of Psalm 22.
I’ll make two remarks about the latest set of Provisional Acts (which you can find here).
The other day I used the word “boilerplate” in reference to the Acts of the first day. Perhaps I sent some of you scrambling for a dictionary. “Boilerplate” is a term often used in the legal world to refer to standard wording. If the same wording gets used repeatedly in all kinds of documents (like contracts), you might hear it referred to as “boilerplate.” It’s not a derogatory word, just descriptive. The word came to mind again as I reviewed the latest Acts, especially articles dealing with the Reformed Church of Quebec (art. 59), Reformed Church in the United States (art. 60), and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (art. 61). In each case, there have been concerns expressed in the past about what we used to call “divergences” — a fancy word for different views and practices. Past committees have been mandated to discuss these. Some churches feel that these discussions should go on. Synod 2016 disagrees. In each of the aforementioned articles, you read this boilerplate in the adopted decisions:
Rule 1 of Ecclesiastical Fellowship states that “the churches shall assist each other in the maintenance, defence and promotion of the Reformed faith in doctrine, church polity, discipline and liturgy, and be watchful for deviations.” Within this context, there is always room for discussion about differences in matters of doctrine and practice.
When we enter EF, we accept each other as faithful churches without qualification. Differences that were noted and discussed prior to EF but which did not hinder entering EF, do not require resolution. It is incorrect to speak of “outstanding differences.” The word “outstanding” implies a need for resolution. Bringing up these issues repeatedly, without proper proof of necessity, is potentially damaging to the sister-church relationship. Discussion of these issues may take place naturally in the course of EF, but a specific mandate, identifying particular issues, need not be given.
As I see it, there is a subtext behind past mandates to continue discussing these differences. The subtext was: we have to keep discussing these things until they see things our way. The above-quoted boilerplate is an explicit rejection of that subtext.
Another interesting item in these Acts is the mention of creation as a concern of the ERQ and RCUS. The CCCNA had discussions with their ERQ counterparts about “the interpretation of Genesis 1 and 2 in the CanRC.” They also affirmed to the ERQ that the CanRC “has not adopted any statements regarding the doctrine of creation.” In discussions with RCUS, it “was acknowledged that some in the CanRC are looking for room within the confessions for views other than a literal six-day sequence of creation.” Sister churches are taking note of what’s happening with the doctrine of creation in the CanRC, at least in certain corners.