Some guys have had the unfortunate experience of unrequited attraction/love. You know how it happens: you’re a young single man and you spy an attractive young lady and hope for the best. However, despite your best efforts (and despite trying to convince yourself that she still might be interested), after a while it finally becomes apparent that hell is going to resemble the Arctic before this interest ever develops into something remotely resembling a meaningful relationship. It took a while, but you finally got a clue and moved on.
Early in the process, it was common to use relational metaphors to describe the relationship between the churches that separated from the CRC in the 1990s and the Canadian Reformed Churches (CanRC). Eventually, those churches that separated federated and became known as the United Reformed Churches of North America (URCNA). I can remember articles in Christian Renewal and elsewhere that spoke of our relationship as an engagement, with the idea that we were pledged to be married to one another. Then some alleged that table fellowship, exchanging pulpits, etc. was akin to having inappropriate relations before marriage. That took the metaphor a little too far and may have contributed to its demise. However, as we approach another synod year for both the URCNA and CanRC, I think it’s worth reconsidering. In particular, I believe that we can describe the relationship in terms similar to those I outlined in the introductory paragraph: unrequited attraction/love.
My observation is that the relationship between the CanRC and URCNA is stalled. A merger, should it ever happen, is many years down the road. It’s not even anywhere near a possibility within ten years. I would argue that some of this is to be attributed to the URCNA’s lack of ecumenical motivation when it comes to the CanRC. The CanRC has been the eager suitor and the URCNA the girl with a lot going for her, but not a lot of interest in her eager suitor.
This has been evidenced in three areas in the last five years. First, while there are important exceptions (think: Church Order), recent URC synods have made less than satisfactory appointments to some of their ecumenical committees. Some committee members have been appointed who are either unwilling or unable to meet with their CanRC counterparts. Why, one committee’s members were even appointed with the proviso that they would not have to travel for meetings. Whatever happened to crossing oceans for the sake of ecumenicity? Now we can’t be bothered. It’s shameful.
Second, there has been a lack of reciprocity in the unity process. The key example here is the Theological Education sub-committees. At the CanRC Synod in 2007, our seminary professors were taken off this committee so that there would be no conflict of interest. Our hope was that the URC Synod would reciprocate. Instead, the URC Synod continued the appointments of Mid-America and Westminster Seminary California professors to their Theological Education committee. As much as I respect these brothers, it has to be said that this gives the impression that protecting seminary turf is more important than ecumenicity. If this unity process is really a matter of good faith, there should be conscious reciprocity at the synodical level and the avoidance of any perception of a conflict of interest.
Finally, URC ecumenical committees have sometimes been saddled with ambiguous mandates vis-a-vis the CanRC. Remember the songbook committee? Was it mandated to work on a joint songbook or develop something just for the URCNA? Eventually, the last URC synod decided for the latter, but not until a lot of work had been put into a joint songbook. And what about the Liturgical Forms and Confessions committee? Is it mandated to create joint forms, prayers and confessions with the CanRC or develop something just for the URCNA? I would not say that it has been deliberate (I don’t believe it has), but there is no better way to sabotage the unity process than come up with ambiguous mandates for your ecumenical committees.
So, to my CanRC brothers and sisters, I say: it’s time to get a clue. The URCNA is not that into you. Yes, I know, there are locales where things are going tickety-boo. But I’m speaking about the big picture here. In the big picture, the vast majority of the URCNA is not really that interested in a merger with the CanRC.
But there’s another side to this story. Going back to the introductory metaphor, imagine the same young man with unwashed hair, talking with his mouth full and otherwise lacking in decorum. He doesn’t have a clue that he’s a bit of a chump. It’s no wonder that she’s not into him. Anyone can see that he needs to pull up his socks if he’s going to find a girl.
There are concerns in some URC circles about the theology that lives in the CanRC. Efforts have been made to discuss this in a meaningful way so as to allay those concerns. Some years ago already, Classis Southwest approached the CanRC ecumenical committee with a set of questions. The questions have never been answered. Because of our claims to just be bound to the confessions, there is an unwillingness in the CanRC to talk theology in an official way. But this is what has to be done if we’re to win the girl! There have also been several private initiatives to discuss covenant theology. They have all failed to produce any meetings of our theologians. Sometimes the fault for that has been at the feet of the CanRC, sometimes at the feet of the URC. But the only public and official initiatives have come from the side of the URC and went nowhere because of CanRC foot-dragging.
I believe I can make a claim to be one of the most favourable CanRC ministers to the URC. I love the United Reformed Churches. I have many close friends in the URC. I value these relationships and I wish they could go deeper. We belong together in one federation. Our witness to the world could be much stronger for it. Our love for the gospel could grow for it. But for many reasons, including the ones listed above, I don’t think that it’s realistic in the near future. It may lay a generation or more off. Maybe we need a sabbatical from this process. Then perhaps in ten years we can revisit this matter. In the meantime, there are are more productive things that we could be doing as Canadian Reformed Churches.