When I was a missionary back in the early 2000s, I was working in a remote community where most people spoke English as a second language. Additionally, these people had received little exposure to biblical teaching. Our goal in that place was to establish a Reformed church. Getting to that goal was going to be a long, incremental process. Part of the process was introducing our fledgling congregation to our time-tested, biblically sound liturgical forms. Since the Church Order does not apply to uninstituted, missionary congregations in the same way as to instituted, established churches, we had some flexibility. With the Lord’s Supper and baptism forms, we adapted and simplified the existing forms. This was done with the involvement both of the mission board and our supervising/sending consistory. We aimed to reduce complex sentence structures and put the vocabulary and grammar as much as possible into Easy English. The only form that became longer was the one for Public Profession of Faith. In that instance, we adapted a form that had been used in Reformed mission work in Brazil — it had questions specifically related to repudiating Roman Catholicism. In a missionary environment, working with an uninstituted congregation, this kind of flexibility is not only permissible, but often necessary.
But what about with an instituted church? Instituted churches bind themselves to what they have agreed upon in the Church Order. In both the Free Reformed Churches of Australia and Canadian Reformed Churches we have agreed that the sacraments shall be administered “with the use of the adopted forms” (FRCA CO 51, CanRC CO 56). But what does that mean exactly? Does that mean ministers are bound to read the forms exactly as we have them in the Book of Praise?
Our Church Order is not “the law of the Medes and Persians,” but it is also not a wax nose which you can point in whatever direction you wish. Along with each article, there is historical background and also a history of interpretation. The FRCA and CanRC Church Orders are based on the Church Order of Dort. The original CO of Dort divided up the mention of the baptism and Lord’s Supper forms. Article 58 said that “ministers shall employ the forms pertaining to the institution and administration of baptism.” About the Lord’s Supper, article 62 said that “the Form for the Administration of the Lord’s Supper, together with the prayer for that purpose, shall be read at the Table.” From this, it is reasonable to conclude that, with both forms, the original intent of Dort was that the forms should be read exactly as written.
Why did the whole idea of set liturgical forms develop in the first place? It was because there such a diverse range of things being said in worship about the sacraments in the Reformed churches in the Netherlands. Each pastor had his own ideas and perspective; sometimes these appeared to be at odds with one another. It was confusing and chaotic. So it was considered wise and helpful to have uniformity in the way the sacraments were taught and administered.
In the history of the CanRC and FRCA, the normal understanding of the Church Order has been that we are bound to read the forms as written. Ministers are not permitted to add and subtract from these forms at their whim, nor is there license to paraphrase at will. Yes, there is room for minor, non-substantial variations. For example, when I read the Prayer of Thanksgiving after baptism, I always insert the full name of the child at the end of the prayer. There I’m simply substituting the full name for the pronoun “he (or she).” That’s not a substantial change.
Let me make two concluding points.
First, I’m convinced our liturgical forms could still use improvement in terms of syntax, grammar, and vocabulary. In their current form they are beautiful, faithful, and useful, but they could be made more so. When ministers feel the need to teach classes on the liturgical forms, and commentaries on the liturgical forms have been written, we may have a problem. If they are to be regarded as quasi-sermons, our forms ought to be able to stand on their own as clear and faithful expositions of the essentials when it comes to the sacraments and other ordinances. Now, there is a proper church political process to follow to make these sorts of changes. Ministers on their own have no right to make changes to these forms independently of the proper process. The forms are not ours to change.
Second, let me come back to what I said earlier about the Church Order not being “the law of the Medes and Persians” (which can never be changed — Esther 1:19). I can imagine a situation where there is an instituted church facing special circumstances where it may not be feasible or desirable to read the liturgical forms exactly as written. But in that case, again, it is not up for an individual minister or even for a consistory, to unilaterally forsake what has been agreed upon in the Church Order. In those circumstances, the matter should be brought to a classis. If an instituted church believes their circumstances require them to adapt the liturgical forms in some way, then present the matter to a classis for explanation and discussion. At the very least, the other churches should be made aware that this particular church feels unable to maintain that part of what has been agreed upon. This is part of what it means to live together in a federation. We do everything “decently and in order” (1 Cor. 14:40) because our God is a God of order.