Eight members of the URCNA Committee For Ecumenical Relations and Church Unity (CERCU) met in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania from November 11–13 in order to conduct committee business and to bring greetings on behalf of the URCNA to the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council (NAPARC). Present at the meeting from the URC were Rev. Peter Vellenga, Rev. Richard Stienstra, Rev. Ralph Pontier, Rev. John Bouwers, Rev. Harry Zekveld, Rev. Todd Joling, Mr. Chuck Dykstra and Mr. Robert Clausing.
Tuesday noon until Wednesday noon was taken up by observing NAPARC and evaluating its purpose and functioning. NAPARC is a group of conservative, confessionally Reformed and Presbyterian churches in North America whose stated purpose is to promote communication and cooperation between member denominations in promoting the Reformed faith and to “hold before one another the desirability and need for organic union of churches that are of like faith and practice.” Several member churches of NAPARC are among those which CERCU has been mandated to contact and being present at NAPARC allowed the committee to have both formal and informal meetings with them.
Current member churches are the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church (ARP), the Eglise Reformee du Quebec (ERQ), the Korean American Presbyterian Church (KAPC), the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC), the Presbyterian Church of America (PCA), the Reformed Church of the United States (RCUS), and the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America (RPCNA). The RPCNA served as host for this year’s meeting. In addition to the member churches, observers were present from the Canadian Reformed Churches, the Free Reformed Churches and the URCNA.
Up until a few years ago the Christian Reformed Church had also been a member denomination. They were one of the charter members who helped organize NAPARC in 1975. However their membership was first suspended and then terminated because of their endorsement of women elders and ministers on the basis that the Biblical prohibitions against women rulers no longer apply.
Our committee came to observe the meeting and evaluate the organization. In our committee’s address to the body, we respectfully challenged NAPARC to seek to be more active in the pursuit of its original purpose to promote organic union. Our remarks prompted a good discussion revealing a growing realization among the members that they must do more to make every effort toward a more thorough demonstration of the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Ephesians 4:3).
At a subsequent meeting of our own committee we decided to recommend to Synod Calgary 2004 that our churches apply for membership in NAPARC (a two year process for NAPARC requiring approval at one of their annual meetings followed by approval of the major assemblies of the member churches). Although we were disappointed to see what little progress NAPARC had made in its 28 year history (only two member denominations have merged and most of its efforts during the last ten years have focused on disciplining the CRC), nevertheless we believe the organization provides opportunity for good communication and cooperation between denominations and does motivate member churches to work harder at ecumenical relations. We also feel that, if accepted into membership, we can represent the continental Reformed tradition better than is now being done in an organization that is made up primarily of Presbyterians.
During the first evening of our time at NAPARC all the delegates and observers were treated to dinner at nearby Geneva College in Beaver Falls by the RPCNA delegation. (Geneva is owned by the RPCNA.) Following the dinner we had an inspirational evening listening to and joining in a cantata on the life of Christ that made use of Gospel readings and corresponding Psalter selections that were sung by a choir from the college community.
NAPARC adjourned at noon on Wednesday after which our committee had a luncheon meeting with the two delegates from the ERQ. Later that afternoon, meeting among ourselves, we decided to recommend to Synod Calgary 2004 that we enter into Phase 1 (Corresponding Relations) with the ERQ and the RPCNA. The ERQ is a small group of churches in Quebec with about 300 members in seven churches. The ERQ is a French speaking denomination. The RPCNA, or “Covenanters” as they are called, is a group of churches that sing only Psalms and without musical accompaniment. Their roots are in Scottish Presbyterianism and they have a long history in North America dating back to the 1700s. They have about 6,500 members in 75 churches. We have sent a number of observers to the RPCNA General Assemblies over the past several years and felt it was time to begin formal conversations with them.
We also decided to recommend to our synod that we enter into Phase 2 (Ecclesiastical Fellowship) with the RCUS. This is a group of about 40 churches that subscribe to the Three Forms of Unity, as we do, and are of German background. Most of their churches are found in the Dakotas and California with a few others scattered about the Midwest. If approved by synod and ratified by the churches, this will place the RCUS in the same phase of relations as we now have with the Canadian Reformed Churches. Although it may be premature to set up unity committees with the RCUS, it might prove helpful to invite them to send official observers (non-voting) to interact with our unity committees with the Canadian Reformed Churches.
Wednesday evening we met for the first time with a delegation of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church. This is also a group with a long and distinguished history in North America and are of Scottish Presbyterian heritage. Their churches are mostly found in North and South Carolina. However, in the past fifteen years they have established a presence in Canada and in other parts of the USA. There are currently nine of their churches in Canada. We are just beginning to get to know this group of churches and trust that we will have more contact in the future. We are not yet in any formal phase of relations with them.
Finally, for most of Thursday, we met with a large delegation from the OPC’s Committee for Interchurch Relations. We have had several meetings with this committee in the past and have been making good progress. As was reported to Synod Escondido 2001 by a special study committee, there is a strong amount of agreement doctrinally and confessionally between us and the OPC even though, as Presbyterians, they hold to the Westminster Confession and Catechisms instead of our Three Forms of Unity. Our differences are more in the area of church government, and that, for the most part, was the focus of our discussions again on Thursday. It was a great privilege that we could speak openly and candidly about these differences with an underlying confidence that, by the grace of God, we stand on the same solid confessional foundation. We look forward to continued and profitable contact with this group of churches. We are currently in Phase 1 (Corresponding Relations) with the OPC.
All the meetings were a productive and encouraging time of work and fellowship. The reason for such work is the command of our Lord to “make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3) and who prayed that the unity of the church would be visible in order to bear witness to the world of the Father’s saving love (John 17:23). We confess that God’s church is one church (see BC Art. 27). The Spirit makes us one. And it is our duty to manifest that unity by working at reconciliation—seeking to remove all differences and divisions caused by sin. May God give us grace to “make every effort.”
Rev. John A. Bouwers is the pastor of the Immanual Orthodox Reformed Church of Niagra [URC] in Jordan, Ontario.
Rev. Ralph A. Pontier is the minister of the Redeemer United Reformed Church of Orange City, Iowa.