Report on the URCNA (Part 2)

The Overtures

It seems best to continue by dealing with the overtures in the order in which they appeared in the agenda. Overtures 1 and 2 were brought with the intention of changing the church order in very specific ways.

Overture #1, coming from classis Western Canada, asked to add two words to the text of Article #3 of the Church Order. Both the committee of pre-advice and the whole body of delegates agreed with this overture, while making some slight modifications. The last line of Church Order Article #3 was the sentence in question, and synod by a two-thirds vote agreed to change that line so that it would now read as follows: The council of his church should help ensure that his financial needs are met. In accordance with church order Article #66, the decision of synod must now be ratified by two-thirds of the consistories. Two other decisions of synod will also await consistorial ratification. One as a result of the approval of Overture #2, while the other comes from synod’s approval of a move to establishing Phase 2 Ecclesiastical Fellowship with the RCUS (more on this below).

Overture #2 sought to amend some wording in the “procedure” section of Appendix 1 of the Church Order. Four times in that section the word council appears, and Classis Southwest U.S. asked to have each of those referents changed to Consistory. As with Overture #1, the pre-advice committee and the delegates agreed with the overture, and changed the language. As mentioned, this action also requires ratification by the consistories.

In Overture #3 Classis Western Canada was seeking a standardized calling procedure. The classis noted that such a procedure would protect the relationship between the Minister and his council. The classis also had some concerns that “the questionnaires that are now used by calling committees resemble secular job applications” and they said that “we believe that the initial contact by a calling committee should not be directed to the Minister.” The synodical committee of pre-advice tasked to study this overture brought back to the delegates a recommendation that “synod not accede to overture #3.” This committee listed as grounds the following: a. Church Order articles 6-8 address these concerns. b. Though the overture raises a perceived issue, it does not offer a solution. The delegates of synod did not accede to the overture.

Classis Southwest U.S. brought a very noteworthy overture in #4. This overture asked to have the 1976 edition of the Psalter Hymnal reprinted again. The needs as listed in the overture (amount of time since it was last reprinted; a new hymnal is still several years from completion; the 1976 Psalter is known among our churches) wereagreed to by both the pre-advice committee and delegates. Synod acceded to the overture. Responsibility for implementation of republication was placed by synod into the hands of the Psalter Hymnal committee.

In related matters, the Psalter Hymnal Committee brought a report to the meeting of synod, covering much detail, and making four recommendations. The first recommendation was that synod approve the “Principles and Guidelines for the Selection of Music in the Church.” It was noted by this committee that the Canadian Reformed Churches have approved these “Principles and Guidelines…” Synod adopted this first recommendation with a slight amendment to one of the guidelines.

The second recommendation coming from the Psalter Hymnal Committee was somewhat more amended by the pre-advice committee and then adopted by the delegates. The amended second recommendation reads as follows: That synod recommend that our churches familiarize themselves with the Book of Praise (Anglo-Genevan Psalter).

The committee’s third recommendation adopted by synod led to the formation of another standing committee. The recommendation was as follows: That synod relieve our (Psalter Hymnal) committee of the non-musical section (liturgical forms, creeds and confessions, prayers, etc.) of the new book and appoint another committee to accomplish this task. In advising synod to approve this recommendation, the pre-advice committee suggested that …synod appoint no more than five members to the committee assigned the “nonmusical section” of the new book.

One final recommendation brought by the Psalter Hymnal committee sought to increase the size of the committee working on the “musical” section of the new book. Since that committee has lost some members, it felt that more members may make the work go more smoothly (as in a higher percentage of the members could be at more of the meetings, etc.). Synod also acceded to this request by adding five individuals to the committee.

Overture #5 was adopted by synod. In accordance with this overture, Covenant Pella URC was chosen to gather information from all of the synodically-appointed committees and the federation treasurers to “…discover how monies are gathered and authorized for disbursement.” They are also charged to “Determine whether there are concerns with how monies are gathered and authorized for disbursement; Determine ways that the concerns might best be addressed…” Pella is also to bring recommendations to the next synod “…concerning the establishments of budgets, authorization, procedures and principals for disbursement based upon the information received.”

The concern behind this overture was the nature of “…various standing and ad hoc committees...” for which there is currently “…no quota, neither is there a budget amount set-funds that must be collected so that the various legitimate costs incurred can be paid. Neither, for that matter, are there any guidelines in place as to what may be spent, who may authorize committee and committee members’ expenditures, etc” If the URCNA through its various committees is going to continue the work the Lord is giving us to do this will necessitate some kind of procedural direction based upon current and foreseeable situations.

Overture #6 took a rather steep roller-coaster ride on the floor of synod. This overture came to synod from Classis Southwest with the request to “…authorize the formation of Classis Pacific Northwest…” In the original overture ten churches were named that could make up this new classis. However as events developed the pre-advice committee brought to the floor a recommendation amending the overture by allowing the two Canadian churches of the original ten mentioned to remain within classis Western Canada. This change was requested by those two Canadian congregations for a variety of practical reasons, including international border issues, financial issues and cooperative venture concerns (in terms of mission outreach, youth ministries, etc.). Since the current classis Southwest U.S. includes 19 churches ranging from Phoenix, AZ. to Loveland, CO. and from Lynden, WA. to Escondido, CA. it was thought that this classis was too large and too far separated for good order.

The pre-advice committee brought a motion to create a new classis consisting of eight US congregations. The motion was initially adopted by the delegates. However, a short while later a motion to reconsider was successful. The result was that the original decision to create a new classis was tabled indefinitely. This decision by synod was the answer to both overture #6 and overture #14.

The delegates received one more opportunity to address the issue of young children coming to the Lord’s table in the form of Overture #7. It was very obvious to the delegates that this issue is one of immediate importance to many of the churches of the URCNA. Finding an easy answer to this problem would prove to be impossible, for two separate questions within the one larger consideration needed to be sorted out: First was the matter of age. Should a child have to reach some “bench-mark” age before the consistory should begin the profession-of-faith interview process unto granting them access to the table? Second, and to the substance of this overture was the more basic question, “does Scripture, as summarized in our Confessions, declare that a public profession of faith is necessary before one partake of the Lord’s supper?” The history of this overture, coming from a congregation within classis Western Canada (the Orthodox Reformed Church of Edmonton) is vitally connected to the appeals #’s 2 and 3 and the examination of a man for candidacy as previously mentioned. Synod did make a clear pronouncement about this second “branch” of the young children at the Lord’s table issue. After a little “tweaking” on the floor of synod, the final wording adopted was: The confessions to which the URCNA subscribe (the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, the Canons of Dort) accurately summarize the teaching of Scripture, for example, 1st Corinthians 11.24-25; 28. Thus our confessions, in harmony with the Scripture, require that the Lord’s Supper be administered only to those who have publicly professed their faith, in the presence of God and His holy church. There need be no question as to where the URCNA stands on this aspect of the young children at the Lord’s table issue. A profession of faith is required in our churches. However, to the more complicated question, namely, “at what age shall children be admitted to the Lord’s table”, it seemed as though synod felt unable to specifically answer this concern of the churches, or even to give advice to the churches. This is probably due to the fact that the appeals which addressed this question more basically put before synod a concern about the relationship of the authority of a consistory to her classis. In answering that question of authority (IE. Whose right is it to declare at what age the consistory may begin to interview children), synod did not answer the more broad question swirling in some of our churches about appropriate age to make profession of faith and thus be granted access to the Lord’s table. This fact is seen in what synod ultimately decided in regards to one congregation that was provisionally accepted by her classis for membership in the URCNA. Remember the Tacoma church? The ratification of their membership was finally tabled indefinitely, due in large part to the remaining uncertainty about their practice of interviewing young children (perhaps as young as 8) and granting them access to the table after a profession of faith. At the same time, synod encouraged the Tacoma congregation to continue to assess it’s practice and to continue pursuing membership with the URCNA.

Related Overtures 8, 9, 10, 11, though differing significantly in the exact issues to which they were addressed, were dealt with in very similar ways by synod. Each of these overtures sought to have the synod of the URCNA declare or affirm an explicit position in relation to a current theological or moral/ ethical issue. In all four cases synod demurred and did not accede to any of the overtures. Thus, in regard to an attempt to have synod affirm a specific statement about the interpretation of Genesis chapters 1 & 2 (Overture #8), and in regard to a request to have synod declare a specific position regarding “…death before the Fall in Paradise…” (Overture #9) the response from the delegates in both cases was the same “1. The overtures do not demonstrate that expanded statements are needed.

1. Where the churches believe the confessions are being violated they should be encouraged to address these matters in church orderly manner (Cf. Church Order Articles 51–62)

There was also agreement from the delegates as to how to answer Overture #10 – a request by Classis Michigan to have synod declare that “All homosexual desires and actions are sins that are condemned by the Word of God and the confessional standards of the URC”. In stead Synod answered this overture by saying that “1. Scripture is clear with respect to the sinfulness of Homosexuality: 1 Corinthians 6:9–11, Romans 1:26,27, Matthew 5:27,28.

2. Our Three Forms of Unity sufficiently address our federative beliefs about homosexuality (HC Q/A 108).

This is virtually the same language, just with different Scripture and confessional references employed to answer overture #11, also from Michigan concerning abortion. It interesting to note that in giving the grounds for not acceding to these last two overtures (10,11) that the pre-advice committee sent three grounds to the floor of synod, and in each case the third ground (The status and authority of extra confessional synodical declarations is unclear, and should be defined before any such declaration is made.) was amended out of the final answer. That this ground was not included undoubtedly bespeaks a broader concern within our churches as to the status of “extra confessional” statements.

In considering overtures #12 and 13 synod also needed to deal with the reports of both the ‘Committee for Ecumenical Relations and Church Unity’ (CERCU) and the ‘Committee for Ecumenical Contacts with Churches Abroad’ (CECCA). Responsibility to advise synod in relations to these materials was again placed in the hands of a pre-advice committee. In studying the overtures together with the reports of these two standing committees, the pre-advice committee was able to proffer several recommendations to the delegates: First, in regard to placing members on the committees, synod decided “that nominations be given by the churches to their classis, which will appoint one member and an alternate member per classis to each committee”. This decision holds for both CERCU and CECCA. The next recommendation was adopted in respect to CERCU, but was rejected for CECCA. It says: “That synod appoint three members at large and one alternate.” Term of service was also designated by synod for members of both committees by adopting this recommendation: “All committee members serve for a term of three years. Each member is eligible for reappointment for up to two more terms of service (total of three terms).

The same committee of pre-advice was tasked with recommending to synod the groups with which to pursue church union. These recommendations would flow out of information and recommendations placed before synod from CERCU.

Before it could present such recommendations, the committee of pre-advice had to bring to procedural matters relating to church union before the delegates. The first of these was the substance of overture #13 and was a proposed change in the Church Order seeking to impact how we proceed in Ecumenicity and church union considerations. The motion asked “That synod define majority in this situation (Article 36) as two thirds of the consistories.” However, this motion was ruled out of order by Rev. Ron Scheuers, synod’s Chairman. Another procedural matter that was considered, and this time adopted by synod, changes how we proceed in the steps/phases of Church Union by amending Phase 3 to now read “Entering this phase requires ratification by a majority of the consistories.”

Having dealt with the procedural matters, synod was now ready to speak in respect levels of church union with various groups. Here is what was decided:

  • Phase 2 with the RCUS—Reformed Church in the United States—(as was mentioned above this will require a ratification vote by the consistories)
  • Phase 1 with both the ERQ- [as translated] Reformed Church of Quebec, and the RPCNA-Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America.
  • Synod also agreed that our federation will apply for membership in NAPARC (North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council).
  • Finally, synod, with regret, removed the name of the PRC (Protestant Reformed Churches) from the federations with whom the committee is mandated to pursue ecumenical relations.

Fraternal Greetings

Perhaps it would be well to mention briefly here that synod joyously received warm fraternal greetings from churches in our own country, outside our borders, and from across many miles. These included representatives of the RCUS, the Canadian Reformed Churches, the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (Liberated), the Reformed Churches in South Africa, the Reformed Church in New Zealand, the PCA, the OPC, the FRCNA, and the OCRC. Each of these men, along with Rev. Hans Uitenbosch of Seafearer’s ministry were granted time to address synod. Synod also received correspondence from various other groups.

New Committees

Synod’s work was not limited to the theological, pastoral, and ecclesiastical realms. The delegates also had to make it to the top of mountains of technical questions in financial, synodical rules, and internet areas. The committee of pre-advice told to deal with the question of the Federation’s web site brought back advice that synod adopted, yet with slight but telling modification. That committee recommended the Federation shall maintain a web site

“…with the following purposes:

a) to provide an introduction to and information regarding URCNA (history, confessional statements, church order, etc.)

b) to act as a current directory for the churches; c) to publish minutes and/or reports of classis and synod;

d) to act as an interactive communications tool for the Federation, including the Stated Clerk, Convening Church and Synodical committees;

e) to include such other information that is for the benefit of the churches and the federation

On the floor of synod the last recommendation (letter “e”) was deleted. The discussion regarding it’s deletion revolved around concerns about publishing “extraconfessional” statements on the Federation’s website. To facilitate the maintaining of this Federation web site a synodical committee was created. The members of this committee will consist of the Stated Clerk along with one representative from each Classis. Each Classis will need to appoint their representative to the service of this committee. To facilitate the funding of the Federation web site the committee of pre-advice recommended that each classis contribute $500.00 by December 31, 2004, and $500.00 annually thereafter. The delegates to synod also agreed with this recommendation and handed the task managing the funds to the treasurers of the

URCNA U.S. and Canadian corporations.At the request of the stated clerk, synod agreed to establish an ad hoc committee (whose members will consist of the members of the URCNA Church Order committee) to recommend URCNA Synodical Rules. It was generally agreed by the delegates that a sufficient lack of clarity existed within the congregations to warrant establishing yet another committee. The lack of clarity to which this committee will speak was noticed in four general areas: First, a need for a common standard of parliamentary law; Second, a lack of standardization in the wording and structure of appeals, as well as with standards of admissibility; Third, questions as to both the authority and responsibilities of both the Stated Clerk and the convening Consistory of synod meetings; and Fourth the responsibilities of the Stated Clerk between synod meetings. This ad hoc committee is to make their report available to the churches at least nine months before the next synod and then bring its recommendations to that next meeting of synod.

Financial Matters

In financial matters synod did slightly tighten the purse strings on one of its committees, the Committee for Ecumenical Contact with Churches Abroad (CECCA). The exchange of official observers from the URCNA (from the CECCA committee?) to the major assemblies of churches abroad was limited by a motion from the floor of synod such that “…one visit be made to one assembly/church per year of churches with whom ecumenical relations are being established.”

In another financial matter a pre-advice committee recommended to the delegates that each Classis work to establish a “Classical Ministers Assistance Fund” to be drawn upon if and when needed to aid churches in providing pension help to its minister. Such a fund would be managed by a church in each Classis and the church visitors would query each Council if it needed assistance from the fund. However, this fund was proposed as a “safety net” measure. As such it was the second recommendation offered by the pre-advice committee. The first recommendation and in principal the first source of contributions to the Minister’s retirement (other than the Minister’s own contributions) was still recognized to be the local congregation.

To that end, the first recommendation of the committee was that “Each Classis be responsible for overseeing that each church in the Classis is contributing to their Pastor’s retirement plan.” Then if the church visitors discern from the local Council that a church is in need of help in carrying out this responsibility, they would direct the church to make application to the Classical fund. These guidelines are meant to give clarification to the wording of Church Order Article 10, and would guide the local council in applying that article to the local situation.

Finally, let it be known that your new stated clerk is Mr. Bill Konynenbelt of the Bethel URC of Calgary, and synod will meet again, Lord willing, July 9-13 2007 at the Community United Reformed Church in Schereville, Indiana.

In Job we read that the Lord moves mountains without mortals knowing it (Chapter 9) and it seemed that way to most of the delegates of synod. Almost with realizing it the work given to synod was finished. Friday afternoon around 3:30 the work was all but completed. When the work was finished the delegates could have rightly mused that “The mountains melt like wax before the LORD, before the Lord of all the earth.” (Psalm 97.5) The work, efforts, actions, decisions, plans, and many prayers of the delegates of synod and of all the members, family, and friends of the United Reformed Churches in North America all add up to this final sum: the Son of God, out of the whole human race, from the beginning of the world, gathers, defends, and preserves for Himself, by His Spirit and Word, in the unity of true faith, a Church chosen to everlasting life…indeed, As the mountains surround Jerusalem, so the LORD surrounds His people both now and forever more.

Rev. Harold Miller is the pastor of the United Reformed Church in Wellsburg, Iowa.