The third synod of the United Reformed Churches in North America (URC) convened on Tuesday, June 15, 1999, at the Cornerstone United Reformed Church in Hudsonville, Michigan. One hundred twenty six delegates from 69 churches (all but two) were present as well as fraternal observers and many visitors. After opening devotions, a roll call and giving assent to the Form of Subscription, the first major item of business was the ratification of classical decisions to admit new congregations into the federation. Ten congregations had been provisionally admitted by classes since the last synod. Synod ratified the admission of them all. Synod’s joy in admitting ten new churches was tempered by the announcement that two other congregations, one in Agassiz, British Columbia and the other in Longmont, Colorado, had disbanded since the last synod.
After the admission of the new churches and the seating of their delegates, officers for synod were elected. Mr. Chuck Dykstra, an elder delegate from Trinity Orthodox Reformed Church (URC) of St. Catharines, Ontario, was elected chairman of synod. He had also served as chairman of the previous synod in October of 1997 which had been hosted by his home congregation. Rev. Arthur Besteman, pastor of the Beverly URC in Wyoming, Michigan, was elected vice-chairman. The stated clerk of the federation, Rev. Jerome Julien, served as clerk of the assembly.
The majority of delegates were divided into eleven committees of pre-advice, and each committee was assigned a portion of the agenda in order to prepare recommendations to the full body on how each agenda item should be handled. Synod then recessed so that the committees could work on their recommendations.
At various times, fraternal observers from other denominations brought greetings and words of encouragement. Greetings were received from the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, the Canadian Reformed Churches, the Orthodox Christian Reformed Churches, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, the Protestant Reformed Churches, the Reformed Church in the United States, the Reformed Presbyterian Church in North America, and the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (Liberated). A letter of greeting was read from the Presbyterian Church in America whose General Assembly was meeting simultaneously.
When advisory committees began to report, there were several recommendations to appoint study committees. In response to three such recommendations, synod requested one or more congregations to be responsible for the study rather than appoint a synodical committee. In response to an overture, synod requested a member church to research the availability of group heath insurance for ministers and employees of URC churches. In response to two other overtures, synod also requested two congregations, one in Canada and one in the United States to investigate the feasibility of establishing a voluntary retirement pension plan for the benefit of pastors and full time employees of URC churches. Synod also responded to an overture by appointing two Canadian congregations to study the matter of charitable gift status under the rules of Revenue Canada.
Synod approved two sets of Articles of Incorporation, one for the United States and one for Canada, to create a corporate entity in each country which will hold title to the federation’s name and anything else belonging to the federation, and also to carry out any limited functions assigned to it by a synod. The members of these corporations are not the respective churches of each country but five individuals in each country, appointed by synod to serve until the next synod. The stated clerk of the federation was instructed to apply for “Recognition of Exemptions” under 501 (c)3 of the Internal Revenue Code on behalf of all URC congregations in the United States.
In an important ecumenical matter, the synod extended an invitation to the Orthodox Christian Reformed Churches (OCRC) to unite with the URC in federative union on the basis of the Three Forms of Unity and the URC Church Order. Should the churches of the OCRC decide to accept this invitation, they will be received immediately into the federation without conducting a colloquium for their ministers. The URC Church Order requires that all decisions regarding entering into fraternal relations with other federations be ratified by a majority of consistories. Consistories were asked to vote on ratification of the decision to invite the OCRC into union, and reply to the stated clerk by July 31 of this year so that the invitation, if ratified, can be included on the agenda for the OCRC synod this fall.
In other matters relating to ecumenicity, synod approved a mandate and guidelines for the Committee for Ecumenical Relations and Church Unity. Their mandate is to pursue and make recommendations to synod regarding the establishment of ecumenical relations with those federations selected by synod. The guidelines call for three phases of ecumenicity. The first phase, “Corresponding Relations,” is an exploratory stage with the intent that, by dialogue and correspondence, mutual understanding and appreciation may develop. The second phase, “Ecclesiastical Fellowship,” is centered on a recognition and acceptance of each federation by the other as true and faithful churches of the Lord Jesus Christ. Such recognition and acceptance is viewed as a step toward eventual organic union. It includes table and pulpit fellowship as well as cooperation and assistance in the tasks and activities of the churches. The third phase of ecumenicity is “Church Union.” The third phase is one of integration with the intent that the two federations, being united in true faith, and where contiguous geography permits, shall proceed to complete church unity.
Synod approved entering into Corresponding Relations with the Canadian Reformed Churches and with the Free Reformed Churches and, in view of the newly defined terms, reaffirmed the last synod’s decision to enter into Corresponding Relations with the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. The synod also set up an additional committee for establishing ecumenical relations with church federations outside the United States and Canada.
Synod said “no” to an overture from Class is Southwest US which proposed inviting a number of faithful Presbyterian and Reformed federations to join together in a single federation under one General Synod with each federation forming a particular synod of that federation. Though the delegates appreciated the intent of this overture, they felt that our membership in the International Conference of Reformed Churches (ICRC), and working toward a North American chapter of the ICRC, was a better avenue for such ecumenicity.
Synod approved a proposal to begin work on a new song book of both Psalms and hymns. The delegates were cautioned, however. that the process can be long and expensive. A committee was appointed to oversee the project and to report regularly to synod for approval of their work. Since many churches need new song books now, encouragement was also given for the republication of the 1976 blue Psalter Hymnal. Churches wishing to place an order for such books should contact the Bethel URC of Jenison, Michigan, by September 30. A committee from the Bethel church will determine the price per book after the total number of books needed is known. Arrangements will then be made for its republication.
Synod set up a study committee to articulate a Biblical and Reformed view of missions and suggest practical strategies for its implementation. It also set up an investigative committee to identify mission opportunities in Mexico. The delegates were also privileged to hear an address from Rev. Steve Poelman of the Cornerstone URC, Hudsonville, Michigan, concerning the trials, tribulations and successes of his mission work in India.
In other matters, synod turned down a request to appoint a committee to develop new liturgical forms. It also judged that churches which come into the federation through Church Order, Article 22 (churches organized under the supervision of an existing URC consistory) do require ratification of their admittance by synod. The Form of Subscription, which had never been officially adopted, was approved with a few editorial changes for clarity. An alternate stated clerk for the federation was elected.
The Escondido URC of Escondido, California, was designated the convening church for the next synod to be held in June of 2001. Synod concluded its work early Thursday evening.
Rev. Pontier is pastor of Redeemer URC in Orange City, IA.