Annexing or Merger? - Dr. J. De Jong
with permission from the Clarion Volume 48, No. 19, Sept. 17, 1999
Over the summer Clarion has published some of the material that led to the current state of doctrinal agreement that we have been pursuing with delegates from the United Reformed Churches of North America (URCNA). According to our calling and task we have been involved in the promotion of ecclesiastical unity with the new federation stemming from the Christian Reformed Church for quite some time. Already in the days of the formation of the Alliance of Reformed Churches, delegates from the Canadian Reformed Churches drew attention to the call of Christ that those who confess the same faith must gather together around the one table of the Lord, and unite in one federation. The churches have continued in this mandate right to this very day, and as the documents show, some progress is being made.
However, the URCNA - true to its new name - has been very eager to promote ecumenical relations with a large number of other bodies as well. Their ties are especially close with the Orthodox Christian Reformed Churches (OCRC) and the Free Reformed Churches, and they are developing closer ties with the Protestant Reformed Churches. Their most recent synod at Hudsonville made an especially far-reaching decision with regard to the Orthodox Christian Reformed Churches. They were invited to unite with the United Reformed Churches, forming one federation under the Church Order of the URCNA. The normal requirement of this Church Order that ministers coming into the federation from other churches be required to undergo a colloquium doctum was waived in this case. Individual churches of the United Reformed federation were required to communicate their approbation of this decision to the Stated Clerk by the end of July.
A Sound Course?
We may ask whether this decision represents a sound course of action on the part of the URCNA. On the one hand, the decision can be readily understood. These two federations are groups of churches coming from one house. They also seceded from the Christian Reformed Church for essentially the same reasons. The OCRC represents an earlier wave of discontent with regard to the impact of the new hermeneutic, and other liberal tendencies in the CRC. The URCNA represents the same protest against liberalism at a later stage, especially as it concerns the result and effect of the things that the OCRC originally protested. No wonder then that the brothers - and here I refer especially to those from whom the proposal at the URC synod originated - feel a strong bond with one another.
Yet- looking at all this as an outsider - I cannot say that this decision represents a sound course of action for the URCNA, nor one that indicates a careful pursuit of ecumenicity according to Reformed principles. Essentially the URC decision on this matter has the flavour of annexing a group of churches rather than entering into a merger with them. The option presented is: you may join, but on our terms, according to our order. Hence, whatever you have developed over the years needs to be left behind.
We defend merger, rather than an annex policy, that is, the coming together of two federations rather than one being entirely absorbed by the other.
Let me explain my difficulties with this approach. First of all, there was no recommendation from the Ecumenical Relations committee of the United Reformed Churches at the synod with regard to union with this federation. While there were some talks with them in eastern Canada, for the most part these have been rather minimal, and of a more exploratory character. Secondly, the OCRC were not asking for unity in any way at the last URC synod. The fraternal delegate, Rev. De Prine of Bowmanville, did not make any references to the desirability or the call to federative unity. His main contribution to the discussion, as far as I remember, was: "When you get older, I don't know if you get any wiser, but you do get slower." The sum of this address was then: let's leave things as they are. Living in a cooperative relationship beside each other did not appear to present any problem for him. In fact, it seemed to be more of a solution.
To this we may add a third point. No mention at all was made at the synod of the fact that the OCRC represents a federation of churches, that is, a group of churches spanning the continent but united together in one federation that has adopted its own "Declaration of Separation and Return" as its "founding charter". This Declaration, modelled on the Act of Secession of 1834, publicly presents the rationale for the existence of the federation, the departure from the CRC, and also adds the stated desire of the federation "to seek unity with all Christians and congregations who like us wish to live together in Christian harmony through the humble submission to God's infallible Word as this has been summarized in our Three Forms of Unity." The federation also resolves to live according to the terms of the Church Order of Dort as adopted with revisions at the Synod of Cambridge, (On.), March 1988.
If a whole federation is then invited to join with another without any reference to its own birth papers or church order, simply on the basis of the fellowship that exists between churches in one part of the country, then the result is that one federation is fully annexed by another. Any thought of a careful consideration of the reason for separation in the first place, any interaction with the Declaration is apparently considered in this process to be entirely unnecessary. Even differences in church order, - if they do exist - were not part of the discussion.
The decision with regard to the OCRC forms a telling indicator of the sort of federation we are dealing with in the URCNA. The federation represents a further stage in the continued splintering of the CRC, but like its predecessors, it remains a question whether these "splinters" have really shown that they desire to pursue true ecumenicity on a Reformed basis, with careful attention to the doctrine and practices of the Reformed Churches throughout their history. The union proposal with the OCRC is a case of a rather over hasty courtship - marriage before engagement, indeed, without even taking the time to get to know one another! Can such a marriage work out in the long run?
Time will tell us what the local United Reformed churches will do, and what the reaction of the OCRC will be. But as interested spectators to this "whirlwind romance" we can only say: here we have a painful absence of historical consciousness with regard to the gathering of the church. And there is - perhaps on both sides - an undue disparagement of the Reformed idea of a federation and its prerogatives. It seems that out of reaction to the CRC with its over emphasis on the corporate unity of the entire body of the church, (the national church) we now have among these "splinter groups" a strong emphasis on the autonomy of the local church without the necessarily complementing principle of the mutual obligation of the churches to act and live together as one federation. In other words, the churches promote local autonomy to the extent that the federational allegiance gets shortchanged. You don't just decide willy-nilly to swallow up another federation if you respect that federation's history and background. And if you have any sense of identity with regard to your own federation and its raison d'être, you are not going to let yourself get swallowed without a close examination of what you are getting in to. Above all, on all sides things should be done together!
Telling too is the principle of ratification that the URC have appended to their offer to the OCRC. The synod decision, although binding in itself needs the ratification of the local churches before it can be implemented. Just exactly what number of churches must voice their approval in order for the decision to be effected is not clear to me. Here, too, however, the sense of federational identity and mutual commitment to each other is weaker than it could be.
We do not just write these things as an interested third party watching how the relationships of others develop. Still less do we write out of any sense of jealousy, as if we feel jilted, having hoped secretly that we would be first in line for the United Reformed churches. After all, as stated, there are cogent arguments to be brought forward for the approach that the United Reformed churches have taken in regard to the OCRC. But it all does throw up an additional flag of caution for us. For as we desire to hold to our own birth papers, we need to say: the route of one group annexing another is not an option for us. We defend merger, rather than an annex policy, that is, the coming together of two federations rather than one being entirely absorbed by the other.
That means that in the process to merger, there will be give and take on both sides and a willingness to mutually go back to the principles of the beginning, the "birth papers" of the Reformed churches. Perhaps we will need more revisions of our church order, liturgy and songbook. A Reformed church that is always reforming necessarily stands open to all of this. But we do so with the rule of Paul "that we hold fast what we have received" (Phil 3:16). In other words, we are willing in any and every way to make a good thing better, but not to exchange the good God has given us for something more inferior.
That is the merger that Kuyper defended in 1892 - not one of iron and lead, but one of gold and gold. We pursue a union not where knowledge will decline and zeal slacken, but a union born out of knowledge, which will also result in deeper fellowship, growth in knowledge and a more effective witness to the world around us. Any other kind of unity is not worth pursuing, for all true unity is and remains unity in the truth. We then know what we are called to do. As an esteemed colleague put it: Let's go for the gold! May God continue to hear the prayers of those who have this unity and this faith in their hearts! For then we know that whatever happens here on earth, his church is being gathered in a true unity of faith!
 See the Declaration as published in Christian Renewal, Jan. 20, 1992