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Dated: September 16, 2000  

Christian RenewalTaken with permision from CHRISTIAN RENEWAL, September 11, 2000

When the United Reformed Churches in North America was inaugurated as a federation in 1995 implicit in the name was the view that the church should not be narrowly sectarian, but should develop, maintain, and work toward the unity of all confessionally Reformed churches in North America. Toward that end one of the federation’s first tasks was to appoint a Committee for Ecumenicity and Church Unity. (The committee originally was christened with a different, lengthier name back then. The "Church Unity" addendum was deliberately inserted at the recommendation of the committee because it saw its purpose and end to be exactly that—union.)

Below you will find a report on the progress of the CECU with at least one federation—the Canadian Reformed Churches. Since this federation is predominantly located north of the 49th parallel—other than for a few churches in the U.S. and a few in Australia—it is not well known among the American URCs.

As you will see upon reading the news article, the ecumenicity committees of each federation are recommending that both federations move to Phase 2 in the process towards full union—Ecclesiastical Fellowship. That step entails opening pulpits to visiting URC and Canadian Reformed ministers as well as communion tables as two means towards officially recognizing each other as brothers and sisters in the Lord. If "Ecclesiastical Fellowship" is approved by the synods, a majority of councils will need then to ratify the decision before it becomes instituted.

Already among the Canadian churches that stand to be directly affected by the movement towards union, there is some discomfort with the process as well as concern about the speed at which developments are moving. The discomfort lies in the perceived "top-down" approach to ecumenicity that is occurring. The preferred route would be a more organic approach to union, one that implies a grassroots recognition of the need to be organizationally "one" as opposed to an approach that is scripted by a committee and legislated by synod. Whether this is a realistic aspiration is of course questionable. The second concern is not so much the speed, however, but the "spouse" in the proposed union. Short engagements rarely provide the stable foundation for a union of any kind. There needs to be a genuine "love" for one another that, for some older URC members, must be cultivated, having been buried in the soil of church conflicts since the 1940s.

Perhaps what is most lacking in all of this is a clear Biblical mandate or justification of the need for organizational unity. Do we have to be in the same house—under the same roof—to be united? Isn’t our unity primarily and most importantly "in the Spirit"? Already URCs invite visiting Canadian Reformed members, should they desire, to participate in the Lord’s Supper. And URC pulpits have also been open to Canadian Reformed ministers. What bothers some is the sectarianism that they have seen from their Canadian Reformed brothers over the years. Reputations are not easy to live down. And committee reports don’t necessarily alleviate those concerns.

Ecumenicity committees of URC & Can Ref. recommend Phase 2 Ecclesiastical Fellowship

Denominations labelled "conservative" have a reputation, earned or otherwise for divisiveness as opposed to unity. An ecumenical effort between the Canadian Reformed denomination and the United Reformed federation may serve to turn that reputation on its ear.

A report released recently by the ecumenicity committees of the two federations is calling on their respective synods to "take the next step" in ecumenical relations, a step that would see the Canadian Reformed and the URCs open both their communion tables and their pulpits to each other in an official demonstration of fellowship that to some observers may seem tame, but that historically for the Canadian Reformed especially is precedent setting.

The report contains a list of ten "Statements of Agreement," including areas of common ground, acknowledgement of differences, as well as a number of recommendations for the synods of the two denominations- both meeting in 2001- to consider to bring the two sides into closer harmony.

Areas of agreement include:

CHURCH HISTORY: Acknowledgement- that the secessions which formed both denominations, in 1944 for the Canadian Reformed, and in the 1990s for the URCs, "were acts of obedience keeping with the will of God"

COVENANT: Agreement- on their understanding of "covenant"
(more to follow in the next issue of Christian Renewal).

CHURCH: Agreement- that "there can be more than one true church in a particular place at any given time, while rejecting "a broad denominationalism, as well as a narrow sectarianism..." Conclusion: that "churches of various backgrounds but one confession have the duty to pursue the highest forms of ecclesiastical fellowship possible in their context..."

CHURCH ORDER: Acknowledgement- "Both federations have maintained the principles, structure and essential provisions of the Church Order of Dort," however,
there are specific differences between the two. Recommendation- "that each synod appoint a church order committee" to "produce a suitable and agreeable adaption of the Church Order of Dort."

SONG BOOK: Acknowledgement- that while preaching is central in worship, "congregational singing suitably accompanied forms a significant part of a Reformed worship service." Practice URCs continue to use the Psalter Hymnal and the Canadian Reformed sing from the Book of Praise (a Psalm book). If Step 2, Ecclesiastical Fellowship becomes a reality, Recommendation- that each federation appoint a committee to produce a song book "that contains the Anglo-Genevan psalter and other suitable metrical versions, while including hymns that also meet the standard of faithfulness to the Scriptures and to the Reformed confessions."

CREEDS..CONFESSIONS. FORMS: Acknowledgement- There are differences in translations of the Three Forms of Unity and in the various forms between the two denominations. Recommendation that "the first synod of the new combined federation, should the Lord grant a union, ... appoint a committee or committees to coordinate and harmonize the present translations of the Ecumenical Creeds, the Three Forms of Unity," etc.

THEOLOGICAL EDUCATION FOR MINISTERS: Practice- The URCs do not have an official seminary but rely on Mid-America and Westminster West to train their ministers; the Canadian Reformed own and rely on the Theological College in Hamilton, Ontario to train their ministers. Recommendation- to the synods of 2001 "that when the two federations agree to enter into Ecclesiastical Fellowship each synod appoint a theological education study committee," with the provision that, should union occur, "the resulting United Churches will retain at least one federational theological school" with synod recommending the school's professors and teaching staff.

PREACHING: Acknowledgement- that "both federations seek to maintain a high standard of preaching as required by Scripture; that the confessions be regularly preached; that the proclamation of the promises of God, together with the command to repent and believe the gospel ... with suitable exhortations and admonitions all the hearers are encouraged to appropriate the promises of the gospel with a living faith."

BAPTISM AND THE LORD'S SUPPER: Acknowledgement- that there are differences in how both federations supervise the participation of guests at the Lord's Supper. Practice- The Canadian Reformed require guests to present an acceptable attestation concerning their doctrine and conduct issued by the elders of "their sister churches." The United Reformed generally accept upon an interview with the guest his or her signed personal attestation concerning doctrine and conduct. Agreement- that both ways are acceptable means of guarding the Table of the Lord, with the proviso that the guests are members of a church "which fully confesses the doctrines of the Scriptures."

ECCLESIASTICAL DISCIPLINE: Acknowledgement that both federations are faithful in their understanding and exercise of biblical discipline.

The report represents the culmination of 13 meetings between the ecumenicity committees of both federations over the last two years involving four URC representatives (Rev. P. Vellenga, Rev. J. Bouwers, Rev. R. Stienstra and Elder C. Dykstra) and three from the Canadian Reformed Churches (Dr. J. De Jong, Rev. W.Den Hollander and Elder F. Westrik).

Of the three phases in the ecumenical process towards church union, Phase One, Corresponding Relations was approved in 1999 by both denominations. The committees are recommending that both synods proceed to Phase Two (see below) in 2001. A tentative date of 2004 had been projected in a previous report by the joint committee for the final phase of church union, should Phase Two be approved.

Other denominations in the midst of discussions with the URC's Ecumenicity Committee include the Free Reformed Churches which meets with the Ontario subcommittee, the Reformed Churches in the U.S. which meets with the Iowa sub-committee, the Protestant Reformed Churches and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.


United Reformed Churches in North America

PHASE ONE - Corresponding Relations

The first phase of ecumenicity is one of exploration, with the intent that by correspondence and dialogue, mutual understanding and appreciation may develop in the following areas of the churches' lives:

a. view and place of the Holy Scriptures.
b. creeds and confessions.
c. formula of subscription to the confessions d. significant factors in the two federations' history, theology, and ecclesiology.
e. church order and polity
f. liturgy and liturgical forms g. preaching, sacraments, and discipline.
h. theological education for ministers Ecumenical observers are to be invited to all broader assemblies with a regular exchange of the minutes of these assemblies and of other publications that may
facilitate ecumenical relations.

PHASE TWO - Ecclesiastical Fellowship

The second phase of ecumenicity is one of recognition and is entered into only when the broadest assemblies of both federations agree this is desirable. The intent of this phase is to recognize and accept each other as true and faithful churches of the Lord Jesus, and in preparation for and commitment to eventual integrated federative church unity, by establishing ecclesiastical fellowship entailing the following:

a. The churches shall assist each other as much as possible in the maintenance, defense, and promotion of Reformed doctrine, liturgy, church polity, and discipline.
b. The churches shall consult each other when entering into ecumenical relations with other federations.
c. The churches shall accept each other's certificates of membership, admitting such members to the Lord's Table.
d. The churches shall open the pulpits to each other's ministers, observing the rules of the respective churches e. The churches shall consult each other before major changes to the confessions, church government, or liturgy are adopted.
f. The churches shall invite and receive each other's ecclesiastical delegates who shall participate in the broader assemblies as much as regulations permit
Entering this phase requires ratification by a majoritv of consistories.

PHASE THREE - Church Union

The third phase of ecumenicity 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, that is, ecclesiastical union. This final phase shall only be embarked upon when the broadest assemblies of both federations give their endorsement and approval to a plan of union which shall outline the timing, coordination, and/or integration of the following:

a. the broader assemblies
b. the liturgies and liturgical forms
c. the translations of the Bible and the confessions
d. the song books for worship
e. the church polity and order
f. the missions abroad


Committee for Ecumenical Relations and Church Unity United Reformed Churches in North America

With a view toward complete church unity, the Committee for Ecumenical Relations and Church Unity shall pursue and make recommendations regarding the establishment of ecumenical relations with those Reformed and Presbyterian federations selected by synod and in keeping with Article 36 of the Church Order. The Committee shall execute its task and carry out its mandate by following synod's Guidelines for Ecumenicity and Church Unity. The Committee shall keep the churches regularly informed of its work and the progress made, and shall publish its report to synod in the agenda.

September 11, 2000
(John VanDyk is the editor of Christian Renewal [SW] )

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