We Are the Church Together

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I’m CRC. Always have been. When offered a teaching position in music theory at the University of Illinois, Champaign/Urbana, back in 1974, my first act was to check out the CRC Yearbook. Was there a CRC there? Yes!  

I pinched myself with delight at being on a Big Ten campus and I loved my teaching, but I was especially grateful for Hessel Park CRC. Nine years later, I moved to Grand Rapids to become the first worship and music editor for the CRC. The decision to move was not as easy this time, and I looked for months without success to find another Hessel Park, finally settling in a good CRC home in Grand Rapids among a bewildering array of options.

Ironically, it was while working for the CRC that I began to sprout ecumenical wings. I always knew that hymns came from many sources—our hymns in the Psalter Hymnal were ours by adoption from Lutherans, Roman Catholics, Unitarians and more.

To learn more about hymnal editing and publishing, I joined the Hymn Society in America, where I met folks from many more denominational and liturgical backgrounds. Over the years many have become friends, kindred spirits around hymns and worship.   

I became known as one from a psalm singing tradition, since historically, we indeed were exclusive psalm singers—as was the Reformed Church in America. Many times I’ve had to explain the difference between the CRC and the RCA. I usually say that the only difference is 200 years; they came to North America earlier than we did and we are confessionally identical in our Dutch Reformed roots. That usually satisfies, since getting into differences 150 years ago hardly compares to current differences, at least in worship practices, even within our two denominations. And I’m delighted that we’ve published two hymnals together: Sing! A New Creation (2001) and Lift Up Your Hearts (2013).  

So I’m glad that in June, 2014, the CRC and RCA Synods are meeting at the same time in Pella, Iowa, and even worshiping together from the same hymnal. And I welcome the joint recommendation to both of our synods to acknowledge how much we have in common, how we have increasingly worked together, and how we can to look forward to even more ways to encourage and bless each other. 

I have learned a lot from my ecumenical colleagues. Most of them stay in their traditions even though they may have serious issues with various aspects of their current practices and positions. But they stay. So do I. And when I think of the church today, I think much more broadly than the CRC or the RCA. 

Both of our denominations are but twigs on the Reformed branch of the large Tree of wisdom, knowledge, compassion, and beauty—that Tree is Christ, and all of us are branches that together form the Christian church (Some might recognize those words from a favorite hymn, “There in God’s Garden.”). Some branches are close to us, some far.  Some are weak, some are strong, and together we make up the larger Body of Christ. 

The issues facing the church of Jesus Christ today are not all that different at heart in the United States, Canada, or for that matter, around the world. I hope that in June, both our denominations will joyfully acknowledge and commit to help strengthen each other to even more faithful work, worship and witness in our two small parts of the larger church of Jesus Christ. 

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But there are issues that are different in Canada from the USA, approaches that are  different; perhaps it is a good time for the Cdn church to work separately in parts, together in parts, while the USA church is strengthened by the CRC & RCA becoming one.

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I couldn't help but be struck by the fact that our CRC and RCA synodical delegates will be 'singing from the same hymn book' this summer in Pella.

I can't recall the last time that I picked up a hymn book. They sit, virtually new and unused, in our church pews. Most of the time we are gazing upwards at the overhead screen, trying to put music to the lyrics of the latest obscure praise ditty.

The hymn book used to be the symbol of all that is good and 'common' when it came to worship. Once could travel from city to city, and certainly from church to church within the same city, and sing from the hymns that we had in common.  That is no longer the case. Each congregation has developed its own selection of praise songs ... most of them with questionable (ie unReformed!) theology.

While I love the notion of having one common hymn book for CRC and RCA denominations, I suspect that it will have precious little impact upon local congregational singing. I almost long for the time -- almost -- when church councils will treat the hymn book as the approved 'menu' of hymns to be sung in worship. Period.

While the denomination celebrates the arrival of this new, joint Book of Praise, local congregations are still determined to sing anything but those wonderful, theologically correct psalms and hymns from the Book of Praise. Pity.