Squirrels and chipmunks scurried underfoot. Birds sang brightly in the beautiful trees. Buildings, clean, elegant, modern and vibrant stretched around immaculate, manicured lawns. I had to pinch myself to try to remember I wasn’t actually in a Disney film—and that a singing fawn was not going to emerge from behind the mighty firs! I have to say, my first impression of the US of A has been a great one!
I came to Grand Rapids from Scotland to work as part of the co-opted staff with the news team here, to cover the unification of the two main ecumenical groups of Reformed churches throughout the world.
Firstly I guess I’d better give you a VERY short, and VERY simplified history lesson, for a bit of context. Once upon a time, there was the Reformed church—that means it has its roots in the teachings of John Calvin and follows a Calvinist doctrine. (Look him up if you want more info—that’s what Google is for, not just finding out what film stars are doing today!)
Anyway, Reformed churches have been divided by national boundaries and have a tendency to split when they hit a disagreement about Scripture or doctrine, and that has been happening throughout history, until today, there are hundreds of Reformed churches all over the world.
Many of these churches chose to belong to one of two main umbrella organizations to give them support and a sense of community. That’s not to say everyone always got on—they didn’t—and some were even suspended at one point or another over particular issues. But in general the two groups, WARC (The World Alliance of Reformed Churches) and REC (the Reformed Ecumenical Church) moved parallel to each other, each with their own strengths and weaknesses.
Just over ten years ago, there began to be tentative discussion of the benefits of a merger. A lot of things needed ironing out—WARC was much bigger than REC and there was anxiety that one might swallow the other without respecting the traditions properly—and a lot of trust needed to be built, but in the end, years of negotiations and meetings have brought nearly 1000 participants from all across the world to this conference in Grand Rapids, where both organizations dissolved themselves and signed the papers to form WCRC, the World Communion of Reformed Churches. We Reformers sure love our acronyms!
But a world communion it really is, speaking for around 80 million people from nearly every Reformed church in the US, to churches all over Europe and Great Britain, to the growing churches of India and Africa, and even countries where repression is a byword, like Burma. Delegates of every color, shape and nationality not only live together, but laugh together, and are working together to create an organization we can all be proud of.
Challenges have certainly been thrown down to this fledgling organization to be picked up this week. Richard Twiss from the Lakota Sioux, asked us to consider the harm that hard-line missionaries in the past did to the traditions of his people, when, instead of considering the ways where the two sets of beliefs touched each other and building upon that, simply bulldozed across them and imposed such a severe form of Christianity that it has been effectively abandoned by all but a handful of Native American Christians, who are now trying to show their people how the faiths compliment, blend and are compatible after all. The role of women across the world has been a hotly debated topic, where greater representation for women throughout the church across the world is a key aspiration.
Workshops on every topic, from the church’s interaction with people who have disabilities, to the trafficking of women, to church ‘planting’ (that is starting new churches in an area) movements, to the importance of children, through to the role of the church in community transformation—you name it, delegates have been attending them and working through them. All the time learning about themselves, their beliefs and those of the people around them; learning to accept and live in harmony with them.
Plenary sessions with the whole conference have thrashed out the things that matter to the people, not just in the hall here on the beautiful campus at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, but in the pews of Reformed churches throughout the world.
One delegate I spoke to told me that the sense of “moving forward together, of love and positivity,” is inspiring. She’s ready to take what she has learned here home to her church and start working straight away. It’s a view shared by many people here.
We have been welcomed, by the people of Calvin College, by the residents of Grand Rapids, by the Native peoples of the area, and by your churches, members of whose congregations all over the city took us, strangers, into their homes on Sunday, to feed us, to talk to us, to find out about us, to share your lives with us for a time and allow us to walk in your shoes.
For your generosity of spirit and friendship, and for your incredible politeness, I think I speak for all when I say we are all incredibly touched and grateful. Thank you. It might not be much, but I can safely say you have a friend in Scotland.
- Jackie Macadam, Features Writer, Life and Work magazine, Edinburgh, Scotland