The Courtship Continues - Al Siebring
"There is no fundamental difference, either doctrinally or confessionally,
between the Canadian Reformed and United Reformed Churches." Those words might
have been provocative a few years ago, but they were received with no dissent
from either side in a recent joint meeting of Canadian Reformed and United Reformed
congregations in Ontario's Niagara Peninsula.
The meeting, held April 23rd in the Trinity Orthodox Reformed Church in St. Catharines, was a continuation of informal discussions begun several years ago between the Rockway Canadian Reformed Church and the Immanuel Orthodox Reformed Church (URC), both based in the St. Catharines area.
The evening was also a follow-up to a similar get-together held almost a year ago in Wellandport, Ontario, in which two "elder statesmen" of the two federations traced the respective histories of the Canadian Reformed and United Reformed Churches, and urged closer co-operation between the two federations. At that initial meeting, sponsored by the Rockway congregation, (see Clarion/CR - date) Professors J. Faber and P.Y. DeJong urged the two local churches to continue a path they likened to a "courtship" - a period of getting to know one another better on a local level.
At the most recent meeting, also sponsored by the Rockway consistory, Rev. John Bouwers of the Immanuel Church presented a discussion paper on the "Doctrine of the Church." Rockway's Rev. G. Wieske chaired 'the evening. He began by stating, "it's time to demolish the caricatures and misconceptions" the two groups have about one another.
Rev. Bouwers is part of a committee of Synodical Deputies appointed by the (General) Synods of both federations to explore possible church union, and the paper was initially written for that committee. Based in large measure on Articles 27, 28, and 29 of the Belgic Confession, the paper focussed on the identity, visibility, unity and activity of the church throughout the ages. The church, Bouwers said, is composed of the "recipients of God's covenant promises" who throughout history have been united in their confession of Christ. While universal in nature, that universality must be seen in balance with the visibility of local churches. As part of that balance, Bouwers warned against too strong an emphasis on the "Church Universal" while ignoring local churches. That, he said, would leave a "nebulous reality". At the same time, he warned against federative or local church exclusivism - the idea that a particular church or federation could consider itself Christ's "one true church." That, he said, "goes back to the error of pre-reformation Rome. Just because we may consider ourselves a true church of Christ doesn't mean that you cannot (also) be (a true church)."
However, Bouwers said, ecclesiastical developments in this century have led to a situation where the church "does manifest a certain pluriformity of existence" where faithful local churches, in close physical proximity to one another, don't formally recognize one another or have ecclesiastical fellowship together. "This ought not to be," said Bouwers. "It is sin. "
But any move toward unity, either locally or federatively, "must be based in the truth of God's Word, and nothing less", said Bouwers. He suggested the two federations can readily recognize one another as displaying the marks of the church, (the preaching of the Word, the administration of the Sacraments, and church discipline), and "we who hold to the same confessions need to be one for the sake of our witness to the world." The activity of the church, said Bouwers, must be "central to what we call 'kingdom work. And working toward church unity is part of this - it's not just a matter of 'gezelligheid' (a Dutch word akin to 'coziness'), - it is seeking to be faithful to our calling."
In a question period following the presentation, some members of the audience wondered out loud what the differences were between the two federations. Bouwers responded that "there is no fundamental difference, either doctrinally or confessionally, between the Canadian Reformed and United Reformed Churches." However, he conceded there were differences of practice between the two federations, and even within local churches of each group. These matters of local and federative practice are still under review as part of the ongoing discussions among the Synodical Deputies.
There were hints at the meeting that the two local churches might not wait for Synodical approval before engaging in more extensive local contact. One practical impediment to local unity looms large, especially in the Southern Ontario context. In the early 1990's, the Cornerstone Canadian Reformed Church and Rehoboth URC (then still an "independent CRC"), both in Hamilton, agreed to pulpit exchanges and full local recognition of one another.
But there is nothing in the Canadian Reformed Church Order allowing local churches to take that kind of step, and Classis Ontario South (Canadian Reformed) ruled that the "statement of recognition" could not be realized. Rev. Wieske is hoping that won't happen this time, since it would effectively prevent the relationship from moving beyond the "courtship" stage to something more substantial. He said his council might have to "bite the bullet" on the issue of local relations. "Admittedly, there is no provision in our Church Order for the kind of relations we're envisioning (with Immanuel)'', said Rev. Wieske, "but we would look to the Lord and hope that He would provide the means for us to express our unity locally.
At the close of the meeting, members from both congregations continued their "get acquainted" session with a time of coffee fellowship, a practice one elder from Immanuel called "at least as important as the formal meeting itself."