Searching the Proposed Joint Church Order (PJCO) for a musical tidbit makes me feel rather like a hawk scanning a vast field for a tiny mouse. Although PJCO-related content spans an exhausting 82 pages in the Provisional Agenda for Synod 2012 (pp. 133-214), only a few small paragraphs on p. 151 and pp. 186, 187 have any relation to church music. With such a small amount of content, I imagined that this would be a fairly simple item to summarize. But as I caught up, I began to learn that this is a mouse with a history. Before we can understand this part of the Proposed Joint Church Order, we must look first at its background—a story that I hope to summarize accurately, even though I have no firsthand knowledge of the details. Bear with me.
The purpose of the Proposed Joint Church Order Committee is to create a Church Order that would be used in the event of a merger between the United Reformed Churches in North America (URCNA) and the Canadian Reformed Churches (CanRC). As far as I know, there are no significant plans underway to bring about this merger anytime soon, but a Proposed Joint Church Order is an important step in preparing for such a possible eventuality.
One small article in the Proposed Joint Church Order, however, has sparked a copious debate on the duties of the consistory and the extent of synodical authority. This is Article 36, on the singing of psalms and hymns in worship:
The 150 Psalms shall have the principal place in the singing of the churches. In the worship services, the congregation shall sing faithful lyrical renditions of the Psalms, and hymns which faithfully and fully reflect the teaching of Scripture in harmony with the Three Forms of Unity, provided they are approved by general synod. (emphasis added)
This is a radical departure from the content of the URCNA’s current Church Order, which states in Article 39,
The 150 Psalms shall have the principal place in the singing of the churches. Hymns which faithfully and fully reflect the teaching of the Scripture as expressed in the Three Forms of Unity may be sung, provided they are approved by the Consistory. (emphasis added)
A responsibility formerly assigned to individual consistories being delegated to synod itself? Infringement on the rights of local congregations! Executive decisions being handed down to the churches by synod! The establishment of a top-heavy hierarchy in the URCNA! The specter of the CRC rising again! These fears explained the reaction of many URC members to this modification. Others were more supportive of the change; appealing to church history, federational unity, and practical considerations, they pointed out the advantages of synodical approval for the psalms and hymns of the church.
The Proposed Joint Church Order Committee itself could not agree on the merits of this article, and composed two reports: one from the majority and one from the minority. Both were included in their report to Synod 2010 (2010 Acts of Synod, pp. 291-463). I would need to start another blog to discuss every point in these essays, but here are a few excerpts (admittedly out of context!) which may help to outline the debate.
The majority report (pp. 333-338) contends, “Our report will focus first of all on the reasons why the churches are best served by synodically approved songs and, secondly, on the reasons why leaving the selection of songs to individual churches is not desirable.”
The minority report (pp. 339-342) responds that they agree with the stipulations for psalms and hymns provided in Article 36. They go on to say,
We do, however, disagree that the general synod needs to approve all music sung in the churches. Rather, we are convinced that our singing ought to contribute to the unity of the newly formed federation by the use of a synodically approved set of standards for music which shall be applied on the local level by the wise decision of the consistory of each church.
The fourth point in this minority report is most relevant to the situation of most URCNA congregations:
To remove from the local consistory the responsibility of approving the churches’ music, and to place this in the hands of the general synod, effectively denies the churches any opportunity to use any other music than that which is contained in the current song book of the federation. This means that no church in the future may use any old music now contained in the 1976 Blue Psalter Hymnal which did not make it into the new federation hymnal. This means that no church may use any music which meets the criterion for entry into a new federation hymnal, but for reasons of space did not make it into the new hymnal. This means that any Psalm tune now contained in the Book of Praise [the CanRC’s songbook] but which will not make it into the new federation hymnal may not be sung in the future. The long standing practice of a church singing the “Hallelujah Chorus” on Resurrection morning would have to cease, because this chorus likely would not be included in the federation hymnal. If a church uses any other music than that contained in the new song book, that church will be out of compliance with the Church Order.
Furthermore, to mandate that only the general synod may approve of music used in the worship of the churches effectively puts an end to the use of any new Biblically, Reformed, well-written, beautiful music. The last time any changes were made to the music in the Songs of Praise hymnal was in 1983. The URCNA currently uses the 1976 edition of the Psalter Hymnal. Such books cannot be frequently updated. It is too costly and time consuming. Nor would we expect the federation to do so. Under our present Church Order, the churches could purchase the Trinity Hymnal, for example. If this article of the Proposed Church Order is adopted, however, this fine hymnal may not be used.
The Majority Report responds,
The argument presented by the Minority in its fourth ‘ground’ is specious. The fact is: any church may propose a song for inclusion in the next issue of the Songbook of the federation by simply following the time-honored ecclesiastical way. We recognize that this does take time; and it is true that a new edition of the Songbook is not a frequent occurrence. However, there are several ways to deal with such concerns, e.g. (a) the federation could, from time to time, publish a supplement; or it could (b) publish its Songbook in a spiral binder; or churches could (c) make use of an overhead projector when newly approved songs are to be sung.
How has the debate progressed? In their report to Synod 2012, the Committee notes that “The URCNA Synod Schererville 2007 expressed its strong preference for the minority report, while the CanRC Synod Smithers 2007 expressed its strong preference for the majority report.” For this reason as well as a number of additional considerations, Article 36 has not been altered since 2010.
Will this pesky topic raise its head again at Synod 2012? I can’t say. But on the whole, it looks as if the wording of Article 36 of the PJCO could drive a significant wedge between the URCNA and the CanRC on the issue of music, and force our churches to answer some tough questions about the role of synod in the life of our congregations. May God provide wisdom and humility as the churches work through these difficulties.
P.S. If you see any misinformation or misrepresentation in my article, would you please be so kind as to point it out? Working from a variety of reports in the Acts of Synod 2010 and the Provisional Agenda for Synod 2012, I found it very difficult to compile a coherent set of details on the PJCO. Thank you.