Around the World in 1000 Words

Well, congratulate yourself—you’ve survived my exhaustive exploration of the musical nooks and crannies in the provisional agenda for the URCNA’s Synod 2012.  After wading through five weighty overtures, addressing an important appeal, and reviewing two committee reports, it’s about time for a vacation from URCNA-centered topics.  So today, why don’t we take a virtual trip to the other side of the globe?  First, let’s visit the Reformed Churches of New Zealand.

Interestingly, the worship practices of the Reformed Churches of New Zealand (RCNZ) are not at all irrelevant to the United Reformed Churches in North America.  According to the report of the URC’s Committee for Ecumenical Contact with Churches Abroad (CECCA) on pp. 229-342 of the Provisional Agenda for Synod 2012, the RCNZ is the only foreign denomination with which the URCNA currently enjoys ecumenical fellowship (Phase 2 relations).  Thus we consider our federation to be closely related to this sister denomination in New Zealand, and we ought to take a deep interest in the proceedings of their worship.

CECCA’s report to Synod 2012 includes several appendices; first among these is a review of the twenty-seventh synod of the RCNZ in September 2011.  Written by Rev. Bill Boekestein, a fraternal delegate to the RCNZ from the United Reformed Churches in North America, this appendix presents the status of many important items in the life of this denomination.   Rev. Boekestein reports:

The RCNZ is in the process of completing a new Psalter Hymnal to be titled ‘Sing to the Lord.’  The new book is approved for provisional use with a view to final adoption to be considered at Synod 2020.  Presbyteries continue to be authorized to approve additional songs.  (Sessions concerned about the apparent discrepancy between Church Order Art. 66 and current practice were encouraged to overture the next Synod.)  It was decided not to include the liturgical forms in the new hymnal but instead to produce a supplementary book of the new provisionally approved forms.  Synod decided to take no action with respect to Dovedale’s overture to affirm the need for the Biblical psalms to remain formative in the life of the church and that they not be overshadowed by the singing of hymns.

For your interest, Article 66 of the RCNZ’s Church Order is practically identical to former Article 69 of the Church Order of the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) as codified at the synod of 1932 (see the Foreword to the 1934 Psalter Hymnal).  Article 66 reads:

In the worship services of the church only the 150 psalms and the collection of hymns for church use, approved and adopted by synod, shall be sung. However, while the singing of psalms in divine worship is a requirement, the use of the approved hymns is left to the freedom of the churches.

–summarized from pp. 306-308 of the URC’s Provisional Agenda

As this report shows, among the many similarities between the URCNA and the RCNZ, we are both working on new songbooks.  In fact, the URC Psalter Hymnal Committee notes in their report to Synod 2012 that they are using “Sing to the Lord” as a primary source for psalm settings.  So what are the highlights of this provisional songbook from New Zealand?  For now, I’d encourage you to explore the website devoted to this project—a source that’s absolutely brimming with great content.  In fact, I’ll probably devote some time in the future to a closer look at the more notable areas of the RCNZ’s songbook project.  Today, however, our whirlwind tour isn’t yet over.  The next destination: South Africa.

Like New Zealand, South Africa enjoys a strong Dutch heritage, and the Reformed Churches of South Africa (GKSA) are a prominent Reformed denomination both nationally and internationally.  But the GKSA’s worship traditions are unique in multiple ways.  First, the current version of GKSA Church Order Article 69 is reminiscent of the position of the CRC prior to 1932:

In the churches only the 150 psalms and the rhymed versions of the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, the Apostolic Confession, and the Hymns of praise of Mary, Zacharias and Simeon shall be sung. The use of other rhymed versions of Bible verses which have been approved by the synod, is left over to the jurisdiction of each church council.

As URCNA fraternal delegate Rev. Dick Moes relates in Appendix 3 of the CECCA report, however, the GKSA’s deputies for liturgical matters proposed a critical alteration to this article at their 2012 synod: the acceptance of Scripturally faithful hymns in congregational worship.  To understand the significance of this change, it is necessary to examine the current practices of these churches.

This brings us to the second unique aspect of the GKSA’s worship: its diverse congregations encompass a staggering number of languages, and their songs vary accordingly.  For the most part, Afrikaans-speaking churches sing psalms, Scriptural hymns, and rhymed versions of the confessions.  Congregations that speak Sotho or Tswana sing from an old and theologically weak hymnal known as the Lifela tsa Sione, a collection of hymns with a few Scripture settings and psalms added.  Meanwhile, the songbook of Zulu-speaking churches is called the iMbongi.  Last revised in 1992, this book contains 76 psalms set to music by Zulu ministers under the guidance of Dutch missionaries as well as 79 other Scripturally faithful songs.  Other congregations speak Xhosa and use the Inkqubo Nkonzo, a complete psalter initiated by the Free Church of Scotland in South Africa.  Finally, Venda-speaking churches sing from the Lutheran Hymnal, containing non-Reformed hymns as well as a very small number of psalms.

In an extraordinary piece of understatement, the GKSA’s deputies for liturgical matters comment “that there are different practices in the [Reformed Churches of South Africa] with regard to what is being sung in the worship service.”  Unfortunately, not all of these practices align with the direction of the church order.  The deputies’ report supported the inclusion of hymns in worship but emphasized that they must be Scripturally accurate.  In this case, the synod of the GKSA concurred.  Hopefully this decision marks an appropriate step towards greater faithfulness in worship.

–summarized from pp. 322-327 of the URC’s Provisional Agenda

What can we learn from this short geographical and cultural tour?  Examining the practices of other Reformed churches should impress upon us the importance of worshiping God as he has commanded in his Word.  We can obtain a deeper appreciation for the goals we share with denominations like the Reformed Churches in New Zealand to produce a faithful songbook, and we can pray for other federations like the Reformed Churches of South Africa as they strive for more unified Biblical worship.  Above all, we can be thankful to God for calling his elect from the four corners of the earth, knowing that one day they will unite in heavenly praise.


2 Responses to “Around the World in 1000 Words”

  1. 1 Joshua June 8, 2012 at 5:34 pm

    If you wish to take a shorter trip; one of your neighbors, the PRCA has this article in their church order: “In the churches only the 150 Psalms of David, the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, the Twelve Articles of Faith, the Songs of Mary, Zacharias, and Simeon, the Morning and Evening Hymns, and the Hymn of Prayer before the sermon shall be sung.”

    You will of course recognize that it is derived from the Old CRC church order.

    I agree wholeheartedly with your last paragraph. Let us indeed worship God has He has commanded, let us use the Psalms that He has provided, and let us look forward to the day when we shall rejoice with the saints spread over all the earth and throughout all time. What a Psalm will be sung on that glorious and eternal day.

    • 2 Michael Kearney June 8, 2012 at 5:49 pm

      Ahha! I suppose I would do well to familiarize myself with the Church Orders of denominations besides the CRC. That would be a significant research project in and of itself. I think I’ll make it a goal to study the history of the PRCA over the next few weeks. Thanks for pointing that out.

      I look forward earnestly to the day when the “worship wars” will cease and all believers will be united in God’s praise. The sound of countless millions of voices in unison is unimaginable. I’m sure an audio recording couldn’t capture it, but then again, we won’t need a recording. We’ll be there–eternally.


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