Posts Tagged 'Church Order'

Behind the Psalter Hymnal (Part 6)

The Big Three (Psalter Hymnals)It’s long past time to wrap up URC Psalmody’s summer series. I head back to Geneva College in a week, and what I imagined as two or three blog posts has grown into a lengthy and multi-faceted series. That’s typical fare for this blog—so today, let me try to provide some concise closing thoughts.

We began by asking this question: Why do we sing out of a Psalter Hymnal? More particularly, why do we sing both psalms and hymns in worship, yet still insist on distinguishing between the two?

To help answer this question historically, I dug up several applicable documents from the early history of the Christian Reformed Church: overtures from different classes in 1928 (here and here) regarding the question of hymn-singing, the “Report on the Hymn Question” from 1930, the Foreword to the first Psalter Hymnal in 1934, and a few other sources. I found plenty of arguments for and against hymn-singing in worship (along with a fair share of weird Dutch expressions). What I didn’t find was a substantial argument on Biblical and historical grounds to justify the introduction of hymns—especially in a denomination that had gotten along fine without them since the Reformation 300 years earlier. I read plenty of reasons why hymns might be permissible in worship, but not much (other than repeated appeals to “New Testament light”) as to why they were needed.

In fact, even the optimistic Psalter Hymnal Committee of 1930 acknowledged some significant dangers with the introduction of hymn-singing. One of them was that the psalms would cease to be sung in worship. Wary of this possibility, the Committee proposed the following principle:

Whereas the Psalms in the Old Testament were purposely given for Public Worship (cf. for instance Ps. 51:1; 52:1; 53:1; etc.) and were used accordingly, and whereas they do not belong to the things set aside by the New Testament, but, to the contrary, their Divine authority and lasting worth is pronouncedly acknowledged in the New Testament (Luke 20:42; 24:44; Acts 1:20; 13:33,35), it must be considered, acknowledged, and maintained by us as a principle founded on the Word of God, that Psalm-singing must always remain an element in our Public Worship.…[A] service without the singing of Psalms would be conflicting with the will of God as revealed in His Word. (pp. 21,22)

Yet after this well-placed word of caution, the committee rushes to add, “Nor does it follow that because of said danger the use of New Testament Church songs must be considered out of the question.” Just because they can be abused doesn’t mean they can’t be used properly, they suggest. Besides, they claim, the “urgent demand” for hymns in Reformed churches cannot be brushed aside as “disloyalty, spiritual weakening, and retrogression.” Once again they call attention to supposed insufficiencies in the psalms: that they speak only “in the Old Testament language of hopefully expectant prophecy, not in the New Testament language of jubilant fulfilment.” And here’s the real whopper: they turn the discussion about hymn-singing on its head by suggesting that an exclusively psalm-singing church is “guilty of neglect in properly caring for Public Worship and for the perfection of the saints, and of slighting a precious gift of the Holy Spirit.” In other words, a psalm-singing church harms its members by not allowing the singing of hymns. That’s a bold claim!

In summary, the committee asked the Synod of 1930 to (1) continue the preparation of a collection of English hymns; and (2) to (attempt to) prevent psalm-singing from fading away by revising the Church Order and setting limits in place on how many hymns could be sung in a worship service. Synod more or less agreed, and the Psalter Hymnal project moved forward. That’s most of the story; for the rest of it, you can refer back to the first Psalter Hymnal’s Foreword.

Got it? Does this synopsis give you an historical glimpse into the reason for the unusual wording in the URCNA’s Church Order—that the psalms “have the principal place,” but hymns “may be sung”? The relationship between psalms and hymns in North American Reformed worship is a long and complicated one. Partly it was a Dutch vs. English and European vs. American issue. Partly it was a Reformed vs. broader evangelical issue. Mostly it was an issue of biblical interpretation. And just because the CRC’s synod officially “settled” the question doesn’t mean it really went away.

Eighty years ago, hymns entered the worship of a denomination that was still deeply divided over the question. That’s the heritage that’s been handed down to us in the URCNA.

I can’t end without noting one additional twist, however. While the 1932 Church Order clearly stated that “the singing of the Psalms in divine worship is a requirement,” the CRC later revised their Church Order to merely state, “The consistory shall see to it that the synodically-approved Bible versions, liturgical forms, and songs are used” (Revised Church Order, 1959, Article 52b). All reference to the primacy of the Psalter was gone! With that revision in mind, it’s important—and encouraging—to note that the URCNA’s Church Order is actually a step back in the direction of principial psalm-singing.

How will the URCNA’s worship change as the years go on? Will our new Psalter Hymnal prove to strengthen our commitment to psalm-singing or dampen it? For the answer to these questions we’ll have to wait on God, pray fervently, and work for the good of the Church. May our worship be pleasing and acceptable in his sight.


The Proposed Joint Church Order

URCNA Synod 2012Searching 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.

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