Posts Tagged 'Polity'

Thinking the Trinity Psalter Hymnal Through


There’s just over a month left till the URCNA’s tenth synod convenes in Wyoming, MI, and my guess is that many of our elders and pastors feel like they’ve been punched in the face by the recently-released 566-page provisional agenda. Our federation needs to make many difficult decisions this summer related to positions on current cultural issues, unity with other denominations, liturgical forms, and, of course, the Psalter Hymnal project.

If you’re struggling to wade through the provisional agenda, you may find Revs. Mark Vander Pol and Norman Van Eeden Petersman’s 16-page overview helpful. I don’t think I’ll be blogging (slogging?) through the agenda’s various materials related to the songbook project as I did back in 2012, but I’ll attempt to make some summarizing remarks in this post.

To my knowledge, the report from the Psalter Hymnal Committee on pp. 163-174 of the provisional agenda is the first public communication from the committee since last fall. A few readers have expressed the opinion that the committee is failing to communicate important information to the churches. I tend to disagree, since the very presence of the website with every psalm and hymn to be included in the collection goes above and beyond the committee’s mandate. At the same time, I understand this frustration, since updates about the project tend come from magazines like New Horizons or The Outlook—second- or even third-hand—and not from the committee itself. The Psalter Hymnal area of the URCNA website doesn’t appear to have been updated since 2013! It is hard to fault an overworked and understaffed committee for this, but I do fear that the scarcity of information is hindering the churches’ view of the project.

In any case, the Psalter Hymnal Committee provides these updates in their report:

  • They have named the book the Trinity Psalter Hymnal.
  • They are continuing to edit and obtain copyright permissions for the psalter section.
  • They have completed the list of songs for the (new) Hymn Proposal.
  • They have decided that the Liturgical Forms Committee should publish the URCNA’s new liturgical forms in a separate booklet from the songbook.
  • They have decided to leave pronouns referring to God uncapitalized and to retain archaic language (including the name “Jehovah”) in classic hymns.
  • They have decided on the basic contents of the songbook (introductory essays, indices, etc.).

Unfortunately, the report remains unclear as to what action the Psalter Hymnal Committee expects Synod 2016 to take besides approving the hymn section. The mention of the name change to the Trinity Psalter Hymnal, for instance—is that decision final, or are they requesting that it be approved on the floor as part of “receiving the work of the committee to date”? Similarly, the report cites a separate recommendation from the Liturgical Forms Committee about publishing a separate liturgical forms booklet, but this recommendation is actually missing from both committees’ reports (as Vander Pol and Van Eeden Petersman note). If I am not the only one confused by the structure of this report, the synodical process is likely to become jammed in trying to untangle the actions implied in these pages.

As readers of URC Psalmody know, I am a passionate advocate for a new denominational Psalter Hymnal. And I believe it is possible to utilize the discussions and deliberations on the floor of synod to refine the finished product into the best songbook it can be. But it is only possible when elders, consistories, classes, synods, and standing committees each understand the nature and extent of the authority they have been given to make decisions. Unfortunately, the URCNA still struggles to define the power of its various ecclesiastical bodies, and I think that confusion is revealed in this report along with so many of the other materials submitted to Synod 2016. I’m not suggesting any one of the bodies involved is to blame, but (like the huge overtures at Synod 2012) I am afraid it may be a disaster to place so much material before a synod that doesn’t know what it is expected to approve.

When I published my argument for the new Psalter Hymnal in the March/April issue of The Outlook, one of the strongest objections I received from readers related to the location of authority in the church. Many URCNA members fear that a denominational songbook represents a shift toward centralized government, what one commenter called “federalism” in the churches. To the contrary, it is argued, local consistories have the exclusive jurisdiction over what gets sung in a congregation’s worship.

As others have noted, this is a false dichotomy. The authority of local consistories and the authority delegated to synod are not contradictory. One arises from the other. And it should be possible to make decisions for the common good of the churches without ignoring the needs and circumstances of local congregations. But the misunderstanding persists, and it goes far beyond the question of a new Psalter Hymnal to the problems of ecumenical relations, joint church orders, and more. What does unity really mean? Until we pause to answer that question, I think the road to a denominational songbook will remain rough.


Contemplating the Covenanters

A personal reflection on the RPCNA

The Reformed Presbyterian Churches of North America (RPCNA) have an absolutely incredible history of God’s faithfulness to His people.  Arising from the Covenanter movement in 16th century Scotland, the first American RP Church was founded in Pennsylvania in 1743, with the first presbytery (similar to the URCNA’s classis) being organized in 1774.  Although there have been some rough passages in their history since then, the RPCNA has remained almost unbelievably faithful to their principles and roots.

The RPCNA is a confessional Reformed denomination, faithfully holding to the Westminster Standards and upholding the infallibility and inerrancy of Scripture.  True to their Covenanter roots, they are identified by their well-known “For Christ’s Crown and Covenant” banner, which is also the origin of the name of their publishing house, Crown and Covenant Publications.  The RPCNA has a wonderful college, an excellent seminary, and very effective missions.

More Germaine to this blog is their consistent singing of the 150 biblical psalms.  The RPCNA is an exclusive psalmist denomination, believing that the correct application of the regulative principle of worship is that the church’s “musical praise employs God’s Word only, thus making use of the divinely inspired Book of Psalms.”  Also notable is their practice of singing the psalms a capella, without musical accompaniment.  They maintain this practice in order to encourage “keeping with the New Testament Church’s directive for heart worship,” that is, to remove any distraction from “singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart” (Ephesians 5:19).

In light of the URCNA’s Synod 2012’s recent discussion of entering “phase 2” of fraternal relations with the RPCNA, Michael asked me to take a few moments to reflect on my relationship with the RPCNA.  There are many nuances to Synod’s discussion which I do not intend to delve into.  This blog is about Psalmody, after all, so that is where we’ll stay.

We’ve discussed exclusive psalmody on this blog before (and can discuss it further in the future), but today, I’d just like to focus on the richness of the RPCNA’s heritage of singing the psalms.

To be honest, I never knew of the RPCNA’s existence until I went to college.  There, I became intimately familiar with the denomination; in fact, most of my best friends were (and are) members of the RPCNA.  Through my friends, and the experiences I had worshiping at various RPCNA churches, I came to love and appreciate that denomination.

Being Scottish in background, the RPCNA uses Psalters that are rich in the heritage of Scottish Psalmody.  From the historical roots of the Scottish Psalter (1564, revised by the Westminster Assembly in 1646 and approved for use by the Church of Scotland in 1650), the RPCNA enjoys a rich tradition of excellent Psalters.  The Scottish Psalter went through a few reprints and was completely overhauled into The Book of Psalms for Singing in 1973 and most recently The Book of Psalms for Worship in 2009.  All of these Psalters are rich and faithful to the biblical Psalms.  Although these Psalters are from a Scottish, rather than continental, background, readers familiar with the Blue Psalter Hymnal and its family tree would probably recognize many of the tunes and phrasings, as the Scottish Psalter was one of the sources for the Christian Reformed Psalter and Psalter Hymnal.  I personally found the English and Scottish tunes to be easy to learn, robust and rousing.

Although I found the a capella singing to be a bit unusual and surprising at first, I have never been to an RPCNA congregation that doesn’t sing (I mean really sing!).  These churches take their psalm-singing seriously, and some of the most musically beautiful and heartfelt praise I’ve ever been a part of has taken place in RPCNA churches.  From young to old, each member belts out the words of Scripture in time-honored harmonies.  Whether singing in a service or around a campfire, it’s clear that each member of the RPCNA is brought up to cherish and love the biblical psalms.  It was from RP church members that I really learned afresh to love the psalms and the singing thereof.

I’ll never forget a Sunday afternoon I spent with a handful of my Covenanter friends.  I was asked to close the meal with a Bible reading, and I chose to read a psalm.  For whatever reason, I neglected to announce which psalm I was reading.  But immediately following the reading, several of my friends chimed in with the reference.  Thinking it was a fluke and that I could stump my Scottish brethren, I started a little game.  I would read what I thought was an obscure passage from the psalms and make them guess from which psalm it came.  With alarming accuracy, my RP brothers and sisters nailed the psalm references.

Now I’ll lay my cards on the table: I enjoy singing hymns.  I think they are an appropriate and glorious way to express Christian joy, even within the worship service.  But seeing what such a solid tradition of church psalmody can do really impressed on me the importance, the crucial necessity, of singing the psalms in worship.  We’ve listed so many reasons to sing the biblical psalms on this blog.  Another reason (among many) that I learned from the RPCNA was that we must sing the psalms in order to foster a love of the psalms, in order to memorize the psalms, in order to think in the language of the psalms, as I’ve seen demonstrated time and again by my RP friends.

I benefited (and continue to benefit) so much from my acquaintance with the RPCNA.  If that benefit on a small, personal scale can be reflected on a federational scale (in whatever stage of fraternal relations) with the URCNA, then praise God!

Don’t get me wrong, the Dutch Reformed background of the URCNA contains its own rich heritage of psalm-singing.  But if we can catch the zeal and exuberance that the RPCNA has for the psalms, we will be richer for it.  I learned to love Christ more passionately through the psalms from my friends in the RPCNA.  Let’s be clear – the URCNA and the RPCNA are not identical twins.  But at least in the area of psalmody, let us celebrate and enjoy our fellowship with this rich and historic denomination, for they have much to teach us.


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.

URC Psalmody on YouTube

Join 236 other followers