Posts Tagged 'Synod'

Time for a Second Edition!

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Timing can be a funny thing. Two weeks ago came the news that the OPC’s General Assembly and the URCNA’s synod had both approved the Trinity Psalter Hymnal for publication—less than two weeks after Reformed Fellowship’s announcement that their stock of blue Psalter Hymnals had run out. At the very least, we can be sure the URCNA won’t be left without a book to sing from!

Of course, this historic decision means much more than that we have a book of our own. Several readers and friends have asked me: “Are you excited?” or “Are you relieved?” A few have even said something along the lines of, “Just think! Your Psalter Hymnal got approved by the synod!” And yes, I am excited—though it’s not my Psalter Hymnal by any stretch of the imagination.

See, that’s just the point: the fact that we’ve adopted the Trinity Psalter Hymnal means that as a federation we’ve been able to move past the substantial differences between “my” ideal songbook and “your” ideal songbook. It proves that by God’s grace, to some limited extent, we can work together—imperfectly, yet sincerely. The new book won’t provide the final answers to what we should sing or how we should sing in worship. It may be an excellent collection, or it may be only a reasonably good one. It may be forgotten in 100 years, or even 50. But it is a step forward.

As demotivational as it may sound, I’ll add this: The time to start preparing for a second edition of the Trinity Psalter Hymnal is now. If the URCNA and OPC have adopted this songbook out of a desire to worship God in greater truth and greater unity, we need to set our minds on long-term investments to improve this unity. I hope the Songbook Committees are already noting what might be done differently in compiling future editions, what recently-composed songs might be worth including someday, or even what other favorite songs from our old books ought to be reconsidered. As individuals and churches, we can take ownership of the new book by immediately noting which songs gain the widest acceptance and which problems need to be addressed most urgently. This could be as involved as an Excel spreadsheet or as simple as a tally mark placed above a psalm or hymn every time it is sung.

All of these are simple examples, but the central purpose is the same: to be thankful for the very good work that’s been done so far, while continuing to propel it forward so that future generations will benefit from the thoughtful investments in worship we are making today.

In short, I’m excited—not because we’ve yet reached the pinnacle of united worship in the URCNA and OPC, but because we’ve set our faces in that direction. And I’m excited for what God will do, as he has done in the past, when his people unite with a humble heart to seek the good of Zion.

–MRK

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How Every Delegate Should Vote Next Week

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It’s an unwritten rule of church relations: If you want to get into an argument as fast as possible, question a brother or sister’s favorite song. The rule applies to every church tradition from a cappella psalm-singing to contemporary worship music, including the URCNA.

Synod 2016 meets in Grand Rapids next week, and I think it’s reasonable to say that it’s going to be a difficult meeting. Decisions related to the Psalter Hymnal are by no means the only issues of importance on the agenda, but they will be painful nevertheless. A new book means some of our most beloved psalm settings and hymns may end up on the chopping block—and let’s admit it now: that hurts.

Our federation-wide sensitivity to the topic of church music has been revealed to me in several communications I’ve received from URC pastors, elders and members in recent weeks. I’ve heard opinions ranging from the overwhelmingly positive to the astonishingly critical, and I’m glad to listen to and learn from all of them.

Yet I can’t help but wonder if we’ve adopted a double standard in evaluating the new book. Although we may examine its lyrics and music with a magnifying glass, we often fail to consider the new book as a whole. By contrast, we have a very positive overall view of the blue Psalter Hymnal, yet we may have lost sight of some of its specifics. And I’m afraid that many songs from the blue book would fail under the careful scrutiny so quickly applied to the proposal.

To give an example, I’ve heard allegations that the new songbook contains hidden strains of universalism and Roman Catholicism—a shocking claim which, if true, would give us great cause for concern. Supporting evidence is drawn from hymns that include lines like “died to save us all,” or from a communion hymn translated by a priest, John Mason Neale, exhorting us to “take by faith the body of the Lord.” Now, in context these lyrics can easily be explained Scripturally: the “us all” refers to the church, and the “body of the Lord” merely echoes Jesus’ own words in Matthew 26. I don’t think heresy is implied in either case.

More concerning, however, is the tendency to elevate the blue Psalter Hymnal as the gold standard to which other songbooks must attain. In this case, no mention is made of some of its own hymns that could be interpreted in the very same light. “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” contains the line “Light and life to all He brings,” while “Faith of Our Fathers” was written by a Roman Catholic priest to commemorate Catholic martyrs. I’m not judging the merit of either of these hymns. I merely want to point out that by this line of reasoning, we would have to conclude that the blue Psalter Hymnal too is a corrupted seedbed for unreformed heresy.

Most of all, though, I’m surprised that this conversation is coming to a head at such a late date. We’ve had 19 years to think about this project, to recommend our favorite songs, to share our concerns, to overture our consistories and classes and synods as to what shape the new book should take. We might have even appealed the very decision to pursue a new book. We’ve had access to a complete psalm proposal and two complete hymn proposals. We’ve had every opportunity to participate in the project with a spirit of mutual edification and constructive criticism.

Yet 19 years later—and one week before what may be the last vote on the book—we are still asking and answering questions about why the “old blue” won’t remain in print forever, why working together with another denomination is to our advantage, and “why we need a new Psalter Hymnal anyway.” Rather than acknowledging this as a monumental task that requires the active involvement of every concerned member, we apparently prefer to sit on the sidelines and criticize. We criticize the distant and unknown—the motives of the Songbook Committee, the traditions of the OPC—in contrast to the familiar, the good, the safe.

Brothers and sisters, let’s remember one thing: the new book is corrupted. It’s corrupted because we are. And the blue Psalter Hymnal is corrupted too—because we were corrupted back then as well. “We do not know what to pray for as we ought,” said Paul, and much less do we know how to sing as we ought. Even the most staunchly Reformed songbook would still bear the marks of our sin and imperfection before God.

And that’s why we’re commanded to sing: because we’ve been promised redemption from this corruption, and because the experience of congregational singing builds us up together as the body of Christ. As we fill our hearts and mouths with the words God has given us in the psalms, as well as the words of godly men and women of old—slowly, imperfectly, through thee’s and you’s, Jehovah’s and Lord’s, archaic verbs and clumsy rhyming schemes—still, we learn to speak like Jesus. That heavenly accent we pick up is one not of arrogance and confusion, but of humility and peace.

If you’re preparing for next week’s synod, I trust that you won’t base your decision on the new book merely on my words or the words of others, but that you are even now prayerfully considering the question of our songbook for yourself. I humbly urge you to meditate on Ephesians 5 and Colossians 3 as refreshing reminders of the context in which our redeemed singing must occur.

Above all, take comfort in this: it is in the very experience of disagreeing over the Psalter Hymnal project that we are being taught what brotherly love and self-sacrifice look like—if our eyes and ears are open.

–MRK

Thinking the Trinity Psalter Hymnal Through

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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 PsalterHymnal.org 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.

–MRK

“Why Your Church Needs a New Psalter Hymnal”

I suppose making a blog post on April Fools’ Day might be a somewhat unwise decision. Maybe you opened this post expecting a satire piece about Crown & Covenant’s recent release of The Book of Psalms for Worship, Hip-Hop Edition, or about the recent finding that John Calvin’s personal copy of the Genevan Psalter had “The Heart of Worship” pasted inside the back cover.

Alas, I bring you neither of those things today; the article I’m sharing today is a genuine one. It’s my most recent contribution to The Outlook magazine, entitled “Why Your Church Needs a New Psalter Hymnal.” In it I argue that the URCNA needs to adopt a federational songbook, even if there are still many things about the new book that don’t line up with the personal preferences of myself or others. The article has generated a lot of feedback via email and Facebook, so I thought I would invite you to join the conversation here as well, especially as Synod 2016 and the prospect of a final vote draw near. I’m happy to hear opposing points of view and interact with fellow URCNA members who have given significant thought to this issue.

These two paragraphs pretty much summarize my opinion as regards the new book:

‘Have it your way’ may be the (former) motto of Burger King and the rest of our culture, but it is not—and must not be—the motto of the church. More and more the culture rejects the idea of a common sphere that requires the sacrifice of personal preference. In so doing it creates a world where common causes are impossible.

In direct defiance to this worldview, the church exists as a community of believers united in Christ—believers who deny themselves and look to the interests of others for the sake of the kingdom of Jesus. A Psalter Hymnal is tangible proof that we love each other enough to come to a common agreement about what music glorifies God most and serves the church best, even at the cost of our personal favorites. That is how I can say that I wholeheartedly support this project whether or not I like every song it contains.

That’s all for now!

–MRK

Growing Up into Christ: Synod 2014

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On the evening of Sunday, June 1, I was landing in San Francisco on the way home from a three-week choir tour in southeast Asia.  Less than a day later and only a few hundred miles away, pastors and elders from each congregation in the United Reformed Churches in North America would be gathering at Trinity URC in Visalia, CA, for the federation’s ninth synod meeting.

If it weren’t for the jetlag and the pressing need to spend some quality time with my family after a year away at college, I would have loved to hitch a ride down to Visalia and be a fly on the wall at the meeting.  Although Synod 2014 adjourned a day ahead of schedule, it included many significant—even historic—decisions by our federation of churches.  Under the adage “Better late than never,” I’ll attempt to summarize here some of the synod’s most important decisions.

Our first Director of Missions

The URCNA entered a new stage in its growth with the hiring of Rev. Richard Bout as the federation’s Director of Missions on June 5.  Not only is this a huge step in solidifying our mission efforts, but Rev. Bout will be the first full-time employee of our federation.  A former missionary to Mexico, Rev. Bout will probably carry out his new job from his home in southern Ontario.

Looking ahead to retirement

Synod 2014 moved forward in ensuring that retiring ministers are adequately provided for by the churches that hold their credentials.  Action was taken to remind the congregations of the URCNA of their duty to provide for the needs of retired pastors who have spent a lifetime in Christ’s service.  This, too, shows that the URCNA’s long-term outlook is broadening.

Careful steps toward unity

Talks about the United Reformed Churches in North America merging with the Canadian and American Reformed Churches (CanRC) have been going on since 2001, and although prospects still remain promising, Synod 2014 tabled (postponed indefinitely) a motion for the merger process to begin in 2016.  Most URCNA members seem to favor taking at least a little more time to work out remaining kinks in doctrine and practice between the two groups of churches.

On another front, the URCNA’s fellowship with the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) is growing ever closer.  The OPC is one of only five denominations with which the URCNA maintains “Phase Two” ecumenical relations, signifying that we consider them a true and faithful branch of Christ’s church and desire to pursue further unity with them.  In fact, Synod 2014 extended an invitation to the OPC to hold our next synod in 2016 concurrently with their General Assembly.  This serves many purposes, but one of the main reasons for a joint ecclesiastical assembly brings us to the topic most closely connected to this blog . . .

The new Psalter Hymnal

At Synod 2014 the URCNA unanimously (and the OPC later overwhelmingly) approved the psalm section of the proposed Psalter Hymnal on which our two denominations are collaborating.  The vote to move forward shows a recognition of the quantity and the quality of the work that has already been done on the new Psalter Hymnal, and perhaps too a realization that the time has come to finish this project.  The committees report that they expect to have a new and revised Hymn Proposal ready for the churches’ review in the spring of 2015, and that the finished collection will be presented to the joint Synod and General Assembly in 2016.  Lord willing, the new Psalter Hymnal of the URCNA and OPC could be in our hands by as early as 2017!

Another remarkable feature of Synod 2014: The devotions at the beginning of each session included singing from the Psalm Proposal by all the delegates.  Here is a video taken by Rev. Zac Wyse of Westside Reformed Church in Cincinnati of the delegates singing Psalm 1 as it appears in the proposal:

[youtube http://youtu.be/EpzJRj7HWHk]

More resources for news and information on Synod 2014:

  • Press releases summarizing each day’s decisions and deliberations (Day 1, Day 2, Day 3) are available at URCNA.org.
  • Christian Renewal’s June 25 issue contains a wealth of reports and commentary on this synod meeting.  Their Facebook page also includes some pictures of the gathering.
  • The collection of songs approved to form the URCNA/OPC Psalm Proposal is available at PsalterHymnal.org.

May God continue to bless the United Reformed Churches in North America as we “grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ” (Ephesians 4:15 ESV).

–MRK


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