“Through the Church the Song Goes On”: The Reformed Church in America and the Christian Reformed Church in North America–Some Reflections   12 comments

Dutch Reformed Part VIII Cover Photo

Above:  My Copies of Some Books I Have I Have Discussed in This Series

Image Source = Kenneth Randolph Taylor




Lo, the apostolic train join your sacred name to hallow;

prophets swell the glad refrain, and the white-robed martyrs follow;

and from morn to set of sun through the church the song goes on.

–“Holy God, We Praise Your Name,” hymn #619, Rejoice in the Lord (1985)



A few months ago I decided that I should spend part of this Summer researching and writing about U.S. Dutch Reformed liturgy.  The project would require much effort, concentration, and time, I knew, and I looked forward to it.  I had no idea, however, that I would wind up drafting some very long posts.  Part VII, for example, was 78 pages in longhand and required three days (off-and-on) to type.  These surprises were positive ones, for my brain had more fun than it would have otherwise.  My fingers, however, required rest along the way.

This process has lasted, with some breaks, for about two months.  I posted Part I of the series on May 16, Part II on May 18, and Part III on May 22.  Then posts became longer.  Part IV debuted on June 6, Part V on June 9, and Part VI on June 22.  I published Part VII, the longest post of the series, yesterday, July 5.  And so here I am, with with much of the content of these posts fresh in my mind, ready to offer a few broad conclusions.


The “Others”

Among the constants in human society and theology is the impulse to label groups as “other.”  Often, in the name of righteousness, people have killed or committed other violence against the “others” or merely denied them civil rights and liberties or kept a “safe” distance from them.  The “others” have been people of different ethnic or racial backgrounds, national origins, people who have disagreed on certain points of theology, and people who have violated traditional concepts of gender.  Yet the “others” and those who have defined them as such have all carried the image of God and been more alike than many of them have known or suspected.  Jesus Christ came to, among other things, break down artificial barriers, which he did, making powerful enemies in the process.  We humans find the scandalous generosity of grace intolerable much of the time.

Definitions of identity–often of the “I’m not…” variety–appeal to many people.  Dutch identity used to work that way for many more people in North America than it does today.  Cultural assimilation over decades and centuries settled many arguments.  Among the most emotionally difficult related issues was the language of worship.  The Reformed Church in America (RCA) moved on from that matter long before the Christian Reformed Church in North America (CRCNA) did, but subsequent waves of Dutch emigration kept the question alive well into the twentieth century.

Among those of the CRCNA persuasion the purity of doctrine has long been a major concern–an obsession, really.  With that obsession has come not only the refusal to merge with other denominations but the splintering of the CRCNA during times of increasing openness–liberalization–on the official level.  Two denominations–the Orthodox Christian Reformed Churches (OCRC) in the 1980s and the United Reformed Churches in North America (URCNA) in the 1990s–formed for this reason.  The former merged into the latter in 2008.  One example of liberalization in the CRCNA was the official opening of all church offices to women in the 1990s.

Homosexuals and their heterosexual allies remain very much the “others” in the Dutch Reformed denominations in North America.  Calls for compassionate treatment of homosexuals and for guarantees of their civil rights and liberties coexist with official denials of these civil rights and liberties and of a dearth of compassionate treatment.  Those heterosexual allies who act on their moral convictions risk conviction in ecclesiastical courts.  One day the nearly unanimous verdict of generations not yet born will be that all this was as morally offensive as using the Bible to justify chattel slavery.  That verdict has been becoming more commonplace during the last few years, fortunately.  “Homophobes ‘R Us” is an immoral identity for any denomination or congregation.


Some traditions, such as sexism and homophobia, are unequivocably bad.  Yet others are beautiful and reverent.  This does not mean, however, that one should make a fetish out of liturgy and preserve it in amber, as if it were an ancient insect.  And neither should one disregard liturgical tradition because it is old and chase after the latest fad(s).  No, as Lutheran liturgical expert Philip H. Pfatteicher wrote:

…the new is not always found in opposition to the old but arises from the old as its natural growth and development.  Stability and continuity are essential elements of catholic Christianity.

Commentary on the Lutheran Book of Worship:  Lutheran Liturgy in Its Ecumenical Context (1990), page 10

One does not learn that valuable lesson from PowerPoint presentations, overhead projection transparencies, and “seven-eleven” praise choruses in worship.  Entertainment is not the worship of God.  And we have much to learn from tradition in liturgy without treating it like an exhibit in a museum.

Thomas Day, author of Why Catholics Can’t Sing:  The Culture of Catholicism and the Triumph of Bad Taste (1990), recounts a story from the early 1970s.  An elderly lady in a grand old Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, parish was having difficulty adjusting to the revised liturgy.  So, during the passing of the peace, she fingered her rosary and murmured instead.  When a man extended his hand to her and wished her God’s peace, she replied, “I don’t believe in that s–t.”  Then she returned to her rosary.

Although I approve of the passing of the peace and participate in it on a regular basis in my Episcopal parish, something about the story resonates with me.  I have found myself becoming more of a liturgical traditionalist than I used to be while remaining left of the theological and political center on most issues.  Thus my opinion of contemporary worship is that elderly woman’s summary of the passing of the peace.

Therefore I have a major problem with Lift Up Your Hearts (2013), the new official hymnal of the RCA and the CRCNA.  The contemporary tilt of the majority of material is bad, but I object to more than that.  I note that the title is Lift Up Your Hearts, not Lift Up Your Minds or Lift Up Your Intellects.  American Evangelicalism contains a broad spectrum, part of which places too much emphasis on the emotions and too little on the intellect.  I am describing Pietism, push-back against stale doctrinal orthodoxy enamored of abstraction and removed from the realities of daily life.  Yet, just as two wrongs do not make a right, two extremes do not balance out into an equilibrium.  Lift Up Your Hearts contains little to stimulate my intellect, one of the major ways I relate to God.

What Lies Ahead?

One of the volumes most helpful to me during the process of preparing this series of posts has been Divided By a Common Heritage:  The Christian Reformed Church and the Reformed Church in America at the Beginning of the New Millennium (2006), which four college professors–two from each denomination–wrote.  They researched, wrote, and published before the RCA-CRCNA Reformed Collaborative became as intensive as it has in 2014, so some of their conclusions might not apply any longer.  Others, however, hold up well.

On pages 187-193 then professors analyze three possible scenarios for the future of the RCA and the CRCNA.  They are, with some material I have added:

  1. The two denominations, already aging and fading away, might remain separate and die slowly.  The RCA would not exist anymore if not for its Midwestern and Western synods, which have opposed plans for organic union with other denominations more than once.  And the CRCNA has explored union with other denominations, calling off plans for merger with the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America (RPCNA) and being disappointed when the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) nixed another possible union in the 1960s.  The CRCNA is too conservative some denominations and too liberal for others while remaining quite conservative.
  2. The RCA and the CRCNA might merge to the left and for survival, leaving many points of disagreement left unresolved under the banner of diversity.  This would result in an exodus to the right.  The URCNA, the OPC, the PCA, the rump Reformed Church in the United States (RCUS), the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC), ECO:  A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians, and other denominations on the conservative end of the Reformed spectrum would benefit in this scenario.
  3. The RCA and the CRCNA might merge to the right and for purity, prompting an exodus to the left and taking with it most of the Eastern part of the RCA.  In this scenario the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) [PC(USA)] and the United Church of Christ (UCC), historically the preferred merger partners in the RCA East, would benefit.

Lift Up Your Hearts is a milestone book for the RCA and the CRCNA in so far as it indicates that the CRCNA is no longer accusing the RCA of apostasy (as it did in the middle 1800s and later) and that the RCA has ceased to publish negative comments about the CRCNA.  Forgiveness and reconciliation are positive, but I wonder where the organic future of each denomination should lie–together, separately and intact, or separate from each other and joined with others.  I, as an outside observer, have no “dog in the fight,” but I hope for the path of which God approves.


The title of this post reflects the fact that the story of the RCA and the CRCNA is, like the saga of Dune, far from over.  I have reached conclusions based on the course of events from 1628 to the middle of 2014 (just a few weeks ago), but I anticipate extending this series.  Perhaps I will write about other details of services, comparing and contrasting the same element over time in a given post.  Now, however, I need to focus on other matters.  And, as developments continue to unfold, I might write more posts of a broad nature.  Time will tell.



Day, Thomas.  Why Catholics Can’t Sing:  The Culture of Catholicism and the Triumph of Bad Taste.  New York, NY:  Crossroad, 1990.

Pfatteicher, Philip H.  Commentary on the Lutheran Book of Worship:  Lutheran Liturgy in Its Ecumenical Context.  Minneapolis, MN:  Augsburg Fortress, 1990.

Smidt, Corwin, et al.  Divided By a Common Heritage:  The Christian Reformed Church and the Reformed Church in America at the Beginning of the New Millennium.  Grand Rapids, MI:  William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2006.  The Historical Series of the Reformed Church in America, No. 54.










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