Archive for the ‘Reformed (General)’ Category

First Reformed (2018)   2 comments

Above:  The Blu-Ray Cover for First Reformed

Scan by Kenneth Randolph Taylor




Ethan Hawke as the Reverend Ernst Toller

Amanda Seyfried as Mary Mensana

Cedric “the Entertainer” Kyles as the Reverend Joel Jeffers

Michal Gaston as Ed Balq

Written and Directed by Paul Schrader

Rated R for some violent images

One hour and fifty-three minutes long


The desire to pray itself is a type of prayer. How often we ask for genuine experience when all we really want is emotion.

–Ernst Toller, in First Reformed


How easily they talk about prayer, those who have never really prayed.

So writes the Reverend Ernst Toller of those, such as some Evangelical teenagers, believers in the heresy that is Prosperity Theology, in First Reformed.  One of those adolescents says,

If happiness came in pill size, it would have JC stamped on it.

Toller, in contrast, writes in his journal,

These thoughts and recollections are not so different from those I confide to God every morning. When it is possible. When He is listening. This journal is a form of speaking, of communication from one to the other. A communication which can be achieved simply and in repose without prostration or abnegation. It is a form of prayer.

He understands what St. John of the Cross called the Dark Night of the Soul.  The teenager with the JC happy pills has no clue regarding spiritual maturity.

First Reformed is a staggering, thought-provoking, spiritually honest and profound work.  The movie, set in Snowbridge, New York, outside Albany, is about the spiritual struggles of Ernst Toller, a former U.S. Army chaplain.  He is 46 years old, divorced, guilt-ridden, depressed, and physically ill.  He drinks too much.  Toller blames himself for the death of his son, a casualty of the Second Iraq War; the father, following the family tradition, encouraged the son to join the military.  Toller, unwilling and unable to justify that war morally, feels very guilty for the death of his son.  The suicide of a parishioner’s husband, an environmental terrorist, sends Toller down a path potentially destructive of more than just himself.  Given that Schrader wrote both this movie and Taxi Driver (1976), the spiritual kinship of Toller and Travis Bickle is obvious.

Toller is the pastor of the First Reformed Church, a 250-year-old congregation that functions more as a tourist trap than as a church.  He has few parishioners.  First Reformed Church is a chapel of Abundant Life Church in Christ and Christian Fellowship, a non-denominational, “Spirit-filled” megachurch in town.  Joel Jeffers, the head pastor at Abundant Life, is at least as morally ambiguous as Toller, who contemplates using a suicide vest.  Whereas Toller understands the Christian obligation of environmental stewardship, Jeffers ignores the issue.  After all, the generous contributions of Ed Balq, a local industrialist and a major polluter, finance Abundant Life’s media programs and much of the community outreach.  Furthermore, Balq is paying for the repair of the organ at First Reformed Church and the reconsecration of the congregation on the occasion of its anniversary.    Jeffers does, however, care about Tollers and want him to be physically, spiritually, and emotionally well.

A pastor needs a pastor,

Jeffers advises Toller.  Furthermore, according to Jeffers, Toller is always in the Garden of Gethsemane.

The reaches its climax in an ambiguous scene, the meaning of which the director’s commentary does not explain clearly.  Schrader wants to avoid easy answers, as do the two reverends in the movie.  I still do not know of Toller emerged from his Dark Night of the Soul, or even if he was alive when the end credits rolled.  I have an idea, but no certainty.

First Reformed is a movie that shuns certainty.  Much of the best art does.  Uncertainty invites the viewer of the art to interact with that art.  My advice is not to watch First Reformed immediately before going to bed, for, if one does, one’s mind will be busy trying to make sense of the film when one should be sleeping.

The cast is excellent.  Amanda Seyfried, actually pregnant while portraying a pregnant widow, plays the character with whom Toller connects more than any other.  If anybody can lead Toller out of the Dark Night of the Soul, she can.  Ethan Hawke plays a depressive very well.  He is believable in his portrayal of a spiritually disturbed minister.  Cedric “the Entertainer” Kyles proves that Joss Whedon is correct; comedians are fine dramatic actors because comedy is more difficult that drama.  Kyles portrays Jeffers as a believable, generally sympathetic character.  The only unambiguous character is Ed Balq, who professes Christianity while destroying the environment and dismissing criticisms as unfounded and politically motivated.  Michael Gaston plays him believably, without the figurative mustache-twirling.

I do have one minor criticism regarding an error.  Why are members of a Dutch Reformed church using Episcopal hymnals?  The answer, of course, is that the structure labeled “First Reformed Church” in the movie is actually that of an Episcopal congregation.  The Prayer Books are out of sight, to present the illusion that the building is for a Calvinist church, albeit one with a central altar and a pulpit on the right.

If you, O reader, seek to watch a spiritual movie that will force you to think for yourself and ponder ambiguities of faith, First Reformed is a movie to schedule.








The script is here.



Epistemology and Certainty   Leave a comment


Above:  Parallel Lines

Image in the Public Domain


How do we know what we know?  We can be certain of some propositions, but how so?

I have liked to say that, for me, human depravity is not a matter of faith but of objective reality confirmed by observation, history, and journalism.  The underlying assumption of that statement is that perceiving objective reality does not require faith of any variety.  Lesslie Newbigin‘s argument against that assumption has occupied my thoughts today.

St. Clement of Alexandria, the Pioneer of Christian Scholarship, argued against those Christians who thought that they did not need pagan knowledge, specifically, Greek philosophy–especially Platonism.  He replied by saying that Greek philosophy paved the way for the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  A millennium later, in the 1200s, Sts. Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas argued for the compatibility of faith and reason–specifically, the philosophy of Aristotle, with some elements of Platonism.  These three saints, all of them great intellectuals, assumed that faith and reason were separate.  In the twentieth century, however, English Presbyterian Lesslie Newbigin, picking up on St. Augustine of Hippo, argued that all certainty hinges on faith, and that the sole basis of proper Christian confidence and certainty is Jesus Christ.

Let us consider, O reader, the example of Euclidian geometry.  It relies upon certain assumptions, upon which other assumptions depend.  This does not mean, of course, that Euclidian geometry is inaccurate.  The only question is one of how we perceive it.

Newbigin objected to St. Clement of Alexandria’s claim that Greek philosophy functioned as a prologue to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  To say that the truth of the Gospel depends upon anything else, Newbigin argued, is to make that thing more important than the Gospel.  He found examples of this in Roman Catholicism, conservative Presbyterianism, and much of Christian apologetics.  Newbigin also objected to the claim that faith and reason are separate.  He wrote that all certainty is a matter of faith, for we all assume that x, y, and z are accurate and that the world operates in a certain way.

The categories in my head come mostly from Thomism and the Enlightenment.  In Thomism I, an intellectual, find affirmation of the inclusion of true knowledge, regardless of its origin, as compatible with Christian faith.  From the Enlightenment  and the Scientific Revolution preceding it I receive modernism (as opposed to postmodernism) as a way of knowing much via evidence and observation.  As pastors and priests have taught me, there are two kinds of knowledge–that which we can know via observation and hard evidence and that which we can know only via faith.  But what if this assumption is wrong?  What if we know only by faith and the issue is by which kind thereof?  What if all certainty is a matter of faith?

If so, I can change my mind.








Adjusting to America: Moravians, 1735-1848   12 comments


Above:  A View of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania

Publication Date = May 20, 1761, by Thomas Jeffreys

Artist = Thomas Pownall (1722-1805)

Painter and Engraver = Paul Sandby (1731-1809)

Image Source = Library of Congress

Reproduction Number = LC-DIG-pga-04087




Grant us to bless them that curse us, and to do good to them that hate us;

Have mercy upon our slanderers and persecutors; and lay not this sin to their charge;

Hinder all schisms and scandals;

Put far from thy people deceivers and seducers;

Bring back all that have erred, or have been seduced;

Grant love and unity to all our congregations;

Hear us, gracious Lord and God!

–From the Church Litany, in A Collection of Hymns for the Use of the Protestant Church, of the United Brethren; New and Revised Edition (1809)page x



This post stands in lineage with the Prelude and Part I.

Immigrant and emigrant traditions intrigue me.  One reason for this fact is the reality of my ancestry, for I descend primarily from English people, some of whom settled in North America during the colonial era.  Some of my ancestors fought under the command of General George Washington during the U.S. War for Independence, in fact.  So I, a Caucasian, English-speaking male with deep roots in the United States of America, feel as non-ethnic as one can.  The closest I come to a sense of ethnicity is, to quote Gilbert and Sullivan’s H. M.S. Pinafore, “I am an Englishman.”  Indeed, “God Save the Queen,” er, “My Country, “Tis of Thee.”  Do you want tea with that?

People whose roots do not run deeply in the country in which they live occupy a different cultural space than do the rest of us.  Xenophobes and nativists consider that different cultural space inherently negative.  I reject the extremes of ethnocentrism, which holds up one’s culture as the ideal, and cultural relativism, which rejects the existence of standards and considers one culture just as good as any other.  No, I stand in the middle, where I welcome the positive influences and reject the negative ones, regardless of cultural origin.  Emigrants and immigrants have enriched this nation in countless ways, from cuisine to physical infrastructure.  Nevertheless, my digestive tract rejects much of their spicy food, so I practice considerable caution in the realm of culinary multiculturalism, much to the approval of my innards.

One of my the themes of this post is the struggle of many American Moravians with many of their fellow Americans who misunderstood them.  “Why do you use different hymn tunes than we do at the Methodist (or Baptist, Presbyterian, et cetera) Church?’ some asked, sometimes with hostility.  “What is the reason you insist on being different from other Protestants?” many wanted to know.  And, given the prominence of the nativistic politics of the American Party/Native American Party/American Republican Party in the middle third of the nineteenth century, these were serious questions which pointed to profound issues with which the Moravian Church in America had to struggle.

One lesson I have learned is that, despite the frequency of repetition of the ethic of “live and let live” or even to embrace and learn from certain differences, many people are unapologetic conformists.  This reality becomes obvious in a plethora of locations, from schools to places of employment.  I argue, however, that if God had intended us to be alike, God would not have created us to be different.

A few words about sources are appropriate before I delve headlong into the material.  I have listed hardcopy sources at the end of the post.  You, O reader, will find links to other posts behind parts of the text.  And I have found much useful information in an academic paper, “A Look at Eighteenth and Nineteenth-Century American Moravian Liturgy” (December 2011), which Michael E. Westmoreland, Jr., wrote for his Master of Arts in Liberal Studies degree at Wake Forest University.  I found the paper via an Internet search and downloaded the PDF file.  That document will also prove useful when I start taking notes for Part III of this series.


The origins of the Renewed Unitas Fratrum were, of course, Germanic.  Central to it were Count Nicholas Ludwig von Zinzendorf (1700-1760) and his estate near Berthelsforf, Saxony.  On that estate, in 1722, Moravian exiles had settled and formed a community, Herrnhut.  Developments there and elsewhere in Europe functioned as background to American settlements and influenced them.


Many of the influences (some of which I covered in Part I) pertained to rituals of varying degrees of formality.  There was, for example, the Church Litany, based on a litany which Martin Luther had revised from the Roman Catholic Liturgy of the Saints.  Luther had translated that text into German and removed all references to saints and the Pope.  The revised version was never as popular with Lutherans as with Moravians.  The Moravian revision debuted at Herrnhut in 1731 and became the center of Moravian liturgical practice and reinforced the communal nature of Moravian religious life.

More informal was the Singstrunde, or the “Singing Hour,” which started in 1727.  Across the Moravian world in the 1700s this constituted a standard part of evening devotions.  At Bethlehem, Pennyslvania, for example, the community held such a service each Saturday, in the late 1740s.  The form of Singstrunde was to sing stanzas and half-stanzas of hymns based on  a theme, thereby creating a sermon in song.  This, of course, required great knowledge of hymnody.  By 1770 readings from the Bible had become part of the service.

Related to the Singstrunde was the Love Feast, which had become the high point of Moravian festivals by the 1750s.  Composers wrote anthems for Love Feasts, which included common meals.

The Moravian practice of saying the Litany of the Wounds every Friday in communal settings in the 1700s pertained to the fact of Good Friday.  When people said it less frequently, they did so at least once a month, one week before Communion Sunday.  (The scheduling of Moravian Communion services has varied from once a quarter to once a month.)  Other times for the saying the Litany of the Wounds included days in the season of Lent.  Since 1753 the Litany has existed in two parts:  the Litany of the Life, Suffering, and Death of Christ, and the Hymn of the Wounds.

Forms were ordered and usually simple, although occasionally elaborate.  The purpose of worship was to promote love for Jesus and each other, and the forms were flexible with constant cores, so as to meet needs in various circumstances.  Related to that norm of ordered simplicity was the basic ministerial garment for Baptism, Communion, Marriage, and Confirmation.  The white surplice (often with a white belt) debuted in Moravian worship at a Communion service in Europe on May 2, 1748.  It, like other vestments, functioned as a uniform, thereby preventing the minister’s wardrobe from becoming a distraction.  My survey of websites of North American Moravian congregations has yielded images of clergymen and clergywomen leading worship while wearing a white surplice, a black Geneva robe (without a stole), and secular clothes.  This is consistent with the optional nature of Moravian vestments outside of those four rites.

The focus on divine (rather than on human) authority became more apparent than it was already in the Moravian Church in 1741.  There has been a series of Chief Elders, spiritual leaders of the Unitas Fratrum.  That year, however, Johann Leonhard Dober (1706-1766) resigned the position.  The job had become impossible due to the recent global expansion of the Church.  Also, Dober had no desire to function as a kind of Moravian Pope, which was what his office might have come to entail had he not resigned his post.  On November 13, 1741, the Church announced formally that Jesus Christ was the Chief Elder.  Since then November 13 has been the Festival of Christ the Chief Elder.  The designated parament color is White and the readings are Ezekiel 34:11-16, 23-24; Psalm 8; Hebrews 4:14-16; and John 10:1-10.


Moravians arrived on the North American mainland in 1735.  The first group settled in Savannah, Georgia.  The initial Georgia mission (1735-1779) failed primarily due to internal divisions.  Outside pressures made matters worse, for the pacifistic Moravians refused to take up arms against the Spanish in the late 1730s.  This fact did nothing to endear them to the British military authorities.  Most of the Georgia contingent departed for Pennsylvania in 1740 and founded the settlement of Nazareth the following year.  The founding of other Moravian settlements ensued, such as at Bethabara (1753) and Salem (1766), in North Carolina.

Early Moravian settlements were communes which emphasized the self-sufficiency of the community and members’ responsibilities to and for each other.  Musical skills carried a high priority, but church music did not require professionalism.  Practice time was important and distracted people from dubious pursuits, but too much practice time detracted from communal duties.   Survival mattered, as did the rigorous daily worship schedule, which included morning, midday, and evening prayers.


The hymnals were mostly in German during the 1700s.  In fact, the first English-language Moravian hymnal rolled off the printing presses in England in 1742.  The Tunes for the Hymns in the Collection with Several Translations from the Moravian Hymnbook, with supplements in 1746 and 1749, was a personal collection which James Hutton had prepared.  The original edition had only 187 hymns, thus it was small by Moravian standards.  A Collection of Hymns of the Children of God in All Ages, From the Beginning Till Now; Designed Chiefly with the Brethren’s Church (1754), with Bishop John Gambold, Sr. (1711-1771), as the Editor, contained 1,055 hymn texts, however.  These spanned the time from the Early Church to the-then contemporary age and included works by Isaac Watts and Charles Wesley.  Only fifty-one hymns came from the Ancient Unity.  Next in line was  A Collection of Hymns, for the Use of the Protestant Church of the United Brethren (1789), with a mere 887 hymns plus liturgical texts dispersed among the hymns.  Given the fact that American Moravians used imported British and German worship materials prior to their 1851 hymnal, many of the Brethren in North America knew these English-language materials well.  For a long time, however, German was the main language of worship on this side of “the pond.”

Count Zinzendorf published the Herrnhuter Gesangbuch (1735), thereby starting the Moravian tradition of words-only hymnals for congregations and tune books for church musicians.  The 1735 hymnal offered 999 texts, 208 of which Zinzendorf had written.  Only two hymns came from the Ancient Unity.  Subsequent editions published through 1755 added a total of twelve appendices and four supplements.  Modern Moravian sources consider much of the textual content of hymnals from the “Sifting Time” (ending about 1750) as lacking good taste and exhibiting an excessive–even childish–emphasis on the wounds of Christ.

The next major development in German Moravian hymnody was the “London Book” of 1753-1755.  Alt und neuer Bunder Gesang, a.k.a. Das Londoner Gesangbuch, debuted in two parts.  It contained 3,264 hymns arranged chronologically, from the Early Church to then-contemporary times.  Of these texts, 1,096 came from Moravian sources.  The texts, in German and English in parallel columns, emphasized the fact that the Moravians thought of themselves as standing in continuity with the Early Church and as part of the Universal Church.  This great accomplishment in hymnody also corrected much of the childish language of earlier Moravian hymnals.

Christian Gregor (1723-1801), a bishop from 1789, was responsible for the next great leap in (German) Moravian hymnody.  He, the “Father of Moravian Music,” composed hundreds of hymn texts, introduced arias and anthems into Moravian worship, and stabilized the denomination’s hymnody.  He edited the Gesangbuch (1778), with its 1,750 hymns, more than 300 of which he wrote or revised.  Six years later the Choralbuch, intended for organists, appeared.  The Gesangbuch contained only words and the Choralbuch offered only music.

German-language hymnals remained in use in the United States throughout the 1800s.  A domestically published volume from 1848 contained 836 hymns and went into new printings in 1854 and 1861.  The revision debuted in 1885.  By then English had become the main language of worship, however.


The transition to English was part of a process of cultural assimilation and adaption to the dominant culture.  I would be remiss if I were, O reader, to leave you with the mistaken idea that all linguistic developments among American Moravians at the time moved toward the English tongue.  There were, for example, missions among Native people.  Hence there was, for example, A Collection of Hymns for the Use of the Christian Indians, of the Missions of the United Brethren in America (1803), which missionary David Zeisberger prepared.  The second edition debuted in 1847.

The first printing of a Moravian hymnal in the United States occurred in 1813.  The volume in question was A Collection of Hymns, for the Use of the Protestant Church of the United Brethren–New and Revised Edition (1801) with its 1808 supplement.  The 1809 composite hymnal served well in Britain until the publication of its successor in 1826; another revision followed in 1849.  The U.S. Moravian hymnal of 1851 was a revision of that volume, hence the division between Parts II and III of this series.  The 1801-1808-1809 book was itself a revision of the 1789 Collection of Hymns, which John Swertner had also edited.

The two volumes were similar yet different.  Both, consistent with Moravian practice of the age, had words only.  The 1789 hymnal offered 887 hymns, but the 1801 book contained 1,000.  The 1808 supplement thereto added 200 hymns.  The 1789 hymnal dispersed the liturgies among the hymns, but the 1801-1808-1809 volume grouped the liturgies at the front of the book.  Those forms were:

  1. The Church Litany;
  2. Doxologies at Ordinations;
  3. Easter Morning Litany;
  4. Baptismal Litanies;
  5. Holy Communion; and
  6. Liturgy for Burials.

Another important volume was Hymn Tunes Used in the Church of the United Brethren (1836), which Peter Wolle (1792-1871) edited.  The core target audience was Moravian, but Wolle intended it for other Christians also.  He edited the traditional Moravian tunes to make them less foreign.  That fact indicated that Moravians were feeling pressures to conform to the practices of others.

I have read enough in the realm of liturgy during the last few years to develop a firm grasp of the difficulties inherent in linguistic and cultural changes in the public worship of God.  Among many culturally Germanic Lutherans (especially in the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod and the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod) in the United States, the transition to worshiping in English entailed the loss of traditional texts.  Much of this transition was abrupt, for domestic hysteria and vandalism during World War I (a time when many people relabeled Sauerkraut as “Liberty Cabbage”) compelled its acceleration.  The Dutch-language worshipers from the Christian Reformed Church in North America felt much of the same pressure during the Great War.  Their transition was mostly complete by 1940, at the cost of much grief and many tunes and texts.

Language carries culture, which influences one’s identity.  Thus those who dismiss the “other” as automatically and inherently defective because it is different not only engage in ethnocentrism but inflict harm on others.  Those nativists and xenophobes also harm themselves, for their insistence on homogeneity deprives them of positive influences from other cultures.

American Moravians, who were making the transition from German to English as the primary language during the first half of the nineteenth century, experienced an awkward time.  There were still many older church members who knew the German hymns and litanies by heart, but many of the younger Moravians knew English, not German.  And copies of the English-language worship resources were frequently scarce.  One result of this situation was having many people reading the services badly from books (of which the supply was often insufficient) and generally being lost in the ritual, thereby diminishing the traditional services.  Those services were also becoming less frequent, for changing lifestyles rendered the former rigorous worship schedules obsolete.  Also, many Evangelical congregations (such as those of Baptists and Methodists) attracted many young Moravians.

Were traditional Moravian melodies bad because they were different?  Of course not!  Yet many non-Moravians thought so.  I have listened to some traditional Moravian music and concluded that is superior to much traditional American Protestant (especially Baptist and Methodist) music, actually.  Then again, I am an unapologetic European Classicist.  Nativism and xenophobia, however, led to opposition to such foreign influences.


The story of adaptation to America will continue in Part III, which will start with the British hymnal of 1849, the basis of the U.S. hymnbook of 1851.  This series will continue with summaries of revisions in the hymnody and liturgies of the Moravian Church in America as it adapted to changing circumstances.

The allegation that Moravians were somehow foreign or insufficiently American was false.  In fact, an examination of the germane facts belies it, not that bigots care about objective reality.  The first documented celebration of July 4 occurred at Salem, North Carolina, in 1783.  The Moravians there observed the occasion with a Love Feast.  As a common expression states, “enough said.”









Frank, Albert H.  Companion to the Moravian Book of Worship.  Winston-Salem, NC:  Moravian Music Foundation, 2004.

Hutton, James E.  A History of the Moravian Church.  London, England, UK:  Moravian Publication Office, 1909.  Reprint.

Hymnal and Liturgies of the Moravian Church.  Bethlehem, PA:  Moravian Church in America, 1969.

Hymnal and Liturgies of the Moravian Church (Unitas Fratrum).  Bethlehem, PA:  Moravian Church in America, 1923.

Knouse, Nola Reed, ed.  The Music of the Moravian Church in America.  Rochester, NY:  University of Rochester Press, 2008.

Moravian Church Desk Calendar & Plan Book 2014.  Bethlehem, PA:  Interprovincial Board of Communication, 2013.

Moravian Daily Texts 2014.  Bethlehem, PA:  Interprovincial Board of Communication, 2013.


Guide to Posts About South African Dutch Reformed Denominations   Leave a comment

Flag of South Africa to 1994

Above:  The Flag of the Republic of South Africa to 1994

Image in the Public Domain


“Hope of the World”:  The Reformed Church in America and the Christian Reformed Church in North America, 1945-1969:

“Lead Me, Guide Me”:  The Reformed Church in America and the Christian Reformed Church in North America, 1970-2000:

“Let Us Break Bread Together”:  The Reformed Church in America and the Christian Reformed Church in North America, 2001-2014:


Below:  The Flag of the Republic of South Africa, Post-Apartheid

Image in the Public Domain

Flag of South Africa


Guide to Posts About the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council (NAPARC)   Leave a comment

Burning Bush Logo

Above:  The Burning Bush Logo

Image in the Public Domain


“Lead Me, Guide Me”:  The Reformed Church in America and the Christian Reformed Church in North America, 1979-2000:

“Let Us Break Bread Together”:  The Reformed Church in America and the Christian Reformed Church in North America, 2001-2014:


Guide to Posts About ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians (2012-)   Leave a comment

Burning Bush Logo

Above:  The Burning Bush Logo

Image in the Public Domain


“Let Us Break Bread Together”:  The Reformed Church in America and the Christian Reformed Church in North America, 2001-2014:

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


“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.