Liturgical Change in the Christian Reformed Church (1964-1985) — Part 7

21 November 2011 by Wes Bredenhof

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Synod 1985 — Let’s Go Dancing

Acting on a request of some local churches, the 1982 CRC Synod gave the Liturgical Committee a mandate to study the matter of liturgical dancing.  Already in 1966, one can find experimentation with liturgical dancing at Calvin College.  In 1969, a creative dance group participated in a chapel service at Calvin.  In 1975, Donald Postema led a vesper service at Calvin Seminary in which he demonstrated how various arts (including liturgical dancing) could be incorporated into worship services.  For a number of years before 1982, dancing as an art form was being taught at Calvin College and it appears that those teaching it had grand ambitions for its use in worship.  There is also evidence of this a little bit later.  In 1983, dance instructor Ellen Van’t Hof appeared at an annual Ministers’ Institute and gave a lecture and a demonstration.

Obviously the report at Synod 1985 did not fall out of the sky.  This report had been mandated to investigate “the implications and feasibility of the implementation of liturgical dance in the worship services.”  By speaking of “feasibility,” the mandate was already tipped in a positive direction.  Throughout the report, liturgical dance was uncritically accepted.  This is not surprising since this was already the conclusion of Synod 1982:  “It is biblical and altogether fitting that God’s people use appropriate liturgical dance forms for the expression of their deep feelings of praise to their God.”

The report presented to Synod 1985 began with a consideration of the CRC position on dancing in general, dealing with the historical developments.  Synod 1982 had reversed a long trend of synodical decisions inveighing against dancing in general, this despite the fact that it had been taking place at Calvin for quite some time in various forms.  As already noted, Synod 1982 came to a positive view of liturgical dancing, however this view was not without its detractors.  Thus the committee had been mandated to investigate the matter further.

The report went on to discuss the terminology.  At this point, the report also drew on 1968 with its dialogical emphasis:  “liturgy and worship shape the meeting between God and the congregation as a dialogue.  The various elements in the worship service constitute this dialogue between God and his people.”  With that in mind, and following the positive approach of Synod 1982, the Liturgical Committee wanted to discuss the question, “Where is liturgical dance appropriate in our Reformed worship services?”  Note the question carefully.  The question is not whether, but where.  The answer leads us back to dialogue:  “Careful examination leads to the conclusion that, in the worship service, dance may function in two ways.  It may stress the Word of God to man, or it may stress man’s response to God.”  Under the overarching principle of dialogue, liturgical dancing can therefore have its place in a Reformed worship service.  Moreover, liturgical dancing can take the place of just about any element in the worship service, except (quite notably) the sermon.

With that being determined, the report then turned to liturgical dancing in the Scriptures.  It’s remarkable that they did it at this point, after the determination was made that liturgical dancing may have a place.  The impression is given that justification is being sought after the fact.  Nearly all the references were to the Old Testament.  The report asserted that, “This is not surprising, since the New Testament gives us only the very beginning of the New Testament church history.  Apparently the Holy Spirit did not want to bind the church to certain models, customs, or orders of service.”  That last statement seemed out of place.  It sounds like an afterthought intended to ward off criticism.  Again we must ask whether this reasoning is sound.  When we lay it out, the specious character becomes evident:

The Old Testament tells us all about liturgical dancing

The New Testament says next to nothing

Therefore, the Holy Spirit does not want to bind us to certain models, customs or orders of service.

Again, this manner of reasoning is not confessionally Reformed.  It reflects a departure away from the principle of worship found in the Three Forms of Unity.

We cannot discuss every Scripture passage brought forward in the report, nor is it possible to discuss all the historical evidence for and against liturgical dancing.  What we should note here are the types of principles that were used.  The main principle is dialogical.  Dialogue is the one and only thing that matters in Christian liturgy.  A corollary — though it remains unstated — is that the confessions have nothing to say on this matter.  Another element in the discussion is an appeal to existing CRC practices which had previously been discouraged by synods, such as choirs.  The unofficial practices came into the discussion and influenced the outcome.  If we allow choirs, then why should we not allow liturgical dancing?  As long as it fits into the “enduring structure” of dialogue, virtually anything is permissible in Christian worship.

Just like in 1973, the Liturgical Committee had the brakes put on by the CRC Synod in 1985.  Classis Hamilton made an overture to reject the report on liturgical dancing.  The reasoning of this overture was taken over by the synodical committee in its observations.  There was hesitation in the synodical committee and that is reflected in this excerpt:

The report provides numerous biblical references to dancing which are said to point to a significant place for liturgical dance in worship.  We note that many of these texts refer to processionals or to spontaneous festive responses to God’s saving acts.  We question whether the committee has demonstrated a transition from festive dance to liturgical dance that warrants the conclusion that “liturgical dance has a significant place in Scripture.”

The final decision of the Synod was to receive the report as information and refer it to the churches.  Furthermore, the Synod decided to withhold action on any implementation of liturgical dancing in the churches.  It is important to note that this decision was taken at a time of increasing turmoil in the CRC over the issue of women in office.  It appears that the Synod wished to avoid provocations which would further fracture the Church.  One of the grounds for the decision on liturgical dancing reads, “This is in the best interest of promoting unity within our denomination at this time.”  While no positive decision was made, no judgment was issued on the matter either.  As a consequence, Synod 1985 left the matter in the hands of local consistories, even if some question marks were placed behind it.  The end result was that the doors were open not only for liturgical dancing in the CRC, but also for further liturgical changes.

Next timePart 8, Conclusion