Liturgical Change in the Christian Reformed Church (1964-1985) — Part 8

22 November 2011 by Wes Bredenhof

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By Synod 1986 the Liturgical Committee seems to have been disbanded — although in the 1990s a Committee to Study Worship emerges.  However, by 1986, the CRC had been set in a certain direction.  On paper, there were not supposed to be significant liturgical changes in this period.  In practice the story was different.  In some CRC churches the traditional elements of Reformed liturgy were increasingly questioned and/or replaced.  Drama was used in worship services, catechism preaching was marginalized, and choirs became commonplace.  We may characterize these changes as an addition to or subtraction from what had been in place previously.

How does one account for these changes?  There was an unbalanced emphasis on dialogue as the determining factor of Reformed liturgy.  There was no consideration given to what the Reformed confessions say about worship, such as what we find in articles 7 and 32 of the Belgic Confession or Lord’s Day 35 of the Heidelberg Catechism.  This went together with a general weakening of the authority and place of the confessions in the CRC in general in this period.  We can think of the arguments of men like Harry Boer and Lewis Smedes against the doctrine of limited atonement.  The CRC was drifting away from its confessional moorings.  The emphasis on dialogue reflected that trend.

Now, on the one hand, there is much to be said for the notion of dialogue as the “enduring structure for worship,” so long as one informs this notion with the covenant of grace.  But, on the other hand, if this dialogical structure stands all by itself as the only determining factor of Reformed liturgy, it is liable to fall prey to human inventions, additions, and subtractions.  There must be more — and that “more” must be determined by the principle of worship found in the Three Forms of Unity:  we are not “to worship him in any other manner than he has commanded in his Word” (HC QA 96).  Indeed, “the whole manner of worship which God requires of us” (BC art. 7) is found in his all-sufficient Word.

There were other factors involved in these changes in the CRC.  Chief among these was the general societal unrest of the day.  That unrest was felt at Calvin College.  Many of those serving on the Liturgical Committee were professors at either Calvin College or Seminary.  Some, like Nicholas Wolterstorff, were on the leading edge of radical activities at Calvin.  It could be that there was a realization among many professors at Calvin that CRC youth were restless and might go elsewhere if changes were not made.  Furthermore, we also have the general tendency in American Christianity at this time to revolutionize liturgy.  There was an increased desire to be outward looking and a corresponding wish to make worship services more “user-friendly.”

Was there resistance to these liturgical changes?  There was the overture from Classis Hamilton in 1985 about liturgical dancing.  But apart from that, I have been unable to discern any widespread vocal resistance to the work of the Liturgical Committee  in the official ecclesiastical documents.  The Association of Christian Reformed Laymen was opposing these developments, but their voice could not be heard at synods.  It could also be (and I suspect it to be true) that countless letters were written to local CRC consistories with no effect.  Those who were concerned left the matter as is.  Also to be considered is the fact that some concerned members left the CRC in the 1970s and 1980s to form the Orthodox Christian Reformed Church.   Were liturgical concerns partly motivating their exodus?  It could be, but I have not yet researched it.

If there was a certain degree of resistance, why was it not successful?  How did we get to proposals for liturgical dance in 1985?  My theory is that it has to be explained in light of the total picture.  The CRC was in turmoil during this time.  Many battles were being fought by CRC conservatives for biblical and confessional truth.  It was not possible to win them all and, in the end, it was not possible to win many (any?) of them.  Once again, that appears to have been the result of the undermining of confessional authority in the CRC.  Once this was taken away, there was little to no common ground between the concerned and the more progressively minded members.  Discussion became fruitless.

For us in the Canadian Reformed Churches, there are abiding lessons here.  This is a cautionary tale.  We must embrace our confessions, also as they speak in a soundly biblical way to matters of liturgy.  Once the confessions are undermined or neglected in this area, the door is left open to further aberrations.  Traditionalism will not protect us.  “We have always done it this way,” will only go so far.  Eventually a generation will arise for whom that argument is not persuasive.  The principle of worship found in our confessions safeguards the purity of worship and ensures that our worship will be truly pleasing to God.  That is something that an emphasis on the dialogical (or covenantal) structure of worship on its own cannot accomplish.  When we add or take away as we please, even in the name of dialogue (or covenant), we are on the road back to Rome.  May God graciously prevent that the Canadian Reformed Churches ever find themselves on such a road.