All Around Us


The proposed union between the Presbyterian Church in the US (Southern) and the Reformed Church of America has failed, defeated by the vote of the Classes of the Reformed Church. The first plans of merger were begun in 1962 when authority was given a Joint Committee to draw up a proposal for merger. Last year the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church and the General Synod of the Reformed Church approved the merger plans and they were sent back to the presbyteries and classes for final approval1 Three-fourths of the presbyteries (58 out of a total of 77) were needed for approval in the Southern Presbyterian Church. These fifty-eight votes were received while 18 were opposed to the merger. But the vote failed in the Reformed Church. In this denomination, two-thirds approval was required for passage. This meant that thirty out of forty-five votes were needed for passage. The final count was twenty-four for, twenty-one against. So the merger will not come to pass and each denomination will, for the present, proceed its own way. 

The voting proved to be rather strange. There were some conservative presbyteries in the Presbyterian Church who were in favor of the merger. But there were also liberals who favored the merger apparently on purely ecumenical grounds. The liberals who opposed the merger were afraid that a favorable vote would delay entrance of the Southern Presbyterians in COCU or raise a barrier to union with the United Presbyterian Church. Other liberals thought the Reformed Church was too conservative for their taste. Conservatives who opposed the merger in the Southern Presbyterian Church did so chiefly because they opposed various elements in the merger plan such as the plan to write a new confession. 

In the Reformed Church, it was mostly the conservative Classes in the Mid-west who were responsible for the failure. of the plan. To them the liberals in the Southern Presbyterian Church were too strong and the danger of getting carried into COCU too real. The Eastern part of the Reformed Church strongly favored the plan. 

Herman Harmelink III, in his recent book “Ecumenism and The Reformed Church,” wrote of possible alternatives and consequences if the Reformed Church would reject this latest plan of union. These, two alternatives were:

She can attempt to maintain the status quo, remaining separate as she has for the past three centuries. The likely result of such action would be the withering away of the Reformed Church in the metropolitan areas of the East. The membership of “the eastern part of the church has remained about the same for a number of years, because most of the eastern churches are in the metropolitan area, where Protestants are a minority and the Reformed Church relatively unknown. This reduction in the East could lead to a greater dominance of the West with consequent growth of conservatism. 

It is possible that before the first alternative could happen, there would be a division between the Eastern and Western branches of the Reformed Church. Many ministers in the East would like to see their congregations leave the Reformed Church, if she refuses to unite with the Presbyterians, and become Presbyterian themselves. The historic Reformed Church as such would then be destroyed, with the Western section continuing alone as a conservative body, or possibly joining the Christian Reformed Church.

One wonders if Harmelink will prove correct.

Although the plan for merger with the Reformed Church received approval from the Southern Presbyterians, another plan of union failed. We quote from the March 18, 1969 RES Newsletter!

The Proposal that synods and presbyteries in the Presbyterian Church in the US and the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. be permitted to merge without waiting for the two denominations to unite was defeated by a vote in the Presbyteries of the Southern Church. By action of the southern church’s General Assembly, the vote needed only a simple majority of the Presbyteries to carry. 

The outcome of the vote was a disappointment to many churches living in the states where there are congregations of both the southern and northern churches. Two meetings to seal the proposed merger of bodied of the two churches had already been set and had to be cancelled when the proposal was upset by the presbyteries. 

Although the merger has been barred, the governing councils of the synods of the two churches of Kentucky decided to continue close cooperation in their programs. Twenty-four delegates from the two Synods agreed to share staff personnel and facilities and recommended to their synods that the boundaries be aligned. They also recommended to hold joint synod meetings where possible. 

The union of the synods and presbyteries had been pushed strongly by the liberal church leaders and opposed vigorously by the conservatives.


In the February, 1969 issue of the Reformed Journal, Nicholas P. Wolterstorff discusses “The Young Person and the Liturgy” and pleads for liturgical renewal. He has listened to the young people and has found that “the reflective young people . . . are intensely dissatisfied with the current form and manner of worship in their churches.” These young people to whom he has listened have raised various objections against the liturgical practices in the Church. The first of these objections is that the young people believe “that they did not have enough opportunity to participate” in the worship services. The fundamental character of Reformed liturgy demands that worship services be dialogue. And if they are dialogue, there must be participation in an active way by the people.

If the structure of the liturgy is really a dialogue between God and His people, then one would think that a basic principle in ritual would be this: Whenever structurally an act is an act of the people, it will be done by the people. But consider how systematically a typical Reformed service violates this principle . . . .

A second objection which “one hears over and over from the young person is that the worship services—the liturgy and the ritual—are not relevant, that they do not bear on his life and on his concerns . . . .” Dr. Wolterstorff explains what this means when he says:

. . . In how many sermons, and in how many prayers, is there specific, concrete recognition of the problems of the world, of the nation, of the community, even of the local church? Suppose that one composed, solely on the basis of the sermons and the prayers heard in church, a catalog of the events of the year which are of concern to the Christian community. Would one not in many cases have a very short catalog indeed? From attending Reformed churches would one have known, this past year, that two of our country’s leaders were assassinated, that Czechoslovakia was invaded, that peace talks were taking place in Paris? Would one have known that the World Council was meeting at Uppsala, and the Reformed Ecumenical Synod in Holland? Would one have known of the local millage issue? Would one have heard of any controversial social issue at all? . . . .

Now, altogether apart from the fact that it seems to me that the average man in the pew reads his daily newspapers to find out about the invasion of Czechoslovakia and the local millage proposal, must we assume that God’s people are such spiritual minors that they have to be informed of these things from the pulpit and informed of how to react. towards these events? Must we assume that God’s people cannot understand even the fundamentals of the Christian’s faith? Are they totally incapable of weighing any of life’s events in the light of God’s Word? 

The third objection is that, while the essence of the Church is the communion of saints, the young person “has no sense of community, no sense of fellowship? when he engages in the worship of the church.” By thus is meant that the young person “when he says that he has no sense of fellowship during the worship, is in part claiming that he finds there no recognition of shared purpose and shared concern. . . . In how many congregations is there the sense of jointly doing God’s work in the world, each member performing a facet of the comprehensive, many-faceted task, and of then assembling for worship in order to gain sustenance for the next week’s work.” 

There is one very important point which strikes me in all this criticism of the liturgy presently in use in the Reformed Churches. That point is: there is no place in the worship service any longer for the Word of God. I take the liberty to quote in part from a personal letter which recently I received from my father.

We have always spoken with pride of the heritage received from the Reformation that the Bible was once more placed in the center of the divine worship service. Often the remark has been made from our pulpits, etc., that when you enter the Protestant Churches in distinction from the Roman Catholic Church, your eye falls on the Bible. Evidently this is tradition, and the present revolutionary age must have nothing of tradition. But medieval history shows that the fall of the Roman Catholic Church can be ascribed in large measure to the very fact that liturgy took the place of the preaching of the Word . . . . The authority of Christ in the public worship and in the preaching is so completely denied. The minister is no longer to be an ambassador of Christ but a servant of the public, following the whims of young people, a social worker at best. The Word of the cross has indeed become foolishness and is being replaced by the Word of man . . . .

This is precisely where liturgical renewal such as Wolterstorff proposes will lead. There is no longer a place in the Church for “Thus saith the Lord!” There must rather be “dialogue.” Worship must be relevant, so that the Word of God is abandoned and the pulpit filled with pious discourses about various secular subjects. 

But it ought to be understood that such liturgical renewal will never lead to any worship such as Jesus describes to the Samaritan woman: “They that worship God must worship him in spirit and in truth.” The Church will then have lost her calling and become a human institution.