When the seminary professors first license students to speak a word of edification in the churches, we make sure they understand what is required of them to lead a congregation in worship. We talk about things like how early to arrive at the consistory room, where to shake hands with the elders after the service, how to announce songs, what to do with announcements the consistory asks to be made, etc. The professors have a little “Manual” that gives advice for the students. Included in the manual is the heading: “Determine the liturgical details.” That is, be aware of the minor differences in the order of worship from one church to another.
In the ten years that I have been responsible for keeping this manual up-to-date, the list of differences in worship has grown. Before the next student is licensed, the list must again be revised, reflecting more variety in worship practices. This next revision will no longer fit on one page.
The Protestant Reformed Churches have always judged that denominational unity includes unity in doctrine. Without a united confession of faith, institutional unity is a thin veneer. The PRC have also judged denominational unity to include unity in church government.
There cannot be unity of life in a denomination unless all the congregations agree in and practice one form of church government. In the PRC, that’s the government spelled out in our Church Order.
But we have not placed such high value on unity in the order of public worship. At least we have not talked about denominational unity in the order of worship as we have about denominational unity in doctrine and church government. In this and the next editorial, I want to press the case, with emphasis on our history, for denominational unity in liturgy.
Reformed churches historically have placed a premium on liturgical unity—if not on the specific order, certainly on the principles and the manner of worship. The sixteenth-century Reformation concerned itself as much with reform in worship as it did with reform in doctrine. In fact, Calvin claimed that reform in doctrine had as its goal a reform in worship. That is, proper worship was so important to him that it was the aim in reestablishing the confession of truth. Truth for the purpose of worship.
The purpose of these editorials is not to say that by consistories adopting changes in worship practices the PRC have lost unity in worship. In spite of some differences, we have substantial unity in worship. Rather, the purpose is to note the increase in changes in local congregations, to give a cautionary example from our own history in this regard, and to ask all the churches—not only those contemplating changes—to face some questions: What is the relationship between the principles of worship and the order of worship (we hope you are reading Rev. Griess’ important articles on worship that address this question)? What changes in worship practices are permissible without denominational sanction? That is, what, in PRC worship services, cannot be changed by a local congregation without violating the unity of the denomination? And, not least in importance, who ought to make that judgment?
I list a few of the variations in worship services of which I am aware—even the smallest ones. There may be others I do not remember or have not heard of. The PRC member who does not visit many different churches as seminary professors do may be surprised at the variety.
1. Whether or not a church has pre-service singing (an old Dutch practice).
2. How the service begins. The greatest variety exists here. Does worship begin with the minister issuing a call to worship and announcing a silent prayer (a practice not found in early PRC history; “silent prayer” was never considered part of the official worship of the church); or by the organ prelude ending as a signal for the minister to rise and pronounce the salutation; or by the organ raising up the people to sing the opening doxology—“Praise God….”? Does the minister begin by pronounc ing God’s salutation—“Beloved in the Lord Jesus Christ”—or the votum—“Our help is in the name of the Lord…”? (Some prefer that God speaks first—to start with the salutation—but one early synod at Dordt declared that Reformed worship services must open with the votum.) Does the minister speak both the salutation and the votum, or does the congregation recite the votum (as a few of our churches recently have instituted, to distinguish between God’s word to the church—“Beloved…”—and the church’s opening confession—“Our help…”)?
3. How the Apostles’ Creed is confessed. Does the congregation recite the creed in unison or does the minister read it? Is the old language (“quick” and “Ghost”) or the new language (“living” and “Spirit”) used? Does the congregation stand or sit at this time?
4. Whether, in addition to the use of the Apostles’ Creed, the congregation confesses their faith with an article from one of the church’s other confessions, like the Belgic Confession.
5. Where the offering is placed—immediately after the congregational prayer, or after the sermon. Whether, during the offering, a Psalter is sung, or the organ/piano plays an “offertory.”
6. Whether there is a special prayer immediately before the sermon. (This “Prayer Before the Sermon” has long historical precedent. The Reformed fathers even adopted standardized prayers for before the sermon, as well as different form-prayers for before and after catechism sermons, etc. You can find some of these prayers in the original (red) Psalter Hymnal of the Christian Reformed Church, and in the Psalter published by the Netherlands Reformed Congregations.)
7. Whether Scripture reading takes place immediately before the sermon or earlier in the service after the first Psalter number.
Let us be sober in our judgments about these differences. First, even though some may be a bit unsettling for visitors, especially for the guest-preacher, none reflect fundamental differences, even if they may reflect different views of particular liturgical actions. Second, (this is my personal judgment) none of the changes indicate that the churches are interested in liturgical innovation—a desire for change for the sake of change. I judge all of them to be motivated by Reformed principles of worship.
Yet the differences, as well as the increase in differences, raise two questions: what part does worship itself have in denominational unity? More specifically, what part does the order of worship have in denominational unity?
The Protestant Reformed Churches have certainly determined that worship itself is an important, indeed essential, part of unity. First, the formulas to be used in worship (forms in the back of the Psalter for Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, ordination of officebearers, confession of faith, and discipline) are elements of worship that belong to the “churches in common.” No church is free to modify the forms or use different forms in the official public worship. Second, we have a denominational songbook in the Psalter. Although the PRC never took an official decision to use the Psalter, the history of our dealings with the Psalter at synod makes it unquestionable: the churches consider the songbook an essential part of our unity. Third, our denominational Church Order has an entire section on worship. Although this section’s title is “Of Doctrines, Sacraments, and Other Ceremonies,” this section could as well be labeled “On Worship.” Here, the Church Order calls for worship conformity, that is, unity, in all areas. Since truth in worship is first, the Church Order requires all officebearers to sign the Formula of Subscription and calls them to fight against false doctrine (Articles 53-55). Other worship practices follow: baptism practices, the Lord’s Supper’s administration, days on which the churches worship (Sundays and special days), what songs the churches may (and, by implication, may not) sing, and that the Heidelberg Catechism must be preached in one Sunday service. These are significant elements of denominational unity. Fourth, in the Heidelberg Catechism’s explanation of the fourth commandment (concerning keeping of the Sabbath—when the church worships), the catechism spells out some of the fundamental elements of worship: preaching, sacraments, offerings, prayers. Finally, and not insignificantly, we are united in the fundamental principles of worship as those principles are spelled out in the Heidelberg Catechism’s explanation of the first four commandments. How those principles are applied concretely is often debated—as our history has shown, in the matters of symbols in places of worship, which Psalm book is used, musical accompaniment, even regarding whether the Apostles’ Creed is used and the law is read (to give a few examples taken both from our own denominational life and from our relationship to sister churches). But we are united in the principles governing public worship.
There is also a liberty our denomination maintains, a freedom that each congregation has, to determine—in some areas of public worship—what is best for that congregation. An official declaration of that liberty is in the Church Order’s mandate for the Lord’s Supper in Article 62. In prescribing the manner in which the supper is administered, the article begins: “Every church shall administer the Lord’s Supper in such a manner as it shall judge most conducive to edification…. ” Although the article forbids any change in the outward ceremonies that the Bible prescribes, and requires the use of the Form in the Psalter, it gives each church liberty in determining the details of administration, all the while reminding that the governing principle in making this determination is not feeling or emotion, but “edification.” The churches have always recognized that there is liberty in some details of worship.
But the question is, again, at what point does this liberty begin to disturb, or threaten to fracture, the real unity of the churches in the denomination?
To make the point as clear as possible—the question is, “where may other changes lead us?”—let me propose a few, hypothetical changes in worship practices, changes that may or may not have precedents in Reformed church history, but do not violate principles of Reformed liturgy. In each case, ask whether 1) the local consistory should judge merely on the basis of what is most edifying for their congregation and what harmonizes with Reformed principles of worship, or 2) whether the denomination should decide these matters together? Then ask, “What standard must be used to determine the answers?”
* a church has the congregational prayer after the sermon rather than before.
* to emphasize the law as a way to show gratitude rather than a means to expose sinfulness, a church places the reading of the law after the sermon.
* a church determines that the better emphasis in reading the law is on exposing our sinfulness—in order then to direct us to forgiveness in Christ. Thus, the church not only places the law early in the service, but has the minister declare the forgiveness of sins to the congregation in what is called an “absolution.” Along with this, the Apostles’ Creed follows the declaration of forgiveness, as the congregation’s testimony of belief in the gospel of forgiveness.
* a church decides either not to read the ten commandments, or to read them only once each month.
* a church adopts the practice of singing an “in-between song” before the sermon’s third point.
* a church eliminates the first doxology and considers the first Psalter number to serve the purpose of “doxology.”
All of these changes, and more, could well be made by one of the churches of our denomination or a sister church. Perhaps they have been already. What constitutes denominational unity in worship?
It is not my contention here that an alarm must be sounded. However, it is my judgment that it is regrettable that the denomination does not have a synodically adopted uniform liturgy; and that the longer we go without a uniform liturgy, the greater will be the differences and the more difficult it will ever be to unite in this aspect of our worship (eventually it will be impossible without great disturbance in the churches). History provides interesting and important lessons for Reformed churches in this regard.
That, next time, God willing. Until then, may God preserve the Protestant Reformed Churches in the unity of the Spirit and the bond of peace.