The editorial of June 1 highlighted items on the agenda of the 2015 Synod of the Protestant Reformed Churches. Synod met in Faith PRC in Jenison, Michigan, completing its work in four full days. Decisions of this ecclesiastical gathering have been published online (prca.org) and in bulletins, so there is no need to report these details here. Instead we call attention to a few decisions, primarily for the purpose of explanation.
A highlight of synod is always the sermon and examination of seminary students who have completed the four years of study. Synod examined Mr. Ryan Barnhill and unanimously approved him for candidacy for the ministry of the Word and sacraments. We rejoice in the good indications of God’s blessing on Candidate Barnhill in giving the young man understanding of and commitment to the Reformed truth, as well as the ability to proclaim the gospel for the glory of God and the edification of His people.
Second, Synod ruled in an appeal that concerned whether a consistory has the right to change for its own congregation the date on which the annual Prayer Day service is held. An appeal sets before the synod a protest that the member brought to classis, with the response of classis, and asks synod to judge between the two. Synod of 2015 ruled with Classis East and thus did not sustain the appeal. On this very narrow issue, Synod accepted Classis’ argument that the Church Order does not determine a specific day, and the Protestant Reformed Churches have not determined a specific day (by decision of classis or synod). Keep in mind the narrowness of the case. It does not include whether or not Synod agrees with a consistory’s reason(s) for changing the date of Prayer Day, only whether a consistory may change the date. Synod, in my judgment, made the right decision; there is freedom here. Whether it is “worth it” to have five churches in western Michigan observing Prayer Day on a different day from eight other area churches, there will be differing views on that.
A third matter of interest is the continuing benefits of sister-church relationships. The delegates from the PRC were joined again this year by one delegate from both sister churches. Deacon Philip Hall came over from the Covenant Protestant Reformed Church in Northern Ireland. Deacon Tang Yoon Chuan represented the Covenant Evangelical Reformed Church of Singapore. These men were seated as delegates with the right to speak on all matters. Both men had opportunity to address Synod, giving information on the work and circumstances of their churches. Among other things, Deacon Tang conveyed the good news that CERC has been granted three more years by the government to comply with new laws that might require them to give up their current place of worship—a serious matter indeed, for finding a replacement facility would not be easy. On a lighter note, Deacon Hall reported that the CPRCNI is on the cutting edge of energy-saving technology, looking to install solar power panels on the church building. While the synodical delegates surely appreciated this effort to conserve energy and save money, those who had visited Northern Ireland in the oft dreary winter did wonder about the usefulness of solar panels in that fair land. One delegate quipped, “So these will be used two weeks out of the year?” Another wondered about solar panels that do not need sunshine to produce electricity.
Synod received a heart-warming letter signed by the respective sessions of CPRCNI and CERCS informing the PRC that they have mutually agreed to become sister churches of each other. Synod expressed its joy, and thanksgiving to God, for this manifestation of true accord. The circle uniting the CERCS, the CPRCNI, and the PRCA is complete. May God continue to bless these relationships and give this threefold cord a strength that is not quickly broken ().
Fourth, Synod adopted a recommendation from the Theological School Committee that will impact the retirement of the current seminary professors. The existing method for replacing professors can be found in the Constitution of the Theological School (found in the PRC’s Church Order Books and online). The current provision is that when a professor reaches the age of 65, a replacement is called, with a subsequent transition period of up to five years (it has not gone beyond three years to this point). Under the existing rules, replacements for the three current professors were scheduled to be called in 2019, 2020, and 2021. Recognizing that such a quick transition of seminary professors is not wise, Synod adopted a proposal to spread out the replacements to 2017, 2019, and 2021. In addition, the intent is that the transition period (that is, the further education of the new professors and their taking over the full teaching load) be the full five years for each.
The final matter for explanation is that of Psalter revision. In the recent past, representatives of the Free Reformed Churches invited the Protestant Reformed Churches to consider joining them and other denominations that use the Psalter to investigate possible revision of the song book. Past synods have mandated the Contact Committee to stay abreast of these efforts and report back to synod. Accordingly, the CC presented to this synod documents from a meeting of representatives of the Free Reformed Churches, the Heritage Reformed Churches, and the Protestant Reformed Churches. These documents explained the reasons for looking at a revision. They also gave some goals and a proposed plan of action. The report from this committee included a request that the PRC appoint three men to take up the work. These documents demonstrated that the churches asking the PRC to join them very much love the Psalter, and desire to improve but not radically change it.
The guidelines proposed are:
a. Review the general accuracy of what we sing. Some selections contain a generalization of the content of the psalms (e.g., selections 410-413 do not include the details in). There are also some omissions of Scripture verses (e.g., and ). Let the revision committee determine with precision what is and is not included of the psalms in the Psalter.
b. Evaluate the “redundancies.” For example, a whole psalm may be versified in a number of selections and then versified again in other selections (e.g.,is covered repeatedly in selections 394-400). Sometimes the identical versifications are set to different tunes (selections 142 and 143). The question can be raised whether so many selections are necessary/helpful. At the same time, some ‘redundant’ selections may be congregational/denominational favorites. Let there be careful sifting through the selections.
c. Replace when possible all instances of unfamiliar and archaic words. E.g.: “minstrelsy,” “deign,” “byword,” “slake,” and “lays.” It is agreed, however, that all pronoun references to God be retained in their Old English form (Thee and Thou).
d. Review whether all tunes match or fit with the content of the Psalm (e.g., 143); as well as when currently poor tunes are used and finally resolve the matter of tunes that are pitched too high (approx. 25-30 percent).
e. Aim to improve the layout of the songs on the page. This includes unhelpful musical notations (occasional fermatas) as well as the numbering system. It would be good to renumber the selections so that the selection number is determined by the psalm number. This would strengthen people’s knowledge of the book of psalms (e.g., have 1A and 1B for Psalm 1; 10A, 10B, 10C for Psalm 10, etc.).
In the nature of the case, few of us over the age of fifty will be eager to see the Psalter revised. The plan is to have three members of the PRC participate in this work for a year. The CC was mandated to oversee this work and report back to the synod in 2016. The synod has not committed the PRC to full involvement. The synod will have opportunity to withdraw at any time.
One significant provision will enable the churches to make informed decisions on the work. This committee plans to prepare a sample update of ten Psalms and submit it to the respective synods for review by the churches. The effort has all the marks of a careful, even cautious, approach with the desire to keep the changes to a minimum.
Singing is a major portion of the believer’s praise to God. The Psalter has well served this function for several Reformed churches of Dutch ancestry for generations. It is well beloved. For these reasons the committee desires an improved song book that is recognizable as the Psalter, not one that people will say, What have they done to our Psalter? All three denominations involved have the same fears among their members and the same concern for their members.
At the same time, we ought to recognize that the Psalter can be improved. The desire of all is a Psalter that enables us to sing well, and to sing all the Psalms. Everyone involved wants to produce a Psalter that will be used, by God’s grace, for generations.