Rev. Cammenga is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Loveland, Colorado.
The proceedings of all assemblies shall begin by calling upon the name of God and be closed with thanksgiving.
Church Order, Article 32
Article 32 calls for prayer at the beginning and conclusion of all ecclesiastical assemblies. This kind of article has had a place in Reformed church orders as far back as that adopted by the Synod of Emden in 1571:
When they have thus gathered, the minister of that place, or if there is none, the one who presided in the last meeting, shall lead in prayer to choose a president, and a vice president, and a clerk. The president, having been chosen, shall lead in prayer concerning the whole agenda….
The Church Order of Emden called for two prayers at the beginning of every major assembly. There was to be an opening prayer, either by the minister of the convening church or, in case the church were vacant, by the last president, which prayer should be offered with a view to the election of officers. After the election of officers, the newly chosen president was to lead the assembly in prayer once again, this time asking Gods blessing on the assembly’s work. The Synod of Emden said nothing about a closing prayer of thanksgiving.
The Synod of Middelburg, 1581, combined the two opening prayers and added the provision for a closing prayer of thanksgiving. Our present Article 32 is essentially the provision adopted by Middelburg.
Officebearers must be men of prayer. They must be men of prayer in their personal lives; they must be men of prayer especially in their work in the office of Christ. No minister can carry out the work of the ministry apart from prayer and being constant in prayer. No elder can rule in the church of Jesus Christ without continually be taking himself to the throne of God’s grace for the strength and wisdom to carry out the duties of his office. No deacon can engage in the work and make the difficult decisions that deacons must make without receiving God’s grace and guidance through prayer.
As much as it is necessary for the individual officebearers to pray, so much is it also necessary that the assemblies of officebearers pray. The work of the assemblies is too great! The responsibilities of the assemblies too solemn! The delegates at the assemblies too weak!
The reason why our Church Order includes an article requiring prayer at the assemblies is to create an awareness that the ecclesiastical assemblies must labor in conscious dependence upon God. The ecclesiastical assemblies are not mere business meetings, gatherings of the executives of some earthly corporation. The assemblies are the meeting of the officebearers of Christ’s church. The assemblies are met to do the work of Christ’s church. As such, they depend upon the Head of the church, Jesus Christ. InPsalm 127:1 we are reminded that “Except the Lord build the house, they labor in vain that build it.” In James 1:5 we are exhorted, “If any of you lack wisdom (and we all do by nature), let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given.” According to Acts 1:24, at the time that the apostles chose a successor to Judas Iscariot, before they cast their lots, they first offered up prayer to God.
But then we must be sure that such prayers are very consciously made in the awareness that without the Lord’s blessing the proceedings of our assemblies cannot prosper. Such prayers must never become a matter of mere custom, the mere following of a rule.
The “assemblies” referred to by the article would include the meetings of the consistory. Consistory meetings must be opened and ended with prayer. This would also apply to the elders’ meetings and the deacons’ meetings. Of the deacons’ meetings, this is specifically required in Church Order, Article 40: “The deacons shall meet, wherever necessary, every week to transact the business pertaining to their office, calling upon the Name of God….” Article 32 would also have application to the local congregational meetings.
Included in the “assemblies” would also be the broader ecclesiastical assemblies: classis and synod.
Generally, the prayers offered up at our assemblies are free prayers, that is, they are prayers prayed extemporaneously. Nevertheless, it is significant that liturgical prayers have been written for the ecclesiastical assemblies. The Psalter Hymnal includes opening and closing prayers for the assemblies that date back to the time of the Reformation.
Opening Prayer for Ecclesiastical Assemblies
Heavenly Father, eternal and merciful God: It has pleased Thee according to Thy infinite wisdom and lovingkindness to gather a Church unto Thy self out of the peoples of all the earth, and to govern Thy Church through the service of men. Thou hast graciously called us to this office of government, and hast enjoined us to watch over ourselves and to bestow due care upon the flock which Christ purchased with His precious blood.
We are now assembled in this place in Thy holy Name, in order to deal, after the fashion of the apostolic churches, with such matters as shall come before us and concern the edification and welfare of Thy churches, agreeably to our office. We confess that we are unworthy and unable of ourselves to accomplish any good thing. We beseech Thee, therefore, faithful God and Father, that, in accordance with Thy promise, Thou wilt abide in the midst of the present assembly through Thy Holy Spirit, and that He may lead us into all the truth.
Remove all misunderstandings and guard us against the influence of our sinful hearts. Grant that Thy Word may be our only rule and standard, in order that our deliberations may redound to the glory of Thy Name, the edification of Thy churches, and the peace of our own consciences.
This we ask in the Name of Christ Jesus, Thy Son, who with Thee and the Holy Spirit, the only and true God, is deserving of eternal praise and glory. AMEN.
Closing Prayer for Ecclesiastical Assemblies
Lord God, heavenly Father, we thank Thee from our hearts that it pleases Thee to gather a Church in our land and to employ our services to that end. Thou dost graciously so order all things that we can preach the gospel without any hindrance and may engage in public worship. Thou hast also been present with Thy Holy Spirit in our assembly, guiding our deliberations according to Thy will, and binding our hearts together in mutual peace and unity.
Wilt Thou, O faithful God and Father, graciously bless the efforts that we purpose to put forth, and wilt Thou finish in power the work which Thou hast begun. Continue to gather unto Thyself a true Church, and cause it to preserve the purity of doctrine; guide it in the proper use of the holy sacraments; and inspire it with zeal for the maintenance of church purity.
Bring to nought all wicked and subtle counsels that are devised against Thy Word and Church. Give strength to all whom Thou hast placed in authority over Thy Church, to the end that they may preach Thy Word in faithfulness and steadfastness.
Strengthen the civil magistrates of Thy people, in order that they may wield the sword of worldly power in justice and with wise restraint. In particular do we pray for the civil rulers, both higher and lower officers of government, whom Thou hast been pleased to appoint over us. We commend unto Thee especially the esteemed council of this city. Grant that their rule may be entirely directed toward the supremacy of the King of kings over rulers and ruled alike. May through their labors the shameful and wicked dominion of Satan be increasingly disturbed and broken down. May it be given unto us to lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and gravity.
Hear us, O God and Father, through Thy dear Son, Jesus Christ, who with Thee and the Holy Spirit, the only true God, is worthy of eternal praise and glory. AMEN.
Notice ought to be paid to the specific language of Article 32. The proceedings are to begin “by calling upon the name of God.” This is to be a prayer of supplication. Its purpose is to implore God’s guidance of the assembly in all the issues it must face .and in all the decisions it must make. The proceedings shall be closed “with thanksgiving.” This is fitting since the proceedings begin by asking Divine guidance and blessing. It is proper that at the conclusion of the meetings gratitude be expressed to God for granting these.
Article 32 does not say anything about Bible reading, singing, devotional addresses, or sermons. This does not mean, of course, that these things have no place at our ecclesiastical gatherings. None of them may take the place of prayer, but along with prayer these also have their place.
Certainly, Scripture ought to be read, and there ought to be singing of the Psalms at appropriate times. There is also a place for devotional addresses at the beginning of the classis meetings. Classis West of our churches carries on this tradition, with the president of the previous classis delivering the address. Over the years these addresses have been greatly appreciated and they served well to set the proper tone for the meetings. These addresses ought not, of course, to be overly long and ought to be appropriate to the ecclesiastical gathering.
The “Rules of Order For the Synod of the Protestant Reformed Churches in America” state: “On the Tuesday evening preceding the opening of Synod a prayer service, in charge of the convening Consistory, shall be held in the city in which Synod is to meet. The members of Synod are expected to attend this service in a body” (Article 1, 4).
Article 32 does not prescribe pre-worship service prayers within the consistory, as is the tradition of the Reformed churches. Nevertheless, this is a worthy tradition.
This practice dates from the time of the Afscheiding of 1834. During the days of this secession movement in The Netherlands, congregational worship was often disrupted by government or by antagonistic citizens. Consistories began to feel the need for asking God’s protection and blessing of the worship services, praying in particular for the needs of the minister. In The Netherlands the serving elder, that is, the elder who would lead the minister up to the pulpit, led also the pre-service consistory prayer.
We continue to follow this tradition in our own Protestant Reformed Churches. These prayers are generally offered up by the officebearers according to rotation.
From time to time complaints are heard concerning the length and content of these pre-service consistory prayers. Occasionally the pre-service consistory prayers take on the form of mini-congregational prayers; an attempt is made to bring all the needs of the congregation before the throne of God in prayer. This is not the time or the place for that kind of prayer. The pre-service consistory prayer ought to be brief and to the point. God’s blessing ought to be sought on the worship service. Supplication ought to be made for the minister that he may be given the strength to lead the worship service and preach the Word in truth to the edification of the congregation. Supplication ought to be made for the consistory especially in its supervision of the Word. Supplication ought to be made for the congregation that the worship given be in Spirit and in truth and that all have open ears to receive the preaching of the gospel.