Different birds under the same wings: More thoughts on merger (Part I)

Jessica Bratt Uncategorized 5 Comments

I want to add some observations to the conversation Jeff and others have raised: why shouldn’t the Christian Reformed Church and the Reformed Church in America merge?

  • We’ve asked ‘why shouldn’t they merge.’ We also need to ask, ‘why should they merge?’ Shared roots, doctrinal and theological similarities do not necessitate a merger. Let’s think creatively about other ways that the two bodies can effectively work together on shared commitments, and also bear witness to unity (and reconciliation) in Christ. Is structural merger going to be the best way to do that? Yes, heaven might rejoice if the RCA and CRC come together, but what will earth think? Who will care, and whose lives will be transformed in positive and meaningful ways? If the people who will care the most are the people who are already ‘insiders’ and leaders of the two bodies, then there is a strong obligation, I believe, to gauge whether a merger will primarily be something that ‘insiders’ will be proud of, a source of ecclesiastical back-patting, if you will, or whether it will truly be a step towards more effectively, cooperatively living out our shared callings in the world.
  • Bigger questions of ‘what are denominations for?’ are at stake. It would be naive to proceed further with attempts at merger without taking a hard look at the state of denominations. We all know that we are increasingly living in a society that, at least in many places, is post-denominational, post-church, even post-Christian. Merger could be an opportunity to reshape a shared sense of what it means to be part of these bodies, but it could also be a myopic exercise that will lure us into pretending that denominations mean more than they really do anymore. There would be a constant temptation, I think, to act as though an effective merger would leverage the influence and impact of each body. Are we really sure that’s what would happen?
  • There IS a lot we can do together, but nothing is currently standing in the way of doing that. When the aforementioned Grand Rapids philanthropist shared his dream to see the two bodies merge in his lifetime, I was serving on RCA staff in the office of the General Secretary. At that point we surveyed every single person on staff to get a better sense of where collaboration was already happening. The spreadsheet was huge. At the denominational level right down to the local levels, shared endeavors are already underway. From Faith Alive to the hymnal project to church planting movements, common passions are already being resourced and carried out. It’s a little ironic to think about taking something like the shared church multiplication efforts as a cue that the denominations should merge, when meanwhile, the people being drawn to faith and community in those church plants probably don’t care much at all about denominations, if they even know what denomination their worshiping community is part of. Church plants tend to downplay that they even belong to a denomination! There are exceptions, of course, but not many I can think of.
  • Well, I have too much more to say about this, I’m realizing. I’ll leave it at those three bullet points for today and craft at least three more for next time. Those will be a little more personal reflections on this issue from my perspective as a former denominational staff member and as a young ordained woman who has been part of both the CRC and RCA. More to come!

 

Image from http://pixdaus.com/under-her-wings-by-rik-seet-birds-aves-fauna-vogel/items/view/284621/

 

Comments 5

  1. Thank you. A short comment: "denomination" is not a theological category, "church" is. I fear that if we start with denomination, we won't get to the real issues. And we'll begin with the assumption that being separate is somehow OK — which it isn't.

  2. Yes, right, Al, but isn't Jessica exactly right, that we have to be serious about reflecting on this strange and temporary thing called "denomination"?

  3. A further thought. The bird by bird by bird photo is an example of the power of an illustration. But I have another picture in mind (though not jpg of it). I teach my RCA history students that the CRC and RCA stand on the same (confessional) manhole cover, but they stand back to back looking in opposite directions. The RCA looks toward America, and the CRC looks toward its antithetical roots (be they theological or historical). This has recently and remarkably begun to change for the CRC, noticeably so in its church extension movements. How much will this back-to-back stance continue to change, for both the CRC and the RCA, and how much are we required to look the same way?

  4. Yes, Dan, Jessica is correct that we do need to consider these odd things we call denominations, if only because that's what we have, that's the expression of the church we live in. My point is that we do not start from thinking of them as self-evident (although, of course, they exist!), or worse as the norm. I want to keep in mind that they are aberrations.

    The picture you offer helps me in this way. Instead of thinking out of the past, we think out of the future, eschatologically if you will. That is not to ignore or erase the past, but to ask how, acknowledging our history together, we can be drawn into the future. For me that means thinking far more ecumenically than just getting two rather stodgy old Reformed bodies back together. And it means both being transformed, and not simply to be a little bit like the "other" in the merger, but beyond ourselves. I can't quite get it into English, but it would be aufheben in German or overstijgen in Dutch.

  5. Theoretically, merger seems like the right thing to me. Unity is better than division and all. But have studied at some length the RCA's two previous merger attempts (with the United Presbyterian Church in the late 1940's and the Southern Presbyterian Church [PCUS] in the 1960s) I am conscious of how much energy and time it took to negotiate all the excruciating details of merger. The RCA spent more than seven years on the PCUS merger, it caused all kinds of friction, and the RCA nearly divided after it failed to be approved. Given the power of the issues that continue to shape us differently, and given the possibilities Jessica outlined of shared mission without merger, I am not convinced that merger is the best use of our resources.

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