RCNZ Synod: Stability above earthly tremors

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Moderamen for the 2011 RCNZ Synod, L-R: Rev. B. Hoyt (chair), Rev. P. Kloosterman (vice chair), Rev. M. Willemse (2nd clerk), P. VanderWel (first clerk).

For the first time in the nearly 60 year history of the Reformed Churches of New Zealand (RCNZ), the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Bucklands Beach hosted a Synod meeting. Synod’s location was moved to this church on the upper shore of the North Island due to recent earthquakes around Christchurch on New Zealand’s South Island.

Friction may exist in the New Zealand substratum, but harmony reigned in the RCNZ Synod.

“As ever, the fellowship with colleagues…was a great blessing,” writes Rev. Andre Holtslag (Reformed Church of Dovedale). “The Presbyterian Reformed Church of Bucklands Beach is located very near a beautiful beach, which provided opportunities to walk with brothers during the breaks.”

The 27th RCNZ Synod met from September 3-9, 2011, with a break from business on Sunday. Moderamen (officers) were Rev. B. Hoyt (chairman), Rev. P. Kloosterman (vice chairman), P. VanderWel (first clerk), and Rev. M. Willemse (second clerk).

As a former URCNA pastor who now ministers in the RCNZ at Masterton, Rev. Peter Kloosterman ably compares the two federations’ synods.

“The similarities of the two Synods outweigh the differences,” he writes. “Both are fully representative of the churches…. They are dealing with many similar matters—fraternal relations, a new songbook and revised creeds and confessions…. There are, however, some unique aspects.”

He explains that since the RCNZ Synod has fewer delegates than the URCNA Synod, most matters are usually handled on the floor. But this year’s packed agenda (22 reports, 22 overtures, several communications, and two appeals) led to the atypical appointment of advisory committees on Saturday when the agenda was approved.

“The use of advisory committees has occurred in the past when a matter was bogged down on the Synod floor,” he clarifies. “This time it was done in a preliminary way to aid the Synod in working through material. Through the use of advisory committees, the agenda was streamlined.”

Matters related to appeals, a proposed denominational songbook, the adoption of forms and confessions, and Bible translations for use in the churches were assigned to pre-advice committees. Synod also dealt with several items regarding missions and ecumenical relations as well as other denominational business.

Rev. Bill Boekestein (Covenant Reformed Church; Carbondale, PA), attending his first RCNZ Synod as a fraternal delegate from the URCNA, found it a “great encouragement.”

“The meetings were conducted in a spirit of brotherhood, even during deliberation on matters that evoked strong emotions,” he says. “Such matters, especially, were bathed with prayer and conducted with great care.”

The Palmerston North appeal regarding matters within the Wellington Presbytery may have been the most emotionally charged item before Synod. It was discussed for five hours in committee and another five hours on the floor. Delegates had opportunity for additional prayer before it came before the body.  

“The discipline case involved weighty and complex pastoral considerations,” says Rev. Boekestein. “It seems that many of the delegates were struggling with how to properly relate the pastoral and the procedural matters relating to the case and to the appeal in particular.”

Delegates eventually decided almost unanimously (16 to 1) to uphold the appeal, largely on procedural grounds.

“This appeal was quite involved and touched on many sensitive pastoral matters,” Rev. Kloosterman says. “In the end, the appeal was upheld and a committee appointed to address the pastoral matters.”

Elder John Van Dyke (Reformed Church of Dunedin) wrote in his official report, “Synod has established a pastoral team to visit all affected parties to offer mediation with a view to striving to bring about lasting reconciliation between the many hurting parties.”

In somewhat related actions, Synod agreed to clarify guidelines regarding discipline of those who resign membership, what constitutes concurrence by presbyteries, and adjudication of disputes.

Another emotional matter involved the “Guidelines for Dealing with Sexual Abuse” report and an overture it generated. The report’s scope was limited since it addressed only the response to abuse of minors.

Rev. Boekenstein relates that there was not enough time to deal adequately with the report, which was returned to committee for further study. He says, “My encouragement to the committee was to also include material on educating, and providing policies for, the congregations regarding the prevention of sexual abuse.”

Songbook

Although church music can also be an emotional issue, Synod came to agreement on many matters related to the production of a proposed denominational songbook.

Synod provisionally approved psalms that had already been published in a preliminary songbook. Sessions have until May 31, 2012, to provide feedback to the committee regarding hymn selections.

“Synod needed to decide what would be the best way to produce and introduce the songbook to the churches of the denomination,” says Rev. Kloosterman. “This was an issue that needed to be worked through as not all churches are ready to adopt a new songbook, though it has been worked on and presented for the past three Synods.”

Confessions and liturgical forms

After making minor revisions, Synod approved translations of the Belgic Confession and the Canons of Dort used by the Canadian Reformed Churches.

Synod retained the denomination’s current Westminster Confession of Faith as the RCNZ’s confessional document, but approved the Modern English Study Version for preaching and teaching. Both versions as well as modern and traditional forms of the Lord’s Prayer will appear in the new songbook, Sing to the Lord. It is anticipated that the new songbook will be finalized at Synod 2020.

Several proposed liturgical forms were provisionally adopted. Sessions and presbyteries may interact with the committee about these during 2012; after that the forms will be published in a supplemental booklet.

Bible translations

Four overtures dealt with various issues related to translations of the Bible. The body rejected the 2011 edition of the New International Version (NIV) for use as a pulpit Bible. Synod appointed a study committee to evaluate the English Standard Version (ESV) and the New King James Version (NKJV).

“As one of the churches that brought an overture to synod seeking a ban on the 2011 NIV,” says Rev. Holtslag, “we were glad that this version with its gender neutering and even overt support for women in office in key verses was rejected for use as a pulpit Bible.”

Missions

Another difference Rev. Peter Kloosterman notes between the URCNA and the RCNZ is the existence of the Overseas Mission Board (OMB), which he chairs. He explains that the OMB assists local churches in sending missionaries to the field by levying a denominational quota to supply financial assistance where it is needed.

“The OMB has helped the sending church (Reformed Church of Hastings) support a missionary on the field in Papua New Guinea,” says Rev. Kloosterman. “This has incurred significant costs for the denomination and required a substantial increase in the quota for the OMB. Another church (Reformed Church of Silverstream) also overtured Synod to receive denominational support with sending a missionary for a medium term to assist the OPC in M’bale,Uganda.”

Due to the current economic uncertainty in New Zealand, delegates were reluctant to adopt the proposals for additional funding ($40,000 for Uganda alone), but following discussion they voted in favor of the missionary support.

Ecumenical relations

The most significant ecumenical discussions revolved around relationships with Reformed churches in neighboring Australia.

The RCNZ has had a longstanding sister-church relationship with the Christian Reformed Churches of Australia (CRCA), but that bond has been strained in recent years over the CRCA’s decision to permit women deacons. This year’s Synod determined to end the sister-church relationship. It also instituted a new category of ecumenical relations called “Ecclesiastical Fellowship” and voted to move toward that new and more distant association with the CRCA.

The RCNZ will explore an ecumenical relationship with the Presbyterian Reformed Church of Australia. According to Synod reporter John Van Dyke, the denomination has 11 churches in Australia, three inVanuatu, and one in Fiji.

Other Business

One report addressed the question, “Who may preach?” Synod decided to maintain the current denominational practice that only ministers, students, and retired ministers may preach with ruling elders allowed as an exception. A proposal to establish an RCNZ institute for theological training was defeated.

“As a delegate, I enjoyed the synod and the discussions we had,” writes Rev. Holtslag. “The moments of good humour are always helpful in keeping tension levels to a minimum. Having returned home and had time now to analyze the decisions, thoughts drift between those decisions we agreed with and those we did not agree with. I am thankful to the Lord for many of them and hopeful that He will overrule that which was unwise and continue to preserve the unity we enjoy in Him.”

The above article by Glenda Mathes appeared on pages 8-10 of the October 26, 2011, issue of Christian Renewal. Photo courtesy of Rev. Bill Boekestein.

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