Synod delegates in suits and shorts

Several CC writers recently spent time at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, recording the proceedings of the Christian Reformed annual synod. Since I live in GR, I have had occasion over the years to observe these proceedings – from friendly discussions to bitter arguments. Sometimes I notice clothing and compare that to previous synods. This year many delegates were sporting shorts.

Then I went beyond my memory and consulted the printed minutes of the very first synod meetings, going back to the founding of the CRC in 1857. Although the purpose was the same as it is now (discussing major issues and solving church problems), there also have been many, many differences over the years.

One is attire: since shorts (for either men or women) had not yet been designed in the 1800s, the delegates (all men) used to wear their black Sunday suits, mostly with vests and ties. Shorts would have been considered very onfatsoenlijk (rude).  

Snapshots of CRC history

Since virtually all of these folks were immigrants from the Netherlands, all the speeches (long and short – mostly long) were conducted in Dutch. But commendably, at the very first meeting in 1857, synod decided to become active in the distribution of English Bibles!

At the second meeting a different decision was called for – a marriage problem. One member had been in jail for theft; when released, he decided to go back to Holland, but his wife refused to go with him because of earlier marriage strife. Although in other instances a synod often took the side of the husband, here they unanimously gave the wife permission to stay. Another early marriage question: how soon after the death of a spouse may one remarry? Answer: there is no particular time, but do not give reason to “the world” to criticize us.

Later, they discussed “when may an adopted child be baptized?” Long discussion; no agreement.

Quarrels about whether CRC members could join “secret” societies such as the Masons took up several years. Even though forbidding such joining had been one of the main reasons for forming the CRC, new arguments followed. Later synods had to decide if a CRC member could become a member of a secular labour union. This question was posed most frequently by the Canadian churches.

Movies, dancing and cards

Education for ministers started slowly. At first a few students were trained in the home of a pastor, but eventually the training became more formal at Calvin Theological Seminary. In the late 1870s there were nine students. After four years, five students were ready to take the final exams. Only one passed.

Canadian churches were first mentioned in 1934 as specific classes were assigned to “our churches in the Dominion of Canada.” Canadian churches became more and more prominent in the 1950s. Their presence became known both by their insistence on discussing Christian higher education, and by their (early) Dutch accent, and (later) their Canadian accent.

Beginning in 1928, an ongoing issue for both nationalities was the involvement in WORLDLY AMUSEMENTS. The infamous trio consisted of watching plays and movies, dancing and playing cards. The last was generally disregarded, but various synods kept reminding churches that movies and dancing were not to be permitted by their members. Young people knew that during their Profession of Faith meeting they would probably be asked, “Do you go to the movies?!” Some postponed their confession until they were tired of movies, and then could tell the elders, “Hardly ever!”

Of course, one of the most divisive issues is more recent, from about 1980-2000: Should women serve as pastors, elders and deacons in the CRC? Hundreds of members left the denomination over this controversy, most of them for the United Reformed Church. As the CC article “The Stained Glass Ceiling” (Angela Reitsma Bick, Feb. 22) made clear, this division is not entirely behind us.

Overall I found the 2016 Synod a “good” synod, with considerable openness to different points of view. However, most delegates did not look particularly handsome in shorts!

Author

  • Harry Boonstra

    Harry Boonstra is a member of the Neland CRC and emeritus theological librarian of Calvin College and Calvin Theological Seminary.

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