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Ecumenicity and History

By July 19, 2014 3 Comments

Last time I threw an elbow to my right regarding the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision, so this week I’ll exercise a bit of fair and balanced and tweak the progressive side—at least what passes for progressivism in Reformed and Christian Reformed circles. My thoughts are prompted by a query from a fellow historian of American religion who read that the synods of these denominations held some joint sessions at their recent annual meetings. “Anything to this,” my friend wondered. I, frankly, stifled a yawn and then tried to stifle my cynicism. The only sure method to the latter end is historical rumination. So here goes.

“Nah, nothin’ much,” was my first reply. This making nice at the top is playing catch-up to a lot of ad-hoc collaborations already happening on the ground around the map of the Dutch immigrant diaspora. Then, too, major funding incentives have been provided by a zillionaire whose birth family was riven by CRC-RCA quarrels when these burned hot and intense. He wants to heal that piece of the past before he meets his eternal future. Finally, these talks are a classic instance of the market model of ecumenicity elaborated half a century ago by sociologist of religion Peter Berger. Growing churches don’t merge, Berger observed; they move forward on sunny paths confident that they’re carrying out an important work of the Lord. Jesus’ high-priestly prayer, “that they all may be one,” tends to get piously invoked instead by downsizing corpora—urr, churches that are much less certain of their mission and identity. Overcoming silly divisions from the past contributes a positive item to their portfolios, and raises prospects of higher numbers, greater resources, and restored significance. Except that, in fairly short order, the new combined church gets down to the pre-merger size of each of its constituent parts. See the history of mainline Presbyterianism since the late 1950s.

In general, I’m more excited about churches with organic visions for a significantly different future than official agencies concocting bland statements minimizing the differences of the past. Even more, I get a touch annoyed with ecclesiastical versions of the “enormous condescension of posterity” that English historian E. P. Thompson saw exercised by Whiggish progressives toward archaic forms of radicalism. Ok, let’s not be bound by differences from yesteryear, but let’s recognize that these arguments could involve important matters of substance and perspective—matters at least as important as today’s quarrels over the implications of Hobby Lobby.

For instance, the CRC’s blanket ban on accepting members of secret societies into church fellowship. Silly. Except that Roman Catholics and Missouri Synod Lutherans took the same position, not least because Free Masonry on the Continent, where most of these churches’ new immigrant members had originated, was closely associated with anticlericalism and a type of political revolution that turned out to be pretty nasty. Then too, secret societies posed significant challenges to churchly loyalty; in the 1880s, when the CRC edict came down, more adult men in Northern cities belonged to lodges than to churches. The RCA’s position of local option had good reasons behind it too: a memory of less threatening British Masonry and worries about posing extra-biblical tests for church membership. I’m not adjudicating the quarrel here, simply asking us not to dismiss it as trivial.

The same holds for an issue that has loomed much larger and cut more deeply into the tissue of fellowship between RCA and CRC, and that is Christian vs. public schooling. Folks on the two sides could, and did, argue the theological and philosophical issues involved until the cows not only came home but have long since been left behind by rural migrants to the big city. No need to rerun those quarrels here. But it’s only good history to note that compulsory schooling was a, maybe the, most important political issue in the last third of the nineteenth century when the CRC-RCA divide began to harden. Public schools were vital agencies of nation building and “progress” in Bismarck’s Germany, in Gilded Age and Progressive America, in Meiji Japan, in secularizing (and anti-secular circles in ) France, in Brazil and Argentina, and not least in the Netherlands. School was and is ground zero in children’s identity- and loyalty-formation, and it mattered a great deal, on both sides, to family, nation, church, and school, which schools would be erected, supported, and attended. In the USA a generic Unitarianism came to be established in this era as a good religious canopy for the nation at large. RCA folks, with their longer heritage in the USA, thought that was at least a tolerable arrangement. CRC folks more and more did not. Again, I’m not calling for one position or the other to be endorsed, simply to acknowledge that the issues were of real importance and should not be flicked away today.

The most important issue of all might lie behind both of these specifics, and maybe much more besides. That is, to what extent does a given church view itself to be (part of a complex that is) the custodian of the culture? I think that during the century from the Civil War until the beginnings of the current culture war in the late 1960s, the RCA felt itself to be pretty much on the inside, or with access to people at the top of the American pyramid. With the loss of mainline control over the last half century, lots of Christian Reformed folks felt themselves rising with “evangelicals” to fill that gap. But with the evangelicals’ evident loss of the culture war on the same-sex front, and with an evangelical president’s great foreign policy disaster in Iraq continuing to unwind in real time, the dew is off that rose.

So maybe this is the better possibility at hand in the current friendliness between the two churches. Maybe both have given up on being cultural custodians, on access to power in America. Maybe both are ready to rediscover a more authentic Christianity and a distinctively Reformed voice worth the sounding. That’s worth talking about. And that’s one thing The 12 keeps trying to do. Join in. 

James Bratt

James Bratt is professor of history emeritus at Calvin College, specializing in American religious history and especially the connections between religion and politics. Starting in Fall 2016 he took a break from blogging on The Twelve to teach in China and on the Semester at Sea, which venues afforded him some welcome distance from the USA’s descent into its current mortal illness. But now he’s back in the States, looking for hope. His most recent book (which he edited and completed for the late John Woolverton) is  “A Christian and a Democrat”: Religion in the Life and Leadership of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.


  • Dave Vroege says:

    I like your warning not to flick away issues of the past as trivial. Thanks for the article.

  • Jeff Japinga says:

    Nothin' much? Maybe. I understand completely the logic leading to that conclusion. I can't say it's wrong. But what if there's another valid interpretation: that the language of the resolution the two churches discussed and passed, rather than just a bunch of words that allow us to dismiss our differences as trivial, instead compel us to confront those differences–to talk again about them and to decide whether they indeed are important enough to divide a common call to mission. That the Biblical call to unity isn't simply the last refuge of downsizing corpora-churches, or a few professional ecumaniacs, but in this increasingly polarized world, a deeper, more compelling option through which more and more of us might live and express our faith–even if it's hard work. That's what I hope we did.

  • David Vandervelde says:

    Or….maybe they just want to find some economic union and use religious words and scripting to make it seem palatable?

    Maybe a bit of it all.

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