The proceedings of all assemblies shall begin and end with calling upon the Name of the Lord.
At the close of major assemblies, censure shall be exercised over those who in the meeting have done something worthy of reproof, or who have scorned the admonition of the minor assemblies.
Furthermore, each classis, regional synod, or general synod shall determine the time and place of the next classis, regional synod, or general synod respectively and appoint the convening Church for that meeting.
In spite of the fact that the provision found in the first paragraph of this article has been found in our Church Order since 1571, one might ask whether it is really necessary to have such a rule. Is it not a matter of course that we ask for the guidance of the Holy Spirit, for a good insight into God's Word, and for the Lord's blessing upon our endeavours? Is it not equally a matter of course that we give thanks at the end of the meeting to our God for the strength and ability which He gave to deal with our agenda?
Our forefathers considered it necessary that the churches should remind each other of the need for prayer and thanksgiving at ecclesiastical assemblies, before the proceedings start and after they have been concluded. We even have three prayers for such occasions in our Book of Praise: An Opening Prayer for Ecclesiastical Assemblies, A Closing Prayer for Ecclesiastical Assemblies, and an Opening Prayer for the Meetings of the Deacons.
When we read these liturgical prayers, we see that the character of the meeting is kept in mind. The words have been chosen very carefully and these prayers are very specific. We would do well to use them more frequently than is the case at present.
It is not absolutely necessary to use them all the time or even to use them regularly. The one who calls the meeting to order to begin its proceedings may offer a prayer in words of his own choosing; and likewise the one who leads in closing prayer. However, whenever one offers prayer in words of his own choosing, he should fully realize the purpose of the meeting and not lose himself into praying for all sorts of causes which have no direct bearing on the agenda of the meeting.
Likewise, the one who leads in closing prayer must avoid any temptation to (ab)use this prayer to repeat some arguments or to propagate his own opinions or, even worse, to convey admonitions to others who disagreed with him. Neither should a summary of the discussion be given in this prayer. The Lord is well aware of all that went on during the meeting and does not have to be told, nor do the brothers who participated in the meeting.
In a tense situation — such as, alas, does exist once in a while — it is almost mandatory to use one of the collects. Thereby the one who leads in prayer protects himself and the others.
The Church Order does not make a provision about the reading of Holy Scripture at the beginning of the proceedings or of singing together, although reading of a portion of God’s Word is customary. It is the general consensus that this custom emerged as a result of Methodist influences. Where this custom does exist, it is good to maintain it, although it should be borne in mind that the purpose of the meeting is not to edify one another, but to deal with a certain agenda, with ecclesiastical matters.
Sometimes chairmen of consistory meetings even elaborate on the Scripture passage read. One can read in consistory meetings reports: “The chairman speaks a few words in explanation of the passage read.” Justification for such action could be found only in special cases where directives are found in this passage for specific points to be dealt with at the meeting. If such is not the case, the chairman should refrain from adding some words of his own to the Word of God. The brothers have not been called together to listen to explanations of Scripture passages, however brief, but to deal with the matters at hand, and then go home again. They will need their rest for the next day’s task.
At consistory meetings usually a regular order is followed in reading God’s Word. Sometimes the Psalms are read and then the Proverbs, sometimes some New Testament letters. Reading in sequence also prevents that a specific passage is chosen in order to influence beforehand the expected discussion. The heart of man is subtle, more than anything.
Explanations of the Church Order here also pay attention to the practice in some churches to offer prayer in the consistory room before the services on Sundays. Customs differ in this respect, too. Sometimes prayer is offered before the morning service and after the afternoon service. Sometimes it is only the first one. In rare instances prayers are said before and after every service. In all likelihood this custom came into existence in the days of the Secession in the nineteenth century in the Netherlands, when services were repeatedly disturbed by the police or by the rabble. The need was felt to ask the Lord beforehand to cause the service to be uninterrupted and to prevent the enemies from disturbing it. When the situation changed, the custom remained, although in the past fifty years more and more consistories have discontinued it.
Such prayers in the consistory room are, however, merely private prayers, even though they are offered with only office-bearers present. There is no ecclesiastical assembly there, nor has the worship service started. It is the experience of office-bearers that it is difficult to keep the immediate purpose of such prayers in view. In some instances the prayer before the service became a prayer “for all the need of Christendom,” so that the minister might feel that there was nothing left to pray for during the service. The prayer after the second service sometimes amounted to a summary of the sermons. In extreme cases the latter prayer contained veiled or open criticism of the sermon(s).
This writer remembers one brother whose closing prayer always
mentioned that “this morning we heard this and this, and this evening we heard this and this.” In the days of the Liberation it was overheard that “it might please the Lord to achieve something good through something blemished.” The “blemished” referred to the sermon just delivered. Better no prayer than such a prayer.
It may be expected of the members of the congregation that in their family prayers at home they also remember the worship services of the day both before and after they are held. There may be situations when the brothers of the consistory feel the need on a particular Lord’s Day together to appear before the Lord before the service, but in general there is no need for special prayers in the consistory room. In any case, they are not included in the prayers of which Article 34 C.O. speaks.
Everyone will have read the sentence: “Censure ad Art. 44 is not needed.” This is a sentence which one can find in press releases of major assemblies. The provision has been transferred to Art. 34, as it is the task of the members of the broader assembly, and especially of the chairman, to do it.
What is this censure? It has nothing to do with the Lord’s Supper, but is an open rebuke and admonition, given towards the end of the meeting to those who in one way or another have misbehaved during the meeting. These last three words “during the meeting” must be kept in mind. It is not the intention that some member of the assembly shall be addressed and rebuked about something he wrote in a book or a periodical, or about something he said in a personal or public discussion a few weeks or days earlier. Ecclesiastical assemblies except consistories have no right even to mention those things.
Nowadays members of broader assemblies seem to behave more properly than they did some four hundred years ago. About those earlier times one can read about near riots or worse, and of disorderly conduct at broader assemblies. However, even though we do not witness any wild scenes in our days, there still is the very real possibility that one behaves unseemly, or allows himself expressions or actions that are not in accordance with the character of the meeting. Perhaps someone appears to have revealed some information to outsiders, information which should have remained strictly confidential; perhaps one may have been factually correct in his statements and arguments as such, but presented them in a manner which went beyond the bounds of propriety. These are only a few items that a chairman (or another member) might point out to explain how wrong the brother was.
Another possibility mentioned is that someone has scorned the admonition of the minor assemblies. It is not quite clear what matter would come under this heading. Possibly someone did not abide by his mandate, but ignored instructions he had received from the delegating assembly. As for the rest, we must admit to our inability to see how a classis could admonish one of its members for having scorned the admonition by the consistory. The same applies to a regional synod with respect to a classis, or to a general synod with respect to a regional synod. How would a broader assembly
learn about this scorning? One can hardly imagine that a consistory asks a classis to put on the agenda the point to rebuke a delegate because this brother scorned the consistory’s admonition. The consistory is very well capable of admonishing the brother and does not need the help of classis. No, the more we think about it, the less we see a possibility for this occurrence within the framework of Reformed church polity. We have not been able to find an acceptable explanation of it in other works either.
At the end of each broader assembly a convening church is appointed for the next assembly. Usually a precise date and place for the next assembly is fixed. This is important, for the churches must be able to prepare for the next assembly and should not, on short notice, receive word that a classis or regional or general synod will be held in a few weeks’ time.
In the case of a classis the churches know that it will be held three months hence, and this narrows down the choice of date. Yet the date is set at the previous classis. Visits may have to be arranged, for instance, in connection with the exercise of discipline, when a consistory wants to ask the advice of classis. The brothers who are delegated may have to arrange their work or business so that they are able to attend; reports may have to be completed, and arrangements may have to be made. It is best when each church knows precisely when the next classis will be held.
The same applies to the other broader assemblies. That a regional synod is held every year and a general synod every third year makes it the more mandatory that the date is known well in advance. It is our experience that all sorts of reports especially for a general synod come in at the very last moment, so that consistories will have to scramble and have several extra meetings in order to study them and see whether they should approach the general synod with any proposal regarding the recommendations in these reports. One does not have to be a procrastinator for thinking that “there is still lots of time.” Knowing that there is a set date will be conducive to an early completion of assignments.
We do not have to assume that a church would unduly postpone the convening of a major assembly if that church had to set a date. But it is better that the date is set by the previous assembly than that it is left up to one church.
The same applies to the place where the assembly is to be held. In general, the place to be chosen should be easily accessible so that the burdens of travel are divided as equally as possible among the members. Classes are usually held in the same place; regional and general synods are mostly held in the place where the convening church is. However, it is up to each broader assembly to deviate from the custom. The first two general synods were both held in Carman MB, although the convening church for the 1954 synod was the church at Chatham, and Coaldale for the one of 1958. This was done to divide the travelling time equally between the brothers from the East and those from the West. This argument does not weigh as heavy any longer, because of the frequent use of air travel.