This post is going to be a bit short and imprecise. Still, friends encouraged me to plop this down in one easy-to-find spot, and so I hope it helps. My goal here is not to prove that the Dutch Reformed are really Anglicans. Neither am I commenting on later development among the Dutch churches. The first claim would be a fun troll job, but obviously a conflation of many issues. A clear difference between the Dutch Reformed and the Anglicans is the former’s affirmation of the parity of ministers and the role of the consistory rather an a bishop. A study in subsequent historical development would be fascinating but well beyond my area of knowledge. No, my humble intention here is merely to flag some interesting features of the Church Order of Dort and show how it highlights certain points of continuity with Reformation Anglican practice. It also complicates some of the anti-Anglican theological arguments commonly made.
First, briefly, the Church Order of Dort was one document produced by the famous Synod of Dort. As you, dear reader, surely know, this was where Arminianism was vanquished and the Dutch Protestants set forth a more comprehensive national confession than had perhaps previously been official. Dort also holds a powerful symbolic place for “Reformed” Christians of diverse traditions. It is supposedly where the “5 Points of Calvinism” find their origin, though the story there is a bit more complicated. Still, you can’t knock Dort as insufficiently Reformed. Its Church Order functions much like Presbyterian “Books of Church Order.” For Anglicans, it is similar to the Book of Common Prayer. But it’s also like the various canon laws put out by Elizabeth, James, and other monarchs and parliaments. It has rules for polity and liturgy. And did I mention that it’s Reformed?
So what’s this “Anglican-sounding stuff” at Dort? Two examples:
Article 67 states:
The Churches shall observe, in addition to Sunday, also Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost, with the following day, and whereas in most of the cities and provinces of the Netherlands the day of Circumcision and of Ascension of Christ are also observed, Ministers in every place where this is not yet done shall take steps with the Government to have them conform with the others.
This direction is important for several reasons. The first is simply to note that certain holidays were prescribed (not merely tolerated or allowed). The churches were required to hold services on Sundays, Christmas day, Easter Sunday and Pentecost Sunday and Monday. In addition to this, services were to be held on the days of the Circumcision and Ascension of Christ, and if certain regions were not already celebrating these two days, the ministers are instructed to work together with the civil government to introduce them. Thus, in addition to the fact of festival days, you also have a sort of partnership between ecclesiastical and civil authorities in seeing that they are introduced and enforced.
This is not as extensive of a church calendar as the Church of England had, but it is still a liturgical calendar that would be enforced on all of the churches of the polity. Article 34 of the Church of England allows different national churches to decide upon their ceremonies, and so the difference in particulars is not a problem for Anglicans. What is important is the principle that the church and the state can command festival days. On this point, Dort agrees with the Anglicans.
Understood on strict Presbyterian terms (of the older variety, not later American expressions), this is entirely unacceptable. It violates the particular understanding of the Regulative Principle (Dort also allows for the singing of canticles like the Magnificat, Benedictus, and Nunc Dimittis in the service, see Order of Dort Art. 69) and would constitute a restriction of Christian liberty, since these services are not optional. On Anglican terms, however, this article is perfectly reasonable, as it is an expression of godly authority in the promotion of piety, edification, and order.
Article 57 is much less explosive, but it is still helpful in highlighting the role of tradition and custom in the eyes of the Dutch Reformed. It states, “And in the Congregations where Sponsors or Witnesses are taken at Baptism beside the father (which custom, not being objectional in itself, is not easily changed) it is proper that such be taken who agree with the pure doctrine and are pious in their conversation.”
The “sponsors or witnesses” are similar to the English godparents. These are persons, in addition to the natural parents, who are assigned to the child being baptized and promise to assist in his nurture and religious education. Dort does not prescribe godparents, but it notes that such a custom is commonly present and not objectionable. As such, Dort suggests retaining the practice but ensuring that the candidates are fit for the job.
As acknowledged above, there are other parts of the Church Order of Dort which don’t sound very Anglican at all. Some points differ slightly. Others dramatically. Still, spotting the points of surprising agreement is important. It shows that simple categories of opposites will not do. It is not so simple as “Reformed” vs. Anglicans and Lutherans on items of liturgy. Not even Anglican vs. “Continental Reformed” will do. Instead, you see places where the Anglicans and Dutch Reformed agree with one another and disagree with the Presbyterians and other Puritans. If these matters are instances of absolute divine law, then such disagreements present major obstacles to any overarching unity. If, however, these matters are questions of human law and custom, then the diversity and even surprises are somewhat to be expected. Human societies, even ecclesiastical ones, just do this sort of stuff. It’s rather natural. We can change, or we can not change, and neither decision is matter of sin vs. righteousness but rather wise oversight in a contingent situation. The goal is fidelity to all commands, including order, piety, and edification in love.
This brief case study shows how layered the Protestant taxonomy can be, and it highlights certain foundational principles of church authority and custom shared by Anglicans and the older Dutch Reformed.
As promised, that’s all I’ve got for now. More to be studied and said in the future.