Lover’s Quarrels and Concord: A Farewell Address

I love Winston Churchill stories. One of my favorites is the one that concerns the Dutch prime minister in exile during the Second World War. He f led to England after the Nazi invasion and soon after his arrival, there was a meeting arranged with Sir Winston Churchill in a London hotel. Churchill had already become legendary. The Dutch ambassador, when Sir Winston entered the hotel lobby, became f lustered and his grasp of English was none too certain; so he rushed for ward, extended his hand, and said, “Sir Winston, good-bye.” To which Churchill quickly responded, “Sir, that all meetings would be so brief and to the point.”

Well, my words to you today will be brief and to the point, and I hope they are not so much a good-bye but rather a farewell. I want simply to give you in a few sentences my sense of my vocation and how it has unfolded in my ser vice to the church over the decades–and my hope for the church.

I came to the Reformed Church in America from the Lutheran Church. I had spent two years at Chicago Lutheran Seminary. I did not know much about the Reformed Church, the Reformed tradition, Reformed theology. I transferred to Western Seminary and started my learning experience. Later I gained an even greater understanding of my new tradition when I went to the Netherlands to study where I eventually earned a doctor’s degree. I believe I was the first professor at New Brunswick Theological Seminary to hold a doctorate from the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands since the seminary’s founder, John Henry Livingstone.

I served two parishes in the Reformed Church in the Midwest: Homewood Reformed Church, in Homewood, Illinois, and Hope Reformed Church in Holland, Michigan. I’ve experienced most of my ministry, however, in the East. I tell you this so you will know that part of my journey has been to learn about the Reformed Church and the Reformed tradition from the inside out. As someone who has become an adopted son of the church, I wanted to immerse myself not just in what was happening in Holland, Michigan, or New Brunswick, New Jersey, but in the breadth and the depth, in the height and the length, of the tradition. A nd I can tell you, it is a great tradition.

This has equipped me for my vocation, which is a professor of theology or, to say it more plainly, as a teacher of the church. I understand a teacher of the church to be one who not only teaches in the seminary–that certainly is important–or for MFCA, I’ve also done an extensive amount of that and it also is important–but as a teacher of all of you in the various contexts in which the ministry of the denomination occurs. A nd so I consider my lecturing, my writing, my helping to found the journal Perspectives, my creating and directing the International School held in the Netherlands, all to be part of this larger vocation: the vocation of being a teacher of the church.

It seems to me that a teacher of the church/the office of professor of theology is both pastoral and prophetic. It is pastoral because it is based on love for the church and its Lord. It is prophetic because a teacher of the church must by definition, at least as I understand it, have a lover’s quarrel with the church–must be one who can say “Amen” to the church, to its mission, to its essence, to its character, but then also one who can say, “Wait a minute, are we headed the right direction?”

And I have often felt myself compelled to raise cautions. But I say a lover’s quarrel because one must love the church before one quarrels with it.   But I say a lover’s quarrel because one must love the church before one quarrels with it. Part of my quarrel has been that the church has sometimes, I think, not understood its own richness and its own treasures.  Part of my quarrel has been that the church has sometimes, I think, not understood its own richness and its own treasures. There’s a Sufi story that tells about a man who sets out to look for treasure and travels the world in frustration; he finally returns home and finds the treasure he sought in his own back yard. I wonder, brothers and sisters, if we have really mined our own back yards. I wonder if we have had the imagination to take what has been given to us and find ways to reshape it into initiatives as relevant as the programs we have imported from elsewhere and which do not express with integrity who and what we are.

My quarrel led me to oppose the formation of the Theological Education Agency in 1984. But my love for the church has drawn me into perhaps as much ser vice to MFCA as any non-paid staff member in the Reformed Church. One can disagree but one must also, if one has a lover’s quarrel, be willing to support that which the church has finally determined is the right course of action.

I have questioned new models of consistorial leadership, new structures for consistories, and I have written the booklet “Faithful Consistories,” which affirmed the missional quality of the consistory but in a way that draws from that rich understanding of ecclesial office that is ours.

As a teacher of the church, one who has a lover’s quarrel with the church, but as one who is also deeply grateful for the church, I’m ending this brief address with an expression of gratitude, not just because the Heidelberg Catechism ends with gratitude and spends considerable language on it, but also because my theological mentor, A.A. van Ruler, taught that the Reformed sense of life is this: one lives life as a hymn of thanksgiving to almighty God.

I have deep gratitude, profound thanksgiving, for this denomination, for this church. My wife Janet and I talked, brief ly, about whom I might identify as deser ving special thanks today. There are just too many of you, too many years, too many experiences, too many opportunities to ser ve that you have given me. There has been Western Seminary which, when I came into the denomination, embraced me warmly. There has been the opportunity of serving on commissions, task forces, ecumenical/bi-lateral engagements, my years of teaching and administrating at New Brunswick Theological Seminary, and it goes on and on and on. This church has given me a lot. I hope I have given something in return. I am grateful. I have found among you grace.

And now my wish for you: If you look at the Reformed Church banner, the lower line reads, Eendracht Maakt Macht. Now the usual translation of that is “unity makes strength.” That’s really not quite accurate. A nother translation that is more accurate would be “concord makes strength.” Now there may seem to be little difference between unity and concord, but I believe there is. Unity in a technological society always gravitates towards uniformity, and uniformity has a difficult time allowing dissident voices to be heard. Ever yone is expected to get on the bandwagon, to join the cheerleaders. Concord, however, means that in the Spirit we find strength together, we can disagree, we can disagree sharply–yes, we can have a lover’s quarrel with the church–and still be in fellowship with one another.

That’s my prayer for the church. That’s my hope, my wish. Because it is Jesus Christ whom we share, and when we are in concord with his mind, we will be in concord, despite differences and disagreements with one another. Thank you so much.

Paul Fries (along with Jim Van Hoeven) helped to found Perspectives, and he served on the board for a number of years. He was just declared an emeritus General Synod Professor of Theology (thus the address–to the 2006 General Synod).