Canceling sessions of the General Synod: Lessons from 1933

In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, communication came from the Stated Clerk of the General Synod that the 2020 session will be “postponed” until 2021, but that a special session will be called in October. The examples of 1933 and 1935 were cited as years in which there was no General Synod, which, as we will see, is not quite correct. While the question of a special session will be addressed in a subsequent post, this post looks at the 1933 example (as it cannot be cited as precedent) to see what lessons we can learn about 1933, how it compares and contrasts to today, and if simply not holding a stated session of the General Synod in June of 2020 is even possible.

There are two things that are important to name at the outset. First, not holding a normal General Synod in June of 2020 is the wise course of action. Second, I understand that the General Synod Council and the executive staff are doing the best that they can to try to navigate these waters. I’m not trying to be problematic here, but I do think there are serious issues at stake in these decisions, and it is not simply a matter of checking boxes. After all, the church order is a theological document, it is not an instruction manual.


Before we get into the substance of this post, I think that it is worth considering why this matters. As I wrote in the previous post, the rules are not the most important thing in church polity. The rules are important, yes, but there is so much more to the discipline of church polity than that, and a church order is not simply a rule book or an instruction manual. These topics matter not because of some abstract sense of right process, they matter because church polity has to do with the shape of the body of Christ, and it is a foundational part of our covenantal life together as the body of Christ. Deviations from the church order are not just a matter of fudging abstract rules, deviations from the church order are a violation of our life together as the body of Christ. This is not to say that deviations cannot happen, but, as we saw in the previous post, we need to be very careful with them, and we need to be honest about them. It is because of this, that church polity is a matter of the shape of our covenantal life together as the body of Christ, that I think these things are more than just matters of transgressing laws, but rather are matters of violating covenant and harming relationships.


First, is the question of whether a session of the General Synod can simply be skipped.

The General Synod shall meet annually at such time and place as shall have been determined at its previous session.

Book of Church Order, 1.IV.4.1

It is important to take note of the word “shall” here. Shall is a prescriptive word rather than a permissive word. Shall describes an obligation. The General Synod must meet at the time and place as the previous session determined. At the time of the adjournment of the 2019 General Synod, it was the clear understanding to everyone that the next stated session of the General Synod would be June 11-16, 2020 on the campus of Northwestern College in Orange City, Iowa (MGS 2019, p. 39). Any surface-level reading of the church order obligates the General Synod to be called to order on June 11, 2020 on the campus of Northwestern College in Orange City, Iowa. There is no possible way for this to not happen.

However, this is far more than just a legalistic obsession over rules, this is a deeply significant matter. It ensures that the body is able to stay in control of its meetings, that is, what if the President just decided not to convene the General Synod? Would it be impossible for the Synod to gather? This obligation is important because it ensures that when the Synod, itself, says that it is going to reconvene, it reconvenes. No one other than the General Synod is able to amend that. These are unprecedented times, that is true, and certainly, some flexibility is understood. However, there was no clear declaration that this is something that the GSC is not able to do, and that it should never happen again, which may give the impression that the GSC now has the ability to cancel sessions of the General Synod.

But What about 1933?

1933 and 1935 are cited as examples where regular sessions were not held. For our purposes here, I will focus on 1933 as that was the pioneering example of when this was done.

1933 was in the midst of the Great Depression. There were serious concerns about the financial situation of the the country and also the denomination. A possibility of omitting the 1933 session of the General Synod was considered because of the economic turmoil. What began as an idea became a discussion.

In March 1933, an informal discussion happened at the Reformed Church House on 22nd Street in New York City. Two possibilities came out of this discussion. The first was a reduced delegation to the General Synod, namely half the delegates as normal; and the second was to omit the session of the General Synod. The call for an adjustment came from both east and west, and that “[t]o omit a synod is indeed ‘A new and untrod path,’ attended with some difficulties, but it can possibly be done if such is the positive and clear mind of the church.”* This informal discussion included “officers of the General Synod, officers of the Boards, a group of Stated Clerks, and groups of other ministers, also laymen, and it has found virtually complete favor.”†

However, even with this gathering of people, a decision was not made, indeed, a decision could not be made, as such a decision was contrary to the Constitution of the Reformed Church. The memo from Ingram continues, “It is recognized that this action is entirely beyond the Constitution, is, in fact, contrary thereto. But if two-thirds of the Classes approve in advance, that action pledges their good faith to such necessary acts of ratification as may later be found necessary.”* Here we see a critical piece of the 1933 puzzle: asking for classical approval. As the General Synod was obligated to meet in June of 1933, the only conceivable way to do this would be for the classes to approve such a measure, and it was determined that not only a majority of classes would be needed, but a two-thirds majority to ensure that it is the “clear mind of the Church.”* We can see here that they knew that what they were undertaking was anomalous and unchartered territory, and yet sought to find creative ways for it to not just be possible, but for it to be done well as possible.

As such, the President of the General Synod, Edward Dawson, sent a letter to the stated clerks of the classes on March 28, 1933 proposing a plan and asking for the classes to consider this and take an action related to the proposal.

The proposal that was described is important to note.

The procedure proposed is that each Classis nominate its delegates as usual for appointment by the Particular Synod [n.b. at this time, delegates to the General Synod were nominated by the classes but formally accredited by the particular synods]; that there be agreement by the Classis and the delegates that the delegates not be in attendance at the General Synod; that the call for the session of the Synod be issued as usual; that, at the appointed time and place, the President and Stated Clerk (or, preferably the Vice-President and Permanent Clerk, since the place is Grand Rapids) meet and, in the absence of a quorum, adjourn to the stated time for the next meeting, 1934. It is believed that every requirement of the Constitution will be thus met.Ӡ

Finally, it was noted that “[i]t will be understood that the plan does not go into effect unless there be a prevailing vote in favor of it by the Classes.” The letter requested that the classes not only vote on the plan, but as part of that, to agree to not send their delegates to General Synod.† Indeed, it allowed for the classes to exercise their right of delegation, even if that exercise is to not send them.

A close look at this reveals several things:

  1. The Classes are to make the decision by a super-majority in favor.
  2. Delegates will still be named and accredited
  3. The call to meeting will still be issued
  4. The Synod will be opened by the President or Vice-President at the appropriate time and place.
  5. Since the classes agreed to not actually send their delegates there will not be a quorum
  6. In the absence of a quorum the meeting will be adjourned until 1934.

Above I noted that it is not quite accurate to say that there was not a General Synod in 1933, there was such a session. There are minutes of the 1933 session of the General Synod.

What About 1935?

I focused primarily on 1933 since this was the year that first considered such an extraordinary possibility. The General Synod of 1934 decided that because of the “continuing unfavorable circumstances, the session of 1935 be, in effect, omitted…”‡ This question was again put to the classes, and in the statement read by the President of the General Synod at the pro forma session in 1935, the vote of the classes was “almost unanimous” to not meet§ and so again held a pro forma session at the appointed time and place, and minutes of the 1935 session are also available.

So can the 1933 or 1935 General Synod be used as a precedent?

Despite the fact that precedent does not exist in the Reformed Church, there are clear and important differences between the way it was handled in the 1930s and today.

First, the question in the 1930s was put to the classes, whereas today, it was decided simply by the General Synod Council. It is true there is a distinct difference in that now, often, classes cannot meet to transact business. But even if a formal vote of the classes is not possible, the classes could still be engaged in a meaningful way, even without a formal vote as with 1933. The problem is not that it cannot do things exactly the same way, it is that the leadership did not even attempt to give the illusion of propriety. Instead, the General Synod Council has taken it upon themselves to make a decision that they are not authorized to make. This is also not simply a formality. Apart from nonpayment of assessments (3.I.1.1) there is no possible way for for accredited delegates to not be seated. Classical delegation at the General Synod is a right, not a privilege. A very practical reason to consult the classes is to ensure that they are in agreement with the plan, since there is no possible way for the officers nor the General Synod Council to restrict the classical right of delegation at a session of the General Synod. As has been shown above, General Synod is obligated to be called into session on June 11, 2020, on the campus of Northwestern College in Orange City, Iowa and unless the sending bodies agree to exercise their right to not send delegates, delegates have a right (except as noted in 3.I.1.1) to be seated at the General Synod.

Second, there were, in fact, General Synods held in 1933 and 1935. The sessions were without a quorum, they lasted only a brief time, but they were legally called to order and adjourned. This fulfills the obligation for the General Synod to be held at the place and time as determined at the previous session.

So what does this all mean?

In short, this means that it is possible to not hold a normal General Synod in 2020, but the way that is currently proposed is not only unconstitutional on many fronts, but there is also absolutely no mitigation of church order deviations, and this is all without any acknowledgment by the denominational leadership as such. To be honest, much of what happens at all levels of the church is not strictly “normal,” whatever normal means, but there is no acknowledgment that this is a departure from the Constitution and that this plan is not okay. In 1933, there was an acknowledgment that what they were doing was not clearly within the confines of the Constitution. But now, we try to present a facade of propriety when we are doing things that are grossly improper.

However, lest this all seem like some kind of church order fundamentalism, there are important issues at stake. The General Synod is the assembly, not the General Synod Council. The General Synod Council does not become the General Synod when the General Synod is not in session. It is the executive committee and the program committee of the General Synod and is accountable to the General Synod. In no way, shape, or form, is it given the powers of the General Synod. The General Synod makes the decision, not the General Synod Council. Absent the General Synod, communicating with classes is the only way to proceed to ensure that the whole church is consulted. The General Synod Council does not represent the church in any way, shape, or form. It is the executive committee of an assembly, and that is very different. It is true that many classes cannot meet and so cannot take formal votes, but there are many ways to engage the classes, and the General Synod Council has not even tried.

In a letter from the Stated Clerk of the General Synod (22 April 2020), it was acknowledged that the General Synod Council knew about the ways in which the church was able to exercise their rights and join in making the decision in the 1930s, as well as the attempts in the 1930s to follow, as best they were able, the constitution, but that they chose to not attempt a similar path at the present time. It is entirely true that the process that was followed in the 1930s was not entirely in accordance with the Constitution. However, they were honest about that fact, acknowledged it, sought to mitigate the harm as a result of it, and they sought, honestly and in good faith, to engage the breadth of the church in this consideration. Furthermore, and this is what is especially missing now, they were not concerned only with what was legal, but what was right and good for the church. There are times in which the choice is between two bad choices, and this is one of those times, but the path chosen now is incredibly perilous.

Currently, the General Synod Council has invented the idea that they have the authority to, unilaterally, cancel a session of the General Synod that is required to be called, and has removed the right of classical representation at that General Synod.

The question before us is not how do we not deviate from the church order, the times require us to do so. Instead, the question before us is how do we deviate most faithfully, with the smallest impact, with the least amount of fallout. If we pay attention to Coertzen’s conditions for deviating from the church order, there are serious questions about the way and the method with which we are addressing constitutional deviations, and the way that we are handling will likely not be without consequences down the road if we do not seek to reduce the deviations and mitigate harm caused by them.

If the General Synod Council can decide to cancel a session of the General Synod, then are we creating something that will improperly be cited as precedent later (after all, it seems that if it ever happened once before it is somehow precedent)? If the General Synod Council can decide to cancel sessions of the General Synod, this puts the General Synod at the mercy of its executive committee, and under the control. At such a point, the General Synod ceases to exist in any meaningful way.

Again, I sincerely believe that the denominational administration and the General Synod Council are trying to do what is in the best interest of the church. However, the problem is that this path opens up a number of questions, such as the degree of honesty or forthrightness from the General Synod Council or the General Secretary, as well as whether this will be cited as precedent for something similar later. Nor is this to say that the process from the 1930s has to be followed. They made that up, and there is no rule book for how these things work. That was not precedent, it was, however, an example fro which we ought to learn. However, a more meaningful engagement with the church would be a crucial aspect to any decision like this. What we are experiencing here is not a whole church trying to figure out how to navigate this together. Instead, we have an overly powerful executive committee who declined to consult the church and making unilateral decisions. The choice here is not between this or holding General Synod in June. The choice is between not holding a General Synod in a way that has great potential to be harmful to the church, or doing it in a way that has the potential to be less harmful to the church.

To sum: the General Synod Council, on its own, canceling a session of the General Synod is unconstitutional and pretending that it is okay or not clearly and publicly acknowledging the fact that it is profoundly wrong is unconscionable. Often, the choice is between degrees of bad choices. The current choice is easier but is immensely problematic.

At stake here is more than simply following the rules, and what is at stake here is the trustworthiness and honesty of the General Synod Council and the denominational communications. If we cannot even pretend to follow the clear rules that we have all agreed to follow, and if we cannot find a healthy way for broad participation in the decision to deviate, and if we cannot even be honest about our deviation, this brings up a host of questions regarding denominational integrity.


Notes:

*Memo from John A. Ingham, Memorandum for Stated Clerks and Other Ministers Meeting at 25 East 22nd Street, Monday March 20, 1933 at 10:30 am

†Letter from General Synod President Edward Dawson, March 28, 1933. It should also be noted that this was before the reorganization of the denominational staff and offices, and so the officers of the boards were not directly accountable to the Stated Clerk of the General Synod, as is now the case. Today, such a discussion with the senior staff would be largely meaningless as they are directly and solely accountable to the Stated Clerk (General Secretary) of the General Synod.

‡MGS 1934, pp. 846, 851.

§MGS 1935, p. 3

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