Special meetings of the General Synod

The second part of the synodical plan that the General Synod Council decided without ever consulting the church is to call a special session of the General Synod in October. The section in question is this:

The president of the General Synod shall call a special session of the synod at a place determined by the president, vice president, and the general secretary of the synod upon the joint application of three ministers and three elders from each of the regional synods, all of them serving currently as accredited delegates to the General Synod

Book of Church Order, 1.IV.4.2

The General Synod Council has determined to make a novel reading of this, arguing that this only covers when a special session is required to be called, though the possibility remains open for the option for a special session to be called. Because, as they argue, the church order is silent on discretionary special sessions, the non-profit law of New York allows for it, they argue that the General Synod Council is authorized to call for a special session, particularly for something like this.

This is a peculiar reading for a few reasons. First, this is making a significant argument from silence. But it’s not exactly from silence, because other parts of the church order might offer insight into this in a contextual reading of the order.

Regarding the consistory:

The president shall call special meetings of the consistory when they are deemed necessary and shall do so promptly when requested by at least three members of the consistory.

Book of Church Order, 1.I.4.6

Furthermore, the classis:

The president of classis shall call a special session of classis whenever special business requires it or upon the written request of two classis members and two elder delegates

Book of Church Order, 1.II.4.2

However, the language regarding calling special sessions changes when we get to the synodical bodies.

For the regional synod:

The president of the regional synod shall call a special session of the synod upon receipt of a written request of one minister and one elder delegate from each of the classes within its bounds.

Book of Church Order, 1.III.4.2

and finally, for the General Synod:

The president of the General Synod shall call a special session of the synod at a place determined by the president, vice president and the general secretary of the synod upon the joint application of three ministers and three elders from each of the regional synods, all of them serving currently as accredited delegates to the General Synod.

Book of Church Order, 1.IV.4.2

One may of course say that the language for the consistory or the classis does not matter here, although when you read the church order contextually, with the understanding that the church order is a unit, a whole, and that there is a logic to it, reading contextually is an important apsect. One may also say that the same latitude for the president to call a special session of the synods when it is “deemed necessary” or when “special business requires it” is implied because that is allowed for the consistory and classis, and so in order to maintain the similarity between all the assemblies, that carries the implication that it is possible, even though it is not provided for. One may also argue that the church order only specifies when a special session must be called, but leaves open the possibility for when one may be called. However, all of these arguments are, I think, tenuous at best, particularly when we look theologically and historically at this question.

Theological Perspective

Synods are of a different essence than consistory or even classis.

while the synods were necessary for the good order of the church, they did not constitute its essence. Reformed churches could— and did—exist without a national synod. Reformed people understood that Christ constituted his church through Word and Spirit. That happened as the living Word, Christ, called his people around pulpit and Table. The synods existed, then, as the bene esse, for the good of the church, but not as the esse, the essence of the church.

Allan J. Janssen, Constitutional Theology, 2nd edition (Grand Rapids, Mich: Reformed Church Press, 2019), pp. 215-216.

A synod, then, is not just a bigger version of a classis or a consistory. As I have written before (and repeat to anyone who will listen), the church is the most church when it gathers around pulpit, table, and font and each broader ring is church in a more derivative form. The synods are bodies without permanent memberships, and so it is questionable how a synod can be church in any meaningful sense of the term when it is not an ongoing locus of Word and sacrament.

Indeed, this is the reason why minsters who are “installed as a pastor of
a local church shall be a member of that church by virtue of installation.” and why “A minister not installed as a pastor shall become a member of a local church” (BCO 1.II.15.6). Ministers are members of the classis, however, they also have a sense of membership in the local church. Practically, this is a challenging or odd thing, but the reality is, it recognizes that ministers, too, find themselves within the church as the church gathers around pulpit, table, and font.

Because of this difference in essence between the consistory and classis on one hand, and the synods on the other, I find it difficult to so easily gloss over the differences in the order. It should, at least, give us pause. Indeed, the order offers the possibility for “if needed” optional special sessions as well as when they are called for by the requisite number from the body. I, at least, find it peculiar that this does not provide for this for the synods since it explicitly does so for two assemblies, and does not for two others.

The language for the consistory, “when they are deemed necessary” is the most broad and most permissive of the languages. In a way, this makes great sense. The consistory is where the church meets life. The local church is the most essential part of the church and it is where ministry, or at least the vast majority of it, happens. Because of the innumerable amount of things that a consistory would have to deal with, it makes sense that a special session could be called whenever it is “deemed necessary.”

The langauge for the classis is quite broad, but a bit more restrictive, “whenever special business requires it.” The word “requires” adds a sense of need rather than desire. The order does not specify what special business would have to be required. However, earlier church orders give an indication as to what type of business is in view.

It shall be the duty of the president of the Classis to call its members together by circular letter when a special meeting of the Classis is made necessary for an examination, an approval of a call, an ordination, and installation, or any other special business.”

Church order 1916, Article VII, Sec. 91.

Here we can see the list given is things that are necessary, and things that the classis must do and that only the classis can do. These are things that cannot wait for a stated session if they come between sessions. And the “any other special business” is clarified through “necessary” and things that are similarly necessary to those given in the list.

We have two words here, “necessary” used previously, and “required” used in the current church order. And so while the order allows for special sessions to be called for apart from the requisite number of members/delegates to apply for one, it is still restricted by what is “required.” However, when at least two ministers and two elders request a special session, one must be called, regardless of the reason. This allows the body to have control over this, as well.

However, when we get to the synods, we have neither the very broad discretion of the consistory, nor the more limited discretion of the classis, but we have the complete absence of discretionary special sessions, and the church order only provides for special sessions when they are called for by the requisite number of delegates. Coincidentially (or intentionally), this reflects the esse/bene esse distinction between the assemblies. While some may argue that this is an oversight, it is an oversight that has existed since the General Synod allowed for special sessions in 1800. It is hard for me to believe that a difference in language that has existed so long and with so many revisions, even global revisions, of the church order is simply an oversight.

Furthermore, there is also the matter of the fact that the synods, and in particular, the General Synod, covers a much greater geographic area with a variety of interests, concerns, views, and the like. It is easier for a president of a consistory to determine what is desired matter for a special session, it is even easier for the president of a classis to determine when a special session is required, but it is very difficult for the president of a regional synod or the General Synod to determine what matters are (a) both necessary, and (b) of a concern for the whole church. Indeed, this, I think, is why for the synods, the only provision in the church order for calling a special session is for the requisite number of delegates to apply for it.

It would be a daunting and expensive task to gather a special session of a national body. Special circumstances, however, may require the synod to meet in an extraordinary session. The order recognizes the extraordinary nature of such sessions by constructing imposing conditions for their call. Three ministers and three elders from each synod would, at the present time, mean that at least 48 delegates request a special session. And since each synod must provide six signatures, the need would encompass the entire variety of the church’s life. Thus no one theological or ecclesiastical commitment would be capable of engineering a special session.

Janssen, p. 229.

Historical Perspective

In the latter half of the eighteenth century, when the newly independent Reformed Church was beginning its organization, special sessions of General Synod were not uncommon. The Explanatory Articles of 1792 allowed for the General Synod to “make regulations from time to time, for calling an extraordinary session” (Art. 55) and the first two General Synods under the newly (at that time) adopted Constitution (1794 and 1797), the Synod determined the time that it would once again convene, but also gave permission to the President to call a special session if needed between the stated sessions, which, at the time, was three years.

In 1800, the General Synod passed a resolution,

Resolved, That if circumstances should require a meeting of the General Synod previous to the next Ordinary Meeting, the President be, and he is hereby authorized, on a joint application of six or more ministers requesting the same, to call an Extraordinary meeting…”

MGS 1800, p. 312.

This was the first time there was a standing rule for special sessions, and it is clear, even from the beginning, that the president alone is not authorized to call a special session, but must receive an application of six or more ministers. This was codified into the church order of 1833 (Chapter II, Article V, Sec. 5 [MGS Oct 1832, p. 127]).

Even in extraordinary times, this joint application was required. The session of 1803, for instance, decided to adjourn to October. Meeting in October was not possible, and the synod re-convened in May of 1804. At the beginning of the Acts of that special session we read the introduction to the meeting,

“having been prevented by the interposition of Divine Providence for holding the session in October last, according to their adjournment at Poughkeepsie, a competent number of ministers concurred to request the President to call a meeting of Synod, and the present meeting was duly called…

MGS, May 1804, p. 322.

It didn’t take long for the requirements to call a special session move from six ministers to six ministers and six elders. The church order of 1833 provides for special sessions,

If circumstances should require a meeting of the General Synod previous to the next ordinary meeting, the President shall, on a joint application of six Ministers and six Elders requesting the same, call an extraordinary meeting…”

Church order 1833, Art. 85 in Corwin’s Digest.

The language is worth paying attention to. “If circumstances should require…” allows for a contingency, “if.” That is, if there is something that requires a special session, then the President shall call for one on a joint application with six ministers and six elders. There is no provision for a special session apart from the joint application of the requisite number of elders and deacons. This language of this section of the church order remained virtually unchanged for decades. Though at the beginning of the twentieth century as the Reformed Church grew, so did the requisite number of people, it was increased at the beginning of the twentieth century to twelve ministers and twelve elders until 1960 when the current requirement of three ministers and three elders from each particular/regional synod who are currently serving as accredited delegates to the General Synod was incorporated into the order.

The matter of special sessions, then, has a pretty straightforward line from 1800 to today, and even though there have been changes, the biggest change, of course, in 1960 when the requirement was changed from just a number of elders and ministers to a number of elders and ministers from each particular synod who are currently accredited delegates to the General Synod.

David D. Demarest, however, regarded this provision in the church order as so clear, that in his commentary, Notes on the Constitution of the Reformed (Dutch) Church in America, he writes, “An explanation of this section is not necessary.”* David Demarest’s son and eminent Reformed Church polity teacher and commentator, William H.S. Demarest, who authored a little green-covered volume of the same title as his father, did not offer much detail on the special sessions of General Synod, particularly because they had fallen into disuse by the time that he was writing,

A special session of the General Synod is rarely called, has not been called in many years. It was held occasionally in the past years when the church was more compact, the synod much smaller, for the election of a theological professor.

William H.S. Demarest, Notes on the Constitution of the Reformed Church in America (New Brunswick, N.J.: New Brunswick Theological Seminary, 1928), p. 143.

However, his note reveals something important. That special sessions were typically called when a theological professor needed to be elected. In the early generations, the General Synod elected all of the professors to the seminary. And so the entire faculty were Professors of Theology. Therefore, when a professor resigned or died suddenly, a replacement was needed and that could not wait until the next ordinary session, and so often a special session was called.

In surveying a number of special sessions from the nineteenth century (a list which I will not claim to be exhaustive), I looked at nearly twenty§ special sessions, of which a handful were adjourned sessions, that is, the General Synod, at its ordinary meeting decided to reconvene at a later time. Of those that were not adjourned sessions, the majority were to elect professors, and a minority were to do other things such as handle disciplinary matters. In terms of the method that was employed to call them, the adjourned sessions do not require any special method to their calling since the General Synod itself decides to do this. Of those that were not adjourned sessions, approximately three did not give indications as to the method of their calling, but the remainder began with some form of, “The President laid before the synod a constitutional request which he had received to call an extra meeting of the Synod.” Here, we can see the phrase “constitutional request” which I cannot understand as anything but an application by the requisite number of elders and ministers as provided for in the constitution.

Therefore, in nearly every instance that I was able to find, the indication is that the special session was called in the method specified by the church order.

But what about the General Synod Council?

One distinct difference between today’s Reformed Church and the Reformed Church in the times of special sessions is the presence of an executive committee of the General Synod. The administration’s argument is that because the New York Non-Profit Corporate Law allows for the board of directors to call a special session, the General Synod Council is empowered to do so. However, this does not mean that in previous years there was no board of directors. Indeed, there had to be after the General Synod was incorporated in 1819. The Board of Direction of the Corporation (though the name changed somewhat over the years) was the board of directors. In 1970, the then-separate Board of Direction was folded into the General Synod Executive Committee, by replacing members of the Board of Direction with GSEC members when their terms expired.

If, then, the board of directors was authorized to call a special session, this, too, would have been possible in previous years, as well. However, what we see, instead, is that in almost every instance when a special session was not an adjourned session type special session, that an application was made by the requisite number of ministers and elders to call such a session rather than the president calling one at his (and at the time they were all his) discretion, nor the board of direction calling one.

Why does this matter?

The General Synod has, as its charge, the interests and concerns of the whole church. A special session, then, should also be in the interest and concern of the whole church. The question of whether this special session in October is necessary is a bit open to subjectivity. However, it is clearly not required. The conditions given for calling a special session serve as a bar, and a rather low one, to be honest, to determine whether it is a concern of the whole church or a special interest within the church. If a special session in October truly is the concern of the whole church, then there should not be any problem with actually meeting the relatively low bar given in the order. If the concern of the General Synod Council is that the requirements cannot be met, the question remains of whether it is truly a matter of urgent concern of the whole church.

As with the previous concern, the question is not just what is allowed, but what is best for the church? Does the breadth of the church want to discuss the report of the 2020 Task Force in a brief and focused and emotionally intense special session, in isolation from the other work of the church, seeing only a narrow and grossly incomplete view of the work and life of the church, and in a session that cannot amend the constitution (propose or adopt) or the bylaws of the General Synod (propose or adopt)? This is a question that the church could and should wrestle with. However, again, the General Synod Council has taken it upon themselves to make unilateral decisions depriving the church of actually wrestling with these things, and has taken yet another controlling force over the General Synod, rather than being accountable to the General Synod.


Notes:

*David D. Demarest, Notes on the Constitution of the Reformed (Dutch) Church in America (New Brunswick, N.J.: J. Heidingsfeld’s Press, 1896), p. 137.

† MGS 1970, pp. 183-184.

Book of Church Order, p. 75, sec 2a; 3.I.11.

§ 1804, 1815, Jan 1823, Feb 1823, 1825, 1826, 1828, 1831, 1832, 1840, Sept 1841, Oct 1841, 1849, 1855, 1857, 1867, 1871, 1881.

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