The Final final (maybe…?) report of the Vision 2020 Task Force was released. You can read it here. This series of posts will look deeper at the recommendations not just from a pragmatic lens, but also through a theological lens. While many have given up on the reality that the church order is theological, I cannot accept that. If we cannot see the church order as a theological document, then this entire enterprise is lost. While we may value things like ease and efficiency, this cannot be the driving values. If they are, we have lost sight of what we are about.
From the outset, I want to affirm the hard work of the task force. It was an impossible task with which they were charged, and I think they have done their work faithfully. There are parts of the report that I affirm, and more parts that I critique. But my desire is that critiques are to be understood not as attacks (personal or otherwise), but rather, my desire to contribute to the discussion in what I hope will be a constructive way.
Structural assertions of the task force
The structural principles that the task force envisions is a mixture of good and bad. First the good. Point 2, “Classes are responsible for decisions related to ordination and marriage;” and point 3, “Discipline of individual consistories occurs at the classis level.” These are ecclesiologically consistent with what we believe about the church.
However, there are two other points that include significant problems. First, point 1, “Classes are reorganized as affinity-based rather than geographically-based.”
Classis and Geography
There is no doubt that we have given into the affinity model. I do not deny it. We have opened Pandora’s box and it will not again be closed. However, this assumes that affinity will be the basis of organization rather than geography with an option for affinity. This takes what should be normative and makes it anomalous, and what should be anomalous and makes it normative.
It is undeniable that the historical assumption is that classes were to be based on geography. The question, then, is whether that was simply for practical reasons (i.e. easier to travel and communicate), or whether there is, in fact, a theological component which might be reflected here. That is, is geography and place theologically meaningful or theological neutral?
In 2019, the Commission on History presented a paper to the General Synod concerning the term “bounds,” particularly pertaining to classes. There is much in that paper worth considering, but in particular, was a matter that came to the General Synod, which is excerpted here.
Of note, however, is a complaint by the Classis of Long Island against the Particular Synod of New York to the General Synod of 1830. The Bushwick church was transferred by the Particular Synod of New York from the Classis of Long Island to the South Classis of New York. The record shows that there was some displeasure on the part of the Bushwick church, and they requested the particular synod to transfer them, which was done. The Classis of Long Island complained and argued that,
… prejudices, preference, like or dislike, were never designed as a rule for the guidance of Particular Synod,
in the organization or enlargement of these courts. But on the contrary, it is found in all such cases that no
other rule has been recognized than geographical contiguity … (MGS 1830, p. 272)
The classis, in the complaint, goes on to cite the aforementioned articles from Dort and the Explanatory Articles and the words “neighboring” and “district.” Similarly, the argument given was that the action of the particular synod violated the understanding of bounds. “Providence seems to have fixed their natural bounds, and to have drawn a broad watery line [the East River] between them and the churches in the city” (MGS 1830, 273)
In the complaint, the classis also looked beyond.
If the ecclesiastical relations of one, two, or three congregations can be changed at pleasure, or upon some
fancied grievance, upon the same principle the relation of all the churches, throughout our whole
connexion, may be immediately broken up, and our Classes become nothing more than mere voluntary
associations. Every tie which now binds the Church in harmony together, and gives weight to her authority,
will be completely severed; and every thing like order will soon come to an end. (MGS 1830, 275)
We do not know the substance of the synod’s deliberation, nor can we know the exact reasons that the synod voted to sustain the complaint. However, it was presumably not disconnected from the classical argument in this case. While this one case does not constitute binding precedent (indeed, binding precedent is not something that exists in the RCA), it does provide an example of a strong assertion of the geography of classical bounds, and this case is worth considering when we speak of bounds.
The argument is clear that they, at least, did not simply understand classes as geographically based because of pragmatic concerns, or at least primarily because of such concerns, but rather there is theological substance to place and space.
There are a number of questions that need to be considered when thinking of this.
First, does this support or hinder the catholicity of the church? that is, does this help us to understand that the church is bigger than us, our views, our preferences? Or does this cause us to simply surround ourselves with people that think like us? While a sense of togetherness is certainly important, it is equally important to meaningfully engage with people and churches who see things differently. This, of course, is not impossible in an affinity structure, but we must seriously consider this.
Second, does it help the church if neighboring churches are not meaningfully bound with one another? To be sure, there are places where there are close churches that may be in different classes, but for the most part, the Reformed churches in an area are bound to one another. This helps the classis to fulfill its functions, as well. How can a classis “regularly consider the nature and extent of ministry within classis bounds” (BCO, 1.II.2.1) when the classis bounds is not a region but rather, simply jurisdiction over a list of churches and ministers? For instance, the next closest Reformed church to mine is four miles away. If we were in different classes, then where is the “bounds” over which each classis “consider[s] the nature and extent of ministry”? Is my community within the bounds of the other church’s classis? Is their community within the bounds of my church’s classis? Further, at what point do we have meaningful community, and at what point do we virtually have community? This, of course, is not impossible in an affinity structure, but we must consider this.
It would be vastly too short sighted to pretend that classes today can only be geographically defined, but there is absolutely no reason why we must make the exception the rule and the rule the exception. That is, there is absolutely no reason why we cannot keep classes normally (and normatively) geographic but also allow for non-geographic relationships. In fact, from a historical perspective, this has already existed, as well. For instance, the Classis of Mid-Hudson includes churches in the Mid-Hudson region of New York State (primarily Ulster and Dutchess counties), and also a church in North Carolina. The Classis of New York includes, primarily, the churches in Manhattan, the Bronx, and Staten Island, as well as the churches in the Virgin Islands. The Classis of Zeeland includes churches in Zeeland and surrounding areas, but until recently included churches in Georgia. These are but a few examples. The reason for these connections are varied, but the point is, we have always understood classes to be geographic…except when they aren’t. There is no reason that we cannot continue to hold this principle.
Reassess synodical structures
“The viability, responsibility, and effectiveness of regional synods and General Synod are examined…” The only rationale that the task force gives for this is “Our research shows that the future RCA will not be large enough to sustain the regional synod assembly moving forward.” How, exactly, they came to this conclusion is beyond me, and it is demonstrably false. Earlier in the report they cited statistic that a “full-service denomination” (whatever that even is) requires 2,000 churches, though there’s nothing that indicates that number is based on anything other than picking it out of the air. Of course, a “full-service denomination” is clearly undefined, and it is quite wrong that a denomination requires that number of churches. The question about the existence of the regional synod is often brought up, largely from regions where the synod either does not do much or causes problems. However, there are other synods which provide a great deal of value to the churches, sometimes even more than does the General Synod. So the view of the regional synod as superfluous is simply a reflection of the strength and health of the synods to which they are accustomed.
I stated that it is demonstrably false that whatever research the task force did shows that “the future RCA will not be large enough to sustain the regional synod assembly.” Their research seems to have not included historical research, because they would have learned that in 1800 when the original particular synod which existed from the beginning of the RCA was divided into two, there were 139 congregations and 59 ministers in the (then-named) Reformed Dutch Church in North America. This does not mean that the regional/particular synodical assembly must continue to exist, however, it does mean we cannot simply assume that if the Reformed Church is smaller, then it must necessarily be dissolved. The existence of inadequate and dys- or non-functional synods does not mean they should all be dissolved, rather, perhaps we ought to work to make them adequate and functional. As long as there are classes across two nations as large and varied as the United States and Canada, there would still be an importance to an assembly which stands between the classis and the General Synod, and for more than simply a middle judicatory. Indeed, in the words of Elton Eenigenburg, the chair of the Committee on the Revision of the Constitution during a period of a global revision of the church order,
Between them [classis and General Synod] stands the particular synod, often regarded as a kind of non-entity because it seems to exercise so little of the authority which is the ordinary instrument of both the classes and the general synod. However, I think it is the particular synod which keeps the Reformed Church from falling away into the kind of parochialism which would be the case if the classes did not have a point of reference beyond themselves in the general region in which they do their work, and a bureaucracy, on the other hand, which would eventuate if the general synod were able to carry on this work without constant reference to the several large regions of the church which are determined by the existence of particular synods.
It is difficult to say what is required to sustain the regional synod. There is a great confusion, in general, about what it takes to sustain a denomination. It is true that to sustain a significant denominational program requires significant funding. But in terms of ecclesiology, it requires very little, if any, money to sustain the broader bodies. If we want to keep doing what we are doing, then yes, we will have problems, but if we want to truly rethink things, we cannot just look at costs, and figure out money, but we should ask what these structures are to do and what they are for. This will, hopefully, also lead us to reflect ecclesiologically on these assemblies rather than simply programmatically.
Yet another task force?
This all leads to their formal recommendation
To direct the General Synod Council to appoint a team of at least 10 but no more than 15 people tasked with the specific work of developing a restructuring plan for the denomination with a view to optimizing the RCA’s sustained spiritual and organizational health, in consultation with the Commission on Church Order and any other bodies it finds necessary. This team should be composed of several executive RCA staff members, and of representatives from around the RCA drawn from regional or local assemblies that have expressed an intention to remain in the Reformed Church in America, and should be representative of the racial, ethnic, gender, age, socio-economic, geographic, and other forms of diversity present in the RCA. This team should use the four principles stated above as it does its work and should bring any recommendations for restructuring that require General Synod approval, including any proposed changes to the Book of Church Order, to General Synod 2023.
I have several questions with this. First, why are we creating yet another task force? The General Synod has become quite fascinated with task forces over the last several years, and I do not know exactly why, though I can imagine all sorts of possibilities. Commissions are already supposed to be populated with as diverse a group as possible, all of whom have interest and expertise in their particular area. It makes the most sense to charge several commissions (e.g. Church Order, Theology, History, Christian Unity, and maybe others) to work together on this. This, then takes the expertise from all of these commissions to work on this rather than a small group.
Secondly, I am concerned with the first composition component of “several executive RCA staff members.” Let me be clear: what is left of the RCA staff is excellent. I have great respect for them and count many of them as friends. The RCA staff, as a whole, often gets lumped together in a way that is neither fair nor deserved. At the same time, there are legitimate frustrations, and those ought to be directed to the executive staff, these are the ones who bear the burden of leadership. I count some of these as friends, too, and so I wish not to paint with too broad a brush. However, the last time that a group of “a group of classis leaders, racial/ethnic leaders, and GSC staff” met to “dream about the future of the Reformed Church in America, to lay groundwork for recommendation 1 in the Vision 2020 Team’s report,” the group was composed of a majority of staff members who, in our structure, are accountable to the General Secretary alone (in many ways, the staff is the private fiefdom of the General Secretary). I see no reason why executive staff members should be included, though either a task force or, better, the commissions, should be directed to consult with executive staff when appropriate. The staff is very good at what they do, however, it is problematic to have people who are singularly accountable to one person who can dismiss them at will. Regardless of who the General Secretary is, this simply does not foster a free and open exchange of ideas. The commissions, on the other hand, are accountable directly to the General Synod, which is a far better way to work through something as significant as this.
Will we need to face some restructuring? Most definitely. However, I think that deciding right now how we are going to restructure and what principles we will use, is not, at this point, appropriate. The Vision 2020 Task Force notes that “we believe a restructure should ultimately be detailed and implemented by those who remain within the RCA.” And it is true that they did not bring specific recommendations for changes, which is indeed a very good thing. However, even by the General Synod forming this task force at this time and voting to obligate that the task force “use the four principles stated above as it does its work,” this seems to be violating that principle in the adoption of those principles. Tasking the commissions with this work would be excellent. Forming a task force without staff and finding some way to ensure that those members are committed to remaining, is fine as well. But in any case, there should be no obligation whatsoever to use those four principles to guide the work.
On the whole, I am grateful for the task force for the hard work they have put in, and I am grateful for the thought and work to make something which can hold the potential to draw the RCA forward. With some amendment, this recommendation could hold great promise.