I am often rather critical of my denomination, the criticism comes from the reality that we are harder on those we love the most. Sometimes, however, my criticism is too sharp or too pointed coupled with less helpful. As was the case with a post that lived here for a short time yesterday. However, there is not only criticism. There is much that I appreciate about my denomination, and this post includes some of those things I appreciate coming to General Synod. This post was written and planned before the aforementioned short-lived post which was a bit too acerbic. I decided to move up the planned publication of this post, and I wanted to add this little introduction to try to be open about some of this. So, I apologize for my, at times, astringent tone, and I hope that this will, at least, add some balance.
While I continue to disagree with the rationale for the rules and regulations proposed, there is much that the Commission on Church Order recommends that is incredibly helpful. Even when I disagree, at times strongly, I continue to appreciate the work of the Commission. I find all of their recommendations to be helpful, but there are two that are particularly noteworthy, that I want to discuss a little bit here.
It has been over a hundred years since there has been a special session of General Synod. In fact, special sessions of the General Synod are one of those things that are seen as theoretically possible, but never a reality (but as we have seen with the Cubs winning the 2016 World Series, even the theoretical can become a reality). Thus, when it comes for the declarative act of constitutional amendments, there would never be any question about whether the declarative act putting into effect a constitutional amendment approved by the classes could be taken by a special session of the General Synod. However, because of the situation in which we have found ourselves, in 2020, the stated session of the General Synod was cancelled, and the plan was to call a special session at a later point. However, this is when it brings the question of whether the declarative act on constitutional amendments can be taken at a special session.
The Commission rightly notes that a slight ambiguity was created when the section on amendments was, itself, amended, creating three paragraphs from what was previously one. Indeed, the Commission rightly notes that the declarative act can only be taken at a stated session, and the recommended change is to make this clearer.
Why Does This Matter?
Special sessions of the General Synod are, by definition, beyond the ordinary. In fact, they used to be called “extraordinary” sessions (beyond the ordinary). While the dates and places for stated sessions are known for some time, a special session only requires three weeks’ notice (1.IV.4.2). The practical realities of today, then, make it hard for the entire membership of the General Synod, minister and elder alike, to be able to make arrangements to travel to the General Synod. While the quorum remains the same, a majority of the elder delegates and a majority of the minister delegates (1.IV.4.3), the chances are higher that there will be a slimmer majority present at a special session.
Beyond this is the question of what a special session is competent to do. Is a special session of the General Synod competent to exercise all the functions of a stated session? Interestingly enough, Section 2a on page 75 (on amending the Constitution) requires that constitutional amendments can only be proposed at a stated session. It makes little sense for the proposal of amendments to be required to happen at a stated session, but the final declarative act, which makes the amendment effective, to take place at a special session. Indeed, the latter is, in many ways, more significant than the former. Therefore, the recommendation to specify that the declarative act can be taken in a stated session is good, right, helpful, and proper.
An additional helpful piece is the inclusion of the little word “next.” This specifies when the final declarative act is to be taken. An illustrative example from civil constitutional law may be helpful. In 1789, the very first Congress of the United States submitted to the states twelve amendments to the newly written Constitution. Ten of those were ratified by the requisite number of states and came be be known as the “Bill of Rights.” This was not the end of the story for the first of that block of amendments, however, because in 1992, what we now know as the 27th Amendment, received the requisite number of state votes making that constitutional amendment effective over 200 years after it was first proposed. One may ask what happens to constitutional amendments that do not receive the approval of the requisite 2/3 of the classes? In the ordinary course of things, they simply go away. However, the church order does not specify that the declarative act must be taken at the next session of the General Synod. Might an amendment from 100 years ago make a return if a classis votes to approve? Might an amendment from three years ago make a return? Is not taking the declarative vote a “no,” or is it just non-action which leaves the potential amendment in a holding tank that can again be pulled out? This small amendment helps to clear this confusion by making clear that the vote is to be taken at the “next stated session.” Indeed, this adds a bit of predictability to the constitutional amendment process, which is important for regulation.
Committee On Emergencies
The question of what if we need to cancel, postpone, or move a session of the General Synod was probably not a question that anyone had in mind before 2019. This was done in 1933 and 1935, but it was by option, not by requirement, and so the urgency was not as pressing then as now. We found our way through it a couple of different ways, the latter better than the first in my estimation, however the question remains: what if this has to happen again? But not only about a pandemic, there are a number of other things. I remember one General Synod at Central College in Pella, Iowa when there was concerns about whether there would be a quorum present because of storms and flights were being delayed and sometimes cancelled, and we all spent the better part of a day in the basement because the sirens were sounding in the area. What about if, God forbid, there is a fire at a location where General Synod is to convene? What if there is a war on our shores? One doesn’t have to think very hard to think of a number of scenarios in which General Synod may be prevented from meeting. To be honest, it is amazing that we have not had a major interruption before now.
In this season, we had to simply make up what to do, but perhaps it would be important to have a plan in place in case something happens. This is the purpose of the recommendation of the Committee on Emergencies. In this, the Commission finds an excellent balance between breadth of participation and and the need to be able to respond to the potential of sudden events. The recommended committee consists of the President and Vice President of General Synod, the immediate past president and the General Secretary as ex officio and without vote, and the president (or the vice president or stated clerk as designated by the classis) of each classis. Something like this was convened earlier this year, and was advisory (as there was no regulation to this effect as yet), but codifying this would certainly be a good insurance policy of sorts.
The Commission also puts several safeguards in place as well, namely that the committee is to meet in a synchronous manner (so not just over email or, after the collapse of civilization, running messenger), that the postponement of the General Synod requires a 2/3 majority of the classes whose representatives are present and voting, and allows certain essential tasks such as the setting of assessments and the approval of nominees to be approved by a 3/4 majority of the entire membership. Further, all actions taken by the Committee on Emergencies must be reviewed and ratified by the next session of the General Synod.
These safeguards are incredibly helpful as it seeks the same level of consensus as constitutional amendments in order to effect, and avoids a slim majority of simply 50%+1 of postponing a session of the General Synod. This is one provision that I hope that I will never see enacted in my lifetime (not because I oppose the committee, but that would mean that there was some significant emergency or crisis), but I, for one, am glad that there is a specified process of what to do if we ever face such a situation again.