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.

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

Of Classes and Congressional Districts

There has been a good deal of discussion lately in some segments of the Reformed Church in America over concerns about a supposed “disproportionate representation” stemming from the reality that classes are different sizes (in terms of both numbers of churches and size of churches) but they each register a single vote on constitutional amendments. This claim usually originates from the classes with more confessing members in their bounds who, blinded by their own hubris, assume that their greater numbers convey greater rights in the church of Christ. There are a number of fundamental errors in this line of thought, but the one that I will discuss here is the error that assumes that a disparity in classical composition is is a deviation from Reformed polity and a problem.

A Brief History Lesson

It almost seems as if those who decry the existence of small classes seem to think that there was some mythical time of representative democratic idealism when all classes were the same size. However, such a time is just that, mythical. It has never been that way. It was never intended or designed to be that way. Never was a uniform numerical size of classis in terms of either the number of churches or the number of members ever expected or imposed.

For instance, during the time when over 80% of the classes approved federal union with the German Reformed Church (but the union was not effected in favor of the comparably small minority), the Classis of New York had over 3500 families on the rolls and the Classis of Holland had not quite 1300, and yet, the Classis of Holland was able to register the same number of votes as the Classis of New York on the matter of Federal Union.

Of Congressional Districts

The main concern about the proportionality of representation comes from the way that the United States draws voting districts. While there are civil rights considerations to take into account, the main criteria for voting districts is that they contain the same number of people. The reason for this is simple, voting districts exist for one thing and one thing alone: to elect representatives. Such a proportionality is important so that residents in the state have an equal chance at representation as other residents in the state. Voting districts exist for no other purpose.

The problem is when we take this secular legal logic and apply it to the church. While the governance structure of the church appears to reflect the secular governmental structure of the United States, appearances are certainly deceiving.

Of Classes

When times of division and hostility arise, concerns of power are always at the forefront. For some it is the concern of how others will use power against them to harm them and their communities. For others, it is how they might accumulate enough power to bend everyone else to their will. When the system breaks down (as it is now, not because the engine is faulty but because sand has been thrown into the crankcase) an inordinate of attention is given to voting, and we assume that classes function like congressional districts.

But if you look in the church order at a responsibility of the classis, you see incredibly few references to the items that are of central concern here (synodical delegations and approving classical amendments). Instead, classes exist for a very different function.

Classes exist to provide for the episcopal function in the church. Classes exist to oversee the churches and ministers in their bounds. It provides for accountability to something greater than ourselves, it symbolizes our connection to the broader church, not just spiritual but also tangible. It reminds us that we are not our own but that we belong to Christ, and by extension, to the body of Christ which includes our local church but extends beyond it.

Classes exist to ensure good order in the churches and classes are the ecclesiastical home of ministers. Classes oversee the calling of a minister, the installation of a minister, and the dissolution of pastoral relationships. Classes handle difficulties between ministers and churches, and classes help ensure that the consistory governs their church in good order.

It is for all of these reasons and more that the classis is the central unit in Reformed order. And it is this reason why classes register votes on constitutional amendments and why classes send delegates to synods. Historically, each classis sent the same number of delegates to the General Synod, though in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries delegations were apportioned based, first on number of churches, but then on the number of confessing members within the classical boundaries. Such a development was a misstep, but this is the situation that we have inherited.

Classes are not congressional voting districts. Are there classes that may be too small or too big? Most definitely. But the measure of this is the ability for the classis to fulfill its responsibilities, and the number of confessing members within its bounds is not a determining factor in this. To argue that classes need to be the same size is to simply see them as voting districts. Such arguments have nothing to do with the “spiritual order” by which the church is governed (See Belgic Confession, Art. 30) and everything to do with modern cultural assumptions of fairness, something which is foreign a gospel in which grace and mercy (things which are inherently unfair) are the foundation.

Why It is Time to Disband the General Synod Council

In the previous post, I discussed the General Synod Council (GSC) and its function in the life of the Reformed Church, including what it is and what it is not, what it does and what it does not do.

In this post, I am going to look at some of the troubling aspects of the General Synod Council, and argue why this council ought to be disbanded. While the GSC seeking to accumulate more power for itself is nothing new, there are two issues right now, which show that the GSC is unable or unwilling to operate within the constitution of the church.

Coordinator of Interreligious Relations

The 2018 General Synod adopted the following

To direct the general secretary to authorize and fund a halftime position, designated as the coordinator for interreligious
relations, to facilitate the RCA’s interreligious relations
work, including equipping congregations, leaders, and
students for missional interreligious engagement; and further,

To conduct the RCA’s interreligious work through a joint committee
with the CRCNA, consistent with the Reformed Collaborative.
The committee will be comprised of the RCA coordinator for
interreligious relations, the RCA ecumenical associate, CRCNA
staff, and practitioners and experts in interreligious relations
from both the RCA and CRCNA. The joint committee will report
its work to the General Synod each year through the Commission
on Christian Unity.

Both the position of coordinator for interreligious relations
and the joint committee shall be funded for a period of five
years, at which time the effectiveness of structuring the RCA’s
interreligious work in this manner will be evaluated and the
Commission on Christian Unity will bring recommendations to
the General Synod regarding whether to continue this structure
for interreligious work.

MGS 2018, p. 97.

As typically happens, the Synod makes decisions and then addresses the financial ramifications at the end of the meeting. When this was discussed, for some reason which neither I nor anyone else that I spoke to seems to understand, the GSC decided to insist that the General Synod front-load the funding for the position, so that the entire five years would have to be paid the first year. While some have argued that this is because one General Synod cannot bind a subsequent General Synod, this is not how we deal with staff. If this was the case, then every staff position that fits within the strategic goal must be funded for the entire fifteen years in the first year, and operational staff people must be funded for an entire lifetime in a single year.

Regardless, the unexplained insistence on funding the entire five years in a single year resulted in a significant increase in per-member assessments. What followed was a rather contentious discussion where ministers and elders, knowing how their church budgets work, were trying to get a handle on the denominational budget. But because the GSC never presents a denominational budget to the assembly that oversees it, the lack of transparency means that the church is never able to get a hold on the budget.

This dynamic created an “us” and “them” mentality. “Us” being the church and “them” or “you” being the denomination–something that tends to happen when there is a lack of transparency. There was tension on the floor because assessments are an increasing burden on local churches and classes (and at some point the Reformed Church will have to deal with this, but this was apparently not that point). In response, the General Synod voted,

To approve from the unspent reserves from the year 2017 to fund a half-time position, designated as the coordinator for interreligious relations, and a joint interreligious committee with the CRCNA.

MGS 2018, p. 66.

To be clear, my personal opinion is that this was a poor and misguided decision. It is true that the General Synod didn’t have good information about the reserves, restricted and unrestricted funds, the amount of funds needed on hand, and the intricacies of the finances of a major corporation, and the rest. However, the reason that the General Synod didn’t have good information was because the GSC does not provide that information. Regardless, what the General Synod decided was possible, that is not disputed, and while it may have not been a prudent decision, it was the General Synod’s decision, and it is the General Synod’s decision to make.

Subsequently, however, the GSC directed the General Secretary to not hire that position, but to delay it until they could bring this decision back to the following General Synod for reconsideration. There were three reasons given for this, although only one stands: some delegates expressed unease about that decision on their post-synod survey. And it was based on this that the GSC invented the ability to decide that the General Synod made a poor decision and stopped it.

This is unlawful.

As we clearly saw in the previous post, the GSC “shall implement the decisions…of the General Synod…” (1.IV.7.1). In no way is the GSC able to not implement a decision simply because they disagree with it or think it unwise. The General Synod has made unwise decisions innumerable times before; however, the responsibility of the GSC is to implement those decisions, not to act as a check or balance on those.

Some may argue that the GSC is not not-implementing that decision, it is simply postponing it. However, the fact remains, nothing allows the GSC to vote to postpone a directive of the General Synod (and at some point, postponing is nullifying). This was not an unfunded mandate–there was instruction given regarding the funding, and even if ill-advised, and it is possible to fund that position in that manner.

The other related concern is practical precedent that may be derived from this. While I continue to argue that precedent is not a thing in the church (this is true), it is worth acknowledging, at least, that people believe that it is, and this belief colors the way that we function and operate. Will this allow for the GSC to determine which decisions it approves of and which it doesn’t? Will it allow the GSC to simply postpone (indefinitely?) carrying out the directives of the General Synod? Again, I did not think it a wise action of the General Synod but it is not permitted for the GSC to review the decisions of the General Synod, it is there job to implement them. Shall means shall.

Asking the Commission on Church Order to Reconsider

Another troubling action that the GSC has taken as of late is formally asking the Commission on Church Order to revisit something in its report.

In 2017, as a result from an overture, the Synod voted to

To instruct the Commission on Church Order to propose constitutionally
appropriate amendments to the Book of Church Order to accomplish the intent of Overtures 16 and 17 for report to the 2018 General Synod

MGS 2017, p. 139.

The intent of the overtures was to make classical secession easier by instructing that the classis relinquish its constitutional obligation of oversight over any permanent disposition of a church’s property. (The matter of classical oversight of church property will be the topic of a subsequent post.)

The instructions are important here, “propose constitutionally appropriate amendments.” The Commission on Church Order presented a substantive report of the matter and concluded that there were no constitutionally appropriate amendments (MGS 2018, pp. 264-266). This, of course, is certainly within their right to do. Commissions are required to receive work from the General Synod, but commissions are not simply the scribes of the General Synod.

The troubling matter is that the GSC approached the Commission on Church Order to “revisit” their conclusions. How does something like this even come before the GSC? This is a mystery that is yet to be addressed. However, it is troubling that the GSC would encourage or suggest that a commission change the conclusions after it has already reported to the General Synod and the General Synod as adjourned.

This is unlawful.

Just as the GSC is not a check and balance on the General Synod, it is not a check and balance on the Commissions. The GSC does not oversee or supervise the commissions, the GSC is “to support, strengthen, and coordinate the work of the commissions” (BCO, 3.I.3.6f). Approaching a commission to change their mind is a significant overreach of constitutional authority.T

The Root of the Problem

In one session, the GSC made two significant violations, not only of the Constitution but also of the Bylaws of the General Synod. And it seems that the GSC is unable to maintain its constitutional obligations.

While one possibility would be to vacate the council. However, the true problems with the GSC is not because of its current composition, it is a systemic problem with the council itself.

The GSC was formed from two different bodies that did two different things. The GSEC and GPC had different foci and different goals. One was an agent of the General Synod, the other was the executive committee of an assembly. The program of the denomination is not the church, and the church is not necessarily the denominational program. The General Synod is far more than simply a program body. The GSEC and GPC were, in part, set up to counterbalance one another, because of the differences in foci and differences in essence. With the creation of the GSC one combined an agent of the General Synod and the executive committee of an assembly. One took an apple and combined it with a potato.

This also had the effect of distributing power. With the consolidation into a single council, however, this also consolidated power–something that the Reformed have historically been rightly apprehensive to do. The only way that the GSC can be checked is for the General Synod to do so, and the General Synod does not seem to be aware of this, that the GSC is simply the workhorse of the General Synod, that the General Synod has the ultimate say over the GSC.

When we consider both the combining of two things that are fundamentally different, and the fact that the consolidation of power ought to disturb all of us to our core, it becomes apparent that the problem is not with the people that are on the GSC, but the GSC itself. The GSC has largely become an unaccountable body which has accumulated an inordinate amount of power.

The best solution would be to disband the GSC and reconstitute GSEC, or something like it, and GPC, or something like it and return the proper responsibilities to the proper group.

NOTE: I do think it is worth pointing out that I do not see some kind of nefarious plot here. Nor do I assume bad intentions on the part of the members of the GSC. I have tried to be clear above that the problem is not with the people but with the structure. These are simply natural lines to which such a structure brings us. We have bumbled into this situation together, and we can get out together.

Seeing Clear in 2020? (Part III)

The Rev. Joshua Bode is a guest blogger for this miniseries on the Reformed Church in America’s (RCA) present work to envision a future for itself in the midst of tension.  Josh is an RCA minister who has served a church in upstate New York, been the stated clerk of his classis, and is a former moderator of the RCA General Synod’s Commission on Church Order.  He currently serves as a senior pastor in the Protestant Church in Oman, a church the RCA founded as part of its Global Mission.

Part III:  Reflections on Options 2 and 3

Options 2 and 3 Are Schism, and Option 2 Is the Worst Possible

I need to explain what I mean by the word “schism.”  What I mean does not refer only to separation of church structures, but it does include it.  “Schism” is to me a phenomenon on the level of what the philosopher Hegel called “objective spirit.”  Whereas “subjective spirit” is the spirit of a subject, objective spirit is the spirit of a system. It is akin to the concept of “the spirit of the age.”  Objective spirit is expressed in concrete things like laws, institutions and behavior. It is also expressed in more abstract things like thoughts, beliefs, morality and culture.  Objective spirit is an ethos of a group, a way of its being, the thoughts people in it can think, and is expressed among other things in the language and norms that determine and structure its life.  Objective spirit determines what meaning is possible, and what can possibly have meaning. Objective spirit determines the thoughts and actions of subjects who live under it. As I understand the terms, ideology is a power of objective spirit, for example.

When I use the word “schism,” I mean it to be a phenomenon of objective spirit.  I define schism as whenever Christian people intentionally move away from other Christian people in communion.  A schismatic thought or action is any thought or action by one or more Christians the telos of which involves any form of irreconciliation.  A thought or action can be said to be schismatic when among its purposes is anything inclusive of irreconciliation.  Shism is most objective when Christians intentionally walk away from each other at the literal Lord’s Table (the table of communion), but it is more deeply objective when they disconnect from each other “in spirit” in communion.  I take the four responses to anxiety listed above as four examples of schism “in spirit”– a spirit which is objective and very real. If one questions whether it is “real,” consider whether you can feel it when schism so-defined happens:  the force is both invisible and objective. As spirit, it moves people and is invoked by people’s moves.

Typically we think of schism as the separation and non-communion of churches as institutions.  That is indeed schism in an objective sense, but it is only one species of the genus. When Christian people and groups fail to stay connected in any way, that also is schism in an objective sense.  When I offer this understanding of schism, sometimes people say, “But we do that all the time!” My response is, “Yes. And the deeper problem is not the act of schism; the deeper problem is in any ideology that has us naming it anything other than ‘schism.’”

Much more can be said about this understanding of schism theologically, including theological and biblical justification of it.  And much can also be said about what comes after we properly identify schismatic thoughts and actions as schism (in brief:  it would fall under the rubric “what comes after you confess your sins?”). I will not address those things here.  I do believe that the validity of this view can be felt, however, as one considers options 2 and 3 of OV 18-23 as examples.  If either option is chosen by the General Synod, every person and every congregation in the RCA will feel it.  On my view, both options are properly categorized as schism.

Option 3 is in my view obviously schism in any sense of the term.  The only additional trouble with it is its ideological language of “grace-filled.”  Aside from the complex problem of whether this sort of a human act can properly be described using the adjective “gracious,” basic cognitive and emotional dissonance is evident on the surface of option 3.  Grace may and does come before and after any separation (thank God), but in my view the only power served by describing the act of separation as “grace-filled” is the self-justifying power of modern Protestant ideology I discussed earlier.

Option 2 is the worst option.  It is worst for four reasons. First, to the extent that it buys into the frame, “the RCA is in conflict,” it addresses the wrong problem.  It would be an action based on, and active within, a false narrative about current reality. It will, however, create another reality that is not false:  further cut-off. In other words, option 2 is a self-fulfilling prophecy. It will create the very problem it seeks to ameliorate. The problem lies on the level of objective spirit, or the relational system.  People will ‘feel’ and be more disconnected from each other than they presently are. They will not be less related to each other in the [family] system, but they will be stuck in highly anxious cut-off for generations.  

The second reason option 2 is the worst option in my view is closely related to the first.  If you do not restructure on the basis of what is real in current reality you will create a structure that is not capable of delivering what you intend or hope for, regardless of what it is you intend or hope for.  If you intend for various groups in the RCA to become institutionalized into “three or more” (as OV 18-23 envisions) bodies, the future perduring existence of three or more bodies might happen, but it will be an outcome of unforeseen future events and not due to their founding institutionalization.  This is true for literally any intended or hoped-for future to the extent that the act of reorganization is based in a false narrative of current reality. The future consequences of actions based in a false narrative of current reality are simply impossible to imagine.  That is my point here. If I hazarded a guess as to the likely outcome of option 2, given everything we know about the un-false narrative of Protestant history and current ideology, I would guess that the most likely future for the reconstituted bodies would be further fragmentation.  Murray Bowen and others have shown us that systems repeat their objective spirit generation to generation unless intentionally intervened-in.

The third reason option 2 is the worst option is related both to the two reasons just stated and to the better version of option 1 I wrote about above.  In my view the trouble in the RCA is not a structural trouble. I have two hypotheses with respect to this. The first is that the current trouble in the RCA is relationship-system trouble and not organization-system trouble.  Another way of stating this is that the current trouble in the RCA is on the level of objective spirit, specifically in the forms of disputed theological beliefs and the systemic energy that carries those disputes, not in the form of organizational rules and structures.  The second hypothesis is that the RCA’s current structure is capable of containing the relational work that needs to be done, as I described in better version of option 1 above.  As I see it, people in the RCA from cut-off echo chambers need to get together. “Radical” restructuring would be further avoidance of that work.  In a word, it would be an intervention at an ineffective place in the system. OV 18-23 misidentifies the site of crisis, and seeks to apply leverage at a different site than the real one.  Option 2 would create a new and separate crisis.

The fourth reason option 2 is the worst option, and to my mind the worst possible option, is that it would be an act of schism as I defined schism above, only with even more cognitive and emotional dissonance than that of option 3.  Option 2 is likely to be described with ideological benign-sounding language like that of, “organizational realignment,” which from a Christian perspective conceals more than it reveals. I take it to be bad enough to do a thing that’s bad.  I take it to be worse to disable yourself from thinking it is bad. I take it to be the worst possible thing to tell yourself it is good. That is the power of ideology in its purest expression: it occludes not just what is normative, but what is real.

Mitigating the Damage In Option 2

The only way I could see option 2 being plausible is if the resultant institutional bodies included in their founding impulse the self-requirement to stay in mediation, remain in active dialogue and on a concrete action-path toward eventual reconciliation and re-union.  Perhaps temporary reorganization in the institutional system could be a way to “turn down the heat” in the relational system sufficient for reconciliatory work to be done that is presently not being done. But, at least in OV 18-23, that vision is not in view. Nothing temporary about the possible restructuring is suggested.  Without temporarity being instituted in the structures themselves, I believe almost no optimistic expectation for resolution is rational. Indeed, frozen irreconciliation appears ‘baked in’ to option 2, as it is envisioned in OV 18-23.

Seeing Clear in 2020? (Part II)

The Rev. Joshua Bode is a guest blogger for this miniseries on the Reformed Church in America’s (RCA) present work to envision a future for itself in the midst of tension.  Josh is an RCA minister who has served a church in upstate New York, been the stated clerk of his classis, and is a former moderator of the RCA General Synod’s Commission on Church Order.  He currently serves as a senior pastor in the Protestant Church in Oman, a church the RCA founded as part of its Global Mission.

Part II:  Reflections on Option 1 and Another Option Not Imagined

Other Options

I see two additional options for the future which are not included in OV 18-23.  Each is more preferable than the three options identified in the synod’s act. The first option is one that, to my mind, is a better version of option 1.  It is an option articulated in an overture to the 2017 General Synod, and which was not tried. I was part of the group that originally drafted that overture.  I reference it here not to cry over spilled milk, but because it helps explicate the rationale in what I am presenting in these posts. This is the overture (I have redacted some parts to avoid digressing):

6. The Classis of Mid-Hudson respectfully overtures the General Synod to instruct its General Synod Council to implement as a matter of its highest priority actions that minister to what is not working in the life both of the RCA and of the General Synod in respect to (1) the breakdown of community in the church and synod, and (2) the consequent cost of that breakdown to processes of governance.

Reasons:

1. The Classis of Mid-Hudson is seeing that the distress of community in the RCA and in the General Synod is the most important and most urgent challenge facing the General Synod today.

2. Reformed assemblies have two basic functions:  koinonia (fellowship, relationship, community) and episcope (oversight, governance).  And the two are deeply related.  The governance function of the assembly works only to the extent that its community is healthy.  Put negatively, to the extent that people do not know each other and do not trust each other, they will not be able to think and work well together.  We see that the General Synod is suffering in its governance capacity because its community is suffering. We believe that this phenomenon is present both in the life of the RCA as a whole and in the life of the synod as an assembly.  We believe the synod has the capacity and responsibility to address both.

3. We see in the life of the RCA as a whole that people and groups are not communicating well between the echo chambers in which we live.  Across the RCA, people are not understanding why others in the church who have perspectives different than their own think what they think and feel what they feel.  People are attributing to others intentions they would never attribute to themselves. The RCA is lacking the means to communicate across lines of difference, to let off steam throughout the year, to make our cases, to make ourselves known to each other.  The cost is a breakdown of trust across the RCA. We note that trusting is different than agreeing. And while agreeing is not a necessary condition for either community or governance, trusting is. . . .

4. . . . .We see in the life of the General Synod assembly a microcosm of the RCA as a whole.  Many delegates come to the synod meeting not knowing each other and not trusting each other.  They have to overcome enormous obstacles to get to workable community. This at a time when the church urgently needs the synod to do governance well.  Yet it is not working well. . . . (MGS 2017, p. 112-113)

I attended the 2017 General Synod as a resource person from the Classis of Mid-Hudson in support of this overture.  In the special advisory committee that considered the overture, I suggested with this overture that the General Synod, and the General Synod alone, has the financial resources, polity authority, polity responsibility, and jurisdiction to do what seems needed at the scale required:  for example, to convene groups of leaders from across the country in in-person dialogues about the issues of division in the RCA. What later occurred within the Council of Synod Executives (COSE) and between leaders from the Gospel Alliance and Room for All are just the sort of events this overture had in mind:  intentional face-to-face crucial conversations about the substance of the tensions between people who are cut off from one another. By many accounts these later meetings began to make real progress toward reconciliation.

The 2017 General Synod declined to pursue the path suggested by this overture, instead exhorting classes and regional synods to hold these kinds of face-to-face conversations.  That exhortation displayed, in my view, a failure to acknowledge that the lines of most acute trouble and [unsurprisingly concomitant] littlest direct personal communication lie not within classes, but between them.  What if the General Synod were to take upon itself to convene dozens of facilitated meetings between key influential leaders drawn from the regions and classes across the RCA? I believe this remains an untried and better version of option 1.  It may be too late at this point. But it remains untried. The reason I believe trying to do so is a better version of option 1 is because I believe that the phenomenon troubling the RCA is in fact not conflict, but distancing.

I see another option not mentioned among the three in OV 18-23.  This option is to me both the most obvious option at present and the only possible option in the long-term.  It is also the most unthought thought in the RCA regarding possible futures for the church. The option to which I am referring is the planful and orderly dissolution of the Reformed Church in America and the disbanding of every local church in its communion, for the sake of the unity of the church.  That last clause is crucial: for the sake of the unity of the church.  This option is not a pragmatic solution to the RCA’s current anxieties.  This option is entirely unrelated to the RCA’s present anxieties, except for the two facts that this moment in time presents a historical occasion for considering it, and that this option is worth considering.

One definition of ideology is that it is a thought-structure which renders certain future possibilities impossible beforehand and which invalidates as a matter of unexaminable assumption certain thoughts in the present.  Given that definition, I take the fact that this option is an unthought thought to be an indication of the total ideological capture of the church by the powers of modern Protestantism, which among other things assume that the continuing existence of Protestant churches is unquestionably both justified and justifiable.  

I think that the continuing existence of Protestant churches is unjustified and unjustifiable, from historical and eschatological perspectives.  The way I understand it historically, the Protestant movement was an existential, confessional and institutional reaction to the perceived abuses of church power in [what would become] Europe in the sixteenth century.  Protestant churches came into being as an emergency response to the crisis. I believe that that crisis no longer exists today, and therefore that the emergency response to it has no legitimacy today. Actually, the more urgent crisis facing the church today is the proliferation of Protestant churches not in communion with each other.  From an eschatological perspective, the church is one, and will be one when the Son finally hands the kingdom over to the Father (I Corinthians 15:24-28). This is the only possible future and only intelligible norm for church unity. Not to consider living into it today is unjustified and unjustifiable.

In Part III I will argue that Options 2 and 3 are tantamount to schism, and, to round out this series, will offer an idea for Option 2 that could mitigate its damage were it pursued.

Seeing Clear in 2020? (Part I)

The Rev. Joshua Bode is a guest blogger for this miniseries on the Reformed Church in America’s (RCA) present work to envision a future for itself in the midst of tension. Josh is an RCA minister who has served a church in upstate New York, been the stated clerk of his classis, and is a former moderator of the RCA General Synod’s Commission on Church Order. He currently serves as a senior pastor in the Protestant Church in Oman, a church the RCA founded as part of its Global Mission. 

Part I:  Introduction and Re-Framing Current Reality

I am currently serving an international Protestant church in the country of Oman.  In this church are Protestants of every conceivable kind from some 60 countries and of at least a hundred denominations (and no denomination).  This experience has allowed me some reflective distance from church in the States as well as a rapid immersive learning in wider perspectives on Protestant Christianity.  From those vantage points I wanted to put down in writing, and share, some thoughts on one aspect of the RCA’s present life. Whether or not readers agree with what follows, my hope, and intention, is that it may be a constructive contribution.

The Reformed Church in America’s 2018 General Synod acted:

OV 18-23

To appoint a 2020 Vision Group to work, in consultation with whatever staff, commissions, councils, agencies, and/or outside consultants the vision group deems necessary, to identify possible scenarios, strategies, and consequences for these future options for the Reformed Church in America:

Staying together

Radical reconstituting and reorganization

Grace-filled separation

This should include, but not be limited to, consideration of one denomination with three or more affinity assemblies within it. Care should be given to the administrative, legal, financial, real estate, and emotional burdens of each option. Any potential new bodies should be identified by what they are “for” rather than what they are “against” and should be consistent with Reformed theology. This should be done in ways that affirm all parties. This must be bathed in denomination-wide, hope-filled prayer that God will show a way.

As the vision group engages these options, its work should include, but not be limited to:

  1. A commitment, as much as is possible, to the unity of the church in its being, spirit, covenantal relationship, mission, and kingdom witness in the world
  2. An understanding regarding the foundational role that biblical hermeneutics and Reformed exegesis play in the life and witness of the church, and a commitment to articulate how those methods are operative in the church’s way forward
  3. An analysis of the role that the RCA’s theology, Standards of Unity, and liturgies play in the present and future life of the church

The vision group will consist of 10-12 members named by the interim general secretary and general secretary, in consultation with GSC, and its makeup should reflect the wide diversity of the Reformed Church in America. The general secretary will serve as an ex-officio member without vote. Expenses for the vision group and any attendant costs, such as consulting or legal feels, will be taken out of GSC reserves, not to exceed $250,000.

The vision group shall present semi-annual reports to the GSC, an interim report to the General Synod of 2019, and a final report with recommendations to the General Synod of 2020. (ADOPTED)

The synod has directed its “20/20 Vision Group” to consider three possible future options for the RCA:

Option 1:  Staying together

Option 2:  Radical reconstituting and reorganization

Option 3:  Grace-filled separation

In this series of blog posts I will do four things in three Parts:  

Part I:  First, I will take a step back and offer a narrative that I believe accurately describes what is currently the reality in the RCA.  The narrative I will offer is a re-framing of the narrative which says that the RCA is experiencing “conflict.” I will also say why I think the re-framing matters.

Part II:  Second, I will lay out what I believe are two additional options not included in OV 18-23, one of which is completely absent from the list of three, and one of which is, in my view, a better version of option 1.  

Part III:  Third, I will explain why I believe that options 2 and 3 are schism (and what I mean by that), and why I believe that option 2 is the worst possible option.  Fourth, I will end with a brief idea about how possibly to mitigate damage in the case that option 2 is taken.

Re-Framing The RCA’s Current Reality

Bowen Family Systems Theory tells us that there are four basic responses to anxiety.   One response is conflict, ranging in severity from persuasion to more familiar expressions of outright conflict.  A second response is distancing, ranging in severity from avoidance of people and subjects that stir up anxiety to cut-off.  A third is over- and under-functioning, where people take responsibility for things they are not responsible for or do not take responsibility for things they are responsible for, respectively.  A fourth response is projection, ranging from ventilating to a third person (called ‘triangling’) to blame projection. While these four responses to anxiety behaviorally look very different from each other, what they have in common is that they are responses to anxiety.

It is customary in the RCA to say that the RCA is “in conflict” or that there “is conflict” in the RCA.  I do not see that. Of the four responses to anxiety, the one that I have personally not much seen at the level of assemblies, governance, or public visibility is conflict.  Very occasionally an unmediated form of conflict does show up in assemblies like the General Synod, but when it does it is almost always in a raw, unproductive way– at best in the form of attempts at persuasion, and very rare.  One thing I believe is that the RCA needs to experience more conflict, and in a facilitated, mediated, potentially productive way.

The main response to anxiety that I observe in the RCA is not conflict, but distancing.  There is much cut-off. I also observe lots of the fourth response, in the forms of triangulation and blame projection.  I take speechifying in governance assemblies, preaching, and voting to be forms of distancing. The re-framing of the RCA’s current reality that I am suggesting is that the RCA is primarily suffering from behavioral distancing, avoidance and cut-off, and secondarily from echo-chamber-triangulation and blame-projection.  I am comfortable saying that what the RCA needs is not less conflict, but more and better conflict, in a potentially-productive way.

I hear folks in the RCA say they are “tired of fighting.”  I perceive in that phrase a self-description (“I am tired”) and a system-description (“of fighting”).  I believe the self-description but do not believe the system-description. I do believe that folks are exhausted by the way they have been showing up.  I do not believe that most people in the RCA have been fighting. To repeat: in my view most people in the RCA have in fact been avoiding the people they perceive to be the source of their anxiety.  Instead, most people have been choosing to ventilate to like-minded people in their own echo chambers and to cast blame on people from whom they are cut off. This dual behavior indeed is exhausting. It produces only more anxiety, which takes increasingly enormous energy to carry.  

In Part II I will offer reflection on Option 1 and describe another option not listed among the three options outlined by the General Synod in OV 18-23