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