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

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.

What is the General Synod Council

The General Synod Council is established by and responsible to the General Synod. It shall act as the executive committee of the General Synod and it shall administer the affairs of the Reformed Church in America between the sessions of the General Synod. It shall implement decisions, policies, and programs of the General Synod through proper channels and agencies. It shall support, strengthen, and coordinate the work of the several commissions, boards, institutions, and agencies of the Reformed Church in America, thus seeking to increase the effectiveness of the mission and witness of the church.

BCO, 1.IV.7.1

Brief History

The General Synod Council (GSC) finds its origins in the 1990s with the merger of the General Program Council (GPC) and the General Synod Executive Committee (GSEC).

The 1960s was a significant decade for the Reformed Church, as it was a significant decade for the United States. Growing frustration with the federation of boards led to a desire to better coordinate the work and program of the Reformed Church. During this decade, two new bodies were created. The first, in 1961, was GSEC, an executive committee of the General Synod to coordinate the work of the various boards and to “implement all the actions and decisions and policies of the General Synod.” (MGS 1961, p. 272). Not long after, in 1967, the General Synod approved the merger of the Boards of North American Missions, World Missions, and Education with the Stewardship Council to create a single program arm of the Reformed Church, the GPC.

The GPC and GSEC were designed to work alongside one another, and sometimes to act as a counterbalance to the other. It was fitting for these to be separate bodies, after all, they were very different. While GPC dealt with program, GSEC primarily dealt with church. While today we tend to conflate them with little understanding of the difference between church and program, there is a significant difference. These two bodies would also, at times, have different goals and tensions would have to be worked through.

About three decades later, in 1991, the Ad Hoc Committee on Services, Structures, and Funding in the Reformed Church in America argued that these two bodies were inefficient and that there were redundancies and proposed a single body that would incorporate these two very different functions. This would be called the General Synod Council (GSC). This change was adopted into the church order in 1993.

The Function of the GSC

The Government gives three specific responsibilities to the GSC,

(a) “It shall act as the executive committee of the General Synod and it shall administer the affairs of the Reformed Church in America between the sessions of the General Synod.”

(b) “It shall implement decisions, policies, and programs of the General Synod through proper channels and agencies.”

(c) “It shall support, strengthen, and coordinate the work of the several commissions, boards, institutions, and agencies of the Reformed Church in America, thus seeking to increase the effectiveness of the mission and witness of the church. “

“shall act as the executive committee”

The General Synod is a sizable assembly, and convening the General Synod is costly and takes a significant amount of time and work to make it possible. Particularly as the General Synod had begun supervising a large denominational apparatus (the denominational program: currently ‘Transformed and Transforming’), it is not possible for the General Synod to supervise and oversee that adequately. Indeed, the main expressed reason for the creation of an executive committee in the first place is to help coordinate the various ministries of the various constituent boards of the General Synod (MGS 1961, p. 271).

By the creation of an executive committee, the General Synod authorized this new body to act in specific ways on behalf of the General Synod, but always accountable to it. It did not work independently of the General Synod but always in its name. The executive committee receives its mandate, responsibility, constraints, and authority from the General Synod itself. This also contains a somewhat peculiar line, “it shall administer the affairs of the Reformed Church in America between the sessions of the General Synod.” This has led some to the mistaken belief that the GSC is somehow ‘the General Synod’ between sessions. This is certainly not the case.

In no way does the GSC adopt the authority of the General Synod during the 51 weeks (excepting a special session) when the General Synod is not in session. The GSC is responsible for keeping the lamps burning, so to speak. If there is a legal issue that arises, it is the responsibility of the GSC to handle that. If there is a sudden and pressing financial issue, it is the responsibility of the GSC to manage that. The GSC is to oversee the denominational program which supports the church.

I think of the children’s book, Keep the Lights Burning, Abbie, in which a lighthouse keeper had to leave to get needed supplies and charged his daughter with tending the light, keeping the light burning. It wasn’t her place to decide to stop tending the light in the lighthouse, to relocate the lighthouse, the build another lighthouse. Her responsibility was to keep the light burning. Similarly, the GSC is charged with keeping the light burning. It charges the GSC with maintaining that which the General Synod has put into motion. Nothing more, and nothing less.

The General Synod is the assembly–the GSC is not.

“shall implement decisions, policies, and programs of the General Synod”

Ever since the genesis of GSEC, it was never intended to simply coordinate the denominational program, but also that it would be a body that would implement the decisions and actions of the General Synod (MGS 1961, p. 272).

The General Synod makes all sorts of decisions. Perhaps it will make a decision regarding the denominational program. It should make decisions regarding the church. Perhaps it may direct its stated clerk to write a letter to the President of the United States to express a viewpoint, perhaps it will seek closer ecumenical ties with other church communions, perhaps it will decide to enter the world of interfaith work with earnestness, or perhaps it will decide something as it did during Apartheid in South Africa and decide to divest thence. The entire synodical assembly is not able to carry out the details of implementation, it is so impractical to be nearly impossible for the synodical assembly to do this. This responsibility, then, falls to the GSC.

As the General Synod is the assembly and not the GSC, the GSC is not so much a check and balance on the General Synod as it is the synod’s workhorse. The GSC is charged with navigating the practicalities to turn the decision of the General Synod into a reality. The GSC, then, is charged with following directions.

Note the prescriptive language, “shall.” This means that the GSC does not have an option. It cannot decide that it does not like a decision or agree with it. The Synod is able to make bad decisions, and it often does. It is not the GSC’s responsibility to try to “fix” a wrong decision, it is their responsibility to carry out the directives that it receives. While the order is often reversed in the minds of the church, the GSC exists and works for the General Synod. The General Synod does not work for (or exist for) the GSC.

“shall support, strengthen, and coordinate”

This harkens back to one of the presenting reasons for the creation of an executive committee in the first place: support and coordination. Even with the merger of these two bodies with different foci, this responsibility still remains.

It is worth noting, however, that the GSC is to “support, strengthen, and coordinate,” not direct. That is, the commissions, boards, agencies, &c. of the General Synod do not report to the GSC and they are not to take direction from the GSC. The GSC has no authority over the decisions that they make. The Commissions, boards, and agencies are accountable directly to the General Synod.

While these other bodies do, at times, defer to the GSC, this is out of courtesy only and in no way out of duty or obligation.

Conclusion

Certainly, the GSC is an important body in the life of the Reformed Church. However, it is not in charge of the Reformed Church, nor does it oversee the Reformed Church, nor does it have broad and undefined powers. While the GSC has been expanding its understanding of its own role for years, and the General Synod has been all too compliant in the GSC’s accumulation of power, simply because something has been a particular way doesn’t mean that it must–or should–remain.