What Happened at the RCA General Synod?
As the usual, this year’s Synod, which met in Pella, Iowa June 20-25, 2013, tackled a wide array of topics, from the mundane to the controversial to the political. You can read about the way our Synod works and about some of main issues facing this year’s body in my earlier post. You may also want to consult the RCA site for its summary of Synod and check out this helpful page which shows how Synod voted on 87 recommendations.
There is much I could mention and comment on from this year’s Synod (my friend and fellow pastor Ben Kappers has posted a fuller summary here). Let me simply highlight four of the most important areas. The last three areas pose particular problems for conservatives in the denomination.
What happened? The Synod adopted a set of strategic goals called “Transformed and Transforming: Radically Following Christ in Mission Together.”
What’s the background? In 2003, the Synod adopted a series of decade long initiatives under the banner “Our Call.” “Transformed and Transforming” is to focus our agenda for the next 15 years now that Our Call has expired (so to speak).
What’s the take home? For good and bad, the RCA is fully committed to a missional agenda. This is good in that we are trying to plant churches, be active in the world, and look outside ourselves. This emphasis is also troubling at times because the view of the mission of the church is overly expansive (e.g., lowering unemployment), the theology of the kingdom is not very careful, and the strategic goals are so broad as to have room for a multitude of interpretations and applications.
What happened? Congregations now have to report on how they are being shaped by the Belhar Confession. Every year, RCA consistories have to answer questions about the vitality and commitments of the church. To date, the only question about our confessional standards as been a line about teaching the points of the doctrine in the Heidelberg Catechism. Now churches will be asked “How have the Belhar Confession and its principles of unity, reconciliation, and justice shaped your congregational life and witness?” (R-27). There are no specific requirements for congregations teaching or being shaped by the Belgic Confession or Canons of Dort.
What’s the background? In 2010 the RCA added a fourth confessional standard, the Belhar Confession, which comes out of South Africa’s struggle with apartheid in the 1980s. Some in the denomination, and I am one of them, did not support the addition of Belhar, both because of specific assertions that are problematic and because the three big categories of unity, justice, and reconciliation are easily co-opted by liberal agendas (see also this interaction from Todd Billings).
What’s the take home? The RCA has typically held its confessionalism loosely. But Belhar is getting a bigger platform and becoming more central in the life of the denomination. Already, ministers making ordination or installation vows must consider whether they can subscribe to Belhar in good conscience. Now congregations are being asked to make this new confession an important part of their identity. How can one be committed to a confessional denomination when it adds a confession you didn’t vote for?
What happened? R-83 was adopted: “To acknowledge that in 2012 we, the General Synod, in the proceedings that led to the adoption of R-28, demonstrated a lack of decorum and civility, and a general atmosphere in which delegates were not always treating one another as sisters and brothers in Christ; and further, to acknowledge that in 2012 we, the General Synod, usurped the constitutional authority reserved for the classes when, in R-28, we stated that “any person, congregation, or assembly which advocates homosexual behavior or provides leadership for a service of same-sex marriage or a similar celebration has committed a disciplinable offense.”
What’s the background? In 2012, the Synod passed a very strong statement on homosexuality (R-28). This produced a significant push back from progressives in the denomination. This year’s Synod apologized for last year’s Synod and declared that the guts of last year’s declaration was illegitimate.
What else happened? Two of the three recommendations from the “Way Forward Task Force” were approved. The most significant recommendation was not. The first recommendation asking for clarity from the Commission on Church Order about the nature of General Synod pronouncements was approved. The third recommendation calling for “grace-filled conversations” and resources to help “preserve unity, purity, and peace” regarding homosexuality was approved. The second recommendation was to initiate an investigation into wholesale polity changes which would have likely resulted in some clear direction as to whether we can agree to disagree on homosexuality or whether we will hold each other accountable across the denomination. The most controversial part of the recommendation was an open door at the end of this process for churches and ministers to leave the denomination “without recrimination.” This second recommendation was defeated.
Anything else related to homosexuality? A paper on “Moral Discernment”, arising out of disagreements about homosexualty with our Formula of Agreement partners (the UCC, PCUSA, and ELCA), was commended for study and use in the denomination. The paper concluded that “Shared affirmations of Christ’s lordship do not in themselves guarantee consensus on particular moral judgments; our disagreements can be real, substantive, and painful. Yet we believe that dialogue concerning our ecumenical differences in the context of our common confession and Scriptures can be an occasion for God to lead the whole church more deeply toward living into our radical confession of Christ’s lordship.”
Anything else? R-81 was adopted: “To instruct the Commission on Theology to draft a paper on human sexuality from a Reformed perspective to be presented to General Synod 2015.”
Are you missing anything? The case involving the ordination and installation of Ursilla Cargill, a practicing lesbian, was remanded to the Regional Synod of the Mid-Atlantics where they will reconsider the case of the appellants (R-59).
What’s at stake? A lot. On every front, conservatives lost ground on the issue of homosexuality. Instead of trying to strengthen our resolve, the RCA backpedaled. Instead of making up our minds after thirty years of dialogue, the denomination has called for more conversations and another study committee. There is little doubt how this will end up. Progressives do not stop calling for dialoge until their side is accepted, and eventually mandated (see below). In the meantime, the Regional Synod of Mid-Atlantics will surely uphold the ordination of Ms. Cargill (they already sided with the classis once). The formal position of the RCA on homosexuality is being weakened and the informal position, we will soon discover, is that classes can ordain whom they wish without fear of disciplinary action.
What happened? The “conscience clauses” relative to women’s ordination were removed from the Book of Church Order.
What’s the background? The clauses were added in 1980 to maintain peace and unity in the denomination given the diversity of opinion on women’s ordination. Over the past three decades, as the RCA has become overwhelmingly egalitarian, the clauses mainly protected the consciences of complementarians who did not agree with women in office. In 2012, General Synod voted to remove the clauses, a move later approved by a required two-thirds of the classes (31 out of 45). This year’s Synod ratified the decision and officially removed the conscience clauses.
What’s at stake? It’s hard to know for sure. Presently there are no quotas forcing churches to ordain women, but clearly removing the clauses spells trouble for complementarians. 1) Some conservative students are already blackballed for their views on women’s ordination. Removing constitutional protections makes their ordination process even more difficult. 2) Our ministerial vows make clear that we will conduct our work according to the Book of Church Order. Now that the BCO affirms women’s ordination (which it has for years) without an explicit allowance for those who disagree (what just changed), it remains to be seen where complementarians can make their vows in good faith. 3) Ministers who refuse to participate in the ordination of women open themselves up to the possibility of discipline.