What General Synod Decided, Why It Was Bad, and How Bad It Was

A few days ago, the Reformed Church in America concluded its annual assembly, the General Synod.

The above image nicely conveys the result.

What has always been the best thing for me about synod continues to be what gives me joy: the deepening of old relationships and forging of new ones with gifted and loving colleagues.

But this synod will be remembered for three decisions that, from my perspective, were very poor. Indeed, they were deeply bad decisions.

In the wake of those decisions, social media lit up Monday evening. And as the blaze has continued even as I write this, I have seen a number of replies from people who were not at synod asking, “What’s going on?” Just this morning a friend of mine called me to ask for details.

After all, it isn’t easy to intuit the underlying specifics when all you read is lament, protest, and expressions of profound loss.

Many people also are asking, “What does this mean?” Because it really isn’t clear what these decisions do. We know it’s bad. But how bad is it?

Here I will describe each of those three bad decisions, and I will say why they are bad. I will also try to indicate the degree to which they are bad decisions, and suggest that they may not mean the imminent demise of the RCA — although they may have made its eventual demise more certain.

I will not describe the origin of these decisions. The question of how we got here (the convening of a “Special Council,” etc.) has been thoroughly covered elsewhere. Answering that question is not of immediate help in my intended task in this post, and that is to explain what Synod actually decided and why those decisions are regrettable.

Decision 1: Liturgy

The first of these bad decisions was to make the 2002 marriage liturgy “constitutional.”

R 16-43 – Approved

To adopt the “Order for Christian Marriage” that was approved and commended for use in the church by the 2002 General Synod (MGS 2002, pp. 181-192) for recommendation to the classes for approval as part of the Liturgy of the Reformed Church in America.

What this means is that the classes will vote on whether to include this particular order of worship for a wedding service in our collection of liturgies that are part of our constitution. If enough of them do, then it will.

Why this liturgy? Quite simply, it’s because it contains this sentence: “Christian marriage is a joyful covenanting between a man and a woman.” This is important to some because it describes marriage as taking place between a man and a woman. And so it appears (again, to some) to define marriage in a way that would exclude a similar covenanting between two women or two men.

Why make it part of the RCA’s constitution? The reason why is that it appears (to some) to make binding upon ministers the above affirmation in this liturgy, that marriage is (properly?) between a man and a woman, excluding unions of same-sex couples. And this is important because then there would be a way, it is thought, for a disciplinary action to be brought against a Reformed Church minister who officiates at such a service.

There are a few reasons why this is a bad decision.

First, R 16-43 (the decision) makes the whole marriage liturgy “constitutional.” But the intent is really to enshrine and to make binding only one part of that liturgy, the part that says “Christian marriage is a joyful covenanting between a man and a woman.” But because R 16-43 does not specify this (how could it?), and because intent usually does not easily remain attached to church law, then this decision appears to suggest (although it really doesn’t, as we shall see) that ministers must use this marriage liturgy without alteration. And that is patently ridiculous.

Are ministers really supposed to tell their pre-marriage counselees that they must use these prayers, and vows, and blessings, and scriptures, excluding all others?

Second, to include a marriage liturgy, and I mean any marriage liturgy, in The Constitution of the Reformed Church in America advances the clearly un-Reformed notion that marriage is somehow essential to the church, that it in some way “constitutes” us. But marriage is not part of the essence of the church. It is not one of those things that constitutes the church. Only those things constitute the church that are given by Christ to create, sustain, nurture, and discipline the church: the means of grace, Word and sacrament, by which Christ joins us to himself and feeds us. To make marriage another of these “marks of the church” would be to make a sacrament of marriage and to make lesser citizens of single persons.

Third, making this liturgy constitutional would, by itself, be unenforceable. Just because an order of worship or a liturgy is included (by the constitutional process of approval by the classes) in The Liturgy does not in itself make its use mandatory. What makes use of a liturgy mandatory is a statement in the Book of Church Order (BCO) requiring its use. This goes for the liturgies for communion, baptism, ordination, and installation. For each of these acts of worship, there is a provision in the BCO requiring the use of a constitutional liturgical form. Yet this synod did not send to the classes any such proposed change to the BCO. Without it, the marriage liturgy, if made part of the constitution, would in effect be just a specimen. (h/t Daniel Meeter)

Besides, as I said earlier, it isn’t really this liturgy that others want binding, but only one sentence of it.

So, if it is without force, how would this change solve anything? Before long, won’t we still be on the verge of schism anyway?

Decision 2: Order

The second bad decision on these matters came in approval of “R 16-16 (Second Substitute).” This sends to the classes for approval a change to our order adding to the requirements of the consistory in providing services of worship the following:

  1. The consistory or governing body shall assure that marriages solemnized in a church or congregation are between a man and a woman.

This action would put into the BCO a requirement that consistories make sure that no weddings other than those between heterosexual couples are taking place in their churches or congregations.

Yes, I have problems with this, too.

Let me start with a point worthy of the most annoying grammar pedants (like me). “Assure” is a transitive verb, which means that it requires a direct object. In the proposed change, “assure” is incorrectly used without a direct object.

(I told you I was annoying.)

BysHTBlIMAE_lYL.jpg

But this grammatical error indicates a deeper problem with the proposed change. Who or what body is the consistory/governing body to “assure”? Are they to assure the classis? Their members? The General Synod Council? Tom DeVries? Themselves?

Or perhaps “ensure” is the proper word. But that doesn’t really solve the problem. It still is not clear who or what body is to receive the word from some elders and deacons to the effect of, “Nope, no gay weddings here” or “Oops, we did it again.”

But actually it is certain who is to be assured. Because the consistory’s requirements in providing services of worship are one of the things the classis is to ask about each year: “Does the consistory or governing body provide for worship, including the celebration of the sacraments, in accordance with the requirements of Chapter I, Part I, Article 2, Section 11 of the Book of Church Order?”

In other words, the classis is already supposed to ask each consistory about whether they follow the requirements concerning worship as laid out in the BCO. Adding the requirement concerning “assuring” that no “gay-marriages” are performed would mean that this, too, would be among the things reported yea or nay to the classis.

But only as bundled with other items. A consistory would not be able to say, “We’re good with everything except the gay weddings” just as there’s no way currently for them to report “Thumbs up on almost all items, but we never use the baptism liturgy.” It really is all or nothing.

If a consistory does say “No” to this annual question, it’s up to the classis whether to issue a follow-up and ask the ministers or the elder delegate for more information. But there is no requirement for them to do so. And if they do, it might not go anywhere.

In the end of all such scenarios, the classis would need to be concerned enough about this issue to pursue it. Some classes would not. And those that would, do they really need this change to the BCO in order to discipline pastors who officiate at weddings not deemed acceptable?

Yet my deepest problem with this proposed change are these: it takes out of the hands of the consistory, and particularly the board of elders, their proper authority to decide a matter of pastoral significance; and it binds the consciences of deacons, elders, and ministers in a matter very much in dispute, biblically and theologically.

Such overreach by the 2016 General Synod is based on a faulty understanding of the authority of General Synod. It is grounded in a false and untenable separation of cultural, ethical, and personal matters from biblical and theological matters, with the former assigned to classes and consistories and the latter given to the General Synod. And it was advanced on the floor of synod with flimsy and tendentious interpretations of scripture, biblical ignorance parading as biblical knowledge, and a piously dressed anti-intellectualism.

One good thing is that this bad decision was affirmed by only 59% of those voting. This gives me hope that it will not get the necessary support of 2/3 of the classes.

But if it does not, what will the purists do next year?

Decision 3: Spirit, Assemblies, and Office

The third bad decision of the 2016 General Synod was a decision not to approve something.

James Brumm offered the following truly brilliant and entirely praiseworthy motion:

To declare that the General Synod of 2016, trusting in the sovereignty of God and the power of the Holy Spirit to work in and through all assemblies of the RCA, affirms the authority of every classis over the formation and care of all churches and ministers within its bounds, and the local authority of every consistory over the worship and life of the congregation entrusted by God to its care.

Understand, there is nothing objectionable here. At least, there shouldn’t be, if we’re talking about the Reformed Church. A distinctive affirmation of the Reformed tradition (but not exclusive to it) is that the Holy Spirit does indeed choose to work, not only through inspired individuals, but also through assemblies. Moreover, the RCA, with other Reformed and Presbyterian modies, has affirmed that the Spirit’s activity is not limited only to the “highest” assembly but is given, graciously, to all, even to the consistory. It’s also deeply part of our church order (which is biblically and theologically grounded) that classes do have authority over the formation an care of their churches and ministers, and that the consistories have authority over the worship and life of their own congregations.

These are not in dispute.

Or, they shouldn’t be.

But apparently they are.

This General Synod showed that most delegates don’t accept historic Reformed convictions about the Holy Spirit, the means of grace, and the nature of the church that are grounded in our confessions.

That’s appalling.

The one bright spot is that only a slim majority of those voting, 52%, rejected this motion. Which perhaps means that things are not so far gone as it might have appeared.

From Here

I suggested this above: there’s no guarantee that anything has really changed, or even will change. I believe that it is uncertain that the change to the Liturgy will be approved by 2/3 of the classes, and that it is unlikely that the change to the order will get such approval.

If either of them does get approved, I don’t see how this will really satisfy the purists, some of whom really want, it seems, to purge the RCA of LGBTQ persons and, especially, their allies among the clergy.

And if either of them does not get approved, then it becomes highly likely that all those purist ministers and congregations who, prior to this Synod, were threatening to bolt if things didn’t go their way will be threatening the same thing next year. There may be no stopping them.

Last year’s GS president set in motion the process that led to this result. It’s the gift that keeps giving.

Commission on Theology Presentation

27616110806_a2fcc2f603_z

My remarks in presenting the report of the Commission on Theology to the 2016 General Synod of the Reformed Church in America; June 13, 2016.

 

Thank you, Mr. President.

The Commission on Theology exists to serve the General Synod, and thereby the church, by reflecting theologically on matters of interest or concern to the RCA. Those two things lie at the heart of what we do: serving the Synod, and theological reflection. And it is those two things that members of the commission take delight in doing.

But what is theological reflection? What should it do?

Some say it’s about giving answers. Others say it’s about asking questions.

Some say it’s about stating eternal truths. Others say it’s about responding to the moment.

Some describe the work of theology as a passing on of what has been received. Others say it’s a fresh act of expression.

Some see it as a divine gift. Some understand it as a human work.

Theological reflection may be all of these, and more. Or, at times, perhaps none of them.

Often, theology finds that it cannot say definitively what something is. It has to be content with saying what it is like, and what it is not. But the “is” sometimes eludes theology. Karl Barth said that the work of Christian theology is like painting a bird in flight. The painter can’t capture the flying of the bird, but only suggest it. Theological reflection often must humbly recognize its limits, as the reality of God transcends those limits, and “the finite cannot comprehend the infinite.” God is infallible, but theology and theological reflection are not.

So those who serve through theological reflection often find that the best they can do is place some rough boundary markers, or plant some tent poles, that mark a territory in which a variety of faithful Christian witness and practice can all reasonably exist.

This happened in the fifth century, when the ecumenical Council of Chalcedon wrestled with the mystery of how the two natures of the Lord Jesus Christ should be understood. Jesus is divine. Jesus is human. But how, exactly? Rather than a very specific formula that spelled out exactly how, the bishops in Chalcedon instead sketched a territory that said what was “out” without being too clear about what was “in.” They did that with a series of negative statements: Christ is (quoting now) “recognized in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation.”

I believe that Chalcedon has something to teach us about theological reflection, including the theological reflection that the Commission on Theology does in service to the General Synod. And it is this: rather than issuing pronouncements that purport to settle all questions and solve all mysteries, perhaps what we ought to try doing more often is to sketch the boundaries of Christian witness on difficult issues, including human sexuality.

That might not be satisfying to some. A number of my brothers and sisters in the RCA appear to yearn for short, definitive statements that can then be placed on the web site, easily quoted, and thereafter used in disciplinary and judicial actions.

But here’s the thing: the biblical, theological, pastoral, ethical, and scientific realities resist the formulation of such pronouncements.

Yet if not short statements, it’s fairly clear that the church doesn’t want lengthy statements, either. In truth, most papers of this commission and others are read by very few who are not delegates … and perhaps by not all of the delegates. As my friend Matthew van Maasstricht put it, “The Minutes of the General Synod are where good papers go to die.”

At the 2013 General Synod, the delegates were debating a motion to direct the Commission on Theology to write something on human sexuality. And some of the language used in overtures and advisory committee reasons and floor discussion anticipated a “comprehensive paper” on human sexuality.

A “comprehensive paper.” On this topic. Help me out here: Isn’t that a book?

I’m no pessimist. But anyone who expects that such a lengthy treatment on this topic by the Commission on Theology would be widely read is far more optimistic than I.

Serving the Synod through theological reflection is the task and joy of this commission. Last year we presented “The Word Became Flesh: Setting the Context for the Church’s Discussion of Issues Involving Sexuality.” It was a theological statement on human sexuality focused on what we in the RCA affirm, unwittingly antitipating what General Secretary Tom De Vries said in his report on Friday, “What unites is far greater than what divides us.” It was the hope of the members of this commission that we in the RCA can be better prepared for difficult conversations about our differences as we first state what we have in common.

We intended “The Word Became Flesh” as a first step, to be followed by another, (sorry) more “comprehensive” paper. But two things led us to reconsider, and, in reconsidering, to ask this Synod for more direction.

First, we all knew that the Special Council would be meeting. None of us could anticipate what exactly the Special Council would produce. So we couldn’t anticipate what work the delegates of this synod would have to do here in response to the Special Council. We believed that a paper from us would either distract from your work of processing the recommendations of the Special Council or be swallowed up in all that work. We were concerned that it would be viewed as conflicting with the Special Council report. It was clear to us that a new paper on sexuality sent by us to this synod would not help the synod but rather make its work much more difficult.

In the end, the members of the Commission felt it best to place ourselves, in a sense, under the “Season of Restraint” that last year’s Synod implored of assemblies and office bearers, and so decline to offer a report at this time.

But to be honest, and with regret, we do not know what the Synod would like us to do, if anything. We thought that last year’s paper was good and helpful. But we do not know how helpful the Synod found it to be, nor do we know what was lacking in it that would require another paper.

For these reasons, the Commission on Theology has suspended its work on the topic of human sexuality until the General Synod gives it more specific direction.

Even as we stand ready to respond to such direction, we continue working on topics that have been assigned to us (these are noted in the written report in the workbook), and we will eagerly take up the items assigned to us by this Synod.

It is joyful work. Scripture teaches us neither to fear work nor to worship it, but rather to take on the work God gives us as a response to God’s great love for us.

As I and the other commission members anticipate that work, I am reminded of the words of John Henry Newman:

May [God] support us all the day long, till the shades lengthen, and the evening comes, and the busy world is hushed, and the fever of life is over, and our work is done! Then in [God’s] mercy may [God] give us a safe lodging, and a holy rest, and peace at the last.

Mr. President, this concludes my report.

Worship, Consumerism, and Music

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. (1 Peter 2:9–10)

What is the church for?

I worry that many church people feel that the church is there mainly to meet their needs and to satisfy their preferences. They are consumers expecting a product of value. They want that product packaged and delivered to them in ways that make it easy for them to consume the product. The product has to meet their expectations and standards, in this case, with church, typically revolving around values of comfort and familiarity. And when the product does not meet those expectations and standards, the consumer will complain or quietly go elsewhere. Perhaps, just as quietly, they’ll leave but never arrive anywhere else.

Music can be understood in a similar way. Because “music” is itself often understood as a product to consume or an experience to receive. Music, as a receptive experience, might fit so well with the consumerist mentality of modern churchgoers and churchgoing. Indeed, the many varieties of music one can readily find and enjoy, live or on CDs or streamed over the Net, might be understood as a worthy parallel to the many varieties of worship one can “consume” in many places. You don’t like this one? You’ve grown tired of that one? Well, just switch to another. Or turn off the player for a while.

Clearly, I don’t think this is an ideal perspective on the church. And I’m not entirely satisfied with it as an understanding of music, either. Because it overlooks the reality that truly experiencing great music is, to some extent, to be captured by it. Great music (of any genre) sets its own terms. Yes, it is experienced, and received, and to that extent somehow “consumed.” But part of the delight we get from great music is how it rubs against our expectations and even our comfort. The hope for any musician is that people will sit up and notice the music, which has in that moment become more than background sound meshing comfortably with the activity of ordinary life.

Another thing about music is that, as an activity, it does not have only listeners but also composers and performers. All three aspects make up the experience of music: composition, performance, and audition. For all forms of music, performers must also be listeners if the music is to “work.” Learning how to play music often makes one a better listener. And for some forms the line between composer and performer can become quite blurred, to beautiful effect.

The church does not exist as a producer of religious services to be consumed. The church is gathered by Christ to bring glory to God through its work together. Within it there are not producers and consumers, performers and listeners, with strict pew-shaped lines dividing them. Rather, all those in the church are to be contributing to the music. They are all performers and listeners. Perhaps they’re all composers, too, although if so then they are composing with an ear toward a fundamental, eternal melody that has taken shape in time. Or maybe it’s in concert with a divine cantus firmus sung through the ages, which all these lesser composers take up and embellish upon as they are given to do by their generous Lord.

What song is God giving you to sing?

Worship Alone and Together

 

Worship the Lord with gladness; come into his presence with singing. (Psalm 100:2)

Let everything that breathes praise the Lord! Praise the Lord! (Psalm 150:6)

I want to offer a word in support of worship.

Of course, I’m probably preaching to the choir. If you’re reading this, then you probably already agree with what I’ll say. You find worship meaningful and important. You attend public worship regularly, perhaps even every week, and you pray regularly.

But maybe you don’t, and this article was passed to you by a concerned friend, who wonders why you don’t “go to church.”

Either way, I want to speak up for worship. Because I think worship is important. I think it’s wonderful. I think it’s beautiful. I think worship makes Sunday complete. I think it makes the week complete.

Except, when it doesn’t. Because sometimes, worship isn’t so wonderful. Sometimes worship is boring, or irrelevant, or infuriating. Sometimes in worship we feel excluded or misunderstood. Sometimes worship is clunky, and sometimes it’s stuffy.

It’s important that I (with my vested interested in worship) acknowledge that public worship sometimes isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be, by me and others like me.

Yet even as I acknowledge that actual services of public worship can suffer from many flaws, I cannot accept that it’s better to stay home. And I especially cannot accept that oft-repeated excuse, “I can worship just as well by myself.”

I do think it’s an excuse. And a pretty lazy one, too! Besides, it’s only partly true. Because I am quite certain that the only ones who really do engage in worship better alone than with others are those who regularly do both. They have become good at worship, both alone and with others. They know how to pray. The have learned enough scripture and hymns so their worship has shape and direction. They have become disciplined in turning off the noise in their heads, or at least in directing it toward prayer that is somewhat focused. These are disciplines that are almost never learned all alone, by someone who has rarely set foot in a church sanctuary. And they are hardly ever cultivated sufficiently past the point of basic competence (and thus enjoyment) by those who never attempt any private forms of devotion and worship.

The two kinds of praise work together: the private worship and the public worship, so that each of them helps the other. And without one, the other will have less benefit for the worshiper, and indeed is less likely even to take place. Without public worship, private devotions are shallow, uninformed, and narcissistic, if they happen at all. Without private worship, Sunday morning worship is awkward, inauthentic, and unsatisfying, if it is attended at all.

So I encourage you to cultivate both kinds of worship in your life. Give time to prayer and scripture as a regular personal habit, thus deepening your experience of private worship. And make a priority of your regular attendance at public worship, eager to lend your voice to the praise of God with your fellow worshipers.

Open wide?

The following was from my sermon on July 14. The Gospel reading was the parable of the good Samaritan, Luke 10:25-37.

Every once in a while, I hear someone ask whether a program will bring new people to our church. Almost as often, I hear someone ask whether making the church’s facilities available to outsiders will result in our church growing.

There’s something backwards about this thinking. Or maybe it’s just that something is missing. You see, churches don’t grow because their buldings are open. They grow when their hearts are open. If you want the church to grow, don’t look first at your buildings. Rather, look first at your hearts.

But when our buildings are closed, unavailable to the community, I have to ask whether that reflects an inward reality. I have to wonder

if closed buildings mean closed hearts,
if unavailable facilities mean that we are unavailable,
if limited outreach means limited concern,
if inactivity on the outside means inactivity on the inside.

I have to question whether our understanding of “neighbor” is woefully limited, un-expanded by encounter with the merciful Good Samaritan, the ultimate Stranger who became Neighbor, Jesus Christ our Lord.

My Foray into Distance Learning

Last week, I turned in the final grades for the seminary course I was teaching. Distance learning semesters are different from what you may have known. This was the “Winter Semester,” and began Nov. 4 and ended March 9. Which is why I have not added anything to this blog since October!

You see, teaching a master’s level course is a lot of work. And teaching a distance learning course is, well, a lot of work.

But it’s all worth it.

Continue reading “My Foray into Distance Learning”