The Other Synod
After a long day of advisory committee work at the CRCNA Synod the last thing I probably should do now is talk about the Synod I’m not at, the Synod or the RCA, but oh well.
The RCA does things differently than the CRC and the Synod President has a longer, more significant term than does the CRC Synod president. Greg gave an important speech and proposal at his Synod hoping to resolve the questions surrounding sexual minorities and the life of the church. Here’s the news piece and the speech itself.
I don’t know Greg well but I’ve worked with him a bit in the joint CRC/RCA work that we’ve done in Sacramento. I knew he was working on a major speech on this subject but today is my first chance to see what he is proposing.
A Church Council
He’s proposing that the RCA designate a church council in 2016 to chart a path forward on this issue. The RCA, far more than the CRC has been wrangling with this issue for a long time. Last year at our joint synod some delegates sported rainbows on their name tag holders. This Synod a variety of overtures on the matter. The purpose of the proposed council seems to be in one fell swoop resolve this so that the church can move on with other things rather than having this subject perpetually occupy the energies of classes and synods. Could it work?
Denominations and Pluralism
Denominations are the Western church’s response to pluralism. Denominations attempt to bring clarity and organization to divisions on issues that at one point in time a church community believed were foundational. An example in the CRC is the split off of the URC over women serving in church office. The CRC itself did so from the RCA in the 19th century.
If you look at these splits one of the things you notice right away is that it is easier to maintain discipline over a practice if you are the group leaving. Those leaving may have a host of other disagreements but the one issue that motivates the split is what gets codified in the departing faction and becomes a foundation for the new denomination or in the URC case federation. This discipline can last for generations. For URC the one sure way to prevent women in leadership was to start an organization with its identity grounded in this commitment.
It is more difficult, however, if you want to insure uniformity on an already divisive issue to purge from a denomination a dissenting minority. Part of this is because even with an issue like same sex marriage there are never simply those who are for or against. There is always a group in the middle that might lean one way or the other but who are quite content allowing both parties to remain. They have friends, family, properties and relationships at stake and such a divorce is painful and messy. You almost always have a majority who will be against the purge making consistent, long term enforcement nearly impossible.
Greg pretty clearly states his traditional position on the matter. When you propose such a thing right away both sides quickly look at the possible constituency of such a council, assuming that the process would change few minds, and come to a rough estimation of what the outcome would be. This naturally pushes the politics in the direction of tinkering with the process in order to either secure or block an expected outcome. In other words the clarion call for a special council initiates the same kind of politics that it seeks to avoid.
Holding Back the Assumed Tide
The second tricky aspect of this is that there is such a strong assumption, on both the traditional and progressive sides that at least in the midterm time is on the side of the progressives. Both progressives and many traditionalists believe that the possibility of first embracing “a local option” and then full denominational affirmation is just a matter of years as the culture continues to influence young people and their parents who hope for a chance they’ll remain with the church. For progressives the women in office battles were the template for eventual success on this front.
The strategy for those who want more inclusion of LGBTQ persons in the RCA seems clear. Keep writing, proposing, pressuring, enduring. How could a council stop this if the council voted to maintain the traditional position? If the RCA really wanted to shut the door and hold back the tide it would involve purges of churches, classes, seminary professors and others. Such purges feel like they belong to past eras of the church requiring a professed subscription of conscience that flows against the more libertarian ethos of today’s American culture.
All the progressives need to do is to keep doing what they’ve been doing.
Affirming RCA churches have thus far been able to keep the General Synod from disciplining them. What new power would this council bring to bear to undo this successful strategy?
Wait and See
Again, I know nothing. I look forward to discussing this with some RCA friends. My questions will be.
- Can such a council even be planned and will one side, if they see that things looked stacked against them bother to participate? Could progressives either block or simply ignore this. What new powers would such a council marshal that current politics don’t possess right now?
- Could such a council come up with something clear and uniting other than a compromise of sorts? That would be startling indeed on this subject.
- Could these two factions truly rest for a generation with a compromise where neither gets what they want? How could this be when they can’t stop it now?
- Would this just bring about a split in the near term rather than slow one over decades? Is that better than what they currently have?
We should leave room for the Holy Spirit to do a surprising thing. That is what I will pray for.
I wish them the best. The CRC will surely be watching this closely. pvk