Jim Reid has developed the following helpful commentary on the Workbook for next week’s General Synod. He focuses on two important yet typically overlooked sections: the report of the Commission on Church Order, and the proposed by-laws of the General Synod Council.
I encourage you to ponder what he has to say. Delegates to Synod especially will be edified.
Commission on Church Order Report:
What is NOT said in a report is to be noticed almost as much as what it does say. Commission on Church Order reports used to be very detailed, sharing with delegates details of issues being weighed, lines of argumentation and the rationale which prevailed. This report is more taciturn, doling out summary judgments and conclusions and keeping silent on details of issues discussed. Since items before this Commission are often before the General Synod at some other point on its agenda, delegates lose a jump-start on their deliberations by being excluded from the details of this previous discussion. Delegates can ask the presenter of the report for this information. That can be done on the floor of the plenary or by correspondence prior to the session.
The Commission finds the by-laws compatible with the polity and theology of the RCA. No point-by-point discussion is offered, such as which parts of the proposed by-laws are in question and arguments pro and con. What changes were requested by the Commission and which were made by the GSC?
Delegates need that detailed information rather than a summary overall judgment from the Commissions, since delegates will be asked to approve the by-laws this General Synod.
In conversation with the Church Multiplication Team [CMT], at their request, the Commission suggested changes to the CMT “Conviction Statement”. Again, the Commission is less than helpful to delegates by failing to provide detailed information.
Delegates should ask:
What were the points of the statement that the Commission found difficult and for what reasons?
What is the interpretation of the Commission of “the bounds” of a classis or regional synod as used in the BCO? Is the common sense of the BCO that “bounds” of classes and regional synods are geographical in nature? If bounds are not drawn on a geographical basis in the BCO, on what other basis does the Commission see them drawn and what portions of the BCO support that view?
The definition of “bounds” is key to understanding the implications of both the “CMT Conviction Statement” and the concept of an “affinity classis”. If the common sense of the BCO and established practice of the RCA is that bounds are geographically defined, then to define them otherwise requires an amendment to the BCO. In the amendment process, each and every classis has an opportunity to debate the pros and cons of a change that would profoundly affect their ministries and to make their sentiments clear. The Commission offers no such amendment, nor does the CMT. Instead, there is an attempt to make a fundamental change in governance and practice by simply declaring a new General Synod Council policy. This means that 27 persons, none of whom directly represent the classes, are attempting to make a change that will alter the operations of all classes.
Delegates could raise the question whether the GSC “policy” carries the same weight and force as General Synod policy. If so, how is this justified? If not, how do the two policy-formation roles relate to one another?
Delegates to this GS can move that no policy allowing “affinity classes” or church planting in the geographic bounds of other classes be approved or implemented until such time as a suitable amendment to the BCO is put before the General Synod for its consideration.
This amounts to asking the Commission on Church Order to do its job for the General Synod.
General Synod Council [GSC] Proposed By-laws:
The GSC inherits the New York State incorporation of the previous GSEC and GPC [General Synod Executive Committee and General Program Council] as last amended in 1996. The incorporation was originally undertaken to isolate General Synod operations from possible law suits arising from failed church starts and bonds issued to underwrite them.
It is not clear whether these proposed by-laws will be offered to the NY Secretary of State as a further amendment to the current incorporation. Amendment to an incorporation can be a costly undertaking. Delegates should ask whether this is the route that will be taken if the by-laws are approved and what any anticipated costs might be.
Most of the language changes from the 2007 version which was turned down by General Synod amount to substituting “the GSC” for “this corporation” so that it sounds less like corporate entity and more like a church body.
The accountability of the GSC, a major sticking point in 2007, has been clarified and expanded. One might ask, however, why the use of the language that “the BCO prevails” instead of saying that the General Synod prevails. Is this some sort of legalese or wiggle room.?
Boiler-plate language has been added to conform to IRS code for not-for-profit 501 [c] 3 organizations.
All well and good, but some things have been added that demand delegates’ attention.
They include the following:
Sec. 5.5 – This section, on through 5.7, appear to be efficiency moves to allow business to be processed by consensus without convening a face-to-face meeting. Moving electrons around is cheaper than moving bodies, but Section 5.5 crosses a line by allowing a “proxy vote” on issues, something not allowed in RCA assemblies. We have believed to this point that RCA assemblies must be kept open to the action of the Holy Spirit during their deliberations. [Often a General Synod is said to “have taken on a life of its own.”] Hence, we RCA folk assemble, come together face-to-face, to determine God’s will for the church. In that personal exchange, we believe the Holy Spirit can express itself; and so we pray as we start and end our sessions. If a member of an assembly can decide her/his vote prior to the assembly session and its opportunity for deliberation, then to that extent, the opportunity for the action of the Holy Spirit is thwarted. Thus Elders, Deacons and Ministers need to be present at Consistory to cast a vote; ditto for Regional Synods and General Synod. No “proxy votes” are allowed at General Synod. You must be there to press your voting button. Even before the chair declares a consensus on an item, the words “no opposition being heard,” are said and every delegate has the opportunity to rise.
Section 5.5 apparently allows a GSC member to decide their vote prior to an agenda item’s debate and separated from the live and real-time electronic “presence” of the assembled body. Since the GSC holds itself out as the Executive Committee of an assembly, ought it not to be bound by the same understanding? Live and real-time conference-call arrangements may be acceptable and fiscally responsible. But when one keeps counsel only with oneself in coming to one’s vote, that denies the Reformed understanding of acting as an assembly. Section 5.5 should be re-written to remove proxy voting.
Assemblies and their executive committees take minutes of their actions and deliberations. Committee minutes become the property of the assembly the committee serves and are primary means by which the parent body can see the actions and share the thinking behind the proposals a committee brings before the body.
In the case of the GSC, acting as the Executive Committee of the General Synod, its minutes are especially crucial. The GSC meets in June, October and March, between sessions of the GS, to deal with matters referred to it by previous General Synods and to formulate recommendations for consideration at upcoming Synods. Delegates to General Synod serve until replaced by the seating of their successor delegates. They need detailed and complete information to determine how the assembly’s referrals are being handled by the GSC. GSC minutes may not be prosaic, but they are necessary to knowing what happens at GSC meetings.
Section 5.8, in its final sentence, declares that a “summary” statement of GSC actions shall be distributed within 30 days. Note that distribution of the actual minutes is not mentioned at all. The “summary” will be an interpretive document, not official record, much akin to the GSC press releases which have been posted in lieu of minutes twice in recent years. Minutes will still have to be taken, as with any incorporated not-for-profit body [NYS code requires only one officer be elected—the Secretary—to take minutes and preserve records. Minutes could just as easily be distributed, but Section 5.8 establishes a mandate only for the circulation of brief summaries.
Questions to be asked include:
What is this sentence, which has nothing to do with the structure of the GSC, doing in the by-laws?
Why not just circulate the minutes within 30 days?
Why are not GS delegates and others deemed capable of making their own interpretations of the actions of GSC, given the actual record?
Additionally, given the covenant solicited from GSC members to speak only in support of actions and decisions of the GSC, minutes are critical to understanding the totality of the issues the GSC has deliberated.
An amendment can be offered to the by-laws that substitutes the words “minutes of the GSC” for “brief summary”.
There is no term limit specified for the General Secretary.
Language concerning dismissal of General Secretaries has been dropped from earlier versions.
General Synod can no longer direct its General Secretary according to this proposed arrangement. All directions for that position must filter through the GSC. This is good Carver [the board has only one employee—the CEO], but raises two questions:
If General Synod can not direct the General Secretary, why does he give a scheduled address directly to the General Synod?
Should not his report be also filtered through the GSC as a part of its report?
Section 12 – Amendments
Following this 2008 approval of GSC by-laws, the General Synod will not be consulted on further amendments unless the GSC initiates the process. Under the proposed language, it is the GSC which can initiate proposed amendments. General Synod can only review those proposals and vote up or down on them. So what you have before you now is what you will be living with for a long time to come.