General Synod 2008 — Some Post-Assembly Reflections

It was my intention to submit some blog posts during Synod. Alas, I was kept so busy that I found no time to compose. One of those Matthew 26:41 things. So, please accept this report.

Probably the most significant achievement of this General Synod was the adoption of R-39, which places a focus on working against racism and the major themes of the Belhar Confession within the work, description, and stated “dimensions” of “Our Call.”

R-39 reads as follows:

To affirm that, in the spirit and intention of the “Decade Freed from Racism,” the RCA’s racism-free multicultural future is a critical and strategic component of the working out of Our Call;

and further, to direct the GSC, in collaboration with appropriate commissions and agencies of the RCA, to prepare a proposal to integrate, within the framework and language of Our Call, a commitment to the core values of the Belhar Confession: Unity, Reconciliation, and Justice, for eport to the 2009 General Synod;

and further, to instruct the General Synod Council to suitably reflect that affirmation by adding to the five dimensions of Our Call the following as a sixth: “A Multiracial Future Freed from Racism,” and to develop objectives, goals, and strategies for implementation and measuring outcomes.

Chicago Invitation people have characteristically been, um, less than enthusiastic in our embrace of “Our Call.” I expect that we will continue to regard it with theological concern, and to subject all expressions of it (including our own) to theological critique. However, I think that the adoption of R-39 brings into “Our Call” an important and necessary component, one that CI types should consider regarding with theological approval and indeed celebration.

The path to adoption of R-39 provided the delegates with a good lesson in parliamentary procedure. The recommendation came to the floor amended by the advisory committee. At that point, it contained no language about Belhar. In the discussion, which at that point had been running against the inclusion of a sixth dimension, James Brownson wisely proposed the Belhar language, to replace the sixth dimension language. Right away, the assembly heard some eloquent testimony about the importance of adding the anti-racism to “Our Call” as a sixth dimension. It became clear to this delegate that the addition about Belhar need not replace the sixth element language, and that a significant number of members of the assembly wanted to have the opportunity to vote directly on the addition of a sixth element. So I offered an amendment to Dr. Brownson’s amendment, viz., to restore the language about the sixth element.

The president was helpful in guiding the assembly through the votes, and eventually we arrived at the recommendation above.

One concern I carried to Synod concerned proposed bylaws of the General Synod Council. (Jim Reid was helpful in my preparation for this. Thanks, Jim!) In case you’re experiencing some deja vu, let me say: yes, this did come up last year. In part because of an overture from Albany Synod, last year’s General Synod referred the bylaws for review by the Commissions on Church Order and Theology. There were numerous changes made to the proposal, and they were again presented to General Synod.

I was given the privilege of speaking to the Special Advisory Committee on Church Order and Governance, and they adopted (perhaps with minor modifications) three amendments I presented. In summary, they were:

  1. to delete the passage that would allow a member of GSC to mail or call in her or his vote on an issue prior to or after the meeting, without participating in the meeting in any fashion, even by conference call
  2. adding a requirement that the minutes be published for general distribution in a timely manner
  3. explicit mention of the origin of the general secretary’s duties and responsibilities.

I was very pleased that the assembly approved these amendments prior to giving its approval of the bylaws. It makes them considerably more acceptable.

In the early moments of the assembly, delegates were presented with something new and, to this delegate, troubling. We were told that a new classis had been formed and would be seated: Center City Classis. It became clear, however, that they were an affinity classis, a startling departure from our understanding of classis for, literally, centuries. After some delegates expressed concern about the seating of this classis, the matter was referred to the committee of reference, which ruled that the classis would not be seated.

I and another delegate suggested, in different ways, that the Commission on Theology should take a look at the issue of “affinity classes.” In fact, I wrote a motion to that effect. Sadly, I had no opportunity to write and then present the motion while new business could still be presented. It worked out fine, though, as Jim Brownson, newly appointed as chair of the Commission on Theology, gladly accepted my draft motion as a piece of friendly correspondence to the Commission. I hope to include it in a subsequent post.

Clearly, I could go on, but I won’t, at least not in this post. Perhaps I could answer some questions.




8 thoughts on “General Synod 2008 — Some Post-Assembly Reflections

  1. Thanks for the report.

    About this “Center City Classis”. To which Regional Synod does this belong? Anything more on that?



  2. The new classis is part of the Regional Synod of the Far West. The churches that currently belong to it are in, I believe, the San Francisco area. They are planning a new church start in the Denver area, which, although within the (geographical) bounds of that regional synod, would be within the (geographical) bounds of another (albeit traditional) classis.


  3. Thanks for the report, Dan.

    It occurs to me that the appearance of this “affinity classis,” created by a Regional Synod that no longer cares about being a Synod (it doesn’t meet–an apparent requirement for walking together) and that now apparently no longer cares about church order nor about the covenant in which we all claim to live. And are we to assume that no one from the GSC took the time to point out that this “classis” was contrary to order? Were they prepared to just slide this by and hope nobody noticed?

    Now combine that with just about total inaction on the overtures from Albany Classis on our current health insurance crisis, and the fact that long-term care insurance which was once required for pastors is now, apparently, no longer required (because we have the option of letting it lapse), both of which actions seem to indicate that the covenant between the church and its ministers is now evidently unimportant, if not void.

    Is it just me, or has the covenant been cancelled? Or perhaps it has just been made one-way: the ministers are still responsible for their covenant with the church, its just that the General Synod is off the hook for its end. We are all still responsible for the vows we made, but the GSC can abandon what it wishes in favor of the increasingly unfocused (it now has 6 dimensons) focus of “Our Call.” Is this where we now find ourselves?

    Now to ask a rather pointed question: if the General Synod itself is a creature of our covenant, and it has chosen to abandon the covenant, does it still exist? And, if it exists, does it have the authority to assess classes? Assessments are, after all, another dimension of the covenant, and the GS seems to find the covenant unimportant except where it is convenient.

  4. One more comment, this one about the blogs set up by the GSC on to alledgedly foster “communication:” I find it interesting that, unlike most blogs (such as this one), these GS blogs did not allow for replies. Similarly, the new RCA Today does not seem to allow room to reply. So communication is one way in the modern RCA. I must have missed the reports of the new exegesis of the word “Synod,” changing it from “walking together” to “marching in lock-step.”

  5. Dan,

    Just one clarification regarding the seating of the Center City Classis. My understanding of what took place is not that they were refused seat because there was question regarding their status or because their was concern about how the Classis had been created. They were not seated because the date of their creation fell after December 31st (the date of “reckoning Synod data”… for lack of a better term.)

    That’s important. It means that, if they had been created a few weeks earlier, they may well have been seated and that arguments regarding the creation of non-geographic Classis weren’t really part of the discussion.

    Grace and peace,

  6. Tim,

    You’re right, of course, and your clarification is very helpful. I intend to make a separate post on the issue of affinity classes, and so had intended my comments in the post above as teaser. Also, there is so much to remember!

  7. Dan, thanks so much for this informative posting. Once again, a Synod trying to act like a synod no matter how much the GSC resists it.

    As to the affinity classis, although I don’t think it’s wise, it’s certainly not illegal in the RCA, as long as its within a single Regional Synod. The Synod of New York allowed the North Carolina congregation to belong to Mid-hudson Classis. And in our case, we even lept over a whole other Regional Synod. And the old Regional Synod of New Jersey used to have an affinity classis for Dutch immigrants (Classis Passaic) that was essentially coterminous with Classis Paramus. The problem that I see is that the larger church has not been invited into the discussion.

    James is right to bring up the health care and insurance issues. The current insurance program is impossible for the RCA to maintain. And the Ten Year Goal threatens it directly, as so many of our new church pastors do not need to be enrolled in it.

  8. Dan,
    Many thanks for your report. I have become aware again this year of the vacuum of any detailed reporting that occurs during and immediately follows the General Synod sessions. The blogs during the sessions were journals of personal impressions rather than accounts of the business presented. The recommendations list helped but was very terse by nature; and the press releases were—well, press releases.

    I am glad to hear that the GSC analysis was helpful and even more pleased at the results you helped to obtain regarding needed amendments. I can now look forward to undulging further in my habit of reading and translating the GSC Minutes. Such fun!

    As to the affinity classis matter, I am relieved to hear that the seating was denied, even if on so flimsy a basis. Clearly, this was an 11th-hour attempt to gain an undeserved legitimacy for Central City “classis”; an attempt to avoid the thoroughgoing discussion this matter requires. As long as such tactics are employed and/or tolerated, trust in how the RCA does business will erode.

    I would disagree with Daniel as to the legality of affinity classes—I read the BCO term “bounds” as being exclusively geographical. The very way that we name our classes and regional synods betray our consensus that we see bounds as geographic. For a variety of historical reasons, geographic bounds have not always been contiguous [although one could board a boat in Kingston and sail south to the shores of North Carolina unimpeded]. Nevertheless, there is a sense that one classes ought not to press into the geographic turf of a sister classis without consultation.

    The discussion that is being avoided is what types of affinities other than geographic, if any, are necessary in a Reformed denomination and is changing the commonsense definition of “bounds” the best way to to address those necessities? Churches in center cities may have much in common and might be good support for one another’s ministries, but is that achievable by lesser measures than basic changes in polity? Is their reaching out for one another simply one result of a failed RCA urban ministry policy?

    All of this needs discussion and I would hope that CI would be in the lead on this issue, which will come around again to face us in 2009.

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