On "Affininity Classes"

Recently, a few of us who contribute to this blog were asked to articulate our concerns with the idea of an affinity classis. The following is a compilation of responses.

Jim Reid:

It defies logic that the RCA, which has devoted so much recent energy to celebrating our diversity and emphasizing inclusiveness of difference, would now make an about-face and endorse, or even condone, a classis structure based on sameness—which is what any “affinity classis” is.

To give a non-geographic classis voice and vote in the General Synod is to plop an orange in the midst of a bushel of apples claiming, “ ..but they are all round.”   Seating an “affinity classis” at GS 2009 will be the death throes of General Synod as an assembly of peer delegations.

Has anyone defined just what constitutes an “affinity”? Is an “affinity” all folks with green eyes, or with tan skin, or who speak Urdu in the home? Is it a collection of ultra-liberals, or people whose grandmothers were Dutch, or mega-churches? Until we can agree on what it is [and is not], why build it into our structures?

Daniel Meeter:

The Reformed Church has had affinity classes in the past, when the affinity in question was language, among immigrant churches. But these were understood as temporary structures for the process of Americanization. It would be unconstitutional for affiinity classes to organize around differences in doctrine, because that would set up an extra standard of loyalty and accountability for pastors and consistories. If affinity classes are allowed to organize around “vision”, the vision becomes a similar standard The doctrinal standards would no longer be the standard of unity.

James Hart Brumm

My response would echo Daniel Meeter’s and, I hope, expand on it a little bit.

The old affinity classes were built to put themselves out of business, in a sense.  They were to help ethnic groups become Americanized, and therefore to move toward greater unity with the whole church.  It would seem these affinity classes are meant to move away from unity, to separate us acording to size, or language, or theological preferences.  These separations look more likely to be permanent.

About two generations ago, the whole worldwide Reformed communion was thrown into chaos when one body supported institutionalized separations.  Those, in South Africe, were according to color.  I suppose there may be socially acceptable separations to be made in the body of Christ, but I think they merit long and hard discussion before we begin implementing them.

Rett Zabriskie

First, our Church Order has in common with our American system of government that we give each assembly an area where it has complete authority, logically requiring thereby that all assemblies be actively doing their part for us to be a whole Church. Elders determine admission to sacraments, classes determine parameters of ministry for organized churches and mission congregations, general synod detemines ecumenical relations, etc., etc.. Where an assembly fails, it removes the possibility of the whole being Church.(And the logic of that leads to why the Reformation was only theologically valid and practically possible in 17th century Europe.  Since then, culture has changed so that there is always some assembly that is not able to be as it must for the whole to function) To establish a Classis on a basis, or with a task, other than fulfilling its part in the Order of the whole Church does, of necessity, make it something other than a Classis as it, of necessity, is either more or less than what the Order determines a Classis to be.  In short, adding “Affinity” logically negates the possibility of it being a Classis.

Second, the only thing that makes any theologically Reformed body a Church is adherence to the Order.  The Episcopals can tolerate all kinds of foolishness because the BCP is constituitive.  The Catholics can tolerate all kinds of foolishness because the Papacy is constituitive. The Lutherans can tolerate all kinds of foolishness because Beer is constituitive. (OK, maybe that is not as strong an argument).  But I have now been saying publically for some time: RCA?  There is no “there”  there.  We no longer have any agreed element that is constituitive of us as Church.  It has not been the Standards for almost 100 years, dating from Worcester at NBTS.  And it hasn’t been the Order since we allowed the conscience clause in 1980.  This current foolishness of Affinity is simply the latest in a long string of events in which the RCA says very clearly that American business values and political power and most, most, most important of all – being nice and liking everybody while lying about the presence of the Holy Spirit in that liking are the constituitive principles of whatever this heap of consumers of religious product that the RCA now is can be called.  What the RCA most assuredly is not, any longer, is a Church.

Dan Griswold:

It’s natural and in many ways even salutary for people and institutions to seek out affinities. Just as it is with individuals, when congregations in similar circumstances offer encouragement and mentoring to each other, very often great blessing is the result. Such blessing needs no special permission nor is it prohibited in our constitution.

However, the classis is more than a body for mentoring and encouragement. The reason why a classis exists, its “job description,” is to form and dissolve congregations, to ordain and install pastors, and to hold those congregations and pastors accountable to our Standards.

To allow “affinity” even as a permitted mark of importance for a classis would have this pernicious affect on our government: the authority of a classis would be only as great as the (ever shifting) affinities that constitute it. It would also further erode our understanding of the core purpose of a classis.

One thought on “On "Affininity Classes"

  1. I have been slow to get on board with my comments on ‘affinity’ because this word means playing with non-categorical notions. The word ‘af-finity’ was invented in mathematical debates parallel to the reality (or not!) of ‘in-finity.’ These are concepts that can be posited and ‘named,’ but have an uncertain ‘reality’ (which is why they are useful to the in-trepid as well as to the af-fable)

    It took the ‘infinitesimal calculus’ two centuries (!) to find sufficiently solid footing (through the concepts of ‘limit’ and incipient ’set’ theories). And then, only because it was matched by the dialectical and complementary move of integration.

    To keep it simple as a picture: if you first think about ‘normal’ Euclidian geometry, an “affine” geometry would be a skewed version of it, a distortion in which lengths and angles have changed from the original. Such a house of mirrors can create odd effects!

    Such torsion and twisting can be described, and the trajectories can even be calculated, by means of matrix-math that uses operators called ‘tensors’. And it so happens that my dissertation topic is ‘tensor theology.’

    Mathematicians (and physicists and engineers) find tensors exceedingly helpful but also vexing. As for theologians, they also know a bit about the pitfalls and minefields of taking liberties with heretofore carefully calibrated doctrines and theologoumena.

    What are the rules of the road when the theological landscape is distorted? Do the same rules apply? Apparently, the tempter in the Garden of yore knew how to play this very game toward mischief and great harm.

    I am all for imaginative leaps of faith and great flexibility of thought! But when we deal with established ‘order’ we cannot simply skew things to our liking or to address temporary exigencies, circumstances or needs. The center will not hold, and torsions will become distorsions!

    Thus applying the word ‘affinity’ to ‘classis’ (both as an assembly and as a judicatory) means ‘close, but no cigar.’ Cigars would be offered at successful carnival hammer-blows. To punch the concept of classis by adding ‘affinity’ is Orwellian and Foggy-Bottom speak, not worthy of the very real issues at stake (!) that led to thinking out of the box.

    This is not to say that the in situ issues that have arisen do not have resonance in other locations. In fact, in our day and age we have the advantage of being able to develop virtual networks. Especially for reformed thinking it would be an ironic mistake to seek our assurance and comfort in a substantiation of the elements of communion. As we all know, Calvin defended the power (virtus) of our participation in observance of the Lord’s Table as a virtual reality. Thus, for instance, the Chicago Invitation ‘network’ as such has no thought to create a specialized ‘fleet’ for housing its concerns and passions. A ‘network’ is a sufficient vehicle to ‘convey‘ the issues at stake. Since Classis is a fleet of substantive ships, perhaps it helps to think of such networks as the fishing nets of the fleet.

    Again, a Classis is not just a ‘locus,’ it is also a ‘topos’: it has a topology, to use a term from differential geometry. We have to consider whether the plasticity of the notion ‘classis’ is sufficient for affine torsion? The pertinent questions then are: how far and how fast?

    In the Field of the Lord not only ecology and economy play a role, but also the third crucial component: the ecumène. For only together can we discern and af-firm: ‘How are our assemblies places of faithful ‘house-keeping (dia oikos: diocese), and yet foster the tending of the fields outside? How do we best operate by flexing tendons that rest in sound structures and are not called upon to stretch into tendentious liberties?

    At the CI meeting in May 09, I look forward to a careful deliberation about all the force-fields at play in this present RCA field test of reforming church order.

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