Imagine if you will that it is June, 2010 and we are on the floor at the 204th regular session of the General Synod, meeting in California.
The opening worship has been held and we are at that portion of the proceedings known as “the Formation of the Synod,” a series of usually perfunctory motions necessary to get down to business. The roll of delegates and other attendees has been noted and a motion is made to seat the delegates as enrolled. There is an objection raised from the floor on point of order. The delegate at the microphone identifies herself as a delegate and says that she objects to the seating of the delegation of the Open and Affirming Network Classis on the bases that it is not a classis at all, having been illegally constituted in violation of the denominational policy on homosexuality.
Some background might be helpful at this point. The Open and Affirming Network Classis [OANC] was a non-geographical “affinity” classis created by motion of one of the RCA’s regional synods at its annual meeting in May, 2009. It was constituted, according to its enabling motion, “to include local churches, both presently incorporated and in formation, whose focus is ministry to, with and among the gay, lesbian and transgender communities for the sake of the Gospel.” At a liturgy conducted in November, 2009 five churches along with four other RCA ministers were duly constituted as a classis by action of the regional synod. By Spring of 2010, there were signs of growth in the classis, two other local congregations, having petitioned to join, being added to the roster.
Now, back on the floor of General Synod 2010, it was clear that this was going to be no perfunctory formation of Synod. A delegate from the OANC, along with the delegate from their regional synod rose to speak. The President first recognized the Synod parliamentarian who noted that a similar situation had arisen at the General Synod of 2008 when the seating of Central Cities Network Classis had been questioned. Seating for that delegation was denied on the basis that they had not been constituted by the end of the preceding year, but that Synod did grant the delegates privilege of the floor and participation in the work of the Synod. They referred the actual seating question to the GSC Special Committee on Governance. That Special Committee, in turn, later referred back to a Commission on Church Order review of the formation of the classis which concluded that “nothing was found [in the BCO] that clearly prohibits the formation of this type of classis.” The implication of the parliamentarian was that a similar set of motions might enable the Synod to get on into its stated agenda. The delegates at the microphones nodded assent and left for their seats but were quickly replaced by a fourth delegate who, upon being recognized, said: “Mr. President, I move that the delegation of the Open and Affirming Network Classis not be seated at this General Synod.” Clearly, he was not buying the solution suggested by the parliamentarian and, following several shouted seconds to the motion, the debate was on.
“Clearly, the formation of this homosexually-oriented classis is an attempt by activists to jump the gun on this hot-button issue by establishing a precedent of recognition,” spoke the mover of the motion. “A vote to seat this delegation is a vote to frustrate the intent of past General Synods and to undermine the orderly process now in place to discern the mind of the Church.” He was referring to the three-year Dialogue on Homosexuality that had reported to the 2009 General Synod and that had been voted a three-year extension until 2012.
A delegate from the OANC was recognized. “The formation of our classis, which was not prohibited by any provision of the BCO and which was accomplished in a timely fashion, is an outgrowth of the resolution of the 1994 General Synod, which, and I quote, called ‘the whole church to a greater faithfulness to Christ in relationships with persons of homosexual orientation.’ What better expresses that faithfulness than the presentation of Scripture, sacrament and the hospitality of an accepting community? We determined that the most effective way to advance the Gospel was through the formation of a network of churches who share our affinity for this ministry.”
By this time the lines at the microphones were growing long and the President admonished the body to stay to the subject and to be brief. He reminded them that there was much pressing business before the Synod. “Point of Order. Mr. President” exclaimed a delegate at microphone #3 who was recognized. “Mr. President, although a schedule of business has been printed and distributed, this body has not yet arrived at the point of approving that agenda. We are not bound by what is on a sheet of paper and certainly adjustments can be made. Deciding who legitimately sits in this Synod and casts votes is of the utmost importance and we should take the time we need to come to our decision about that.” A smattering of “Here, here” and nods was met with a tap of the gavel. The body was getting into a testy mood.
“Can I ask how many churches are in this new Classis? And where are they from?” asked the next speaker. The General Secretary replied that his information was that 5 churches constituted the classis as of the end of 2009. He deferred to the regional synod delegate to provide further details. “That information is correct,” said the corresponding delegate. “We had five churches; 3 within our regional synod, 1 from a neighboring regional synod and another in the Midwest. But I should add that in the past six months, two more have joined, both on the West Coast, and we are engaged in discussions with four other congregations.”
“Just a follow-up, Mr. President. Are all these congregations RCA churches?”
The regional synod delegate replied, “Well, all 7 churches are RCA churches now. You can’t be in the classis without first being formed as an RCA church. Four of the original five churches were always RCA, the Midwestern and western churches came to us from other backgrounds. Those in discussion for membership come from both within and outside of the RCA; one of those is a new church plant.”
There was a comment from a minister at microphone #1 to the effect that homosexuality was an abomination and that the approval of homosexual churches would bring God’s wrath upon the RCA. The President interrupted after about 30 seconds, asking that the speakers focus upon the issue of seating this particular classis. He stated that he would receive alternating comments, pro and con or asking for further information. He recognized microphone #4.
“Mr. President, this is about more information. The word going around is that the churches coming into this classis are from the MCC, which is not to be confused with the UCC, one of our partner denominations, but the MCC which is avowedly a gay church. I’d like us to hear from the affinity classis delegation about that.” The chair again recognized the delegate from the OANC: “Can you speak to that point?”
“The churches of our classis who were not originally from other RCA classes came to us from a variety of backgrounds petitioning for classis membership. All but two were from partner denominations. Of the other two, one was a new church plant from the UCC that had not yet been received into their conference and the second was an independent congregation, one that had been organized under the MCC but which had left that communion five years ago. Let me say one further thing about the motivation of these churches petitioning to align with us. Many of them have had a long-standing commitment of outreach to the GLTG community in their neighborhoods but have felt unsupported in this ministry within their former judicatories—for whatever reasons. Perhaps their peer churches were unprepared or unequipped or even unwilling to support that outreach. When they heard of our gathering and our emphasis, they felt that, at last, they would find themselves in a fellowship where they were understood, where they did not have to constantly explain themselves and where they could trade experiences and competencies.”
The President interrupted, “I sense that you have answered the question and are starting in on another speech.” “I’ll get right to the point. In forming this classis we followed the logic of the Church Multiplication Team Conviction of 2007, where they justified crossing traditional bounds of classes and synods so that churches would not have to depend materially and spiritually on a classis of churches not eager or able to support them and so that classes did not have to assume responsibility for a ministry that it knows little about or has a limited capacity to support. No General Synod has ever disavowed or even seriously challenged that approach when it was applied to new church plants. Why is it being questioned now that it is being used for another form of ministry, and I might say, one approved by numerous statements of General Synod?”
“I am feeling bush-whacked,” said the delegate at microphone #2. “We never heard a peep about this classis in all the material in this binder. We don’t have a listing in here of the churches involved and my tablemate over there just ran a search of the RCA website and turned up one short news item about it from 8 months ago. If I had known, or my classis had known about this, I’d be prepared to vote on it. As it is, all I can do is vote, ‘No’ and hope it comes up again next year after we get a chance to discuss it. I’m wondering why we had to wait until now and have this hullabaloo to get some basic information.”
The next speaker took it from there. “I looked up this classis on the regional synod’s website and found no mention of it at all; no listing, not a mention. If this is a real classis, why is it so invisible, even in its own regional synod?”
The General Secretary asked to speak to that point. “Website listings and news items are not how classis delegations are certified to the General Synod. There is a set of documents in hand that attest to the fact that the Open and Affirming Network Classis does exist and was constituted by the regional synod before the end of last year. That is routine internal correspondence between the office of the General Synod and the delegating assemblies. One would not expect it to be part of preparatory documents, although it will be mentioned in the President’s report, which of course has not been given and which is not yet in your packets.”
The next speaker spoke against the motion not to seat. “I’m saying we should seat and welcome this new classis, just like we did the City Center Network Classis that is co-hosting this Synod. I can understand the frustration of being in a persistent minority position within a classis or denomination; of feeling a passion for a particular calling that is just not supported by sister churches. I have for years sought to get a commissioned pastor program going in our area, but it has been either a low priority or no priority of the classis and the regional synod. If these folks have a passion for outreach ministry, then let’s support them.”
Microphone #5 was recognized. “Mr. President, I call for the question.”
The motion to call the question was approved and debate was closed.
“We shall vote upon the main motion,” declared the President, “which is that delegation of the Open and Affirming Network Classis not be seated. A vote of “yes” will mean that you do not wish to see the delegation seated. A vote of “no” will approve of their being seated. Please cast your ballots.”
And we all know how that vote turned out.