First of all, we need to say a word of thanks to Dan Griswold for raising the issue of the future of Chicago Invitation in a manner that obviously reflects his care, concern and deep reflection. It is heartening to see that at least somewhere in the RCA the notion of self-evaluation every decade or so is valued and practiced.
I strongly affirm Dan’s belief “…that the ongoing purpose of our group is to provide the occasion for clear thinking about the church.” This is not to claim that all the thinking going on within the CI orbit has been clear all of the time, but rather to make the important point that occasions must be provided where, by the grace of God, such clarity of thought is made possible. At one point within remembered history, we were provided with a number of such occasions, even within the structure of RCA assemblies, but that has all but evaporated. It is now at the periphery of the RCA, rather than at its center, that these occasions arise and by the conscious effort of their participants. I would identify the special lectures/presentations by Western and New Brunswick Seminaries, along with CI meetings/papers as among occasions for clarity of thinking. Hopefully more can be named, but what they seem to have in common is that they are unsanctioned by the core of RCA structure.
That core RCA structure claims to have attained clarity about what the church should be and what it should do: the mission statements promulgated as Our Call. The General Synod Council, which exerts practical control over the denominational machinery, is dismissive of any thorough-going evaluation of its direction and programs of the past decade. It has placed the RCA on track to wholesale renewal of Our Call for yet another decade, limiting input from lower assemblies, churches and members to brief periods of commentary convenient to its own calendar. Thus even more than a decade ago, it is outside of that core structure that RCA folk must look for times and places in which to engage each other in disciplined conversation and discernment of where the Spirit is leading us all.
Let me give one of what could be numerous illustrations. A key change in the RCA that has taken place since 2003 is the increasing opacity of operations at the denominational level. The adoption of Carver Governance rules placed all GSC deliberations behind a curtain, meaning that while all sorts of data, reports, opinions and rationales were on the table at GSC sessions, none of that information was directly available to RCA membership. The 28 GSC members are confined to sharing (with any defined constituency they might have—many do not) only the approved press release of actions taken and edited GSC minutes which appear on line months afterwards. In other words, of the 175,000 RCA active members, just 28 or 0.016 percent have full data access and can engage in a meaningful deliberative process about RCA operations and goal fulfillment. This trend into ever-increasing opacity continues. The 2011 General Synod extended Carver governance to BoBS and MFCA, giving them independent boards of direction and distancing their staff from direct accountability to the General Secretary.
CI has been the only RCA group to highlight and thoroughly explore the effects of Carver Governance upon our denomination. We have pointed out its radical inconsistency with Reformed polity and theology. We have made ourselves pains in various parts of the denominational anatomy with these arguments through the years. But because we are not, nor have ever sought to be a political entity within the RCA, we have not gained the audience needed to compel more transparency. CI does not have a full-time communications office and budget. No glossy quarterly CI magazine is delivered to every RCA member’s mailbox. We issue no press releases. CI is on the periphery, simply holding regular meetings to which all are invited and talking one-on-one with RCA folk in between those occasions.
CI has been engaged in an ongoing attempt to be in Socratic dialogue with an ideological right wing that has seized operational control over the RCA. For a decade now, we have wanted the diverse elements of the RCA to sit, speak and listen in an exchange of views leading toward clarity of thinking about the Church. We have urged RCA folk to come to the table and put everything on that table. Now that’s very Reformed of us, but it is not very effective when it comes to changing political realities. To the ideologues, any deviation or even questioning of the program in place is going to be seen and labeled as negativity. To that frame of mind, CI can be renamed “Crotchety Individuals” and many of us have faced that criticism in our attempts to reach out and speak out.
I do not share Dan’s view that CI was born of crisis in 2003 and has been stuck fighting the same battle ever since. In 2003 the General Synod narrowly approved the development of what was called a “Ten-Year Plan”, a purposely vague statement of direction. Given events that led up to that vote, some of us sensed (accurately, it turns out) that a profound shift was underway that would lead the national level of the RCA to abandon those elements of our theology and polity which most attracted us. It took several additional Synods before Our Call was named, its program thrusts were set, and for the Carver curtain to descend. CI members have been active in raising issues with various aspects of Our Call as it solidified. In addition to Carver, we questioned the efficacy of “church multiplication”, the confining of leadership training to clergy, the attempted consolidation of classes into regional bodies, and the ending of the Church Herald, calling for the funds saved to be rebated fully to the classes. Most CI persons engage in ministry at local levels and a common theme of our questioning has been what we see as a studied attempt to reverse the RCA from a “bottom-up” polity into a “top-down” one. I don’t believe that such questioning is essentially or even primarily negative. It is the work of Christians assembled to be doing such discernment and declaration.
The changes that we have questioned over the past decade are now on track to become permanent facets of the RCA. This is taking place without any official effort to evaluate the effects and benefits of programs that have cost us at least $80,000,000 in expenses or about $86,500 per RCA church. Now is not the time for CI to fall silent.