JOURNAL: Unofficial gathering of signatories of the Chicago Invitation and guests to discuss R-56s

Monday, 13 August 2012, at Niskayuna Reformed Church

Signatories of the Chicago Invitation and other office bearers gathered at Niskayuna Reformed Church in Niskayuna, New York, to discuss the passage of R-56 substitute by the General Synod of 2012, as well as the implications for classes and consistories.

ATTENDANCE: Daniel Griswold, Ellen Ratmeyer, Bill Hertlein, Josh Bode, Peggy Funderburke, Lisa VanderWal, Jim Reid, Stacey Midge, Beth Williams, Bobbie Reno, Marilyn Paarlberg, Nancy Ryan, Richard Ruch, Al Poppen, Lew Kane, Bill Faulkner, Scott DeBlock, Larry DelaMater, Renée House, Sharon Johnson, George Casler, Susan Kerr, and James Hart Brumm

Signatories of the Chicago Invitation and others gathered at Niskayuna Reformed Church in Niskayuna, New York, to discuss the passage of R-56 substitute by the General Synod of 2012, as well as the implications for classes and consistories.

We began at 10:04 AM with morning prayer led by James.

Daniel explained the reason for the gathering and a bit about the Chicago Invitation, and then all the attendees introduced themselves.

Attendees who were present at GS2012 shared their observations of what happened at the Synod.

  • There seemed to be a planned strategy to oppose any compromise measures about LGBT issues introduced by the overtures committee.
  • The authority of the chair was disrespected during this discussion; it was difficult to keep people following parliamentary procedure.
  • The group orchestrating R-56s did not want a middle path, and did not want to allow further discussion.
  • One of the all-synod advisory group discussions was about a pastoral response to homosexuality, in order to try to defuse a confrontational situation.
  • More than a few people on the floor of synod were not sure what they were voting on.
  • There was rampant disrespect of our polity, of the chair, and of other delegates.
  • People in favor of R-56 were not accepting anything short of an absolute stance was acceptable, and they had carefully stacked who the delegates would be.
  • Already during the President’s report, in seeing who did not participate in the standing ovation, there was a foreshadowing of what was to come.
  • People seemed to give up on going to the mics, sensing nobody was listening.
  • Even with the discussions beforehand, it was clear that people did not wish to compromise or change their opinions.
  • The pastoral discussion did not happen on the floor. The R-56 advocates were not interested in that discussion.
  • The original recommendation called for a 12-person study group representative of the diversity of the church, including members from the Commission on Theology and the GS Professorate, to prepare a study paper for 2014, and calling on the church to refrain from LGBT weddings, ordinations, etc., until the paper came.
  • It kept being said, “We’ve talked long enough.”
  • The energy to keep talking that came out of the Orlando “Conversations” event to keep talking was shut down.

Josh presented the church order issues and began a discussion, with two overarching theses:

  1. If we break our fundamental covenants, we cannot deal with homosexuality or any other issue.
  2. The church order expresses a theology made coherent by the tradition from which we have received it. This theology is in principle reformable, but it is better changed through understanding than ignorance.

In terms of process:

  • The all-synod advisory committees leave the synod unpracticed in discussion and debate.
  • Parliamentary procedure does not order the church, and we must remember that. Voting is not what the offices of the church are called to be about. The contracted time-span creates both a logistical problem and a theological spiritual phenomenon: “counting noses”—when assemblies get together and start counting noses, you know the thing is broken.
  • Minority reports happen infrequently in the RCA, but are a tradition in other Reformed bodies.
  • Electronic voting leads to anonymity; registering our opinion without looking each other in the face creates an ecclesiological issue for us. When there is confusion, people often look to those whom they trust.
  • The original recommendation extended the authority of GS to its furthest limits, to study and to call on the church.
  • “Disciplinable offense” is problematic, and not in the authority of GS.
  • “Our official position”: who is this “our;” what does “official” mean; and exactly what do we mean by a “position”? It is misleading; not even the GS can speak for the church.
  • The “study” called for seems pointless.
  • GS should not be interpreting Scripture; it is not the role of GS.
  • R-56 cannot bind assemblies, should not provide precedent in judicial matters, and cannot speak for the RCA.
  • R-56 creates relational and pastoral challenges, strains already balkanized relations, creates need for education about church order, and confuses the church.
  • This is one assembly venting.
  • RCA order and theology privilege the local, but nobody wants justice or theology to be a local phenomenon; we want it to be universal.
  • We need a moratorium on the word “denomination,” because it never leads to anything good. It is undefined in the BCO, it is a compromise with the culture, and it leads to mischief.
  • There is no heierarchy of assemblies in the RCA.
  • “Delegated authority” in the Preamble is misunderstood; ultimately, authority comes only from Christ, but this is in tension with the concept of local authority being delegated to the larger church.
  • The principle of subsidiarity says that the larger assemblies exist only to do what the smaller assemblies cannot. This is why GS cannot tell anybody what is disciplinable.
  • Terms like “general superintendence,” “denominational policy,” and “official position” are unclear and confusing.
  • A coherent system cannot be created out of the BCO, the history is required to do that. The Commission on History offered helpful papers in 2007.
  • Consistories don’t speak for the church, classes don’t speak for the church, GS doesn’t speak for the church. Historically, we have lived with the messiness.
  • The English/US understanding of precedent, that it governs the future, is at odds with the continental understanding of formal precedent as being far less binding. Josh’s axiom: “It is not so much that the GS sets precedent as the church grants it over time.”
  • How does this speak to the Spirit speaking through assemblies? This may be what the mind of the church says to this issue at this point in time, but that shifts, and proportions of votes matter.
  • Problematically, there were many delegates chosen for and instructed about how they would vote on this issue.
  • Reformed tradition is big on the formal freedom of the Word, which is fundamentally alien, and will go where it will; our perceptions of the Word change. This has been a fundamental Reformed doctrine.
  • In continental civil law tradition, precedent has very little meaning. In English law, you go to case law. In continental and Sharia law, each case is unique and begins from general principles. Even our confessions are changeable in principle.
  • GS can say whatever it wants; it can also change its mind.
  • How do we talk about who reads the Bible in the church and where? It should be primarily in the pulpit and preaching, and also can happen in judicial settings (and that has been the only time assemblies are called to formally interpret Scripture).
  • Unlike the Presbyterians, we have no means for our GS to make an authoritative interpretation of Scripture.
  • Presbyterian polity has no check against the formation of parties. As soon as parties form, the nature of the assemblies are fundamentally distorted.
  • How do we get past the balkanization, lack of trust?
  • A move toward heierarchical discipline is problematic. It is not who we are, but it is who society wants us to be.
  • The theology expressed by our order is counter-cultural. When the sovereign is not human, the rest of us are led to be relational, with no earthly authority holding us together. Our order is non-coercive. Jesus did not value survival; shouldn’t that have some meaning for us?

We broke for lunch at 12:18 pm with prayer led by Scott, reconvening at 1:03 pm.

Discussion ensued:

  • When the BCO speaks of assemblies, it speaks much more of responsibilities than of authority. To what degree to the enumerated responsibilities limit the authority of assembly? Responsibility has an air of obligation, while authority has an air of compulsion.
  • There are links to very Presbyterian bodies among the R-56s supporters, and these lead them to want the GS to be authoritative, but, at the same time, they are very congregational, so authority becomes situational.
  • What is a Reformed theology of discipline? There is a Reformed theology of penal authority, but it is not a majority theology, much to the dismay of some. Our discipline is peer-based, but some want to see more heierarchy.
  • When have we done something contrary to the tradition (of polity, order, etc.) for so long that the contrary thing supplants the tradition?
  • A large portion of the church does not think our concerns about ecclesiology and relationship and ministry to the marginalized are important. Rather they are a hindrance. There was a smugness seen in this Synod: “We know the mind of God, and you don’t, but we will explain it to you.”
  • So where is God in all of this? Are we listening?

Stacey made a presentation and began a discussion about the judicial issues.

  • There is a tension between what Stacey thinks should happen in our order and what she thinks will happen.
  • Ministers are amendable to classes. Classical discipline varies in the RCA.
  • The Constitution tells us what is disciplinable (matters that can be seen to be so from Scripture or the Constitution). There is no constitutional mention of homosexual behavior. In the case of Norm Kansfield, GS2005 ruled that Scripture was clear; it is unlikely that this would happen in classes that allow for same-sex marriage. Only office-holders within a minister’s classis may bring charges.
  • Grounds for complaint include any action or decision that is harmful to the church. Is difference of scriptural interpretation a bias?
  • An appeal may be brought by the accused or the accuser to the judicatory with immediate superintendence, and are on procedure, not on the substance of the decision.
  • There are people in the church wanting to get people within classes not their own to bring complaints, and then appeals, so that this will eventually go to GS.
  • There are very strict timelines for everything.
  • We can continue to maintain the responsibilities of each assembly, but these are things some people are happy to overlook.
  • We need to carefully consider the nature of appeals. What happens when we reverse the decision of a lower judicatory? The higher assembly cannot impose a sanction where a lower assembly has declined to do so.
  • The principle of BCO judical procedures is a bias toward local wisdom. But there is a growing tendency to ignore that. That may be connected to a growing move toward discipline for purification rather than restoration. Pastoral forms of discipline may be under threat.
  • Thoughts for the future:
    o A brief educational primer on what can and cannot be done.
    o We need to be preparing for judicial action against GS professors.
    o We need a pool of suggested counsel for those facing R-56s-related charges. Room for All is starting such a list.
    o We need to try to strategize for what to do in GS2013: papers, alternative statements, overtures to admonish GS2012.
    o How can we positively model discipline?
    o Why are there no graded steps of discipline for GS professors? There are limits to what GS can do to sanction a professor.
    o It is a good idea to educate delegates on the issues before GS.
  • What happens if we refuse to fund R-56s? It would still require a way to reconsider, or else it would take effect.
  • It would be helpful to send GSC an analysis of how R-56s was contrary to RCA order. Talk to GSC delegates, who seem to be working in isolation.

We continued our discussion on a number of issues.

  • We need to remember that there are good things coming out of the church in response to R-56s.
  • This is not supposed to be about winning and losing.
  • A communication to educate GSC could come from the Commission on Church Order, and should probably be sent to all the officers.
  • Do we need more discussion within this group?
  • We can use our order to address order. We can go back to classes and consistories and write letters to GSC and overtures and take other measures to address this.
  • Items sent to Tom DeVries need to be sent to Sally Vis.
  • We can use electronic media and one-on-one relationships to move the discussion. How can we make the reaction positive? Positive actions toward inclusion will move beyond the limits of that action.
  • This would be a good discussion for the joint commissions and GSC meeting in October. This can be addressed among the GSC officers. A communication from a commission or two (Church Order and Theology, perhaps) would be helpful.
  • We can and should talk to people outside of the assemblies. We cannot paint “them” in completely broad strokes.
  • What if the eastern synods refused to participate in the R-56s enactment committee? Albany Synod Executive Committee considered that, but realized that it would not be an appropriate move of protest. It would be helpful to educate each synod’s delegate to the ways in which R-56s violates our order.
  • Classis executive committees could also raise questions about the order implications of R-56s to the GSC and indicate that overtures will be forthcoming.
  • Does this gathering need//want to meet again? Or shall we simply call on resources as needed for our own groups? A resourcing page separate from the CI page seems like a good possibility. Another meeting might be useful, depending on what transpires. Daniel, Scott, Stacey, and James can be contacted.

The meeting adjourned with prayer led by James at 4:07 pm.

Respectfully submitted,

James Hart Brumm

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