Synod 2016 showed a church increasingly diverse and also increasingly divided.
The issue of homosexuality will continue to be divisive in the Christian Reformed Church, much as it has been in so many other denominations. A more subtle but growing divide is the disconnect between the people in the pew and the denominational administrative structure. It is not a distrust of the people in leadership. They seem well appreciated. Rather, it is a lack of connection to shared ministry and a desire to leave more money in the coffers of congregations to do local ministry.
Who’s In, Who’s Not?
Earlier synods have worked very hard over the past two decades to be as inclusive and diverse as possible. And there has been much success. Women, young adults, people of ethnic minorities, and deacons have all been included around the table in the past several years as delegates, advisors, or representatives.
This year 18 percent of synod delegates were ethnic minorities and 21 percent were women. And for the first time, deacons were delegated to synod.
There were other “firsts” too: one of the officers of synod was Hispanic. An African American man was appointed to the faculty of Calvin Theological Seminary. The new Banner editor is not of white Dutch ancestry.
Inclusion of African American brothers and sisters was further affirmed when synod proposed that the Belhar Confession be adopted as a contemporary testimony rather than leaving it in what one delegate called “confessional purgatory” as an ecumenical faith declaration.
Who’s not in? People who self-identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender. By declining to include a panel of LGBT advisors, those voices will not be at the table in the same way as those of women, deacons, young adults, and people of ethnic minorities.
No Rubber Stamps
Synod has been regarded by some as simply a rubber stamp for decisions already made by the Board of Trustees, especially since the change 20 years ago from a two-week synod to one week.
But this year delegates pushed back.
For the first time in recent memory, delegates declined to approve a 2 percent ministry shares increase proposed by the Board of Trustees. Even as delegates affirmed and gave thanks for the work of various agencies, it declined to increase funding. Denominational leaders will have to go back to the drawing board to rethink the allocations to various ministries that had been planned for 2017.
Synod didn’t just refuse to increase funding to those agencies. It wants the whole ministry share system “reimagined.” It wants every agency and ministry reviewed to make sure the work being done is what previous synods have specifically asked for. The implicit message was that projects that are no longer needed, or those added by staff instead of resulting from synod instructions, shouldn’t be funded. Delegate William Delleman called it “ministry creep.”
Delegates also pushed back against proposed new liturgical forms for events such as baptism and communion. Instead of a pro forma acceptance of forms written by professional staff, delegates discussed the forms at length and did some serious editing of those forms before they were adopted.
Despite producing a very lengthy report, the task force that studied the Doctrine of Discovery had few of its recommendations adopted.
As the study committee recommended, Synod declared the doctrine itself a heresy; delegates also participated in the Blanket Exercise and learned a Navajo song during devotions. But although the task force requested further investigation of tresspasses against Navajo and Zuni people as a result of the CRC’s ministry there for more than 100 years, Synod 2016 in fact affirmed the work at Rehoboth Christian School. Navajo people at synod shared stories of thanks and grace for the missionaries.
Synod was also not buying the recommendations of the majority report of the Committee to Provide Pastoral Guidance re Same-Sex Marriage. Those recommendations included giving pastors some leeway in officiating at a civil same-sex ceremony and suggested that participation in a same-sex religious wedding by ordained leaders is complex and that church leaders should exercise caution and discretion.
Synod instead recommended the advice from just two members of that committee, advice that draws a much more restrictive line. Its recommendations specify that pastors may not officiate at same-sex weddings, officebearers should not participate in same-sex weddings, and people living in same-sex relationships of any kind should not be considered members in good standing.
Synod appointed a new study committee to provide a biblical theology of human sexuality. Members of the new committee must express their agreement with the guidelines set out by Synod 1973 and Synod 2002. The committee has five years to complete its work.
Putting Discussions in a Larger Perspective
The only study committee report wholeheartedly received was from the Committee to Study Religious Persecution and Liberty. After just 26 minutes of discussion, synod adopted its recommendations.
Having synod spend so little time on religious persecution and so much on same-sex marriage and doctrine of discovery angered Caleb Ahima, ecumenical delegate from the Christian Reformed Church in Nigeria. He told delegates, “I’m stepping over bodies. I’m dealing with widows and orphans,” he said. “I pray this never happens in North America because you will not have time for these discussions.”
In his interview to become Banner editor, Shiao Chong warned against such infighting. “The devil would love nothing more than seeing us spend time tearing each other apart when there are lives to be saved.”
Executive director Steven Timmermans said to delegates that he was hearing a lot of “us” and “them” language and reminded them, “We are the church together.” One delegate said, “Synod is the voice of the church.”
But more than a few delegates wondered if synod’s voice was being heard. They wanted assurance that what synod asked for would actually happen.
Denominational leaders hope that transitioning from a Board of Trustees to a Council of Delegates will help connect people in the pews to to denominational ministries, that a new ministry plan will build common cause, and that new initiatives will find traction in local churches.
Whether the CRC can survive the discussion of homosexuality and same-sex attraction that has already rent so many denominations remains to be seen. Perhaps the only way will be if people can look at those they disagree with, and then espouse the words that Christena Cleveland shared at Engage 2016 prior to synod:
“The image of God in me embraces the image of God in you.”