It wasn’t a real synod, but at times it felt a little like one.
On June 15 and 16, the Christian Reformed Church’s Council of Delegates met in special session by video conference to deal with matters deemed unable to wait until Synod 2022. Synod, the broadest assembly of the CRC, usually meets annually but Synod 2020 and 2021 were canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Sort of Like a Real Synod
In many ways, the special meeting operated like synod, just with fewer delegates.
It was live streamed on YouTube for people who wanted to watch the proceedings, whether in real-time or later. In 2020 that wasn't available. Paul DeVries, chair of the Council, said that last year, they were just concentrating on making the connections work for delegates. “The special meeting in June 2020 was expected to be a one-time exceptional thing,” he said. “Now in 2021, we are familiar with the technology.”
Mark Vande Zande (Classis Heartland) led opening devotions, as he would have if Synod 2021 had met as planned at Dordt University in Sioux Center, Iowa. First CRC in Orange City, Iowa, where Vande Zande is pastor, is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year and had been selected as the host church of Synod 2021.
Colin Watson Sr., executive director of the denomination, gave a state-of-the-church address. He pointed to initiatives like the denomination’s new ministry plan, Our Journey 2025, as some of the ways the CRC is addressing church and societal trends, giving him confidence to say the church’s future is both hopeful and promising.
Delegates welcomed 31 candidates for ministry, though without the level of celebration experienced at a real synod. They also acknowledged 32 ministers who have retired.
The Council approved next year’s budget, which allots ministry shares to the CRC’s various ministries and agencies. For the first time it’s based on income pledged by the churches and classes and not on a specified per-member remittance.
Being On Screen Just Isn’t the Same
Prominently missing from the online session was the camaraderie and, yes, the friction that comes with gathering for a week with 200 people—sharing coffee and meals, getting a small group together away from the crowd to discuss this or that agenda item, or going out with other delegates after evening sessions for some laughter and loosening up. The angst that was present this year wasn’t mitigated by in-person fellowship. Being on a screen is just different from sitting elbow to elbow with other delegates.
And the singing. Anyone who has been to a synod knows that Christian Reformed people love to sing and do it well. Devotions just aren’t the same on a Zoom screen. And the usually humorous repartee between the synod president and speakers was very curtailed.
Despite not being a real synod, the Council took up several weighty matters on Synod 2021’s behalf. And just like last year, delegates noted that they felt odd having to approve their own work.
One such instance was determining to leave unchanged the Council’s May 2021 decision to remove Bethany Christian Services from the list of organizations recommended to the churches for offerings. That happened because Bethany is now extending its adoption and other services to same-sex couples. Revisiting the matter engendered another emotionally charged conversation.
Several classes asked that discipline be imposed on Neland Avenue CRC after it ordained a deacon who is living in a same sex marriage. The Council was very careful not to overstep its authority, deferring action to Synod 2022, but it did send a communication to Synod 2022 reiterating its grave concern about Neland’s actions.
Regarding two overtures asking to stop the process of restructuring the denominational leadership, the Council said that halting the process is impractical and maybe not even possible.
The Council also approved actions for prevention of abuse of power, some of which were held over from last year, including approving a code of conduct for all ministry leaders in the denomination.
Looking Ahead to Synod 2022
Synod 2022 promises to be doozy. Due to the heavy agenda, the Council asked the program committee (the Synod 2019 officers), to explore options for that meeting, including “consultation with a design team consisting of staff and significant participants at synod,” and to bring a preliminary report to the Council in October. Synod 2022 will be held at Calvin University in Grand Rapids, Mich. Encounter CRC in Kentwood, Mich., will be the host church.
Held over from previous agendas are reports from two task forces, one on ecclesiastical marriage and other on bivocational ministry; a definition of heresy report; a review of the New City Catechism; and several overtures.
Mostly, Synod 2022 will be a defining moment for the relationship between the Christian Reformed Church and its members who identify as LGBTQ.
Division has been evident in differing responses to the actions of Neland Avenue CRC. Opinions about Bethany Christian Services mostly fall along the same fault line.
Synod 2022 will take up a 175-page report on human sexuality. That report asserts that any expression of sexuality outside of a marriage between one man and one woman is contrary to scripture and it goes on to state that this view already has confessional status in the church.
The report was deferred when Synod 2021 was canceled. The range of overtures already received demonstrate just how fraught the discussion will be, and more are sure to come in the lead-up to June 2022.
In a surprising and unusual move, the Council at this meeting instructed the executive director to develop a mechanism that would allow LGBTQ voices to be heard by delegates to the next synod, with regard to the human sexuality report. The action passed by a narrow margin, with 17 delegates registering a negative vote.
Please pray that despite this divisive time the executive director’s confidence in a promising and hopeful future for the CRC will bear out.