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Classis Alberta North Addresses Human Sexuality Overtures in the Round

With a Christ candle in the center, delegates to Classis Alberta North conversed in a circle, deliberating over proposed overtures about the human sexuality report coming to Synod 2022.
With a Christ candle in the center, delegates to Classis Alberta North conversed in a circle, deliberating over proposed overtures about the human sexuality report coming to Synod 2022.

Fifty-two delegates from 31 churches in Classis Alberta North convened at Bethel Christian Reformed Church in Edmonton, Alta., on Feb. 5 for what was classified as a “special meeting” of the regional group of churches. It had only one agenda item: the processing of five overtures dealing with the report of the CRC synod’s Committee to Articulate a Foundation–laying Biblical Theology of Human Sexuality. It was also special because, in struggling with the best way to proceed with this complex and potentially divisive issue, the Classis Interim Committee (CIC), which functions as a board between Classis meetings, decided to use an unusual approach.

An overture (formal request) usually goes to an advisory committee, which studies it and presents recommendations to classis. Then, typically, time for debate on the recommendations at classis is limited because of the meeting’s full agenda. On this occasion, explained an orientation document, “rather than working through the recommendations of an advisory committee, classis will function as a committee of the whole and the emphasis will be on seeking the guidance of the Spirit in discerning how we can move forward as a classis united in love even if we are not in full agreement with each other.”

Bill Diepeveen, a member of Centrepointe Community CRC in Edmonton, facilitated the meeting. He has worked in mediation and conflict resolution since the mid-1980s. Diepeveen said his approach, which includes periods of prayer and silent reflection, is a “liturgical” discernment process, influenced by Ruth Haley Barton’s book, Pursuing God’s Will Together: A Discernment Practice for Leadership Groups.

With delegates sitting in a double circle, one person from each church was invited to speak briefly about their congregation’s and their own concerns, fears, and hopes related to the overtures. Others were then encouraged to ask open-ended questions in a respectful way.  Following lunch, a member of the CIC summarized what she believed were the main themes of the morning. This was followed by a brief presentation of the overtures, with delegates invited to  ask questions for clarification.

After a short break, Neil deKoning, chair of the CIC, introduced a draft of a possible new overture addressing the areas in which there had appeared to be consensus. There was a high level of disagreement with the proposal, and some delegates were quite upset. As a result, a delegate moved that classis withhold action on all the overtures “without prejudice” so that they could be forwarded to synod with an attached statement that the overture was neither defeated nor adopted by Classis Alberta North but given the freedom to move forward. This was almost unanimously accepted. The classis then closed the session with a celebration of communion.

Delegate Roy Berkenbosch, member of Fellowship CRC in Edmonton, said “the facilitator and CIC did the best they could with a complicated issue,” though he was dismayed by the proposal of a new overture and believes it was a mistake to think all different opinions could be made into a single statement. He was happy with the outcome that his church’s overture  could go forward undefeated. (In CRC polity formal requests to synod, the broadest assembly of the denomination, must first be processed by a local church council and then by a classis, but if a council or classis does not choose to adopt the request as its own, an individual or a council may submit its request on its own behalf.)

Gary Duthler, the classis stated clerk, spoke to a number of delegates after the meeting. "The common response was two-fold,” he said. “A feeling of being emotionally full after listening to the variety of comments, and a genuine feeling of surprise and satisfaction at how people shared from the heart and listened respectfully to each other. The short time of frustration came when an attempt was made to formulate the common ground into an overture. It seems that many delegates felt that it did not do justice to the range of concerns expressed in the submitted overtures,” Duthler said.

“This was a new way of dealing with difficult issues for Classis,” said facilitator Diepeveen, “and not surprisingly, the unfamiliarity with the process produced discomfort among some delegates. While the day ended with an almost unanimous agreement on how to move forward, we were not able to clearly articulate and agree upon some common themes to forward to Synod by way of an overture. In retrospect, we needed more time.”

Diepeveen was impressed by how the participants extended grace to each other by listening deeply. “My hope,” he continued, “is that Classis and the churches in general will take the time to use discernment processes like this one as they wrestle with tough, value-laden, and theologically challenging issues … especially in a time where division and drawing lines in the sand are increasingly the preferred approach.”

Duthler said, “The ability to celebrate communion gave expression to the realization of the hope that this discussion would do more to unite than to divide us all.”

Many classes of the CRC have discussed overtures related to the human sexuality report since it was released to churches in October 2020. Those adopted have been noted in classis watch reports: Classis Watch: Winter 2021, Classis Watch: Spring 2021, Classis Watch: Late Spring 2021, Classis Watch: Fall 2021, and Classis Watch: Late Fall 2021. The report and requests connected to it are expected to take a good deal of the agenda for Synod 2022, scheduled to meet June 10-16 on the campus of Calvin University in Grand Rapids, Mich. The agenda is expected to be available from the denomination's synodical services in early April. The deadline to receive communications or overtures is March 15.

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