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Update from the General Synod of the RCA

posted Jun 21, 2019, 3:00 PM by Tricia Sheffield

Grace and peace to you on this day of the Summer Solstice!


I promised you an update from the events of the General Synod (GS) of the Reformed Church in America (RCA), held in Holland, Michigan June 6-11, and so here it is. But first, let me say that with all the proceedings regarding polity shifts, terrible Biblical interpretation, and questionable theology, what is most crucial is that our lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer siblings in Christ are hurting terribly. The denomination that we once considered as a home, maybe even family, is no longer what it once was. And now many LGBTQ people are wondering if they will even be able to be ordained, serve in some ministerial capacity, or even have a place at the table in the RCA. So, I want to acknowledge this pain because what is the most important topic regarding what happened at GS is the despair of God’s beloved people.


This is going to be a long missive , so I beg your grace.


On June 10th, Monday night at GS there was a recommendation put to the delegates of General Synod that any constitutional amendments that come out of the Vision 2020 decision next year be passed by a simple majority vote, and not our usual 2/3 vote as has been our history for church government for almost 400 years. This recommendation passed and will now go out to all of the classes for a 2/3 vote. Here is the recommendation: 


If it is ratified, the amendment will be added to the “Rules and Amendments” section of the Book of Church Order, reading as follows:


c. A majority of the classes shall approve any proposed amendment needed to implement the 2020 General Synod’s response to the Vision 2020 Team’s final report in order to secure its adoption. Only classes whose delegates were eligible to be seated at the General Synod at which the amendment was adopted are eligible to vote on the recommendation for approval. This subparagraph c. shall only apply to amendments approved at or before General Synod 2023.


This is not very encouraging news. If this recommendation passes 2/3 vote of the classes and is upheld next year at General Synod when the recommendation comes from the Vision 2020 team, there is widespread belief that the welcoming and affirming churches will lose and will probably be asked to leave (think what happened at the United Methodist Church recently). This is because it has become very clear that the RCA has been taken over by a traditionalist (their name for themselves) majority and they want the denomination to be theologically conservative, not only in regards to human sexuality, but also Biblical interpretation and theology. Much of what they are putting forth does not reflect any type of Reformed tradition.


Allow me to remind you of what Vision 2020 is for the RCA. The Vision 2020 Team was formed by General Synod 2018 to prayerfully explore three different scenarios for the future of the RCA: staying together, significant reorganization, and grace-filled separation. The team was proposed by interim general secretary Don Poest in response to deep divisions in the denomination. The theological differences within the RCA have led us to a point where we are not sure how to continue ministry together. Poest identified human sexuality as a point of significant division in our denomination, but he acknowledged other divisions as well, including polity and lack of alignment with Transformed & Transforming, the RCA's strategic goal (https://rca.org/vision-2020-team).


I'm not sure that the traditionalists who are in power in the RCA will accept just one scenario, but maybe a combination of 2 and 3, the significant reorganization being changing our form of church government (polity) to achieve their results. The General Secretary of the RCA, Eddy Aleman, even said that our polity doesn't work for us anymore. Read: "us" means work for the traditionalists. The traditionalists are working to ensure that churches like MRC leave the RCA, or are forced to leave. Basically, the majority of those who are power in the RCA do not care for our history, theology, institutions, church government, or process. It has become evident that they care about winning, and will do anything to achieve their goal. As one colleague has said, “The writing is on the wall.”


My colleague and friend Paul Janssen said their recommendation regarding the simple majority vote was one of the most "pernicious" things he has seen at a GS. I quote Paul below as I think his reflection of the events of GS get to the spirit of the matter: Allow me to offer how last night's actions are perceived from an outsider. First, it seems like a total truncation of the 2020 process. You (the GS, not you personally) talked and talked about process and how important it is, etc., and then, in what seems like a strategy that was cooked up before synod, a small majority decided to shortcut the process by attempting to abrogate the order without even following the appropriate process. How did the matter NOT go to the advisory committee on governance, other than that the leadership (James and Eddy and EJ) didn't want it to go there? It should have been automatic - Committee on Reference TO Committee on Governance, and THEN back to the floor. It is very, very hard not to view things as having been pre-cooked, from the highest levels of leadership right on down. Which makes the whole thing feel like a cynical changing of the rules in the middle of the game. Look, if folks want a church with a polity that looks like the PCA, just go to the PCA. Unless the actual agenda is somewhat less pure: i.e., to take over the RCA and make conditions so harsh that any dissenters will either feel obligated to leave or will be pushed out by disciplinary processes that are founded on an ecclesiology that is congregational, not reformed. The hurt you may have sensed isn't so much from "losing a vote." It's from seeing a group of supposed colleagues manipulate a process; i.e., changing the rules in the middle of the game. That's where the hurt comes from. From betrayal of what was understood to be our common culture, and finding out that, no, apparently, others have taken over and are willingly pushing them out. (Which, as Lynn Japinga said, should require a HIGHER percentage because it's so consequential.) Finally the whole thing feels like a pig in a poke. I.e., what's being asked is a 51% vote on something that could range all the way from benign to drastic. But we don't know that yet, do we? So now what we have is (potentially) a container for the most drastic changes to be made and ratified by a bare majority. That, frankly, is dirty pool. It was illegal and should not have even been entertained. It violates the life of the body.


So, what does this all mean? I am in conversations with the Consistory, my colleagues in Classis New Brunswick, and others as we realize the need to strategize our next steps in order to protect our commitment to God’s loving justice, our people, and our property and assets should we leave, or be asked to leave, if the traditionalists have their way. I must say I am glad for our foresight in becoming dual-affiliated with the United Church of Christ as this may offer us some protection.


As for me and my ordination, I told the Consistory on the Monday night of June 10 that if the recommendation that is listed at the top of this email was even approved to go out to the classes for a vote, I would begin looking into the process of moving my ordination to the United Church of Christ. Ten minutes after leaving our meeting, I found out it had passed. (Remember, though, it still needs 2/3 approval by all the classes). I am keenly aware now more than ever they will come for me, and other welcoming and affirming ministers/LGBTQ ministers and seek to demit (defrock) me/us, as they want to change our polity to allow for cross Classis disciplinary proceedings. Right now, only someone on our Consistory or in our Classis can bring me up on charges. 


This moving of my ordination is not something I do glibly; it is something I have been thinking and praying about for several years. 


Allow me to tell you a story from this week. I was praying hard as I traveled on Tuesday to Montclair to serve on the Church and Ministry Commission of the United Church of Christ as part of the Reformed Caucus in the New Jersey Association. As I was driving, I kept asking God what is the best and most faithful way I can serve the congregation to which I have been called? I just kept asking that question and listening. What came back to me was I needed to be in a space of ministry where I can be joyful and at peace, and not always looking over my shoulder wondering if someone in my denomination is coming after me, or us. And, what I also heard is that our church will best flourish if we are not in a constant battle just to exist in our denomination. Flourishing means we can do the ministry that God has called us to do without fear or being encumbered. Thus, this Tuesday I informed the Church and Ministry Commission of the UCC I would like to move my ordination to that denomination. So begins the process which will probably take about a year. Once my ordination is moved to the UCC, I am still able to serve MRC under the Formula of Agreement. I thought I would be sad about moving my ordination, but honestly, I think I have been grieving a long time about where I have seen the RCA going, and I felt a weight lifted from my shoulders and a strong sense of freedom with this decision. That said, I am Reformed through and through, with my theology, my love of our history, our church government, and our style of worship and liturgy.


So, there you have the update from GS. These are unstable and uncertain times for the RCA, but you have my faithful promise that I and the Consistory will prayerfully discern what may be next for MRC. In the near future, we will be having a congregational meeting for an honest and transparent question and answer time. In the meantime, feel free to write back, call or text, if you have further questions.


I look forward to seeing you in worship this Sunday at 10:30 AM where we will celebrate the One who welcomes all people to the full life and ministry of the Universal Church. We will begin our Summer Sermon Series, Be Still and Know. Diane Grady will be our featured soloist singing the anthem “As the Deer.” I will be preaching from 1 Kings 19.1-15 and Psalm 46 and my sermon title is Be Still and Know.


In closing, please let me remind you of this: your membership is not in a denomination; your membership is held in a local church with a functioning Consistory. Your identity is a beloved child of God because “I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8.38-39). And whoever we are or whoever we become, I am assured that the Holy Spirit will always be present at MRC. I invite you to join me in prayer and ask the Spirit to guide us as we move forward in these uncertain times. Come, Holy Spirit! 


In gratitude for the joy of being your Pastor and the holy call of loving you,


Pastor Trish

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