I had 5 1/2 hours of wait-time in the airport on my way home from the RCA’s general Synod, the other day. Part of that was filled changing concourses and gates (my flight was, throughout that time, scheduled in two different concourses and four different gates!) I should say: I don’t actually mind. I travel just enough to be comfortable with the hassles but not enough to be frustrated by the inconvenience. Indeed, I enjoy traveling.
In any case, a few of those hours were spent talking with an RCA Elder I’d met during the week. He is relatively new to the RCA and one of the things we talked about was the difference between his former denomination (PCA) and the RCA. I was a bit frustrated by the tone of our Synod this year; he wasn’t at all taken aback. As we discussed it, I came to realize that the difference wasn’t really about theology, it was about culture.
The PCA and the RCA – for the most part – have similar theological standards. While our out-workings of that theology are different (i.e. The RCA is firm in it’s commitment to women in Ministry, the PCA is decidedly not), we share similar theological tendencies. Our cultures, however, are very different.
Culture is difficult to discern.
I once heard a sociologist compare “culture” to a lens in a pair of glasses: you don’t see it and most of the time you don’t notice it, but it drastically effects the way you see the world and the way you approach life. The RCA has a unique culture, and perhaps the most unique aspect of culture (compared to the way religious people tend to behave) is the ever-present expectation to be “nice.”
I know I shouldn’t use the word “nice.” Indeed, I remember one of my middle-school teachers condemning the use of the word for “saying nothing at all.” My recollection is that she circled the word every time we used it and required us to come up with a substitute. (Although, I mentioned that to her a few years ago, and she doesn’t recall the conviction at all!)
“Nice,” I learned, is a word we use when we really don’t want to say anything substantive. That isn’t quite true, as a matter of fact I think it fits here. One of the aspects of our denominational culture is that we expect everyone to play “nicely” with one another.
This is why many of us found the conversations about homosexuality this year so jarring. It wasn’t that we hadn’t heard similar sorts of conversations before, and it wasn’t that we were surprised at the various positions or even who held them. It was that we weren’t “nice.” The kind Elder I talked with during my time in O’Hare didn’t understand this. The session wasn’t at all out of line, from a PCA perspective. For the RCA, however, it seemed out of character.
Sure, “niceness” can be a problem. Most specifically, sometimes it’s little more than a thin facade of hypocrisy covering up hearts filled with hatred or weak-convictions painted as kindness. It also has it’s places: in the RCA, we’ve had a culture that – even in the midst of heavy disagreement – still expects everyone to play nicely with one another.
This is, it seams, decreasingly true.
I noticed that during the debacle-of-a-plenary session on the Monday of Synod. Indeed, my FaceBook status was: Oh my heavens — I’ve never seen parliamentary procedure like this.
I’ve thought about that status update; it actually wasn’t true. The parliamentary procedure really wasn’t that convoluted. The chair was appealed; amendments were offered; substitute recommendations were voted on. I’ve seen all of them (and more) any number of times – indeed, I’ve chaired meetings where all of those things have happened before. I recall, fondly (yes, fondly!) having a friend and colleague appeal one of my rulings at a Classis meeting and, though I still believe the ruling was right and the appeal mis-guided, the process was kind and respect ruled the day.
No, the procedure wasn’t all that unusual (although there was certainly some confusion). At the time I just couldn’t put my finger on what was wrong; now I know: we weren’t being nice.
* The delegates weren’t nice to the chair (understatement).
* They weren’t nice to the parliamentarian (who had kindly stepped in, when the original parliamentarian couldn’t make it)
* They weren’t nice to one another.
* They passed a (substitute) recommendation that wasn’t nice to anyone.
This has nothing to do with what side of an issue one falls on. This has to do with a culture’s acceptable standards of behavior.
I’m often asked by seminarians what Synod actually does. They read recommendations that “urge” and “request” and “call for” particular behaviors and wonder if any of it accomplishes anything. Part of it’s polity, of course. The Synod cannot require a specific behavior from individual members (or congregations, or Classes, etc.) The Synod, therefore, nicely asks. In our culture, that’s enough. We all know the saying: you catch more flies with honey than vinegar. In the RCA, we live by it.
Sure, as I said before, “nice” can be a problem. Sometimes being “nice” means we don’t say what we mean. Sometimes we appeal to “nice” in order to hide weak commitments. Sometimes the culture of “nice” overcomes the call to faithfulness.
But “nice” can also be good, and I’d argue that the Church (and the world) needs more of it in these days, not less.
Coming soon: a post on Bi-Annual Synods and my concerns (which, in part, relate to this loss of positive cultural standards).
Grace and peace,