Once again, we’ve started the process (in the RCA) of moving toward bi-annual general Synods.
The arguments for bi-annual Synods (as opposed to annual Synods) are numerous and obvious. Synods are expensive. Electronic communication is easier than ever (although, interestingly, the seminarians at Synod this year strongly argued that online communication cannot and should not take the place of face-to-face interactions). The work we accomplish, at some level, seems a small pay-off for the costs and inconvenience of a yearly meeting. The list could go on and on.
The arguments for continuing annual Synods are less tangible, but no less important. Today, I’d like to mention two of them: Culture (Identity) and Equality (Justice).
I live in New York, just outside of Rochester. I grew up in Iowa, just outside of Orange City.
My family is in the midwest, including two grandmothers who live in Northwest Iowa. I attended college in Iowa. My inlaws are in Iowa. The reality is, however, that I don’t ever expect to live there again. While my Iowa heritage will always affect me in some ways (for example, I find trees obstructive and consider the ability to see a horizon in all four directions to be the epitome of created beauty), distance changes things. If I lived in Iowa, I would see my grandmothers regularly. If I lived in Iowa, my children would know their grandparents better. If I lived in Iowa, my girls would grow up with a love of “wide open spaces” rather than comforted by the closeness of overhanging branches and fluttering leaves. Every year we don’t return to Iowa is a year that my children are less connected with their roots and more distant from their family.
This mimics one of my concerns with bi-annual Synods.
The RCA is a small denomination (less than 1000 congregations). We are a diverse denomination (ethnically, linguistically, culturally, theologically). Our ability to work together and graciously disagree with one another is, in many ways, based on our relationships. Regardless of our differences, we eat dinner together every year, we worship together every year, we study the scriptures together every year, and we argue with one another every year. Like a healthy marriage, however, our arguments and differences do not separate us for long because our covenantal togetherness is annually reinforced by physical proximity. (It’s harder to hate someone you ate with last week; it’s harder to “go off” at someone online whom you lived with in college or seminary; it’s harder to blindly anathematize someone you roomed with at a General Synod.)
In my last post, I lamented our loss of cultural “niceness.” A bi-annual Synod, I fear, would change us even more – and not in a good way. We are already relationally strained; we already have communication problems; our denominational identity (and purpose) is already weak; congregationalism has already (over)influenced our polity; solid Reformed theology is already rare, litigiousness is already increasing. The only way to keep these (and other) errors in check, is to make sure that we sit across the table from one another each year and (are forced to) face the fact that we’re “in this together” – yes, our covenantal togetherness thrives, only, when reinforced by regular physical proximity, and God’s mission, through us, thrives only when we work together.
Even more than the loss of culture, identity, and purpose, I’m concerned that a bi-annual Synod will increasingly alienate our minorities and those, in the denomination, with fewer resources. One of the suggestions is to put a “Conversations-like” event on the “off” years. In other words, we would hold some kind of conference during the years we don’t hold Synod. In order for this to be economically beneficial, those conferences (like “Conversations”) will have to fund participation locally. Easy enough for the rich among us. Impossible for the poor.
Anytime participation requires self-funding, those with resources can attend with little or no difficulty (and thus, their voice is always heard). Those with fewer resources either need to sacrifice deeply to attend or simply cannot go (and thus, their voice is only heard when they can afford it). That means, of course, that all the benefits I mentioned in the above section are experienced and formed by the wealthy and not experience (nor informed) by the poor.
Similarly, without the legislative aspect drawing us to our yearly assembly, there will certainly be a increased tendency to resort to regional meetings (where we will spend more time with people who think like we do) and sub-group meetings (inevitably ending up with us spending more time with people who look like we do). Why? Because it’s simply easier.
If we’re need to pay for our own inclusion and take our own vacation for it, we’re going to be less inclined to attend meetings that are expensive, distant, or force us to experience racial/ethnic/theological/class dissonance – as important as they are for denominational and personal development. Planters will not be in the same room as pastors of historic churches. Room for All will not be in the same room with RCA Integrity. CPAAM will not be in the same room with the AABC. Albany Synod will not be in the same room with the Synod of the Great Lakes. Octavo singers will not be in the same room with screen users.
One of the benefits of having a general Synod is that all of us end up in the same room. (This is also one of the reasons I believe Classes should be geographically defined rather than affiliated by affinity – but that’s a different post for a different day.)
I realize there’s the argument that some commissions and agencies would benefit from more time to accomplish their work – I understand that need. I’ve been there. The answer to that concern is simple: give them more time. It has nothing to do with how often Synod meets.
I guess the question is simply what matters most to us… My wife and I have moved away from our families and willingly accepted the drawbacks of that decision because we believe that – although inconvenient – it is what God desires from us. Last time we looked at bi-annual Synods, someone (I don’t remember who) said to me: It’s a bad idea, whose time may have come.
I hope not.
Grace and peace,