The Ecclesiastical Route 11

11. Some Reflection (1)

Before I embark on suggesting how the CanRC could free themselves from the bureaucratic mess that has come to be, some reflection on our recent past.

On 2007-2010-2013

First, a thought on what happened in 2007, 2010, and 2013. In my opinion, the broadest interpretation of CO art. 30, referred to as “the older view” and “position A”, is legitimate under the pre-1983 church order but not once CO art. 30 had been expanded with the extra line.

Recognizing that GS 2007 had great difficulty determining the question of admissibility (two attempts to declare a church’s letter inadmissible failed), it seems to me that GS 2007 misstated why the letter should be considered admissible. The decision reads: “This item is admissible because it comes from one of the churches and deals with a matter that has been perceived as one belonging to the churches in common.” However, as GS 2013 made clear, being “a matter … belonging to the churches in common” itself does not yet make a submission from a church admissible. It seems to me that GS 2007 would have done well to indicate in the admissibility decision what it points out in the very first observation, namely: that the church was requesting GS 2007 to complete an unfinished matter from a previous synod (even if that synod was decades earlier).

(GS 2007 art. 136, GS 2013 art. 99 cons. 3.1)

However, while I concur with GS 2013 when it comes to the application of current church order prescriptions, I do believe GS 2010 was correct in what it was seeking to do. What we have here is a clash between the positioned text of the church order and the purpose of the church order.

The intention of instructions

In 1978 it was claimed that the line added to CO art. 30 articulated a principle of Reformed church polity. That claim was based on an understanding of how instructions implicitly functioned.

I wonder if this is proper. It may well be that the churches figured only regional synods could place matters on the agenda of a general synod. However, it would seem to me that a principle this important would have been explicitly articulated in the church order.

It seems to me that the churches 400 years ago chose this approach for the sake of expediency. The best way to prevent individual delegates from setting the agenda at an assembly would be to bind them to instructions. Such instructions could naturally only come from those who delegated them: the minor assembly. There were no fast means of communication, like a reliable postal system that could handle volumes of materials, never mind electronic means of communication, to ensure the agenda was properly put together.

To argue that instructions imply that the delegating body must set the agenda of the body being delegated to is, in my opinion, saying too much. An act of expediency does not necessarily imply an act of principle.

Position, Principles, and Purpose

An historical argument will have some weight to it, but in the end, it is the substance of a matter that should determine the best procedure to handle the matter. In another article I have explained how the hermeneutics of law involves the position, principles and purposes. I have argued that in the application of law, people tend to gravitate to one of these, but that it should be all three. I have also argued that the positioned text should be shaped by both principles and purposes.

(Applying Law)

Hence we will review principles and purposes that need to be considered in considering the way proposal find their way to a major assembly.

Principles: assembly of churches

The principles for Dort Polity are those commanded in Scripture, the most basic of which are articulated in confessional statements, and those agreed to “with common accord” (cf. CO article 76).

A basic principle of Dort polity is that broader assemblies are assemblies of churches. They are not assemblies of church members: Dort polity is presbyterial, not congregational and independentistic. They are not assemblies of minor assemblies: Dort polity is synodal not episcopal and conciliar.

My concern is that the ecclesiastical route in practice turns broader assemblies into assemblies of minor assemblies. A general synod is no longer an assembly of churches, but of regional synods, and a regional synod is no longer an assembly of churches, but of classes. This creates bureaucracy. For an overture that is ultimately to be decided by a general synod has to be considered by three broader assemblies, and not just one.

The reality of bureaucracy is illustrated by the following.

In the run-up to GS 2019, an overture was submitted by two churches to two different classes, which in turn forwarded it on to two different regional synods, who then both forwarded it on to general synod. When it was adopted by GS 2019, five broader assemblies had considered the overture.

(GS 2019 art. 85)

Also in the run-up to GS 2019, three similar overtures were submitted by three different churches to three different classes, which in turn forwarded it on to two different regional synods. One regional synod refused to forward on one overture, while the other regional synod forwarded on both overtures to general synod. By the time the overtures were denied, six broader assemblies had considered the matter.

(GS 2019 art. 142)

Principles: hierarchy

Another principle of Dort polity is that broader assemblies deal, among others, with those matters which belong to its churches in common. This is articulated in CO article 30 in the sentence that precedes the sentence articulating the ecclesiastical route.

It is ironic that the ecclesiastical route can prevent churches from being involved in a matter that is common to them. This happens when an overture dealing with a topic that is common to all the churches of a major broader assembly is not forwarded along the ecclesiastical route by a minor broader assembly. For example, if a classis or regional synod decides to halt an overture on having the church order prescribe mid-week worship services, the churches within other classes or the other regional synod would never have an opportunity to interact with this. Thus, the ecclesiastical route can result in minor broader assemblies lording it over churches that are not “its churches”.

In summary

There is a clash between the positioned text and the purpose of the church order where the ecclesiastical route is concerned. The historical argument regarding instructions may be factually correct, but an increased emphasis on the autonomy of the local church makes the ecclesiastical route problematic. The route incorrectly suggests major assemblies are meetings of the minor assemblies, not of churches. The route also encourages hierarchy.

In a next article we will continue the survey of principles.

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