The Ecclesiastical Route 14

14. A Better Way

We’ve come to the conclusion that the ecclesiastical route as regulated in CO art. 30 and regulated by GS 2013 is not necessarily the proper way in which to have proposals reach the table of a broader assembly. It is certainly not the most efficient way.

Having reviewed principles and practice, we now turn to the “positioned text”. Our concern is: what process would meet the necessary requirements of church involvement, support, and efficiency and how might that be articulated in the church order and assembly regulations?

GS 2010’s wisdom

We begin by reminding ourselves of what GS 2010 considered. Remember, “older understanding” refers to the direct route to general synod, “newer understanding” refers to the way of the minor assemblies, aka ecclesiastical route, to general synod.

3.6       The benefit of the older understanding of Article 30 is that every congregation has direct access to the broadest assembly on matters which are deemed to belong to the churches in common. This is desirable and healthy in our system of checks and balances whereby the autonomy of the local church is not lost (while it voluntarily binds itself to the decisions of the broader assemblies) and the threat of hierarchy at the broader assemblies is reduced. The benefit of the newer understanding of Article 30 is that it does not give undue influence to any one church who could potentially place a proposal on the agenda of a general synod without any of the other churches having seen it or studied it, much less interacted with it. The desire to have submissions first be tested, evaluated and filtered by the minor assemblies is beneficial in that it will ensure that only proposals which have won the support of a large number of churches reaches the broadest assembly. Such a check and balance helps protect the integrity of the bond of churches in the federation. A blending of these two approaches in a clear direction from synod would serve to benefit the churches and clarify the procedure for churches to address a general synod in the future.

(GS 2010 art. 62 cons. 3.6)

I’ve emphasized in the quote where I believe the solution lies.

Position: the solution

If the main concern is indeed that the churches need to have the opportunity to interact with materials presented to the major assembly at which they, in the delegates, are present, then the solution is to prescribe a procedure that involves all the churches within the region covered by a major assembly. At the same time, this procedure should allow the churches to address any major assembly they belong to, be it classis, regional synod, or general synod. And they should be able to do that on any matter common to the churches that are part of that assembly.

Currently the last line of CO art. 30 reads: “A new matter which has not previously been presented to that major assembly may be put on the agenda only when a minor assembly has dealt with it.”

The intent is to allow any church that falls within the jurisdiction of the major assembly to place a matter common to the churches of that major assembly on the agenda of that major assembly.

The following rephrasing would ensure that:

A new matter which has not previously been presented to that major assembly and is common to its churches may be put on the agenda by one of its churches.

Minor assemblies

The suggested phrasing would mean that a minor broader assembly cannot place something on the agenda of a major broader assembly. A classis cannot place things on the agenda of a regional or general synod, and a regional synod cannot place things on the agenda of a general synod.

This may look concerning but in practice there is no cause for concern. For, as assemblies of churches, the minor broader assemblies can never initiate a proposal. A classis could never decide to place something on the agenda of a broader assembly if a church did not ask it to. If a classis is asked by a church to do something it feels a broader assembly should do, it can decide to advise the church to submit it to the broader assembly directly.

Synod Guidelines

It would be advisable to regulate the procedure regarding such “new matters” so that all the churches of that major assembly are involved. Where an overture to general synod is concerned, it would mean removing from the Synod Guidelines the guideline adopted by GS 2013 and including a guideline identical to that adopted by GS 2010. This guideline should make clear that a church, just like a synod committee, should submit any matter as per CO art. 30 & 33, to the churches 6 months prior to a general synod. Churches then have basically four and half months to submit their thoughts on it to general synod. Thus general synod will have all the information the churches consider relevant before it, and make an informed decision.

The guideline adopted by GS 2010 is as follows:

For all matters of the churches in common, individual churches may address proposals or other significant submissions directly to general synod with the requirement that all such submissions are sent also to each church in the federation no later than six months prior to general synod.

Regional synods and classes will also have to include a similar guideline in their regulations.

Dealing with an overture from a church

It would be most expeditious if a general synod, upon receiving an overture, immediately decided on it. However, it could be that the matter being proposed by a church has merit, but is too bulky for a general synod to deal with expeditiously and stewardly. For example, what if a general synod received 3 overtures all on the same topic, but in details pulling in different directions? Add to that several dozen submissions by local churches. In such a situation a broader assembly (like a general synod) is free to commit the matter to a study committee that reports when the next general synod happens.

In terms of church units, this approach is less efficient than using the ecclesiastical route as all the churches will consider the matter twice. In terms of delegate units, this approach is more efficient than using the ecclesiastical route.

However, in the end it does not matter. For even if the ecclesiastical route was used, a general synod could still decide to submit the 3 overtures and several dozen submissions to a study committee. The thing is, there’s no example of that.

In conclusion

The proposed approach makes for clarity in procedure, for peace in the churches, and upholds the various principles of Doleantie Dort polity, namely, that an ecclesiastical assembly is always an assembly of churches and all the churches should be involved in what is common to all the churches.