Yielding to Formalism?
Among our membership questions are sometimes raised concerning the way general synods make their decision, especially concerning the admissibility of certain proposals or appeals. A good example of what I mean are the decisions that General Synod 1995 and 1998 have made concerning the participation of women in the election of office bearers. In several of the submissions dealing with these cases, the issue raised was declared inadmissible on the grounds that the rule of Article 30 C.O. had not been followed. If we take a closer look at Article 30, we are confronted with a provision that is relatively recent in our Church Order. The question arises whether this provision is necessary, or are we yielding to a new formalism?
It is not my intention to go into the issue of the participation of women in the election of office bearers itself. I am strictly concerned with the procedural question concerning the use of Article 30 C.O. in this decision, or decisions of a similar kind. From time to time I gather from comments that I have received that this provision is not readily understood. Hence a closer examination of the provision may be helpful for our readers.
A Closer Look
The new provision in Article 30 reads: “A new matter which has not previously been to that major assembly may be put on the agenda only when the minor assembly has dealt with it.” If one examines the wording of this article as it existed before the revisions of the 1980s he will notice that this provision was not a part of the old Article 30. Essentially a new provision has been added. Again, the question easily arises whether all this does justice to the Church Order of Dort, or whether it involves a step towards formalism.
In effect the new provision is a combination of several elements that existed in the old Church Order. Article 33 of the older Church Order read: “Those who are delegated to the assemblies shall bring with them their credentials and instructions signed by those sending them, and they shall have a vote in all matters, except such as particularly concern their persons or churches,” (emphasis added). In the new Article 32, which is a revision of the old Article 33, the reference to instructions has been deleted. The phrase “and instructions” is no longer found in the new Church Order. Besides this, one will notice that the old Article 46 which dealt with instructions and how they were composed has been entirely deleted in the revised Church Order. And the old Article 45 concerning the provision of the Acts to the following meetings has also been deleted. What has happened? Essentially, the new provision added in Article 30 C.O. is meant to retain the essential elements of what was previously incorporated in the deleted articles. The Canadian churches adopted this revision of the article from the revisions introduced by Synod Groningen-Zuid in the Netherlands in 1978. 1 Apparently our deputies at the time agreed with the reasoning that was adopted by the Dutch churches in their revision process.
Why the Change?
One might ask why several articles were deleted in favour of adding one new provision in the new Article 30 C.O. The reason will be clear if one carefully examines the old articles. They hark back to a period in which the agenda of the assembly concerned was actually drawn up and adopted at the floor of the assembly itself, once it had been constituted. The old Article 33 clearly indicates that also the instructions had to be signed by the officers of the delegating body. Hence an important principle emerges from the old Church Order which the revisors felt obligated to retain: the agenda for the broader assemblies is set and determined not by the delegates but by the churches themselves.
We have come a long way since the days when delegates carried the instructions given to them to the ecclesiastical meetings in their pockets so that the agenda could be drafted at the meeting. The mail services are such that the convening church can send a provisional agenda to the churches of the classis well before the meeting takes place. And all the churches can send instructions to the convening church of classis beforehand, so that the matters to be dealt with can be placed on the provisional agenda, and all the churches can be informed about them. That way all the churches know what is going to be discussed.
To be sure, there are some matters which come via instruction to the table of classis, and the delegates do not know beforehand what they are about. Matters of advice and discipline often come via instruction or as a request for advice ad Article 41C.O. But “regular” proposals are sent beforehand, and churches often receive them for their delegates well before the classis.
The same applies for those assemblies at the broader order of extent, that is, the regional and general synods. The clerks of the classes delegating brothers to the regional synods can supply the convening church of the regional synod with the instructions for the agenda of that meeting, and that provisional agenda will in turn be sent to all the delegates well before the meeting. Similarly, the clerks of the regional synods delegating brothers to the general synod can also send the instructions of their respective regional synods to the convening church of the general synod. In fact, so smooth and facile are our methods of communication, that most often local consistories affected also receive the agendas of these broader assemblies.
Under the old system the Acts of the previous assembly (of the same order of extent, so, if it was a classis, then the Acts of the previous classis, and so on) had to be read at the next assembly (i.e. in the example above, the next classis, and so on) before the churches were permitted to write instructions concerning any matter to be dealt with. This practice was meant to prevent any matter that had been decided from being dealt with again, say, through a proposal from a church that had not yet been informed of what had been decided at the previous assembly. The clear inference was that all churches of a particular region had to have received the Acts of the previous synod before being able to put forward matters to the next synod. As one can well imagine, this was sometimes a long and labourious process!
Carrying through on the adopted rule in the broader assemblies, matters could arrive at the table of the next regional synod (the next assembly in the same order of extent) only after they had been dealt with by the local churches which had received the Acts of the previous regional synod, and only after these matters were also carefully considered by the classis. For even though it was a matter which concerned the churches in common, it was not proper for the local churches to send the matter directly to the regional synod. Why? The principle of tiered delegation implies that the agenda of the regional synod is made up by the classes. And the classis was not simply to function as a postal service, taking the letter from a local church and dropping it off at the regional synod. Rather, it makes its own judgment on the matter so that it can be sent to the regional synod as a matter supported and endorsed by all (or a majority of) the churches of a particular classical region.
All this the revisers have attempted to retain in the provision added to Article 30. Not only does this provision imply that the agenda for the broader assemblies is made up by the churches, it also implies that every step of the way there will be a significant number of churches represented at the assembly that have seen the proposal, are aware of its contents, and have formulated a judgment about it. In keeping with the principle of tiered delegation, it implies that the agenda of the regional synod is made up by the classes, and the agenda of the general synod is made up by the regional synods. In principle, there is no place for submissions from local churches at a general synod, even though the matter may be one for the churches in common. For the local church does not make up the agenda of the general synod. It is made up by the regional synods that elect delegates to the General Synod, who in turn send the matters to the convening church for the general synod.
Now over the years our entire method of expediting matters of the churches in common has changed to the point that we have many reports of committees on the agenda of the broader assemblies, especially the general synod, and these reports are sent to all the churches well before the synod actually meets. In this case all the churches have had the opportunity to read reports and express their opinions on the matters in question. Letters of adhesion are sent in from various churches on any particular matter that has been placed on the agenda by the convening church. In this way the submissions of many local churches also find their way to the table of synod. Yet it should be remembered that in the original pattern, the agenda was not made up by the churches individually, but by the churches in their respective assemblies.
The Principles at Stake
The point of this provision is then twofold: first of all, the matter in question must be one which comes to the table from the churches. The churches determine the agenda of the assemblies, not particular individuals. That is part of the character of the assemblies as ecclesiastical assemblies where churches have come together, and where churches are represented by their delegates. And a second principle here is: all the churches must not only be aware of what is on the agenda of any given broader assembly, but must also have dealt with it in some form before it reaches either a regional or general synod. One church cannot make proposals to a regional or general synod without receiving first of all the support of the churches of their own classical region. And the churches of a classical region cannot lay matters to be decided on the floor of the general synod without the support of the rest of the churches (say, a majority) belonging to the regional synod.
The safeguard Article 30 builds into the Church Order is this: all the churches of a particular classical region should know about a certain matter which appears on the agenda of classis. And if the matter is on the agenda of the regional synod, the churches of at least one classis of that region should have dealt with it and approved it beforehand, so that it arrives on the table as a matter endorsed by a substantial number of churches in the region. Only such a method promotes the greatest involvement of the churches, and the greatest awareness concerning what is being discussed and voted on. It also preserves a sound representative principle: that is, that any matter of the churches in common decided upon according to the rule and steps of Article 30 will represent the expressed will of the greatest number of churches.
Decently and in Good Order
One paragraph in your Church Order can make a lot of difference! Although it may all appear cumbersome to the average church member, and may also have the appearance of formalism, there is a gold mine of thought and constructive order in the principles above. 2 On the one hand we have a safeguard against hierarchy or oligarchy: rule by a broader assembly or rule by a few persons or churches. On the other hand we have a safeguard against independentism. For the entire principle is meant to curtail the introduction of arbitrary measures at a whim. Let all the churches carefully consider a matter concerning their welfare before it becomes a settled and binding decision affecting all the churches in the federation. That, we may assume is the reason why the synods of the previous years have declared matters inadmissible which had not been brought before classis and regional synod. That is the way of 1 Corinthians 14:40, that “all things be done decently and in good order.” For, in all things agreeable to the Word of God, decisions taken must follow the will of the majority, but in proper deference to all parties. Only then do you shape the consensus which continues to build and to promote the love of the brotherhood.