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This guy goes to a psychiatrist and says, “Doc, uh, my brother’s crazy, he thinks he’s a chicken,” and uh, the doctor says, “Well why don’t you turn him in?” And the guy says, “I would, but I need the eggs.”
It’s a line from Woody Allen’s 1977 classic Annie Hall that’s been floating through my head since the Reformed Church’s General Synod met a couple weeks ago. As you may know (some of you know far more than I do), after some intense and unhappy wrangling, Synod made a statement about homosexuality that many consider divisive, imprudent, unnecessary, beyond its bounds, and lots of other bad stuff. There is beaucoup commentary about it all over the internet. I haven’t read very much of it.
Invariably in times of turmoil, questions arise—or sometimes they are more assertions than questions—“Must I now leave the Reformed Church in America? Am I no longer welcome here? What happened to ‘my’ church?” I confess to thinking all of these on more than one occasion. But when I do it honestly and for very long, I come back to the guy at the psychiatrist in the joke, “I need the eggs.” My church may be crazy and think it is a chicken, or often even crazier things. But it is still my church and I need the eggs.
As the debate was going on the floor of General Synod, I knew many, possibly most, of the people speaking. I guess they’re friends—at least colleagues, acquaintances, sisters and brothers in Christ. But whatever and whoever they are, they’re eggs I need, even value. One of the beauties and joys and strengths of a small church is relationships. If I left the Reformed Church I would need to develop a whole new address book and that wouldn’t be fun.
In this latest turmoil I’m trying to find a balance between cataclysmic and blasé. I’m probably prone toward the latter. I don’t want to overlook the sting, the sense of rejection, the people who just walked away from the Reformed Church, perhaps the Church in general, for the next 20 years, maybe for a lifetime. That is all very real, sadly. It’s too early to tell whether people will actually be disciplined or even defrocked in light of Synod’s action. I sort of doubt it. I hope not, but who knows. If some people are really pushed out, purged from the RCA that is entirely different than the flirting with leaving that I hear bandied about. I remember in 2004, hearing liberals vow that if George W. Bush was re-elected they would move to Canada. As far as I know, none ever got even an estimate from a moving company. I heard Rush Limbaugh once threatened to move Costa Rica if health care reform went through. One could only hope. But Rush has far too many eggs at stake to leave. Idle threats and zippy assertions about leaving ring hollow. They just aren’t real or helpful.
My calmer side trusts in the wisdom of the Spirit and the church. We believe that the Spirit speaks most clearly through our gathered assemblies. Of course, that is not saying these assemblies get everything right or speak with pontifical powers. But over time, God will move us where we need to be. The recent action of Synod is hardly an indication that this is all over and done. I understand it is easy to preach patience when I’m not being personally pinched, but someday we’ll look back on it as just one step in a long journey. One Synod is never bound by the actions of a previous Synod. Many would also point out that in some ways, nothing of substance was actually changed or done by Synod. But the tone was changed. The atmosphere was poisoned. So I don’t want act cavalier or apathetic, trying to float far above the real world turbulence.
It is hard to express, even to myself, what the Reformed Church means to me, all the eggs I get from it. Yes, my family have been members for generations and I was raised in a parsonage overhearing conversations about “classis” and “merger” and “475.” I didn’t, however, attend an RCA college or seminary. At age 25, my connections to the RCA were pretty tenuous. But lo these many years later, it is simply part of who of I am. Our theology, history, worship, and our ethos are all important to me. Yet the whole is somehow still greater than the sum of its parts. I am often critical, but almost always loyal. It can be fun to fantasize about shaking its dust off my sandals, but in reality I know it would hurt. I’ve received lots of eggs. And without sounding too sanctimonious—after all, this isn’t exactly Bonhoeffer feeling the need to return to Germany—dare I hope my voice and presence in the Reformed Church can make it a church that follows Jesus somewhat more?
I can be upset and exasperated by my church. At times, I try to ignore it, disengage and drift away. I try to trust the Spirit, trust the church, trust the tradition, trust the process. At times, I can even try to improve my church. And in weirdly different ways, each of my reactions show how enmeshed and invested I am. I need the eggs.
If the people given a voice on this blog will not stand up Tomorrow for what God tells their hearts today is Right, because it is not 'convenient' enough, then I have definitely made they right choice.
Your theology is not based on love of others but on love of order.
The United Church it is!
Nice. I've gotten eggs by the dozens.
Very thoughtful post, Steve. It's interesting … in 1969 the RCA went through an upheaval similar to this one, with harsh debates over ecumenism and Vietnam. Toward the end of that Synod Harold Schut made a motion to dissolve the RCA. Not just divide it, or have one group leave. The moderates (I don't consider them liberals!) were particularly frustrated over the behavior of a group I call the "purists" (who had many parallels to the current "Integrity" group). The moderates felt that the church had been taken over by the far right and many of them thought about leaving.
Several years ago I had a conversation with Carl Schroeder. In 1969 he had been a missionary to Taiwan and had just been named the RCA's minister of Evangelism. 35 years after that Synod of 1969, he had tears in his eyes when he talked about it because it had been such a painful time. He also thought about leaving. But he realized that the RCA had baptized him, nurtured him, educated him. He couldn't leave.
I've had a number of similar conversations with retired clergy, and a common theme is the one you also mention: the power of connections. The moderates and purists and the conservatives in the middle knew each other from college and seminary and classis. They didn't always like each other and sometimes they were mean spirited and given to caricature. But there was a relationship there. It strikes me that a number of our current "purists" have minimal roots or connections in the RCA. Many of them have been trained at a seminary that fosters suspicion of the RCA.
For more exciting details on the Synod of 1969 and everything else you ever wanted to know about the RCA from 1945 to 1994 (shameless sales pitch!) see my forthcoming book. Hopefully by the end of the year. Sure to be a NYTimes best seller!
Thank you, Steve. While I have shared here previously that I am very saddened by what happened, I certainly don't think it is the sum total of General Synod, and generally agree very much with you. Along with the heaviness that R-56 inflicts, General Synod left me feeling incredibly thankful for the amazing and thoughtful clergy and elders we have in the RCA, many of them dear friends and truly partners in ministry and mission. That has only been reinforced since our gathering. The RCA is a peculiar denomination, a family denomination, and as difficult and even wrong as family can be, I'm still much inclined to love them. And I do.
What I find interesting about the GS stuff:
1. Among those who "won" the debate on R-56(s), there is more turmoil and agitation about the potential elimination of the conscience clauses than there is about the follow-up committee on R-56.
2. Among those who "lost" the debate on R-56(s), I don't see much threat of walking away. If, indeed, these are the "liberals", as some would say, it's the "liberals" who have been much more loyal to the denomination for years. With few exceptions, the departures from the RCA have come from more conservative churches.
3. I find myself able, more or less, to respond to the issue from the neck up. It's not visceral with me, as it is for many who will feel marginalized by the action of (as Lynn says) some who have imported a belligerent spirit into the RCA. (I'm from Iowa — belligerence is belligerence, no matter in what cause.)
You're a good egg in the long run, Steve. But as a high school teacher of mine used to say, who really wants to deal with a long, runny egg?
Paul, I wonder if your second point remains true. It certainly has been so, I think, and especially so in the Eastern RCA. If you will, "liberals" are more likely to remain loyal to our communion. We've held the diversity and the tension. And in many ways, the East has served as a place for Midwesterners to come, find a place, and remain RCA. I'm just generalizing here, but I think that has been harder for some who have wanted to stay in the Midwest, and in recent years I can think of many who have departed for other mainline and non-denominational churches. I think particularly, however of many folks in recent time who are leaving congregations–not necessarily leaders or entire churches leaving–but individual church members leaving. Many of them are from younger generations who simply don't identify the RCA and some of it's current "struggles" as relevant or necessary. I don't agree with them. But I certainly can understand them.
Yup, Thomas, I know several who have told me, "see, this is exactly why I joined the ELCA and Im not coming bavk.". Not ministers, but bright young folks.