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The General Synod of the Reformed Church in America, meeting in Tucson, Arizona, adjourned on Tuesday. This week — yesterday, today, and tomorrow — we will be hearing from six delegates to Synod, two each day. They’ve been asked to share a glimpse of their experience.
Kinder & gentler, but lots of John Wayne, too
They say that the annual meeting of the General Synod of the Reformed Church in America is really more of a family reunion than anything else. I can attest to the fact that this is very much my experience. I had been at Synod for less than a day and already I had run into and had conversations with
- A dear friend and fellow oblate of the same Benedictine monastery who sat just a few tables away from me.
- The woman, who was my discernment group leader, serves as pastor of the same congregation I served in upstate New York 25 years ago.
- An elder in my discernment group who is a member of the church my father-in-law planted over 50 years ago.
- A pastor, my daughter’s age, whom I babysat when she was four years old.
- A missionary delegate whose college roommate was my classmate in high school in Kobe, Japan.
- A pastor, attending his first General Synod, who used to come sit up in the chancel with me, during Children’s Time, in worship, and whose pastor I was since he was 5.
As at most family reunions, there are always those we enjoy more than others. There is the crazy, embarrassing uncle holding forth in the corner. And the rival cousins who have to show each other up whenever they can. There is the old grandmother who is pained by the infighting of her children.
So while there was something very familiar and comforting about this year’s General Synod, there was also a heavy pall over the proceedings, everyone wondering how things would turn out. Was this a family that was going to tear itself apart, even as it continues to have difficult discussions about human sexuality, polity, and our understanding of church?
As it turns out, the proceedings themselves on the floor of the Synod meeting — the motions and amendments and debates at the microphones were more thoughtful, kinder and gentler, more welcoming and worshipful than I could ever have imagined. Kudos to the delegates for bringing a kind of pastoral sensitivity into the meeting.
In contrast, however, there was also a very “Jesus and John Wayne” (with credit to Kristin Kobes Dumez) tone to much of the language from the leadership (elected leadership, not staff), in worship and the meeting. Language dominated by masculine imagery, sports and fighting metaphors; the prevalence of a substitutionary, blood-centered, atonement theology; and outright homophobic and transphobic rants was deeply alienating to many delegates. I wonder, is it time for our Commission on Worship to retake these events during Synod rather than let the President hand-pick his favorites to pray and lead worship?
I tried not to pigeonhole people by the wearing or not-wearing of masks. I was discouraged, however, that despite the urging of both the hosting resort and the General Synod to wear masks when indoors, many delegates didn’t comply, even when one and then two possible cases of Covid were reported among the delegates. Whatever happened to “love your neighbor as yourself”?
Another take away I have is that perhaps the talk of “leavers” has been overinflated in the conversations and rumors of the last months. Certainly, there will be a sizable number of churches that choose to leave the RCA. However, this Synod showed that the center can hold and that conservatives and progressives can live together when we focus on mission, on kindness and civility, and on being the church together.
I am leaving this Synod meeting with a greater sense of peace and hope for the future than I could ever have imagined before I arrived. The Catalina Mountains, which we saw in all their glory at every hour of the day, every time we stepped out on the terrace of our meeting space, reminded me that the world is bigger and more beautiful than we know. Our RCA family is just a small part of it. Anxiety about its future is not ours to hold, but rather in the sure and merciful hands of God.
“If we live, we live to the Lord. If we die, we die to the Lord. Whether we live, therefore, or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.” Romans 14:8
From Lamenting to Caring
The first two days of the 2021 General Synod, the delegates broke up into discernment groups to reflect upon and discuss the recommendations offered in the Vision 2020 Report — the major proposal before us. As the groups were formed and we received our instructions, a side conversation began to arise in each of my small groups. An overarching feeling of lament permeated the conversations.
Each conversation brought us closer to the reality that the RCA would no longer be the family it once was. People we had laughed with, cried with, and prayed with would be legislated out of our lives as we cast our votes to retreat to separate corners.
Trying not to allow this feeling of loss and lament to distract us from the work that laid before us, we realized that we could not stop ourselves from taking these trips down memory lane. We shared stories of past Synods and how we fought a good fight on the floor and how after it was over we went off as siblings, to enjoy one another.
I believe the spirit of loss and lament felt in our group was not unique to us.
When our time in these small discernment groups concluded, we returned to the larger body to vote on the future of the RCA. There were some lengthy debates and quite a number of substitute motions offered as the Synod delegates deliberated on what would be the best way forward for the RCA.
The spirit of these conversations, however, had an unexpected level of grace in them. The divisive spirit that many were anticipating at this General Synod gathering was somehow surpassed by a spirit of care — a care that allowed us to hear each other, and to make decisions that were not simply in our own personal interest, but considered the impact on our siblings in Christ, and the broader church.
There was a great deal of apprehension coming into General Synod 2021. We were to decide the fate of the RCA. I believe we accomplished something greater. We were able to reconnect with the true reason we exist — to follow Christ.
As we concluded worship on Tuesday, I felt a hope for the RCA, that we can continue to live as a family who may not always agree but is willing to love each other through our disagreements.
Editor’s Note: What Dwayne does not tell you here, is that he was elected Vice President of General Synod. Congratulations, Dwayne!
Sophie Mathonnet-VanderWell is a wife, mother, grandmother, pastor, and Benedictine oblate, who co-pastors the Second Reformed Church in Pella, Iowa.
Dwayne Jackson co-pastors the Second Reformed Church of Hackensack, New Jersey with Anna, his wife. He is the newly elected Vice President of the General Synod of the Reformed Church in America.