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I’ve been wondering about unity lately.
No surprise there – I’m sure many of us are thinking about unity as this year’s CRC Synod draws near.
There are two major topics of conversation on the table this year – the Human Sexuality Report and the Structure and Leadership Taskforce (SALT) Report. Conversation around the former will revolve in large part around the idea of confessional status and whether or not we’re going to draw a line in the sand. The overtures regarding the SALT Report express frustration as to how the process of restructuring has taken place, and a need for further work establishing parity among the U.S. and Canadian offices.
I don’t know how these conversations will go. Implementation of the SALT report is in full swing, so I doubt these overtures will move the pendulum all that much. And who knows how discussion of the HSR will go. But most people I talk to feel fairly certain that whatever happens, our denomination is going to be different in two week’s time.
Maybe things will turn out – regarding the HSR at least – the way Scott Hoezee hopes, with delegates finding some middle wisdom that allows us to continue in conversation in measured, hospitable ways. I’m not as hopeful. I think there are going to be some very loud voices, who will be very clear that there’s only one way forward, and it’s theirs.
But even if we did carry on in a calm, peaceful, spacious way…eventually we’re going to have to figure out where we stand on these things. Churches will have to decide what their level of welcome and inclusion for the LGBT community will look like. We can’t just keep talking.
Some have suggested that we can stay together as a denomination even if different churches take different positions on this issue. We can make it a local decision, like Women in Office, and continue forward as one denomination, just disagreeing on this one issue.
But others have made it quite clear that they’re prepared to leave unless the denomination goes in the direction they think it ought. The local option isn’t an option at all…this matter is just too weighty for us to disagree on and still hang together.
So we hear talk of splits, and classis clerks attending workshops on disaffiliation (just yesterday The Banner published news of one church severing ties) and we’re braced for our unity to be tested…and perhaps broken.
But I’m wondering about unity. And if unity is maybe something bigger than our ability to hang together as a denomination.
After all, unity is something we can’t create. I’ve referenced before on this blog a lecture I attended by Dr. Antonios Kireopoulous, of the National Council of Churches, who argued that all our efforts at unity – our ecumenism, and joint mission trips, and agreements validating each other’s baptisms – are not unity itself, but icons of unity, a unity that exists whether we feel it or not because in Christ, we are one. Our task is thus not to create unity, but to discover what the unity we already have looks like.
The question for us, then, is not, “Will we be united with our brothers and sisters who think differently,” but, “What expression will that unity take?”
Here’s my big wondering then. Could it be that we might in fact still be able to experience a sense of our unity in Christ, and witness to that unity, but also be able to do ministry more authentically and effectively, if we didn’t try so hard to keep hanging together?
We set some precedent for this in 2010 when Synod approved the transfer of Second CRC in Kalamazoo, Michigan, from the Kalamazoo Classis to Classis Minnkota, over the matter of Women in Office. I was a Young Adult advisor on the committee that handled this particular overture. Most of us went into it prepared to say an emphatic “No” to the request, to argue that classes are geographic collections of churches that do ministry together, despite our differences. But as we heard from the pastors of that church, and from members of Classis Kalamazoo, we were convicted that these churches would be best served by being able to separate and realign – able to hold to their convictions and do ministry without constantly rubbing up against differences that were seemingly irreconcilable, causing consistent pain and hurt on all sides.
After synod voted to approve the transfer, I went and sat by the Seminary Pond for a bit. I was out of sorts. This felt like a definite loss, and I wasn’t sure we had done the right thing. I’m still not sure, to be honest.
As I sat on the grass, two fish swam up to the edge of the pond. They lingered for a moment, side by side in front of me, and then they swam away from me, and away from each other, to opposite ends of the pond.
And I remember thinking, “But at least they’re still in the same pond.”
I wonder what our pond looks like. Or if we have to reimagine what our pond looks like. And if there’s a way for us to honour our differences, to respect each other’s positions, to let one another go, and to do so graciously and well and thus able to maintain some kind of relationship, by reimagining what our pond looks like. What unity looks like.
In terms of the Canada/U.S. question, one option I’ve heard floated is to both shrink and broaden our denominational identity. Establish comparable denominational offices and structures in both Canada and the U.S. and allow each country to lean into its contextual identity in ways that feel frustrated by our current setup. And then broaden our overarching umbrella, so we engage more intentionally with each other, but also with the CRC in the Philippines, or Nigeria, or Venezuela.
I wonder if there’s something to that more broadly. If the way forward isn’t to try to cling to our idea of what unity has looked like before, but to give ourselves permission to lean into our contexts and beliefs and be uniquely and authentically ourselves, and from that place of knowing ourselves, be secure enough to engage with those who are different.
Of course, there are many questions that arise from this wondering. How far do we let the splintering go before we’re basically Congregationalists? And what do you do when there’s disunity within a local congregation? Is there something good and edifying about having to rub up against these differences and work through them? Is this just an attempt to make something tidy which by nature is messy and complicated? What does hold us together, if it’s not our beliefs? Can we in fact create some kind of healthy partnership post-split, when we don’t have much historical precedent for any such success in doing so?
I don’t have the answers to those questions. And maybe I’m totally in left field on all of this. After all, I’m still unsure if we did the right thing in 2010.
But it’s all got me wondering about unity.