A Process That Worked

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It did and it didn’t happen at Synod—about the Belhar Confession, I mean. I was not the only person expecting a mean-spirited, even divisive, debate. That didn’t happen. Thanks be to God--the delegates and the advisory committee. What didn’t happen either was that the Belhar was not adopted as a fourth confession or form of unity of the CRC.

So, what did happen? The deliberative process of Synod worked; that’s what happened. Maybe it didn’t work as those who were advocating Belhar as a fourth confession. Certainly not as those who did not want Belhar to attain any official status in the CRC. Yet the deliberative process worked in a way that I do not recall seeing it work as well as it did in similarly potentially polarizing issues. (Anyone may correct me on that, but so far it’s my story that I’m sticking to!)

The process worked like this: An advisory committee of 20-some delegates deliberated as delegates, NOT as representatives. When I read their report sometime on the Monday of Synod, I was astonished. I knew a number of the people on the advisory committee and had fully expected this honourable, if not always pleasant, result of deliberations: majority and minority reports from the advisory committee. Somehow, though, wisely, patiently after hours and hours of meetings and of dealing with several dozen overtures, these faithful people who started from different positions came to a unified and communally creative recommendation.

It was not a compromise. It was a third way: Approve the Belhar as the first in a new category of faith statements to be called “Ecumenical Faith Statements.” The debate that finally accepted that was passionate and by and large reasonable and respectable. Of course, the advisory committee did not stop at that first-step difficult recommendation. It recommended the establishment of a study committee to dig deeply into the meaning of confession—what it meant, what it has come to mean, what it should mean.

Adopting that simple, but difficult recommendation, would have been enormously helpful for the CRC. It would, in fact, have continued and stimulated the very thing that the Form of Subscription Revision Committee 2(FOS 2) had as one its main goals: Get the CRCs and their people talking, thinking, writing about confessions AGAIN: How to use them? What are their limits? What are their great advantages? And more and more.

But Synod took a road that looks at first like a deadend for Belhar—and, for that matter, for other potential members of the one-member club called Ecumenical Faith Statements. It simply said NO. Was Synod tired? Did Synod simply want a cooling-off period after three years of batting Belhar back and forth among churches, focus groups, classes and coffee hour discussions? Was Synod afraid? Did Synod not understand the urgency and complimentariety of this advisory committee’s recommendation to the decision it had made only 30 hours earlier on FOS 2? Who knows?

Still, although it seems like Ecumenical Faith Statements and Belhar are on a synodical and denominational shelf that could merely gather dust, that doesn’t have to be the case. Belhar WILL be used in the denomination—not in all parts, but in a significant number of churches, maybe more than I care to dream about. It will gain traction, quietly, without the controversy and heat that were generated in the last several years of shopping it around the denomination. And in a few years, perhaps—like Our World Belongs to God—it will have taken root in our hearts and minds. Perhaps it will have worked on our consciences and souls as it could not have had the advisory committee never daringly and faithfully followed God’s Spirit and decided deliberately, deliberatively and communally to stay united. Remember my paraphrase of the old hymn: “God moves in a mysterious way—our blunders to reform.”

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Thanks for this thoughtful post, James. From the pew, the decision seemed a little dissatisfying. I consider the Belhar, and everything it stands for, to be a legitimate response to major error in the Church, including the CRC. I also have sympathy with a number of those who didn't want it to be a Confession. But on the face of it, this "third way" seemed like neither one thing nor another.

However, as you rightly point out, it creates a tremendous opportunity. Again, from the pew, the role of our confessions is quite murky. I'd be surprised if one in a hundred CRC church members could give a coherent account of how the confessions came to be and, especially, what they can and should mean to us today. (I'm a 99-percenter!) So if debate on the role of confessions in the doctrine and unity of the Church spreads through the CRC (and other denominations that will be disappointed with the Synod's decision), then as is so often the case God's wisdom and grace will be shown to be so much more than our imaginations allow. May the Holy Spirit fill us all the more with wonder and love for His Church, and may He use this time to lead us into greater wisdom and unity.