Some months ago, after having written about last year’s Synod, I promised also to write a few things of a critical nature in connection with that broadest gathering of our churches. As so often happens in the life of an editor, there arose in the meantime other items which demanded editorial attention and which made it impossible for me immediately to carry out my intention to write more about our last Synod. I now fulfill that promise, however, in the hope that future synodical meetings may profit.
My chief item of criticism concerns the mass of material which dealt with important matters and which was thrown on Synod’s table and treated when Synod convened. This material did not appear in the published Agenda. None of the delegates so much as knew of it prior to the time Synod convened. None of the consistories or individual officebearers knew of this material. No one had the opportunity to reflect on it. No consistory or classis had the opportunity to express an opinion about it or to file a protest about any proposal. It was simply put on Synod’s table and handed out to the delegates at the last minute.
The material involved was as follows, and I quote from the Mission Committee’s cover letter, received by the Stated Clerk on May 26, 1982:
The Mission Committee herewith submits the following supplemental material, which could not be included with our original report due to circumstances beyond our control.
We offer to this Synod the following additional material for your consideration.
1) Report and recommendation re our Birmingham, Ala. mission field.
2) Report and recommendation re our Jamaican mission field.
3) Report and recommendation re our Monroe-Mt. Vernon, Wash. mission field.
4) Additional recommendation re Bradenton.
In addition, in connection with the Jamaica item there were two lengthy reports from the emissaries to Jamaica, Revs. Lubbers and Heys, reports which were certainly germane to the Jamaica proposals in this supplementary material. It should also be noted that the only one of the five items listed above which came directly from the Mission Committee is that concerning the budget. The reason why this budget proposal was late was the fact that obviously the Mission Committee could not prepare a proposed budget without taking into account the information involved in the other four reports and recommendations. The Mission Committee, it should be noted, speaks rather euphemistically of “circumstances beyond our control.” The simple fact is that the consistories involved were tardy in reporting to the Mission Committee.
What happened to this material at Synod’s meetings?
If you consult the Acts of Synod, you will discover that all of this material was simply received and treated by Synod as though it were ordinary Agenda material. The question of the propriety and legality of treating it was not even dealt with by Synod. Neither the advisory committee nor the Synod itself faced the question of the legality. They did not face the question whether this was indeed a “supplemental report.” Neither did they face the question whether this material was legally before Synod under our adopted rules. It is not that the question was not raised and that this point was not brought to Synod’s attention; but it was brought by an advisor, who, of course, cannot make motions; and the question was answered by the president, who, however, was not ruling on a point of order. This explains why nothing appears in the Acts of Synod about the entire matter, and why it appears in the Acts as though all of this material was ordinary Agenda material.
What is involved here?
First of all, it should be pointed out that there is indeed a provision in our Rules of Synod which allows for supplemental reports. This is found in Article 8 of the Rules of Synod, entitled “Reports”:
1. The reports of all committees, special and standing, shall be included in the Agenda, so that all churches may be duly informed.
2. Standing committees may make supplemental reports of matters arising after the deadline for the Agenda. Such reports, however, shall be distributed in mimeographed form to all members of Synod at the opening session, and the committee concerned shall be responsible for this.
Now it may be granted, first of all, that this rule indeed makes provision for the possibility of supplemental reports. However, in the second place, it should be noted that the rule does not define what is meant by “supplemental.” In the third place, in this particular case it is, to say the least, highly questionable whether the material involved could properly be called “supplemental.” To me, supplemental implies that the main body of the re- I port is already in existence, but that something must be added at a later time. And in this sense, it is entirely appropriate that there be supplemental reports. Such supplemental reports would not include entirely new items, which are not even touched on in the main report. But they might include new facts, new information, additional grounds, or even a change in recommendations because of new light. To use a simple illustration, there might be in a main report a recommendation, let us say, concerning salary of a missionary. In the meantime, facts come to light which show that because of circumstances or because of inflation the recommended salary is not adequate. In such an instance a supplemental report with new light and a new recommendation would be entirely proper. The matter proper is already on the Agenda; the supplemental report does not change that fact, but helps Synod deal with it properly. In this case under discussion, however, the simple fact is that the items included in the supplemental report were not included in any form in the main report. Besides, the items of the supplemental report together constituted by far the largest part of the Mission Committee Report, as well as the most important and most difficult part of the report. I submit that it is rather silly to call a report supplemental when that report is larger, more important, and more difficult than the original report.
But this is not all.
The Rules of Synod themselves explicitly forbid a Synod to do what our 1982 Synod did. There is a much more important rule of Synod which certainly takes precedence over Rule 8, which is after all only a simple procedural rule. Article 5 of the Rules of Synod concerns “Matters Legally Before The Synod.” This is obviously a fundamental rule: it concerns the question what may and what may not properly be treated by Synod. And under Part B, “Rules,” we find that the second rule reads:
2. No proposals of importance shall be presented to Synod that have not appeared on the agenda, so that Consistories and Classes may have opportunity for previous deliberation. All matters appearing in the Agenda must be dealt with by Synod before its adjournment.
It is this rule which was simply ignored by the Synod of 1982 in spite of the fact that it was called to their attention. You may be sure that no one thought for a moment that the proposals included in the supplemental report were not important; everyone knew that these proposals involved the very continuation of our home missions work in the coming year. The simple fact is that in spite of this knowledge that the proposals were important, the Synod went blithely on, without so much as facing the question of legality.
I would have you notice that the rule furnishes a very important reason, a reason which goes to the very heart of our presbyterian-synodical system, namely, that consistories and classes must have opportunity for previous deliberation on proposals of importance. This is their sacred right under our system of church government. It must not be trampled, and it can only be trampled with grave risk to the fundamentals of our Reformed system. I submit that if Synods act in this fashion, excluding consistories and classes from a voice in important matters, then consistories have every right to ignore such decisions and to consider them null and void!
But there is another very obvious reason. That reason concerns the delegates themselves. None of the delegates had the opportunity during the busy sessions of Synod for calm study and reflection on the important matters included in that alleged supplementary report. And there were indeed major proposals in the report, as, for example, the proposal concerning Jamaica, with its $50,000.00 price-tag! And the subsequent discussion showed, too, I believe, that Synod was not ready to face some of these issues and to make calm, mature, well-founded decisions.
What, then, should be done?
In the first place, the very first question which an advisory committee ought to face is the question of the legality of the material on which they must give advice. This pertains to all material, but especially to material about which there might be some question. And the very first item of advice should be concerning the legality of material. Whether that advice is to treat or not to treat the material is not the issue; the committee must bring advice on the matter. In that way it will also automatically insure Synod’s dealing with this question.
In the second place, Synod should have rebuked those responsible for tardy reports and admonished them that if the work of Christ the King is to receive its due attention, there must be order in the churches and there must be timely reports. We have agreed together as churches to live under our Church Order and its appended regulations; let us live up to that agreement. It is obligatory! And it is salutary!
My second item of critique I will mention briefly. It is high time that our new Church Order book be published. There have been numerous changes in regulations and in constitutions of standing committees. In some instances new constitutions have been published in separate leaflets. In others, things are buried in past Acts of Synod. Besides, it is already several years ago that the project of a new Church Order Book was initiated. It was reported at last Synod that the book was ready for publishing. Why can we not have it at once?