Friday, October 28, 2011 at 10:13AM
I hope it will be helpful to understand some of the background to where we are today in the RCA.
- A report from a five-member special committee in 1957, which began as six short articles in the Church Herald, was adopted by the 1958 General Synod, recommending that all offices be open to women in 1962, noting that "in case the offices are open to women... each congregation and each consistory continues the responsibility of deciding whether the Spirit of God is calling anyone to an office.... No deliverance of General Synod on the question of women's eligibility to office will change the Reformed principle of church polity that the power of ordaining and installing rest in consistory and classis." The 1958 booklet was often cited by later synods.
- The 1958 amendment to the Book of Church Order failed, as did amendments to open the offices of elders and deacons (1967), separate amendments for elders and deacons, and for ministers (1969), and "local option" for classes (1970). In 1971 an amendment to open the offices of elder and deacon to women passed. In 1972 the General Synod Executive Committee published in the Church Herald: "... bylaws, if these limit [these offices]... should be changed to be in accordance with The Government of the RCA ... [This] does not mean that a congregation must elect women to be elders and deacons.... a consistory/congregation may still determine by its own procedures which members are to be nominated. ... such nominations cannot be disallowed because a member is a female."
- The Synod of 1973 noted: "In practice, the ordination of women will be adopted in some churches and not in others, depending on the interpretation of Scriptures and the judgment of the consistory and congregation as to what will most contribute to the upbuilding of the church."
- Amendments to ordain women as ministers failed in 1974, 1975, and 1976. In 1977 the General Synod adopted the recommendation of the General Synod Executive Committee: "WE RECOMMEND that the General Synod request all classes to refrain from the ordination of women to the ministry of the Word until such time as the Book of Church Order is amended." An amendment to open the office of minister of the Word was sent to the classes, but did not pass.
- Before the 1979 Synod a ruling in the Presbyterian Church USA had held that ministers, elders, and seminary students, even if willing to serve with ordained women, could not be ordained or installed unless they favored the ordination of women.
- The 1979 General Synod, by a 54% secret ballot, upheld the Judicial Business Commission ruling that ordinations of women ministers in the classes of Brooklyn and Bergen and a scheduled ordination in the Classis of Albany, all of which had been appealed, should be sustained. In the debate Dr. Elton Eenigenberg from Western Seminary argued that the report should be upheld, allowing those classes which wished to ordain women ministers to do so, and the others which did not wish to do so would not have to.
- After the 1979 action some classes voted not to receive ordained women ministers, or license or ordain women candidates. A full page ad was published in the Church Herald, signed by two past Presidents of General Synod and others from across the denomination, including those who favored and opposed the ordination of women as ministers of the Word, arguing that judicial action had subverted the requirement that the Book of Church Order be amended.
- In the spring of 1980 the General Synod Executive Committee urged the Synod: "To call for careful avoidance of pressure which might lead either one who supports or one who opposes the action permitting the ordination of women to the office of minister of the Word to offend against his or her conscience, and to urge that no member of the church be penalized for conscientious objection to, or support of, the ordination of women". That language is in the "Conscience Clause."
- The lack of theological consensus, continued challenge to the legality of women serving as ministers of the Word, the prospect of women being unsure if they could be considered as candidates for licensure, ordination or transfer, and the concern about individuals being pressured to take actions against their consciences, as guided by Scripture, were all factors, I believe, which led the 25 member Advisory Committee, of which I was a member, to unanimously present the "Proposal to Maintain Peace in Diversity Concerning Women In Church Offices". It was adopted with scarcely any dissent on the floor of Synod, and then approved by two-thirds of the RCA classes, including a majority of the classes in every regional synod.
- The "Conscience Clause" was a package amendment to four different places in the Book of Church Order, voted on as one amendment. It made clear that ministers of the Word are both men and women, and guaranteed that women would have the right to be licensed, ordained and transferred, thus ending any "collective conscience" for the classis.
- If there have been examples of ridicule, innuendo or obstruction contrary to the conscience clauses, I would strongly deplore such actions. But the “conscience clauses” may, in fact, continue to contribute to their intended purpose: “to maintain peace and diversity in the RCA concerning women as church officers.” Members of classes and congregations should apply the conscience clauses in a way that is discreet and gracious. I believe that has been the practice of most of us, if not all. I have certainly seen that to be the practice of men whom I know in our classis. Those who do not favor women in offices of authority do not, I hope, bear any ill will to them personally, or desire anything other than spiritual good in their lives and ministries.
Tom Stark (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Retired Minister of Word and Sacrament