No Beauty We Could Desire: Thoughts on Beauty and Faith

Memories of Synod

I’m attending the first few days of the synod meeting of the CRC this year, but not as a CRC delegate.  I’m here as an ecumenical delegate, representing ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians.  This is one of those moments when my dual ordination is a little confusing.

The last time I was at a CRC synod meeting was back in 1987.  I had just graduated from Calvin Theological Seminary, but as a woman I had been barred from the regular candidating process.  I had wanted to appeal the decision of the seminary board to deny me access to that process; I argued that synod was free to make an exception to its own rules and that the board was pre-judging synod’s decision.  However, at that time there was no provision in the CRC church order for an individual person to appeal an action of a board.  So there was no legislative way for me to appeal this decision.  Instead I filed charges against the board under the CRC’s judicial code, which was a cumbersome process that took a long time and didn’t get resolved until well after I’d left the CRC.

While I was still a student at CTS, however, my polity professor approached me and said that my inability to appeal the decision of a board had uncovered a hole in the denomination’s polity.  He told me that polity could only be amended in response to specific cases and asked me to write up my case for the committee that oversaw such things.  He told me it wouldn’t help me, but it might lead to a rule change that would help someone else in the future.  I was happy to oblige and wrote a letter, explaining the problem with the existing process.

And so it was that I found myself addressing synod the following June, not on the question of women’s ordination but rather on a very technical point in the church order.  Before I was brought forward to testify, I was strictly instructed to confine my remarks to matters of polity.  Up to that point, synod had made lots of decisions about women in ministry, but no woman who wanted to be a minister had ever been allowed to address synod and ask for ordination directly.  They had no intention of allowing me to ask either.

I remember that the atmosphere in the room was quite tense as we got started, but everyone relaxed when it became clear that I was really and truly there to talk about a very boring point in the church order.  I had spent a lot of time during my last year of seminary wading through appeal processes, so I had quite a bit to say.  It was pretty dull, which the delegates seemed to find reassuring.  But then Mel Hugen, my wonderful professor of pastoral care, slipped me a note.  “You must give testimony to your call,” it said.

I know this isn’t how other people see me, but the truth is that I’m typically a pretty obedient person.  I had been told not to talk about the question of women’s ordination, so I hadn’t planned to do so.  Now Mel told me that I must talk about my own calling to ordination, so I did.  The next question posed to me was about some technical church order issue, but I began my answer talking about my grandparents, who had been missionaries for the CRC, and my upbringing as a daughter of the CRC, and my childhood desire to be a pastor.  I talked about my awareness that I had not chosen God, but He chose me.  And I talked about working through the Scriptures as I tried to discern whether this call to the ministry was really from God or not.  I explained that I had wanted the right to appeal directly to synod because I believed that synod had the authority to make an exception to its own rules and to ordain me.  I asked them to do that.

At least, that’s how I remember what I said.  It was a spontaneous speech, so I have no notes for it.  I have no transcript and no recording.  But it was clear that the delegates heard what I had to say as a request for ordination.  I remember one delegate responding to my testimony by saying that he really appreciated what I had said, but that he was still going to vote against any motion to ordain me.  I remember another delegate joking that someday I would come back to the CRC as a professor of church polity.  What I most remember is that I felt heard.  And when my time of giving testimony was over and I stepped down, the delegates gave me a standing ovation as I left.

It was an odd day.  But mostly it was a good day.  I was already planning to become a Presbyterian, and that day at synod allowed me to leave the denomination of my childhood without either guilt or anger.  I think that’s why, unlike many of the other women I knew who were leaving the CRC at that same time, I’ve been able to come back to the CRC, while also honoring the Presbyterian tradition that received and nurtured me.  But I never had any desire to attend another synod meeting.

Actually it’s not quite true that I left without anger: over the next few years I realized that I was still angry with one group of people.  I’ve never been angry with the conservatives who believe that the Bible speaks against the ordination of women and who submit to that teaching with an obedient spirit.  There’s a lot of Biblical material about the relationships of women and men, and even though I’m confident in my exegesis of that material as requiring women’s ordination I understand why serious Christians might reach different conclusions.  No, the people I’ve had a hard time forgiving are my classmates who told me privately that they supported my call to ministry, but who then accepted ordination in the CRC even though I’d been denied it.  My own childhood pastor was this way.  He told me that he believed in women’s ordination because he thought that Paul was wrong, but that he could never preach such a message because it would undermine the faith of the congregation, and besides (and he really did say this to me) he would never be president of synod again.  Yeah.  It’s the progressive wing of the CRC that I still often find so annoying and hard to forgive.

One reason that I’m so passionately committed to ECO is that my male colleagues in ECO were all unwilling to join any denomination that would not recognize women’s ordination; they were all unwilling to leave without me and without the many other women officers in their congregations.  In the CRC, the  recognition of women is bartered away every day by people who want me to be grateful for their limited support.  Another reason that I love ECO so much is that affirming the ordination of women and affirming the teaching of the confessions are seen as compatible affirmations.  In the CRC, the ordination of women is used over and over as an excuse to jettison the confessions or embrace whatever is trendy and progressive. (See this discussion for an example: )

So tonight I was a little bit nervous walking into opening worship.  But it was a lovely service.  We’ll see what the next few days bring.