Individuals Addressing Synods?
After my recent post about the differences between the CanRC and FRCA, I received some feedback. One correspondent asked me to comment on the differences between Australia and Canada on the question of whether an individual may write to a synod, or perhaps more precisely, whether synods are obligated to deem such correspondence admissible and then interact with it.
For many years, it was common practice for individuals to write to synods of the Canadian Reformed Churches. If you go far enough back, you may even find a letter to a synod from a certain W. Bredenhof. Eventually, synods stopped deeming some correspondence from individual church members as admissible. The exception, and a very important one, is any appeal which pertains directly to an individual. If an individual church member has been aggrieved, the door is open for him or her to appeal to the broader assemblies. But, if one wanted to write a letter directly to a synod about Bible translations (for example) and the committee’s report on that, it would no longer be deemed admissible. Instead, individual church members are to correspond with their consistories and try to convince them of their point of view, with the goal of getting that view on the table of a Synod via a letter from the consistory. This is not laid out in the CanRC regulations for General Synods or in the Church Order. Instead, this came by way of a decision at Synod Chatham 2004. Synod Chatham stated in article 20:
…an individual member cannot forward his appeals regarding matters that concern the churches in common to a general synod…Individual members must follow the way of the Church Order by addressing their concerns to their local consistory who, should they concur with their concerns, direct an appeal to a general synod. Consistory, unlike individual members, has the right to deal directly with the matters that belong to the churches in common…If the local consistory does not take over the individual’s appeal, he can appeal the local consistory’s decision to classis and thus begin the appeal process in accordance with article 31 of the Church Order.
This is a good illustration of how the Church Order functions in Reformed churches. It’s not just the words on the page that matter, but also how the words have been interpreted and put into practice via synod decisions or other precedents. At the bare minimum, one really needs a guide book or commentary to the Church Order to understand and use it properly!
Over here in Australia, as in Canada, individual church members may write appeals when they are personally involved. However, there is a difference in regard to individuals addressing synods on various agenda items related to life in the federation in general. This is laid out explicitly in the Rules for Synods of the Free Reformed Churches of Australia. Rule 7.3 says, in part:
Submissions not from the churches, except those allowed by the Church Order, shall be received for information only and require no acknowledgment.
So, individuals may write to a synod about various agenda items, but this type of correspondence does not have anywhere near the same weight as submissions from the churches. A synod may even choose to essentially ignore this type of correspondence. In practice, I’m told that, for the last number of synods, individuals have not invested the effort in submitting letters on general matters. Certainly if one reviews the Acts of Synod Baldivis 2015 and the correspondence received, there were no such letters.
In conclusion, practically speaking, there is not much difference between Canada and Australia. One could say that the bar is higher in Canada for an individual to bring a concern forward. However, at the same time, if an individual can convince his church to forward his concern to a synod, one could say that it would carry more weight than an individual sending a letter to a synod where it would merely be received for information. Under the former scenario at least the synod is obligated to deal with it.