WHEN BROTHERS LIVE TOGETHER IN UNITY
A Special Synod
The Reformed Churches of New Zealand held a special synod from the 5th to the 9th of March at the Reformed Church of Palmerston North. This synod was convened by the Reformed Church of Palmerston North with the concurrence of four other churches of the Wellington Presbytery. It was called as a response to difficulties that has arisen in the Reformed Church of Foxton. That church had experienced a breakdown between the minister, Rev Ed Rademaker, and the elders. This caused a division in the congregation and also led to differences of opinion within the Wellington Presbytery. A number of churches in the Wellington presbytery believed that they had dealt with the problems as best as they could, but were unable to resolve matters on their own, and so sought the assistance of the wider denomination. The Foxton elders also appealed to the synod against certain decisions made by the Wellington Presbytery.
One might question whether we should be writing about such matters in the denominational magazine, especially as this magazine has a readership beyond our own denomination. Should we hang out our dirty washing for all to see? Yet these are public matters in the churches of the presbytery and so we do need to explain the outcome. Furthermore, we can give thanks to God for the resolutions that have been made as a result of the prayers of the churches and the deliberations of the office bearers.
Prior to synod the Synodical Interim Committee had asked Rev John Rogers, Mr John Posthuma, Mr Jim van Rensberg and Rev Chris Kavanagh to function as a pre-advisory committee. They were asked to produce a chronology of events and to gather, catalogue and distribute the relevant documents. This committee did a great deal of work right over the time of the Christmas holidays. Their preparatory work was of great assistance in enabling the synod to find its way through the complexity and detail of these problems.
This synod was held in the spacious and comfortable premises recently purchased by the Reformed Church of Palmerston North. Women in the congregation did a wonderful job in catering for the meals and for morning and afternoon teas. Delegates were billeted and enjoyed the hospitality of members of the Palmerston North congregation.
Synod convened on Monday afternoon and began by electing the moderamen. Rev Michael Flinn was chosen as Moderator, Rev Murray Capill as Vice Moderator, Rev Sjirk Bajema as First Clerk and Elder Jim van Rensberg as Second Clerk. For the next few days an able moderamen guided the synod through complex issues under the capable chairmanship of Rev Michael Flinn.
On Monday evening all the delegates gathered with members of the Foxton and Palmerston North congregations for a prayer service. Various delegates led in prayer for the deliberations of synod and Rev Chris Kavanagh preached on Matthew 5:4; "Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted". He spoke about the need to face up to sin in our lives, to mourn deeply over that sin and to look for the comfort of the Lord. This sermon prepared the way for the reconciliation that took place later on.
During all the discussions delegates spoke frankly and plainly and yet in a gracious and careful manner. We can thank the Lord for the order and goodwill evident in all the proceedings.
Church Order Issues
As the Wellington presbytery dealt with the problems in the Foxton church they recognised that they had sailed into uncharted waters in terms of the Church Order. Their proceedings raised a number of issues that became points of dispute. The synod was asked to give advice on some of these. One matter concerned the authority of the presbytery to seat delegates from a session. After deliberating about this the Synod decided; "That in principle a presbytery has the jurisdiction to receive the credentials and recognise the delegates from a session, or, in exceptional circumstances, to refuse to receive credentials and recognise the delegates from a session."
Another issue that had arisen was the jurisdiction of a presbytery to declare a church outside the presbytery/denomination. I should point out that the Wellington presbytery had not sought to do this to the Foxton church. Nevertheless, the synod was asked to give advice on this matter. Here, however, Synod believed the issues involved were too complex for us to decide on at this time and referred this to the Church Order Committee for their consideration.
Later on in the proceedings the Church Order Committee was also asked to study the article of the Church Order that allows for the peaceful severance of a minister from his congregation (Article 16b). The committee was asked to determine under what circumstances it is intended to operate and to provide an interpretation of "peaceful severance".
The Foxton Appeals
Synod then moved to a consideration of the appeals of the Foxton session. Some time was given to spokesmen for the Wellington Presbytery to present an overall background giving their perspective on the problems that had arisen. The same amount of time was given to the Foxton elders to present their perspective. They were assisted in this by Rev Bill Wiersma who functioned as their spokesman, a provision permitted in our synodical regulations.
In its July 2000 meeting the Wellington presbytery had refused to endorse a request from the Foxton elders for a peaceful severance of the relationship between the minister and the congregation. The Foxton elders appealed against the decision of the presbytery. After hearing both sides of the case synod decided not to uphold the appeal, so concurring with the judgement of the Presbytery. In other words, the synod agreed that the presbytery had sufficient reasons to refuse a peaceful severance at that time, given the overall situation. This was one of the most significant issues the synod had to deal with.
At this point synod decided to grant a recess for the two parties - ie. the delegates from churches of the Wellington Presbytery and the Foxton elders - to meet together in an attempt to resolve the remaining issues. Synod went into recess during the Wednesday evening session. While the two parties met the other delegates and visitors to the synod had an encouraging time of singing and prayer. With the permission of the moderamen and the synod the recess continued on through the evening.
On the Thursday morning the two parties presented a list of points of agreement. In these the Foxton elders agreed to withdraw the remainder of their appeals and two of the elders agreed to resign from office for the sake of unity. The other members of the session would continue in office but as members of the Palmerston North session which would function as a caretaker session for at least one year, with input from an elder from the Wellington session. It was understood that the Foxton congregation would retain its identity as an instituted church.
It was agreed by all the delegates and by Rev Ed Rademaker that he would not return to the ministry in Foxton. Synod reminded the churches that he is a minister in good standing and that he is available for call and for pulpit supply. It also advised the Wellington presbytery to appoint counsellors to provide support and advice for him and his family regarding his present circumstances and the matters that led up to them. Both the Wellington presbytery and the Foxton session read out statements acknowledging specific areas of failure that had contributed to this breakdown. Immediately after this all the members of both parties stood up and shook hands in a spontaneous gesture of forgiveness and reconciliation. In a moving and emotional expression of love and goodwill some embraced and some shed tears. After this the moderator led in a prayer of thanksgiving.
The adoption of these points of agreement meant that most of the other items on the agenda had been covered and could be dealt with rather quickly. Looking back over what could have been done in the situation the delegates re-affirmed two basic principles of the Church Order: That decisions made by major assemblies are to be regarded by minor assemblies as binding unless they are overturned by lawful appeal; and that major assemblies should exercise caution abut making decisions that might place minor assemblies in serious difficulty in upholding the decisions. (C.O Arts. 27, 29, 95).
Synod closed on Thursday evening with various speeches by delegates and the moderator. All expressed thanks to God for His remarkable answer to the prayers of the churches. Gratitude was also expressed to particular delegates and to the moderator for their part in bringing about this reconciliation and way forward.
On behalf of the delegates I would like to thank all who prayed earnestly and fervently for this synod. The Lord answered our prayers, doing more than we imagined possible!
Rev. John A. Haverland.
This procedure is described in "The Rules For Synodical Procedures" Office Bearers Handbook, p. 2-3)
Those wanting to read the minutes of the synod meeting and the related documents should consult the Acts of Synod (of the 23rd Synod of the RCNZ) 2001. These are available from the Stated Clerk of the denomination.