June is going to be a fairly busy month for me, and that’s not because of the wedding—after all, by the third day of the month, the preparations will be in the past and the travelers will be on their way home. More impactful to my schedule in June is the upcoming General Synod of our denomination, the United Church of Christ. The 32nd General Synod of the United Church of Christ will gather in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, beginning on June 21st, with probably around three thousand members of our denomination in attendance for the bi-annual event. Some eight to nine hundred of them, including yours truly, will be official voting delegates elected from the 38 conferences (together with a few dozen who are delegates by way of other ex officio roles). The rest will be ‘visitors’, attending as worship leaders, workshop presenters, staff members of ministries, or even simply out of personal interest in the opportunity to reconnect with the wider community of our church from all around the country.
But just what is General Synod? Well, in an official sense, General Synod is the gathering together of a faith community representative of the wider church, in order to listen for and discern the call of God to the United Church of Christ. The General Synod deliberates, discerns, and identifies the mission of the wider church in God’s world. It receives and offers suggestions, invitations, challenges, and assistance in covenant with Local Churches, Conferences, and other settings of our church as they engage in mission. It is the “representative body” that directs the work of the national setting of the United Church of Christ. The Synod considers business items that give guidance to national offices; it elects officers; it handles our official ecumenical relationships (that is, our relationships with other denominations); and carries out structural duties, such as amending the Constitution and Bylaws of the UCC. The General Synod also offers a voice from the denomination as a whole to the local churches—but, importantly, in the United Church of Christ, the Synod speaks to, but not for, the local churches: actions of the General Synod do not involuntarily impair our freedom as a local congregation.
And yet… General Synod is also a lot more than this, a lot more than simply a legislative assembly that meets to carry out business. It is also a bit like a family reunion, a ministry fair, a joyful celebration of God’s work in, through, and among us. The Synod agenda includes grand worship services, this year featuring our first all-female slate of preachers—Rev. Kaji Spellman Douša, Rev. Traci deVon Blackmon, Rev. Sharon Lee Mei-Shem MacArthur, and Rev. Dr. Amy Butler. There are also workshops, music concerts, storytelling, a gigantic exhibition hall, and more. Back in 2007 when General Synod was in nearby Hartford, a tradition was begun of devoting all day on Saturday to these opportunities for learning and formation, celebration, recreation, mission, and community.
What business is coming before General Synod this year? The business that comes before General Synod is nevertheless important, and not just to the delegates, but to the whole of the United Church of Christ—and that includes all of us here at SCC. Part of the “covenantal” polity we cherish in the United Church of Christ is that we are, indeed, in covenant across the various settings of our denomination, and we covenant to listen to and honor the witness that each setting offers to another. We live out that covenant to the fullest when we keep ourselves aware of what’s happening at places like the General Synod.
Resolutions considered by General Synod typically fall into one of two categories, known as “prudential” and “witness”. Generally speaking, “prudential” resolutions concern matters within the life of the church, establishing policy, instituting or revising structure or procedures, authorizing programs, and so forth. These resolutions can pass with a simple majority. Resolutions of “witness”, on the other hand, is an expression of the General Synod concerning a moral, ethical or religious matter confronting the Church, the nation, or the world. The purpose of adopting such a resolution is to give guidance to the national setting of the denomination; to commend an issue for consideration to local churches, associations, conferences, and other bodies related to the United Church of Christ; and to express a Christian witness to the world. Adopting such a resolution of witness represents agreement by at least two-thirds of the delegates voting that the view expressed is based on Christian conviction and is a part of their witness to Jesus Christ.
Among the matters being brought before this Synod that are considered “prudential” resolutions, you will find:
- the resolution by which General Synod will vote to approve the anticipated merger of the Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts Conferences into a new conference for southern New England;
- a resolution requesting that denominational bylaws revisions be prepared that include non-binary gender language;
- three resolutions dealing with various matters of the definition, nature, purpose, composition, covenantal autonomy, and oversight of the local church within our denomination;
- a resolution calling for a listening campaign throughout the church in order to reevaluate the manner in which we discern and carry out our wider church Christian witness through General Synod;
- a resolution calling for an ongoing church-wide observance of Break The Silence Sunday (BTSS) in support of survivors of rape and sexual violence;
- a resolution addressing the ecumenical relationship between the UCC and the Iglesia Evangelica Unida de Puerto Rico (the latter having been joined to the UCC from 1990 to 2005 as the Puerto Rico Conference); and
- and two resolutions calling for additions to the list of officially recognized “Historically Underrepresented Groups” in the UCC by adding , respectively, the Mental Health Network of the United Church of Christ and the Colectivo de UCC Latinx Ministries.
Among the matters being considered at this Synod as matters of “Christian Witness”, you’ll find:
- a call to abolish the growth and existence of private prisons;
- a reaffirmation of the United Church of Christ’s commitment to interreligious relations;
- a consideration of the state of global forced migration;
- a call to the settings of the church to avoid the use of plastic foam (Styrofoam) in food packaging and other activities, and to educate members about its impact and alternatives;
- a denouncement of acts of violence, hatred, and racism carried out in the name of neo-Nazi and white supremacist ideologies;
- a consideration of the justice concerns involved related to what groups are given access to exhibit space at General Synod;
- a witness calling our country to pull back from the brink of nuclear war;
- a call to local churches and other settings of the church to engage in reflection and conversation on what it means to follow Jesus—the expectations we have of members of our congregation to be followers of Jesus, and the ways in which members are supported and challenged by their local churches in discernment and action as followers of Jesus;
- a call for the Department of Homeland Security to halt the practice of separating minor children of immigrant families from being separated from their families upon entry into the United States;
- a recognition of the increasing prevalence of opioid addiction as a health epidemic, calling for more affordable and accessible addiction treatment;
- a call upon the Congress of the United States to conduct formal hearings to discover systemic and proximate causes of civilian violence in America, and to receive testimony as to changes in American society that may be undertaken to alleviate the effects of violence on the American people; and
- two opportunities to express support for current legislative and/or political initiatives related to climate change, namely the “Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act of 2019” and the “Green New Deal”.
It’s going to be a very rich and full course of five days for all of us, I am sure! Feel free to check out more information about the General Synod, or to explore more details about any of these proposed resolutions, by going to http://www.ucc.org/synod/
Yours in the journey,