Dialogue on Homosexuality: Final Report, 2009

View statement online

REFERRALS FROM PREVIOUS SYNODS
MGS 2005, R-94, p. 372
To immediately begin an honest and intentional denomination-wide dialogue on homosexuality;
and further, to instruct the General Synod Council (GSC) to hire a facilitator to
begin work no later than January 2006 and to continue for up to three and a half years in
order to give direction to the dialogue; and further, to direct the GSC to provide an annual
report to the General Synod, with a final report not later than General Synod 2009.
 

That report is as follows:
RCA DIALOGUE ON HOMOSEXUALITY
Overview

Dialogue is a form of human interaction which provides opportunities to hear the viewpoints
and experiences of others and to understand how they, being different from ourselves,
understand issues about which both of us care. Reciprocally, participants also enjoy
the opportunity to be heard and understood. Dialogue differs from deliberation.

Deliberation invites opposing speeches, and it settles issues by voting; the church’s assemblies
such as classes or General Synod engage in deliberation.

This is consequently not a position paper; it is a report on a process. The dialogue coordinator
and steering committee designed and directed a dialogue program of several sessions
for the purposes of listening and encounter within the RCA on the emotionally loaded subject
of homosexuality and church life. The sessions brought about increased understanding
of the issues involved and increased acceptance of differences among participants. In that
sense, the dialogue sessions “worked.”

When participants from conflicting views encountered each other in dialogue sessions,
they often agreed to accept each other without insisting on changes of viewpoints. Their
encounters with each other never resulted in a call that one or the other should leave the
church. This suggests that more time and more encouragement for face-to-face dialogue
may, in fact, enable us to continue to live together, pursuing the primary agenda of Our
Call.

The dialogue also worked in the sense that it revealed the great complexity of RCA members’
views on homosexuality. Widely scattered views emerged as the steering committee
and coordinator listened to the ways in which RCA members talked about homosexuality
and about their lives in the church. These many views were treated as “voices” within the
RCA that are speaking, as it were, around a table, concerning homosexuality and church
life.

Additionally, the dialogue succeeded in the sense that it equipped participants to engage
each other more sensitively and charitably on future issues that may threaten to be divisive.
A dialogue experience yields a set of skills that the church can use, perhaps primarily at
the local-church level, whenever an emotionally loaded issue must be addressed.

In the matter of homosexuality, no consensus emerged among RCA members as a result of
the dialogue program. Therefore no policy recommendations to the General Synod appear
in this report. The church’s ability to handle its deliberations regarding homosexuality has
improved, at least among those who participated in the dialogue’s events. This ability was
among the purposes which the General Synod Council (GSC) specified when it authorized
the program in 2005.1

People, Their Cultures, and Their Voices
The dialogue was always, and ultimately will be, about people. The individuals, families,
and congregations who constitute—and who will in the future constitute—the church face
the issue of homosexuality in a variety of “up close and personal” ways. It will be helpful
if, in considering this report, the reader will keep human faces in view, and not see this as
an issue only in the abstract—as something clinical or institutional rather than something
personal.

The reader is also reminded that the RCA finds itself in a hyper-sexualized society which
fosters numerous exaggerations and distortions with regard to human sexuality. The church
is called to witness to—and sometimes against—the hypersexualization and the twistedness
of society’s portrayals of sexuality. If the church of Jesus Christ treats sexual behavior
as the centerpiece of its belief and practice, it will already have failed because it will
have let society’s exaggerations and distortions set the agenda. As master-devil Screwtape
wrote to junior tempter-devil Wormwood, “The game is to have them all running about
with fire extinguishers whenever there is a flood, and all crowding to that side of the boat
which is already nearly gunwale under” (C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, Letter XXV).
The RCA must address the issue of homosexuality carefully and well, but it must not make
sexuality its consuming interest.

When the dialogue proposal was crafted, the church had just experienced a divisive trial at
the 2005 General Synod. The trial and associated activities left the impression in many
minds that two opposing, adversarial positions regarding homosexuality existed in the
RCA and that most members could basically locate themselves at one of those two positions
or on a line drawn directly between them.

That impression has proven to be an oversimplification, noted at the steering committee’s
initial meeting. Recognizing that the dialogue should acknowledge and include the diversity
of voices in the church, the coordinator and members of the committee engaged in an
intentional, year-long process of listening to the church—attending and participating in a
variety of RCA events, raising the subject of homosexuality, and pooling their observations.
The committee also listened in a more formal, structured fashion, designing and distributing
a questionnaire on the issue to RCA members.2

Widely scattered views characterize RCA members’ beliefs about homosexuality. In the
secular media, and often in the church, it is often presumed that people’s beliefs fall into
two opposing camps. The committee’s research found otherwise. It would be unfair to
many RCA members to represent their positions as lying along a line that is drawn, for
example, between “open and affirming” on the one hand and “hate the sin but love the sinner”
on the other.

Inherent in the GSC’s action was the intent that the Reformed Church in America continue
vigorously to pursue Our Call, including the missional dimension of Our Call.3 This
missional dimension makes it clear that the life of the RCA is not only about ministry to
and with those who are currently part of the church. It is also about those who are not yet
part of the church, but to whom Christ leads us to reach out.4

These “listening” activities, combined with an awareness of Our Call, resulted in a dozen,
one-page characterizations of RCA “voices” with respect to homosexuality. We are a
diverse church, expecting to become more diverse, with a variety of voices on the subject
of homosexuality. Some of us use different vocabularies from others because it’s not the
same kind of issue for everyone.

Process: The Four-Session Design
As the coordinator and the steering committee became more familiar with the variety of
views in the church and with the nature of dialogue, and as they envisioned implementing
this program, a four-session design for dialogue emerged. The four sessions may be summarized
as follows.

I. Entering dialogue
a. The nature of dialogue
b. Entry points (What draws RCA members to care about this issue?)
II. Theological understandings
a. Scripture
b. Tradition (What the church has taught on the subject)
c. Natural revelation (Scientific inquiry)
d. Personal experience
III. Recognizing and hearing the “voices” in the church
IV. Ministry and polity (Living in community as Christians)

Dialogue Facilitation, Locations, and Participants
The dialogue sessions have been facilitated by the coordinator, by members of the steering
committee, and by a few associate facilitators who have been trained for the task.5 A standard
script has assisted the facilitators in the conduct of each session.
 

As of January 1, 2009, dialogues had been conducted in ten locations.6 Attendance has
ranged from 20 to 75. Most were classis-wide events, but some were regional. In general,
the strategy was to offer the program first in the locations where there was the greatest
expressed interest or apparent need. The stated clerks of the various classes and regional
synods provided assistance in selecting the locations.

Returns from the questionnaire also guided the coordinator in scheduling dialogue events.
Large numbers of returns came from those geographic areas in which the Reformed
Church has maintained educational institutions: New Jersey, southwest Michigan, and central
and northwest Iowa. Those locations were among the first to participate in the dialogue,
and attendance was strong.

The dialogue was more welcome in some places than in others. The coordinator learned
that at least two classes had voted not to participate in the dialogue. Other resistance to the
dialogue program took the more passive form of some classes neglecting to respond to the
coordinator’s correspondence. Some subpopulations of the RCA voiced strong opposition
to the conduct of any dialogue on the subject. Additional dialogue events are planned for
the winter and spring of 2009. By the time General Synod meets in June 2009, the dialogue
will have been available within each of the RCA’s eight regional synods. For those classes
and regions that were not prepared to engage in the dialogue during the 2006-2009 time
frame, the steering committee and coordinator suggest that the materials developed for this
program be employed as the need and interest arise.

Evaluations
The GSC specified that the dialogue program include an evaluation of the program’s effectiveness.
For that purpose, the coordinator and steering committee designed an evaluation
form that was completed by most participants at the close of each dialogue session. At
every dialogue event, the evaluations were strongly positive, averaging six on a sevenpoint
scale, indicating a very high approval level of the experience and a commendation of
the dialogue process regarding this and conceivably other issues.
 

Recommendations
1. The dialogue coordinator and steering committee recommend that the General Synod
postpone further policy deliberations regarding homosexuality and that the materials
developed in this program be made available in appropriate form for future use by the
church.

Wisdom suggests that it is wise to postpone further Book of Church Order proposals on
this matter until additional local churches and classes become intentional about some
form of dialogue. While some parts of the church were ready, even eager, for a dialogue
on homosexuality, other areas were moderately to strongly resistant. The resources
developed by the coordinator and the steering committee—all of which will now be
available from the Office of the General Synod—can be used by interested parties in the
future.

1a.The dialogue process is beneficial as a tool for helping participants understand and
accept each other while simultaneously differing on emotionally loaded issues.
As noted earlier in the overview section, dialogue and deliberation are two distinctly
different processes. The church’s assemblies engage in deliberation. Many participants,
although invited to a dialogue, arrived with a mentality of deliberation. Thus,
the first portion of Session I was consistently directed at introducing the dialogue
process and adopting norms for the group’s interactions.

The dialogue coordinator directed a dialogue program for the purposes of listening
and encounter. The steering committee and coordinator believe that some transformation
took place in understanding. Dialogue facilitators also saw strongly held, persistent
differences in beliefs. Beyond that, and distressingly, the RCA is a church that
has not implemented the pastoral care and ministry recommendations that the
General Synod commended in 1979 regarding homosexual persons.

Dialogue equips people to deliberate more sensitively and productively, but dialogue
does not yield policy decisions—except in the instance in which a consensus
emerges from the dialogue process. In the matter of homosexuality, no consensus
emerged in the RCA as it engaged in the dialogue program.
 

1b. The dialogue program found no denominational consensus on the matter of homosexuality
and ecclesiastical life.

Certainly, there is no consensus in the church regarding the antecedents of sexual orientation
among humans, no consensus about whether same-sex unions can be faithful expressions
of covenantal commitment, and no consensus about what ecclesiastical roles are
appropriate for those who engage in homosexual practices. (Some participants in dialogue
events would even deny certain civil rights to celibate persons of same-sex orientation, in
contravention of the 1978 Commission on Theology paper.7
 

2. The dialogue process regarding homosexuality should continue to be used on a locally
initiated basis. It should also be employed regarding issues that may arise in the future,
such as stem-cell research, genetic engineering, and others.
 

3. Future policy deliberations by the General Synod regarding homosexuality should recognize
the ethnic diversity of the church today and of the increasingly non-Anglo membership
that is likely in the future.

Respectfully submitted by John Stapert, dialogue coordinator, and steering committee
members Philip Bakelaar, John “Jack” Buteyn, John Kapteyn, Mark Kellar, Robert
Luidens, Tamara Schollaart, Marye Thomas (served for one year), and Fred Wezeman.

End Notes
1 At its October 2005 meeting the GSC acted to initiate a dialogue process regarding
homosexuality, and it articulated a purpose statement for that dialogue. That original
purpose statement was slightly revised by the General Synod of 2006. The purposes
included addressing this issue and also developing a dialogue process that
might serve the church in dealing with future, emotionally loaded issues.

2 Copies of the survey and other materials created by this program have been archived
with the Office of the General Synod.

3 Our Call: “Following Christ in mission together, led by the Holy Spirit, and working
with all the partners God provides, we believe that God is calling the Reformed
Church in America over the next ten years to focus its efforts and resources on starting
new congregations and revitalizing existing congregations, thereby empowering
fruitful and faithful ministries for the glory of God” (Minutes of General Synod
2003, p. 66).

4 Mission becomes a way of life when we reach out to people with the gospel, meeting
needs in our own neighborhoods and cities and through global partnerships. This
is what the church has always been about—faithful congregations, inspiring worship,
and loving relationships that flourish as the church builds community, nurtures
the gifts of all its members, and reaches out in mission both locally and globally
(from an explication of Our Call. See the RCA website, www.rca.org, for more.)

5 The coordinator and the steering committee thank Helen Monsees and Peg Luidens
for their generous assistance in guiding this development of the program and in
preparing a script for the facilitators.

6 A continuously updated list of locations, participants, and leadership of the dialogue
events has been supplied to the Office of the General Synod.

7 Civil rights for homosexuals was addressed in 1978 when the Commission on
Theology prepared a report on the biblical and theological appraisal of homosexuality
in regard to the issue of human and civil rights. That report stated that approval
of homosexuality is not a prerequisite to firm support of basic civil rights; denial of
such rights is inconsistent with biblical witness and Reformed theology (MGS 1978,
pp. 229-240). The commission again addressed similar issues in 1994 when it was
following General Synod’s resolution of 1990 to prepare a report indicating that
homosexuality is contrary to Scripture while still affirming love and sensitivity to
homosexuals. That action called for repentance on the part of the church for its poor
treatment of homosexuals in the past (MGS 1994, pp. 370-378).

Posted in .