Dissent Within Unity

Today’s letter comes from Caroline Welch, an elder in my congregation, the First Reformed Church of Schenectady. Make your voice heard! Please submit your #WeAretheRCA letter to revstacey@gmail.com.

Dear General Synod 2016,

I write this as a third generation member of the RCA, elected to the offices of both deacon and elder in one of the oldest congregations in our denomination and in the country.  I have watched, with great distress, as the General Synod has taken steps to remove the authority from the local, elected government bodies in a concerted effort to place the balance of power in the RCA in a hierarchical structure. In my understanding, this completely contradicts the purpose of our structure, which is to allow the churches and local classis bodies to determine how to operate in their region. There is space, in our structure, for congregations to have different views on many topics, but still be able to accept one another in the denomination and to operate accordingly. This gives church goers an opportunity to find the congregation that best suits them, and allows the RCA to minister to anybody and everybody.

The actions of the General Synod in 2016 indicate that they are not interested in ministering to anybody and everybody, and that they do not want to be inclusive of the LGBTQ community. When I was in 9th grade, one of our new youth group leaders came out to us, in the winter, when he felt comfortable enough to do so. I remember him crying as he did this, because he was not sure what reaction he would receive from the church, but despite that, he knew it was important to share his experiences with us. He spoke to us of his experience growing up, being kicked out of his family, being ostracized from other churches, and finally finding a congregation where he was welcomed as he was (and still is). This was profoundly moving experience for me, that I still clearly recall decades later, and having grown up in an accepting reformed church, I was shocked and appalled to learn that there were churches that would exclude people for any reason. I don’t have this experience personally, but I know many others who have, and it breaks my heart that Christians do this to one another. It sickens me that the actions of General Synod 2016 could force my congregation to impose this experience on others.

In the years since, I have met many people who felt that they were not welcome in their own church, afraid of the ramifications of expressing their sexual orientation, and I just can’t accept that the RCA is trying to enforce this lack of acceptance on the entire denomination. In the past, one congregation could be more accepting than another, and the denomination functioned because our structure has room for that. Our structure has room for all, and members of the  LGBTQ community should not have to fight for acceptance at church.

Personally, I think there are much larger problems for Christians in the world than to worry about the sexual orientation of members of the church. Christians in Syria are being beheaded simply for being Christian. I have traveled to the Soviet Union and Cuba, where Christians have had to practice underground and have been threatened with imprisonment or death. In Africa, countries are being torn apart because Christianity and Islam can’t coexist peacefully and the government can’t make laws that keep members of both religions happy. Demographically, millennials are less likely to attend church than any previous generation (and are more concerned with acceptance), and we need to be focusing on ways to bring more people into the church in order to ensure our future survival.

There is room in the structure of the RCA to allow dissent within unity. When same sex marriage was legalized in New York State, votes were held to decide whether churches would perform them. Our congregation voted to allow the ministers to perform marriages in accordance with NYS law; while we did this, other churches in the classis opted not to. Their ministers point people toward our congregation when they are asked to perform a same sex marriage. This system works and allows for different belief systems to coexist within the same denomination.

I am not trying to impose more acceptance on those who do not wish to do so, but am extremely upset that the welcome my congregation offers members of the LGBTQ community would be taken away from us against our will.

Finally, as an elected elder in my congregation, I will continue to vote to allow the ministers at my church to perform same sex marriages, regardless of what is decided by General Synod, in accordance with federal law, state law, and the wishes of my congregation.

Caroline Welch

Elder, First Reformed Church of Schenectady


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