General Synod Approves Striking "Conscience Clauses" from BCO
On Monday evening, General Synod voted to remove the "conscience clauses" from the Book of Church Order (BCO). The RCA’s Commission for Women brought the recommendation that the "conscience clauses"—statements that spell out how people can and cannot conscientiously object to the ordination process of women—be removed from the BCO.
The recommendation passed by a vote of 143-69.
The removal of the "conscience clauses" must be ratified by two-thirds of the RCA's classes before the change will take effect.
Originally adopted in 1980, the "conscience clauses" were intended to maintain unity and peace despite a diversity of opinion concerning the ordination of women, which was adopted by the RCA in 1979. (The RCA's ordained offices are deacon, elder, and minister of Word and sacrament.) The clauses are phrases of similar wording; they appear three times within the BCO.
In their report to General Synod, the Commission for Women pointed out that in their current usage, the "conscience clauses" create more division than unity and shelter those who misuse the clauses to oppose the ordination of women.
During debate, Mark Mast, minister delegate from the Classis of Mid-Hudson, said, "For 400 years, white men have had the power in this denomination and sometimes we've used that power to hold down children of God. I hope moving forward we can humbly serve women in this denomination so they can finally fulfill their call."
Rebekah Zorgdrager, a minister delegate from the Classis of South Grand Rapids, said the "conscience clauses" helped her feel more comfortable to speak her voice more fully in her classis.
"The conscience clauses cause us to be dishonest with our candidates when we tell them they can comfortably be ordained in the RCA, dishonest with those in the pews who openly oppose them, dishonest with those who come into the RCA opposed to women in ministry, and most of all, dishonest to ourselves," said Sara Tolsma, elder delegate from the Classis of East Sioux.
Some delegates felt the removal of the clauses would force many to leave the denomination. Chris Piersma, minister delegate from the Classis of Central Iowa said, "Removing these clauses would be telling a significant proportion of the RCA that their biblically-held beliefs are not grounded."
The commission surveyed all female RCA ministers of Word and sacrament in 2012, and about one-quarter of those surveyed reported an obstacle or setback to their ordination as a result of the conscience clause.
In the report, the commission pointed out that even if the "conscience clauses" are removed from the BCO, no one would be forced to be present at the ordination of a woman if it was against their conscience. "However, it would be clear that the RCA does ordain women to office, without exception or caveat" (General Synod workbook, page 485).
"To fully follow God's call communally, the gifts of each individual, without regard to gender, must be allowed unhindered expression in our life together," the report stated.
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