Did anyone ask the hard questions?
Two open letters shine new light on the process behind the CRC’s Human Sexuality Report.
On May 6, the Hesed Project CRC published an open letter by Dr. Mary Stewart VanLeeuwen that gives new information about her role as promotor fidei, or “Devil’s Advocate,” on the Synodical Committee to Articulate a Foundation-laying Biblical Theology of Human Sexuality for the Christian Reformed Church of North American (CRCNA). The committee’s report (commonly called the Human Sexuality Report or HSR) offers theological perspectives on a wide range of issues including pornography, divorce, gender identity, extramarital sex, singleness and homosexuality. Two-thirds of the overtures and communications to Synod 2022 are responses to the HSR report.
In her open letter, VanLeeuwen explains the conditions she stated to the CRC administrator who asked her to take on the role of promotor fidei in 2016: “The first qualifier was that I saw my most useful role – as a trained social scientist, and not a biblical theologian – to be someone who could supply background information on topics that were included in the HSR mandate. The second qualifier was that I would not be a voting member of the committee, since I was no longer a member of the CRC, and regarded my main role on the committee as that of an outside academic – not theological – consultant.”
The Hesed Project is a bi-national group of CRC members who are concerned about the implications of the HSR. The group’s website discusses questions like: “Does the approach of the HSR cause harm?” and “Can churches have open dialogue?” In an introduction to VanLeeuwen’s letter, the Hesed Project says that it “reveals serious flaws in the report’s process and report” that need to be understood by delegates heading to Synod.
From the outset, all members of the HSR committee were required to “adhere to the CRC’s biblical view on marriage and same-sex relationships.” This position is spelled out in a 1973 report which made a distinction between same-sex orientation and activity. In summary, “there is no sin in being attracted to the same sex. We only sin if we act on our sexual attractions.”
In a second open letter published on the Hesed Project’s website, Rev. Daniel Zylstra, a Synod 2016 delegate, says he saw this as a problem. “I feared that the new HSR committee would become worse than useless, because it would, by very nature of its makeup, be unable to even truly consider anything outside of a strictly Western, evangelical, ‘traditional’ interpretation of scripture.”
Zylstra says he regrets allowing his amendment to add the promotor fidei role to become a “friendly amendment,” meaning it was not mentioned in the Acts of Synod 2016. A Banner article published June 17, 2016 says the promotor fidei role would “raise difficulties and doubts regarding the biblical, scientific and Reformed validity of all arguments presented during the study committee’s work. This person will suggest other explanations and alternative perspectives to those being presented by the study committee.” But this role as adopted by Synod and described in The Banner was never fully carried out, according to VanLeeuwen.
Hearing the other side
Even though VanLeeuwen wasn’t operating as the promotor fidei that Zylstra had imagined, there is evidence to show that the HSR committee spent time grappling with dissenting views over its five-year mandate.
“Our primary purpose is to hear from you,” explained co-chair Jeff Weima, to those gathered at Synod 2019. “We will pay careful attention to what you say.”
Delegates at Synod 2019 had the opportunity to read and discuss an interim HSR in groups of eight. Their feedback was recorded and passed along to the committee.
“While they were having this discussion, a group of spectators was also given a chance to provide input,” explains the Acts of Synod 2019. “A group of more than 30 men and women, some wearing rainbow t-shirts or pins, had gathered in the gallery to listen to this interim report. The group considers themselves advocates for [full] inclusion of LGBTQ people in the Christian Reformed Church.” They met with Paul DeVries, chair of the Council of Delegates at the time, who recorded their feedback and passed it along to the committee.
As that time of discussion drew to a close, HSR committee member Mary-Lee Bouma invited further comments, reported the Banner. “If you are here today, or if you know someone who wanted to be here, or if you are following along online, please do feel free to reach out to our committee.”
Following Synod 2019, the committee says they received direct email feedback from approximately 45 persons. The Agenda for Synod 2022 also includes, upon the request of the Council of Delegates, an appendix titled “Listening to our LGBTQ+ Brothers and Sisters” with 11 first person testimonies and instructions for local churches to continue listening to testimonies from those impacted by the HSR.
Recognizing the weighty implications of the HSR, for membership and participation in the CRC, the denomination has asked churches to engage seriously with the report. Four hundred facilitators were trained over the past two years to lead listening circles using a toolkit from Pastor Church Resources.
A significant oversight
Because so many members of the denomination have been deeply engaged with the HSR, it’s important for CRC members to hear about what Zylstra sees as a flawed process behind the committee’s creation. “The fact that the promotor fidei’s work was not properly implemented and not made public means that this report is not the rigorous, well-tested report that I was shooting for – and that this denomination deserves.”
VanLeeuwen wants readers of the HSR to know that her signature does not represent her agreement with the full report. “How could that be so, since I voted on none of the recommendations?” she explains. “I do, of course, affirm the research material that I provided and which was provided in Appendix 1 and 2 of the report. Anything beyond that is an inappropriate exaggeration.”
Instead of challenging the committee’s work at every turn, VanLeeuwen contributed research from which the committee was allowed to pick and choose. “The denomination never got to hear any counterpoint(s) to the HSR! In my opinion, what a travesty! What a waste of everyone’s time!” exclaims Zylstra. “The make-up of the committee made sure that a minority report was essentially impossible.”
On May 30, Christian Courier reached out to a member of the HSR committee for comment on VanLeeuwen and Zylstra’s letters. The committee member declined to comment, explaining that Mary-Lee Bouma, Jeff Weima and Jim Vanderwoerd will be reporting to Synod shortly. “As part of that process, we are more than happy to respond to questions from the advisory committee and the Synodical delegates about the report.” The HSR committee says, “at this point we feel it’s prudent to concentrate our efforts on responding within that process” since Synod advisory committees had already begun their work at the end of May.
Synod begins this week Thursday, June 8, at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The CRCNA has a YouTube channel which will have recordings of public synod sessions.