36th General Assembly Deliberates Communion-related Issues

The 36th Kyodan General Assembly was held Oct. 21-23, 2008 at the Metropolitan Hotel in Ikebukuro, Tokyo. Under the theme of “The Kyodan: Unity and Solidarity as the Church Universal,” the agenda items uppermost in the minds of participants centered on the issue of “open communion,” in which non-baptized worshipers are allowed to partake of the communion elements, and on the related issue of the “recommendation of a minister to resign.” The debate was lively, to be sure, as several similar motions related to the issue were voted on. The results were rather confusing, as the motions concerning “withdrawal of the recommendation of a minister to resign” were narrowly defeated [all by hand votes], while the “motion to recognize the invalidity of the admonition (against Kitamura Jiro, the pastor of Momijizaka Church)” narrowly passed [by secret ballot]. The debate will continue into the new General Assembly Period.

Of the 400 delegates, 367 were present when the assembly convened. The ten delegates from Okinawa declined to attend, as they have done since the 34th General Assembly, but three appointed representatives, including Former District Moderator Chibana Masakatsu and the Former Vice-moderator Gushiken Atsushi, were in attendance.?

Kyodan Moderator Yamakita Nobuhisa said in the moderator’s report: “The banner behind me expresses the theme of our assembly, which is ‘The Kyodan, Unity and Solidarity as the Church Universal.’ It is my fervent desire that we would again return to our roots in the present reality in which we find ourselves, when the very core of our unity as a church is being shaken.” In his opening remarks, he referred to the matter of open communion as the most significant issue of the previous 35th General Assembly Period, pointing out the illegitimacy of the practice and saying that “it not only threatens the ecclesiastical structure of the Kyodan and brings disarray into the entire church but also results in damage to our ecumenical relationships.”

Concerning Moderator Yamakita’s report, numerous questions and criticisms surfaced, such as the ignoring of Okinawa in the 150th anniversary of evangelism in Japan, the dropping of the “reconsideration of the union” (of the Japan and Okinawa Kyodans in 1967) due to a lack of time, and references to what a “universal church” should be. Moderator Yamakita responded by saying:”With respect to Missionary Bettelheim [an Anglican doctor who arrived in Okinawa in 1846] and the 150th anniversary issue, this was already brought up in the 34th and 35th assemblies. We inquired of the Anglican Church about this, and they view his service there as part of Ryukyu history, saying that their church would also be observing the 150th anniversary in 2009.? I also understand that there are various opinions on the communion issue, but while it is permissible to have variety, this must still be within a united church that is part of the Church Universal.” This discussion went on for almost an hour, and then the report was accepted on a hand vote, with 213 of the 368 delegates who voted approving it.

General Secretary Naito Tomeyuki touched on structural reform in the general secretary’s report, saying: “Concerning the proposal to revise the number of delegates to the General Assembly, the responses from the various districts were evenly split between those in favor and those opposed, and so more work needs to be done on this. Thus, we will not bring it up for debate at this assembly.”

The most controversial topics of the assembly concerned the issue of how the rite of Holy Communion should be understood and the related issue of the admonition of a minister for practicing open communion. A motion was presented to “establish a format for sincere dialog in order to preserve trust among the churches of the Kyodan.” The General Assembly steering committee ruled that since this motion would be related to the election of officers, it should be dealt with first.

The author of the motion, Kobayashi Sadao, from the Tokai District, explained his rationale by saying: “The practice of open communion ignores the ideals expressed in the Kyodan’s Constitution and Bylaws, so it closes off the path to dialog. We need to recognize that ministers who observe this practice are not fit to be members of the Executive Council or church commissions.”

With respect to this issue, three delegates gave their opinions, which included statements of support, such as “The basis of trust between churches is the Kyodan’s Constitution and Bylaws,” and statements of opposition, such as “This restricts delegates voting rights.” When put to a vote, of the 363 votes counted, only 179 were in support, and so it was narrowly defeated.

As a result, the election process for selecting the next Kyodan moderator was greatly delayed, with the preliminary election not taking place until the evening of the first day. As there were 13 persons with the same number of votes for fifth place, the result was a total of 17 persons for the second round of voting–far more than usual, so the second round of voting was delayed until the next day. The final result was that Kyodan Moderator Yamakita Nobuhisa, pastor of Hijirigaoka Church, Southwest Subdistrict, Tokyo District garnered 193 votes to be reelected to his fourth term.

Moderator Yamakita expressed his ambitions for his new term, saying, “While I wonder about taking on a fourth consecutive term, given the circumstances we face, I accept the challenge you place before me and promise to do my best to fulfill my duties.”?

The new vice moderator will be the Sasaki Michio, pastor of Shizuoka Church, Tokai District, who will be serving his first term. In response to his election, he stated, “This is a big responsibility, but with your understanding and support, I pledge myself to support the moderator in his duties.”

Concerning the former vice moderator, Kobayashi Makoto, who served in that capacity for three terms, Moderator Yamakita explained that Kobayashi was scheduled to become the chairperson of the “Doshuren” [Japanese abbreviation for “The Association of Religious Faiths Dealing with the Problem of ‘Dowa'” (a euphemism for Buraku discrimination)”] and expressed his appreciation for his past work.

After consultation, the moderator and vice moderator nominated Suzuki Nobuharu, pastor of Otsuka-heian Church in Kanagawa District, as secretary, and he was approved for his fourth term. ?

The general secretary for the previous biennium, Takemae Noboru, had to resign due to poor health, so his replacement, Naito Tomeyuki, was formally approved by the Assembly. Then, the recommendation of the Executive Council that he be elected for a full, four-year term was also approved. Likewise, the director of the Board of Publications for the previous biennium, Akiyama Toru, had resigned and was replaced mid-term by Arisawa Tsugutoshi. After this was formally approved, a new four-year term for Arisawa was also adopted.?

Another topic that became an issue of debate concerned the method of electing the members of the Executive Council. The previous system of voting was to cast ballots for only three persons, but the Executive Council at its fifth meeting of the 35th General Assembly period had passed a resolution to increase the number to ten people, so that proposal was put to a vote. Mukai Mareo from Osaka, however, made a motion to modify the proposal so that delegates could vote for only seven persons, or half of the available spots. His reasoning was that if the Executive Council’s recommendation was adopted, it would mean that a group that had only a slight majority could garner as much as 74% of the total membership of the Executive Council, thus creating a dominate majority. He said that Osaka District has maintained its diversity by keeping the selection process to casting ballots for only half of the available positions. He also proposed that voting be done by secret ballot, and since more than one-fifth of the delegates seconded the motion, it was adopted. His motion to limit the ballots to seven was likewise approved. The voting for Executive Council members then took place on the morning of the third day, with the 14 clergy and 13 lay persons being elected according to the new process.

Due to the lack of time to get through the entire agenda, eight motions were not even dealt with, and were thus abandoned. These included the “motion to cancel the observances of the 150th anniversary of evangelism in Japan,” “the motion to establish a forum for discussion on the sacrament of communion,” and “the motion to make a declaration of opposition to the reorganization of the U.S. military in Japan and a call for the withdrawal of military bases.” This situation was recognized by the body, and the assembly was adjourned.

Note: open communion (the practice of opening communion up to? anyone who desires to receive it irrespective of whether they have been baptized yet or not). (Tr. TB)

Katsuyama Ken’ichiro, executive secretary

From Kyodan Shinpo (The Kyodan Times)

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