I started this a while ago, but with the Church of England debate and the increased discussion on how church councils should be conducted. What I am doing is outlining what I see as the important balance within the theology of discernment carried out in councils of the church from the English Reformed Perspective and the disciplines that are needed by members for that to function.
Firstly let me say that URC like the Anglicans have a lot of procedures which on the surface appear to be democratic but can often lead to things that people do not see as democratic outcomes. The grumbles within the URC tend to focus particularly on the ability of the major councils (General Assembly and Synod) to engage with the local congregations. Like the Anglican church they are often seen as the provenance of the self selecting few.
Long words I am afraid, but I think this needs to be said as the URC is going once again through the “we are governed by the people” “no we are not we are governed by the Holy Spirit”. The correct answer it of course “Yes”, it is not an either or situation. Firstly there are some quite specific things that English Reformed Church has adopted:
- The belief that the Holy Spirit can and does speak to who the Holy Spirit chooses to speak, not to who we say she should speak with.
- That the Holy Spirit diverse in its revelation,that fits with the need of the person
- That the Holy Spirit speaks into the context into which it is sort and what applies in one context is not what necessarily applies in another.
There are however some things that equally need to be stated:
- We have never assumed that all people speak with the same level of guidance. There are those within every congregation who have a track record of being open to the leadings of the Spirit and these carry more weight.
- That the discernment of the Spirit is a communal act that requires that people who participate in the discernment are present.
- That the tradition of the Church is a good tool to be used within the discernment of the Spirit. Thus those who are learned in the faith carry the extra responsibility in discernment and may be called onto advise.
This is important, because the councils of the church are not exercises in democracy but exercises in discernment in which voting is often used. Votes are restricted usually to members, present and although normally a simple majority suffices that is not the always the case. You need to be present not because of some inability to read or ascertain postal votes but because you need to listen to the debate, for what the Spirit is saying through it and also to sense the mood, well what others feel the Spirit is saying.
There is a problem, we all are very well aware of the debate and voting meeting of a secular business meeting and to an outsider that is what the form of our meetings take.
I am going to suggest we need to think about how we conduct meetings and the disciplines with which we conduct them. I am not going to suggest major constitutional changes.
First of all we need at all meetings at all times to practice hospitality. No I do not mean provide food, I mean the practices that make a good host. One is to try an anticipate the needs of others, these can be simple as using a loop system so those who struggle with hearing can hear. That however means every person who speaks in a meeting must speak with a microphone. Therefore if somebody can not easily get to a microphone you need to find ways of getting to the microphone to them. It means that we should all be patient with those who struggle with words and we should all be careful not to bore others.
However I also note that often people when they want a council to change want it to change in ways that would favour them. Everyone is different and therefore have different preferences over how the meeting should be run. Not everyone is happy standing up and speaking in a meeting. Not everyone is happy working in small groups and feeding back. Not everyone likes to write up on notice boards. Some individuals like silence to think things through others like the cut and thrust of a debate. Some people like formal approaches others prefer informality. Some like to have information in advance and will read and digest it, others much prefer that everything is presented at the meeting. Some like the routine to be the same each time and some find variety to be more engaging. As we choose approaches so we also choose the people who are most likely to contribute. There is no easy solution but we need to be aware that the way we ask people to participate alters who is comfy participating. God has not given a standard form that must be followed but we do need to be aware if people are feeling that uncomfortable that they are self excluding from the debate. In such situations ways do need to be sort to include them without excluding others.
Another important guideline is to keep procedures simple. That is that most people will be more content and feel more happy about contributing if they know what is going on. Having complicated methods of voting and such just makes most people insecure and edgy. Also realise that people often like to suss out how something works before they try using it. Some people will always be flustered if asked to do something for the first time. If you must have complex ways of doing things then make sure that you find at least three different ways of presenting it so people have a good chance to get hold of what is happening. That does not mean three contradictory sets of instructions. It does mean something like:
- A written explanation given in advance that people can read and digest at leisure. Most won’t but some people will and some of those who will are highly resistant to something being put on them at the meeting.
- A clear verbal re-iteration of what was in the written explanation at the meeting. This is to catch the 90% who just glanced at the paper and have not taken it in
- Either a video of people enacting the procedure or a trial run with a pretend issue which can be taken.
If two and three take together longer than five minutes your procedure is too complicated! Equally if people start asking a lot of questions the procedure is too complicated. It may well be better to go for a simpler form. Meeting size matters, as a rule the bigger the meeting the simpler the procedures need to be. In a group of three, it is quite easy to brainstorm, talk things through, negotiate and come to a complicated consensus. Try doing it with several hundred and you will spend several days discussing the date of the next church fair as each checks their diary.
The final one is that we should spend time and energy encouraging people to listen. The real skill of participating in a church council is not speaking but in listening, in hearing not just what is said on the surface but what is also being said below the surface. In some sense this is listening for the spirit, but it is also listening to your inner voice, seeing the way that you interpret what someone else says. Are there words you hear particularly well and also words you miss? Does it matter who says something? It is not easy to listen at that depth, I am not claiming that I do it all the time, but if we are truly to do the discernment it is what is needed. It is easier to listen at this level in a small meeting than a large one. Perhaps a good reason for having smaller meeting in which people can practice doing this. Without those among us who listen at this level we are not really in a position to weigh the material and to progress the discernment. This of course slows things down and in our quick fix society this listening is counter cultural.
Given this as you might expect I do not see form as an essential for discernment, we are human all human form will fall short of the divine, God still works through it. Nor do I think we should expect the outcome to be the same regardless of situation. Because it is not a voting democracy but an act of discernment, I am quite happy with restricting the meeting to those present, with votes that are not simple majorities and with consensus procedures if used appropriately. Votes are in the end only as binding as we make them in this procedure.
If I am honest I think the one essential is that we stop assuming that members will just pick things up as they go along and start actively trying to engage members in doing this sort of discernment and understanding what they are doing in church councils is this. That may require changes in approach, teaching within and outside of church councils and also a lot of careful chairing. It certainly will not make councils quicker initially but I suspect that until we do, people will continue to gripe about them.