well, no, actually

Three times today, in very different contexts, and with totally different emotions attached, I was faced with the language of church-as-democracy.

The church isn’t a democracy.  It never was.

Democracy is a political structure in which the people decide– and in which all people have an equal vote, and equal say (which sounds great, so long as you remember that we also need safeguards for those who can’t make themselves heard, or who are in a minority at risk from the tyranny of the crowd).  I like democracy, on the whole; though if I were fully honest, I suspect I’d prefer a benevolent meritocracy.

But however you define it, that is not the church.

In the church, authority doesn’t derive from popular vote, but from what we believe to be true of God.  It derives from the structures of the church (in our case bishops in synod) and the collective wisdom and insight of the community of faith.  It derives from who and what God calls us to be, and how that call is affirmed in the world.

In the church all God’s people have a voice and all have a right to be heard.  But we do not decide what is right, good or true by popular vote.

I’m sure many things would be easier if we did.

Not better, mind: but easier.

And that is seldom God’s way.

9 thoughts on “well, no, actually

  1. True, I think.

    And yet it raises the question of who gets to decide in the end – who is able to discern what is of God and what is not.

    Of course we have Scripture, Reason, and Tradition – to which some add Experience and some do not and others say the last is part of the former three.

    It’s not popular vote. It shouldn’t be. And yet over and over again we ask who gets to decide and why. Whom do we trust in this discernment? Where do we decide the lines between authoritarianism, community discernment and popular vote?

    I remember having a discussion with someone in Haiti who kept repeating, “The church is a hierarchy, not an anarchy!” And I thought, there must be other choices than these two… though I suspect that in Haiti those have been the choices in many areas of life for a long time. Collaboration? Communal discernment?

    Of course, in a religious community we consider many of the same things in different ways.

    I think in the end we are back to the beginning: the need to trust that the Holy Spirit moves through whatever structures we come up with in order to accomplish God’s purposes on earth. And we get to figure out how best to listen and cooperate, however we get it done.

  2. Sadly ther Church has never been a democracy. There is no wonder that the Church has the problems it has in todays world. If only the Church was a partnership with God and community then it would have,in my all too humble opinion, a future. Having said the above I do believe in change and hope that this will happen in my lifetime.

  3. In my experience many who want the church to be a democracy actually want it to be governed by plebiscite, that is, they do not want the usual form of Western democracy, where a government is elected for a period to do what it wishes, but a from where each issue is the subject of a different and separate vote. So one might have a vote on the Peace, or vestments, or charitable donations, or whatever.

    In fact, the SEC is pretty near a democracy. A group of people are freely elected by each congregation to provide a Vestry, and the Vestry gets to choose from eligible candidates which will govern them – or chair them. In other words, the Vestry has a huge say in the appointment of the priest and it would be a brave bishop who actually forced a priest on a congregation in the face of overt disapproval – and that is just about as much say as I have in the candidates for whom I can vote, and the colour of the government.

    The trouble is, that generally in the Christian church, only an elite have been truly educated in the matters of faith. Almost every Jew with whom I was at school learned Hebrew. So why is it not expected that almost all Christians will learn both Hebrew and Greek? And history and liturgy and about pastoral matters and …- and so share the concerns of the clergy and be able to discuss with real understanding what needs to be done in St Thomas-on-the-Railway-Siding, and so change the whole ethos of the church?

  4. This reminds me of what one of my college friends referred to as “empewment” – the tendency to sit in the pews as though rooted to them and let the ordained “do church” for the congregation, to have a few “professional holy people” who will do all the praying and learning and acting. And of course the clergy has more often than not encouraged this in service of power and in the name of correctness.

    Of course, if I didn’t believe there was a reason to have clergy, I wouldn’t be in the ordination process. And on a purely pragmatic level it seems good to train people who can “equip the saints for the work of ministry” as it is said in I’ve forgotten which epistle.

    It seems to me that the current state of affairs as regards lack of knowledge about matters of faith is a situation to which contributions have been made on all sides. And every time I think it’s not as bad as it seems, something else eye-opening happens (as it did Sunday, as a matter of fact, but there’s another tale…). And that is when I become very, very sad about the level of ignorance and when I would, if I were thinking about it, be glad that theological questions are not, in fact, usually settled by a straight majority vote of the baptized.

    But I can’t believe all this is exactly what God has in mind.

  5. Dear Rosemaryhannah— I DO want Western democracy in the Church and understand the words of Winston Churchill who said that ” It [democracy]might not be perfect but it is the best we have”. The quotation might not be totally correct but is very close to what the great man said. I do agree that the SEC is a very good model but it is not democracy in the Western sense.

  6. I’d also like to thank Kimberly and second her observation about one of the perils of full democracy: “which sounds great, so long as you remember that we also need safeguards for those who can’t make themselves heard, or who are in a minority at risk from the tyranny of the crowd”. Unfortunately, the recent string of suicides of young people in the United States following extensive bullying shows how true that is.

  7. In a more profound sense of course, becoming a Christian means giving up every pretence at making one’s own mind up about anything – one undertakes to try and find the mind of God and follow it.

    However, since Christians can and do disagree about almost everything, the problem that always arises is how a group, be it congregation or denomination, decide on ‘what we should do next’. Otherwise one ends up with each congregation consisting of one person, and one alone.

    And in the end, there are decisions to which conscience would not allow me to sign up. For instance, although I worshipped at a ‘Piskie church, I did not feel free to join it in any formal way until it accepted that God was calling women to the priesthood.

  8. I find it interesting when unlikely and unexpected agreement comes across more natural human divides. When two people who seldom agree on anything suddenly admit to having the same basic idea for what God might be calling the community (or an individual) to, then I suspect God is in it.

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