Marshall Scott continues his reflections on General Convention:
What does it mean, I wonder, when we say that we want to listen to each other?
I ask that in light of experiences of being on the Floor of the House of Deputies. There are several aspects of our procedure, both formal and informal, that put that question to me.
The first is how many actions we address through the use of a Special Order. A Special Order is passed as a resolution, but really it’s a set of rules. It sets out when we will discuss an issue; how long we will discuss it together, and how long any one of us can talk. It sets out how long we shall listen before amendments or changes can be offered, or before procedural motions can be made like calling for the question.
Special orders seem to want to listen to every opinion, if not every voice. When we say we will talk for a minimum period of time before motions are offered, we insure (or at least we want to insure) that voices will be heard and stories will be told before anyone tries to restructure the substance or the process. When we hold each person to a set period of speech, we want to insure that more folks will have some say, if not say all that each might want.
Which of course creates the tension. Can this point be made, can this story be told, in two minutes? Can all the stories be heard that might be told in fifteen minutes, or twenty, or thirty, or sixty?
And I will also own this thought: how many separate but quite similar stories need to be told? I don’t want to be ungracious. No two stories are identical. That said, similar stories much of the time bring similar emotions to express pretty much the same point.
So, we pass these Special Orders to maintain control; but also to allow more folks to have a shot at telling stories, at sharing feelings. The tension is inherent in the tool.
And if we don’t pass a Special Order? Regular debate can offer more time, perhaps. On the other hand, regular debate is subject to more types of response – or some might say more interference. In regular debate, amendments can happen virtually before the main resolution has been addressed. The question can be called before many, or any voices have been heard. These can be useful tools, really. The right to amend may well offer new voices, new words, and new and better ultimate actions. Procedural motions can help move things along, especially when there seems no difference of opinion among the voices heard about the resolution.
And, of course, those tools can be obstructionist. Amendments can so alter the substance of a resolution as to ultimately change its impact. Amendments and substitutions can undue hard work done in legislative committees, with testimony from many of the voices that might want to be heard on the floor. Procedural motions can cut off voices entirely, allowing one position – or no position at all – to be heard.
And, how shall we know what is “obstructionist?” There are voices heard in the House of Deputies, from folks who feel their stories are told less and less. Folks in the minority on an issue put forth amendments for just that purpose. Let’s be more specific: in a Church that has been steadily “progressive” now for a generation, those who find these changes painful clearly feel that their voices aren’t as often heard. I am progressive, clearly. I still feel I that those who find these changes difficult are heard often and clearly in the larger culture. At the same time, I can at least listen to those who feel those positions are heard less and less often within the House of Deputies and within General Convention. I haven’t found their stories compelling; but if we mean “all” – if I mean “all” – doesn’t that mean that those stories need to be heard, even if in a form that I might find “obstructionist?”
Some might say that this is an issue of the size of Convention, or more specifically of the size of the House of Deputies. The thing is, when we’ve discussed reducing the size of the House of Deputies one of the concerns is that fewer voices might be heard. We have wrestled with what we mean when we say “all,” and we’ve laid out lists to make sure as many categories of persons as possible might be identified, and perhaps heard. We can’t guarantee inclusion of every category of person now, with deputations of eight. It is just when folks note that would be even more difficult with deputations of six. Deputations of two – one in each order – would allow for a higher percentage of persons to speak, perhaps; but the limitations of time would still not allow for everyone to speak, much less to allow all our identified categories of persons to be represented.
So, what does it mean that we want to listen to each other? I think it’s part of human nature that we struggle when the story one of us finds compelling another does not – which might just be to say that it is part of the fallenness of creation. It is part of the fallenness, too, that there is only so much time. Could we offer every Deputy, or even every Deputy that might want it, two minutes on every topic? I would fear that General Convention would never end; or would eventually eliminate voices and stories for lack of resources, or simple endurance.
Perhaps the most we can say is that we want to hear as many voices as possible. We want to hear as many sorts of stories as possible. We want to be respectful of as many as we can, even if we don’t find those voices or stories compelling. Perhaps the most we can say is that we want to hear as many voices, as many stories as possible; and that we will trust the Spirit to help us hear clearly what we need to hear.