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Is the Episcopal Church becoming too delicate for democracy?

Is the Episcopal Church becoming too delicate for democracy?

In the run-up to General Convention I have heard several intelligent people, including Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori and the Rev. Susan Snook (who has done such helpful analysis of the budget) point out that voting on the pressing issues that face our church “creates winners and losers.” The implication seems to be that this is a bad thing, and that somehow if we were better people or had a better system principled disputes over deeply held convictions would resolve themselves in some non-legislative sort of way.

Just for the sake of getting a conversation going, I want to say that while I respect the proponents of this argument, I think this is nuts, that if people can’t stand to be on the losing side of a vote, they shouldn’t stand for election to a legislative body, and that there hasn’t, to my knowledge, been a better means of governing large organizations than representative democracy.

There are legitimate grounds on which to argue about General Convention: too long? too short? meets too often? doesn’t meet often enough? bicameral? unicameral? proportional representation favoring larger dioceses? diminished representation for dioceses that don’t tithe?

No doubt there are others. But the idea that the people of the church are too emotionally fragile to participate in legislative self-governance and must be saved from this ordeal by wiser heads is troublesome. And the notion that arguing and organizing on behalf of our principles is bad behavior that we need to unlearn is generally advanced by people who get to make the decisions when the arguing stops.

Politics, and church politics, are callings as worthy as most others. People who profess an incarnational faith can’t afford to lose sight of that.


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Jim Naughton

Fair enough, Cathy. Thank you.


Jim, points taken. I am under no illusion that any Anglicans will turn around and follow George Fox 350 years later. I simply disagree that representative democracy is demonstrably superior when it comes to decision-making in a religious context, and I offer the Quaker experience to support that, but I can agree to disagree. And sorry, I always seem to forget that my Twitter name is not my real identity.

Cathy Kerr

Jim Naughton

11 o-clock scholar, I am not, as you suggest, ignorant of other ways of doing business. I just think representative democracy is demonstrably superior to these ways. I decided not to make this a post about why I think consensus decision making in a churchwide assembly would be an extremely bad idea and focus instead on what I see as a campaign to lessen the authority of lay people in the church. I made this decision because I think there is some chance that the authority of the laity will be diminished in our restructuring events, and no chance whatsoever that we will abandon James Madison for George Fox. It doesn’t mean that I’ve never been to a Quaker meeting.


Is it really a question of emotional fragility, or the best way for God’s people to make decisions? The Quakers have proven that decision-making by consensus can work. Their model is based on respect for the working of the Spirit in each individual, and emphasizes moving toward unity as the goal.

Regarding the story that includes the quote “”Listen. You give me the chance to advocate for what I think is right and I’ll keep pushing for it till the end. You out vote me? I can live with that,” those who regularly make decisions by consensus are trained to know when the Spirit is calling them to stand firm and when to stand aside and let a decision go forward recognizing that it is what the group has discerned is correct and their reasons for blocking it are not strong enough. And they do this. So to say, “I’ll keep pushing for it till the end,” only demonstrates that a person has not been educated in the working of consensus decision-making.

Our polity and theology are different, so I’m not saying we should adopt the Quaker model. I am saying that the claim, “this is nuts, that if people can’t stand to be on the losing side of a vote, they shouldn’t stand for election to a legislative body, and that there hasn’t, to my knowledge, been a better means of governing large organizations than representative democracy” is narrow and suggests ignorance of other ways of doing business.

[Editor’s note: thanks for the comment. Please leave your name next time.]

David Quittmeyer

A few comments. 1) The Budgetary Funding Task Force (which has volunteered to “sunset” itself as a CCAB) addressed many of these things in its Blue Book report at page 717. One idea was that there might be a way for Convention to meet legislatively on a certain schedule, and to meet as a kind of “mission fair” (i.e., consultatively, non-legislatively), at other times. The underlying thought was that voting is essential for some things, but not for everything. The participation of all orders, however, is essential. 2) There was also discussion of streamlining actual legislation so that it can be worked on more intensively before Convention. 3) The specific proposal, which was a resolution from 2009 but never acted on, is that budgeting and mission be part of a strategic 9 year plan that corresponds to the term of the Presiding Bishop, which means that planning would need to start now in order to be prepared for an election and term beginning 3 years hence. This would be consistent with the canonical requirement that the PB “speak for the Church as to the policies, strategies and programs authorized by the General Convention.” Canon I.2.4 4) My distinct impression from our Province IV synod meeting last week was that the proponents of the popular resolution calling for a special convention were no longer saying that it necessarily should happen, but that it “might be able” to happen. This seemed to be a shift both in tone and approach, but not in urgency to address many issues. Perhaps all food for thought for our very busy legislative Committee on Structure??

David Quittmeyer

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