The eighth assembly of the WCC in 1998 in Harare, Zimbabwe, decided to set this Commission up following vocal criticism of the WCC by the Orthodox churches.
At a conference in May 1998 in Thessaloniki, Greece, Eastern Orthodox churches notably expressed serious concerns about developments within some Protestant member churches of the Council. They also pointed to a lack of progress in ecumenical theological discussions, and their perception that the present structure of the WCC makes meaningful Orthodox participation increasingly difficult and even, for some, impossible.
In agreeing to create a Special Commission, the Harare assembly was not only seeking to respond appropriately to the concerns of the Orthodox, but also noted that "other churches and ecclesial families" have similar concerns.
A great deal of work has been done since then in Special Commission plenary sessions and sub-committees, and many matters were discussed during the WCC Central Committee meeting in Potsdam, Germany, at the end of January 2001.
The discussions have centred on five clusters of concerns:
This personal commitment, along with stories, experiences, evolving convictions and points of view, are the subject-matter of a series of articles assembled by WCC Media Relations officer Karin Achtelstetter. In this three-part series, Commission members from different traditions speak directly, sharing their very personal experiences and thoughts with a wider audience.
The series takes up three of the five clusters of concern: decision-making processes (part 1), social and ethical issues (part 2), and common prayer (part 3). The question of membership has, in the meantime, been allotted to a specially appointed study group, and it is therefore not covered in this series on the work of the Special Commission.
As a "forerunner" to the series, in December 2000 the WCC Media Relations Office issued an interview with the-then secretary for Inter-Christian Affairs of the Russian Orthodox Church, the Very Rev. Dr Hilarion Alfeyev, focusing on ecclesiological issues.
Discussion of the Special Commission's interim report, presented at the WCC Central Committee meeting in Potsdam, Germany, in February 2001, had already brought out Central Committee members' positive attitude. His Beatitude Archbishop Anastasios of Tirana, Durrës and All Albania, for example, pointed out that according to the biblical witness, it was always the Holy Spirit's inspiration which guided the people rather than majority decisions arrived at in parliamentary style.
That a possible consensus model as the future decision-making process for the WCC must not jeopardize the prophetic voice of the WCC, was a concern expressed by the Lutheran pastor from Finland, Rev. Mari Kinnunen. "What will happen to the prophetic voice of the WCC?" she asked. "Will a decision-making process based on consensus silence this voice?" She concluded, however, that there is no basis for such fears. Consensus-building, said Kinnunen, even when it results in an agreement to disagree, is of great importance for the future life of the WCC.
Two members of the Special Commission on Orthodox participation in the WCC, Eden Grace from the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in the United States and D'Arcy Wood from the Uniting Church in Australia, have each had much experience with decision-making by consensus, although in different ways.
Eden Grace comes from a Christian tradition "that pays particular attention to discernment of the Spirit in the context of church government. ...Friends (Quakers) look for 'visible unity' in the church community, and find it when 'all are of one accord' in matters of business," she writes in her report.
D'Arcy Wood, for his part, decided some ten years ago together with his church to dare to depart from a parliamentary style and make decisions by consensus.
Two very different experiences. What do they have in common? They give us courage to try setting our feet on new, and at the same time old, paths.
As the Commission proposes to shift the Council from majority rule to consensus, I find that the core qualities of Christian community are at stake. How we make decisions matters, because how we treat each other testifies to whether we are living in the Spirit or not. The apostle Paul gives us a good list of outward signs with which to discern whether we are rightly led by the true Spirit of God: "The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control." (Galatians 5:22-23)
As a Quaker, I come from a community that pays particular attention to discernment of the Spirit in the context of church governance. Friends (Quakers) look for "visible unity" in the church community, and find it when "all are of one accord" in matters of business. We attach a high spiritual importance to our business because we see it as a seamless extension of our worship.
Church government is not about politics, rules of debate, and voting. It is about living as the faithful community which God has called into being, which makes visible God's reconciling love in the world. Paul gives his advice for church government: "Be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus." (Philippians 2:2-4)
Of course, this is difficult, and we are not very good at it when we rely on our own resources. But when we rely on the power of the Holy Spirit, present among us and eager to lead us, Quakers testify that we can experience the blessed community which is characterized by the qualities Paul describes. We are not seeking only for a common mind, but - as Paul says - we seek to be guided by the mind of Christ.
Among Quakers, I have often served as "recording clerk", the person who puts into words the will of God as discerned by the meeting. This is a weighty task, not a secretarial function. In this role I have considered what it feels like to know the will of God.
I remember one particular meeting, concerning a decision with potentially serious consequences. As Friends had been speaking, offering what wisdom they had on the matter, I had been typing most of it on my laptop. Many excellent points and sound arguments were offered. The matter continued for quite a long time. I had a lot of text on my screen. Yet the meeting was still divided. Then one Friend stood to speak. Before he spoke, he stood silently for a moment, and I felt a dramatic change in the spirit of the meeting. It felt to me as if God's hand came to rest upon this one man, and granted his message authority. I am quite sure that the rest of those present also felt this shift. Before he spoke, I wiped clean the computer screen and prepared myself to record his message. Before he spoke, I knew with certainty that he was guided by the mind of Christ.
This sounds like a mystical experience, and it is. It cannot be controlled by systematic rules, but rests entirely on the grace of God. However, it is not an impractical or otherworldly experience. Friends make all our decisions this way, and not all of them result in such a dramatic and memorable experience of God's hand at work in our midst. But I can say that, even in perfunctory items of business, we experience the fruits of the Spirit as a consequence of the love and care we take for each other, and our common commitment to obedience to God's will.
Testify to an experience of peace
As the WCC moves toward adopting consensus decision-making, I have heard skeptics who wonder if such a thing could work in a global ecumenical context. Personally, I am convinced of two things.
One is that it is not practical nor advisable for the WCC to adopt Quaker decision-making, as I have described it above, as a shared experience of spiritual discernment. The WCC membership is too diverse in its understanding of authority to assume that we can share the presuppositions which make Quaker process successful.
But my second conviction is that, if we share new forms of behaviour and expectations with each other, we can create space for the Holy Spirit to work among us. I anticipate an increase of love among us, as we make this change.
The desire to reform decision-making in the Council parallels our commitment to the Decade to Overcome Violence. In each case, we are seeking to more faithfully embody the Christian charism of reconciliation. We can not expect to witness to the world a message of peace if the quality of our fellowship does not testify to an experience of peace.
In our own WCC process, do we bear the mark of "the confrontational logic of war?" Do we have " the tendency to solve a problem or conflict by establishing the dominance of one position over the other? ... Peaceful resolution of conflict is possible only as the win-lose matrix is being transformed into a dynamic where both sides emerge as having won." WCC general secretary Konrad Raiser spoke these words in reference to the Decade to Overcome Violence. I believe they speak equally well to the Council's own internal culture. We now seek to transform that culture from the secular political win-lose model, to the Christian biblical model of mutual love.
"May the Lord make your love increase and overflow for each other and for everyone else." (1 Thessalonians 3:12) Such are the fruits of the Spirit, and such are what I anticipate as a result of the Special Commission's work on decision-making.
The author, Eden Grace, is a member of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), and a member of the WCC Central Committee and the Special Commission on Orthodox Participation in the WCC. She serves on the General Board of Friends United Meeting, an international Quaker denominational body, and was a youth delegate from Friends United Meeting to the Harare Assembly. She is active in the Massachusetts Council of Churches.
The theological reasoning behind this aim was St Paul's image of the Body of Christ with its limbs and organs, each having a different function in the Body. The Holy Spirit gives gifts to members of the church as and where the Spirit wishes, and it is the role of the church to recognize these gifts and put them to use in the ministries of the church. The Basis of Union of the Uniting Church affirms that "government" of the church is a function given to individuals and councils according to the spiritual gifts they have received. In historical terms, one could say that the form of government of the Uniting Church resembles the Presbyterian system to a large extent, with lay people participating, in at least equal numbers with clergy, at the national level (the national assembly), state level (synods), regions (presbyteries) and local communities (parishes and congregations).
As the Uniting Church moved into the 1980s there were deliberate efforts to encourage women and young people to take a greater role in the councils of the church and to be elected to office. These efforts met with success to some degree, but one of the barriers to full participation was the form of debate and decision-making that the Uniting Church inherited from its forebears. The rules are sometimes described as "parliamentary" in style or "Westminster-derived".
I found myself presiding over the Synod of South Australia from 1981 to 1983, and it was obvious that people who had had long experience of the church and its procedures had a huge influence on the decisions of the Synod. To some extent, one might say, this is inevitable. On the other hand, one could also say that the gifts of many members, especially women and younger people, were being under-utilized. Gradually, the issue of reforming the decision-making process came to the fore.
Decision-making processes are uniform throughout the Uniting Church. Some other denominations in Australia are more diocesan- or state-based in their form of government, but the Uniting Church has a strong national character. The reform of decision-making processes therefore needed to be investigated on a national level, so the standing committee of the National Assembly established a small working group to prepare alternative processes. I met with this working group on one or two occasions but people like Dr Jill Tabart - later to be national president - , Rev. Gregor Henderson - general secretary of the National Assembly - and Rev. Hamish Christie-Johnston did much of the work.
The new system which was eventually adopted has the label "consensus method". The general aim is to involve as many people as possible in formulating the decisions of a council or other meeting. The new procedures are also less rigid.
Two examples will illustrate these points. First, a person may speak more than once in the debate on a particular proposal. It is the responsibility of the chairperson to ensure that no one individual or small group dominates the discussion to the exclusion of other voices. Secondly, an issue may be explored in the meeting without any formulated proposal being "before the chair". There is a process whereby the meeting moves to the formulation (and modification) of any proposal by agreement - "consensus".
The chairperson will often check with members as to their opinion - as distinct from a formal vote - as the meeting moves towards a decision. The last National Assembly meeting to use the "old" procedures was the one at which I presided in 1991. The next Assembly in 1994 used the new procedures. At about the same time, synods, presbyteries and parish councils - as well as committees and commissions of various sorts - moved across to the new procedures.
A decade of experience with the consensus method
So the Uniting Church has a decade of experience with the consensus method. What does this experience show?
First, the new method has needed" fine-tuning" in order to serve the church better. Second, very few people - as far as I can tell - would want to go back to the old procedures. Despite difficulties here and there, the new procedures do work; they have achieved the aims of flexibility and greater participation which were identified in the late 1980s.
Have there been losses as well as gains? It could be said that the new procedures are slower than the old. This is a consequence of the need to hear many points of view and to encourage as many people as possible to contribute to the formulation of decisions. However the slowing down has not been as great as some people feared. This is my experience, at least. While more voices are now heard in debate, there is less need to spend time on procedural discussion, e.g. "notice of amendment", "moving the previous question", "motion to adjourn" and so on. There is also a higher level of satisfaction that the council or meeting has properly explored the possibilities in resolving any particular issue.
Another loss - perhaps "danger" would be a better term - is the great authority vested in the chairperson of the meeting. The chairperson has the responsibility of seeing that the discussion is full and fair, and that all relevant viewpoints receive an airing. He or she must also discern the developing "mind of the meeting" and seek to express just what that "mind" is. This requires a high level of skill. The choice of the chairperson is obviously vital. The equipping of chairpersons for the task is also important, especially if they are new to this role. Therefore, in the early 1990s, an education process was undertaken not only for chairpersons but for all members of the councils of the church.
It should be added that the influence of the chairperson can be moderated by having a committee of advice or business committee on hand to advise the chairperson both before and during a meeting.
The experience of the Uniting Church has helped the Special Commission on Orthodox Participation in the WCC. However, an ecumenical body is obviously very different from a single denomination. The WCC will need to develop rules appropriate to its own life. The Uniting Church's experience of consensus decision-making has been helpful, but it is only one example of how consensus procedures operate, The Special Commission has now agreed on some general principles of consensus decision-making. It will be up to the Central Committee, if it adopts the Special Commission's proposals, to translate these principles into an appropriate practical form. I hope the Central Committee will move in that direction. Some of the difficulties experienced not only by Orthodox participants but by some others in the WCC may well be resolved by this means.
Rev. Dr D'Arcy Wood is a retired minister of the Uniting Church in Australia. From 1974 to 1988 he lectured in Systematic Theology and Liturgy in Adelaide. He was moderator of the Synod of South Australia 1981-83 and president of the National Assembly 1991-94. Dr Wood was a staff member of the Australian Council of Churches 1969-73 and president of that body 1984-88.
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