April 8, 2005

Polling and Polity

There has been some discussion of late on the House of Bishops/Deputies list concerning two related “political” matters:

  • the meeting of the upcoming session of Executive Council conducting its discussions concerning future participation in the Anglican Consultative Council in closed session, and
  • the possibility of conducting some kind of a “poll” of the whole Episcopal Church to determine what everyone thinks about the issues before us
  • On the first point, according to the rules of order, although it is possible for the Executive Council to enter a closed session, no decision (other than procedural) can properly be taken during such a session. This is fairly standard in the laws of deliberative assemblies, although we are seeing unfold before us even now one of the principle exceptions: the election of a pope by the College of Cardinals.

    On the second point, it seems to me that the historic documents (the XXXIX Articles) and the reflections of people like Richard Hooker and Bishop White outline the delicate balancing act that Anglicans try to maintain in their polity. Features of this include:

  • recognition that the laity have a voice in decisions, usually through select lay leaders, while at the same time
  • clergy receive, as part of their ordination, a “place in the councils of the church” and bishops are given special charge to preserve unity even in the case of disagreements
  • Together these two factors incline towards a “theology of leadership” as opposed to a “town-meeting-style” absolute democracy, or even, strictly speaking, representative government. The leaders are chosen not simply because they represent or mirror the opinions, desires, or beliefs of the larger body of the faithful (whether determined in a poll or a plebiscite), but because of their wisdom, skill, prudence, charity, clarity and so on.

    It is a delicate balance, and the third and crucial counterweight that keeps it relatively steady is the capacity to admit to error and make corrections. Even with prudent leadership and inclusion of lay, clerical and episcopal voices, the church sometimes still errs. And the same would be true if the church operated as a strict universal democracy in which all members had an equal vote, or one in which a single monarchial figure was invested with titular infallibility — no political structure is immune from the possibility or error; and the tyranny of the mob is virtually indistinguishable from the tyranny of an elite or a sole dictator.

    The greatest concern for Anglicanism at this point is not openness about the sexuality of bishops, but the move to diminish the role of the laity and “inferior” clergy in the councils perceived as instruments of unity, three out of four of which consist solely of bishops (a significant number of them not elected in a process involving the laity and clergy), and two out of four consisting solely of Primates.

    The only international Anglican body that is structured in a traditional “Anglican” way (at least as Hooker and White describe it), therefore, is the Anglican Consultative Council. This is why the continued participation of the “dissenting” participants is crucial to any wholesome future for the Anglican Communion. Were the ACC to disbar the participation of the duly elected representatives from the Episcopal Church and Anglican Church of Canada — and who knows who else in coming years — any legitimacy will have been forfeited to the domination of the majority view.


    Anonymous said...

    Robert's Rules of Order contain no restriction on what actions a deliberative assembly can take in executive session. The public minutes normally indicate the decision taken and nothing more, but sometimes not even that depending on the nature of the case. Of course, outside entities can't be responsible for decisions they don't know about.

    A given organization could in its by-laws restrict what it can do in executive session, but there is no such restriction in the Canons or the EC bylaws that I can see.

    (The original "executive session" label came from the onetime practice of the US Senate hearing executive matters [treaties, appointments] in secret so that personalities could be discussed freely. They certainly did take binding votes on such occasions. The Senate's practice has of course long since changed, but the label has stuck.)

    Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

    The Executive Council Handbook states: "Although Executive Council meetings are generally open to the public, a member may move to enter into Executive Session, stating the reason for the session. By-laws Art. II.9. Executive Sessions are permitted only to discuss personnel issues or other matters whose discussion in public might adversely affect the financial or legal position of ECUSA or DFMS. No resolution may be adopted in Executive Session, so if any member feels action based on the discussion in Executive Session is warranted, a resolution must be offered after the return to public meeting."
    Robert's Rules does allow action to be taken in Executive Session, but the minutes (and in some cases, as with the trial of a member, even the results) can only be read or discussed in executive session. The usual way of handling this is to have the discussion in executive session and then return to open session for the final action.

    Anonymous said...

    ECUSA polity has individual Episcopalians in parishes vote to elect delegates to diocesan conventions, and then those diocesan conventions elect delegates to the GC, right?

    That strikes me as *too far* removed (rather like how state legislatures used to elect U.S. Senators). I don't think I'm advocating any radical direct (and ergo non-episcopal) democracy, to suggest that maybe each Episcopalian could, via a parish vote, directly elect their diocesan GC delegates?

    I think that might give every Episcopalian a little more *ownership* of GC decision-making, by not being quite so far removed, legislatively, from it.

    Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

    There is, sadly, a difficulty with a more democratic election process for deputies to General Convention. In most dioceses the chances of significant numbers of people getting to know either clergy or other laity is minimal, given our relatively parochial lives. The tendency would be, I imagine, for the votes to go to clergy and laity with high visibility due to already being involved at a diocesan level. Even with the elected representatives this phenomenon is not unknown, as I can attest from personal experience in New York. People look at the pictures and read the bios in the Convention calendar of business, and the candidates do have a chance to attend pre-Convention caucuses, and the voting clergy can usually call on other experience with the clerical candidates (from other contexts), but name recognition is still a dominant factor in who gets elected.
    So I'm not sure that spreading the vote out would actually lead to a greater sense of participation. It might have the contrary effect as many more people would have to consciously admit, "I have no idea who these candidates are!"