Every month I orient new nurses and other clinical staff to our hospital’s policies and procedures related to advance directives, organ and tissue donation, and patient rights. In the process I discuss just who speaks for the patient, and how we respond when the patient has lost the capacity to make decisions, and the family on one hand and the medical and clinical staff on the other see things differently. “It is always worth the effort,” I say, “to seek consensus between the family and the clinical staff. If that takes an extra day in ICU, it’s worth it. If it takes more time educating the family about what the staff are seeing, it’s worth it. It’s good for the patient, and good for the family, and good for you; and I’m convinced it’s good for everyone’s souls.”
What brought that to mind has been reading the various responses to the Report of the Special Commission on the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion. In one sense, I suppose the best thing to be said about the report is that folks at both ends of the spectrum find it inadequate. You can start your own review at Thinking Anglicans (link in the sidebar), from which you can link to a lot of other sources.
But specifically I was struck by the repeated reference in the Report to seeking consensus. The word occurs sixteen times in the Report and the related Resolutions, not counting the reference to consensus fidelium quoted from the Windsor Report. Now, it’s not a surprise that the SCECAC Report should refer to consensus. The Windsor Report, to which this is a response, does so as well (although not as extensively and primarily to point out that consensus does not exist. The Windsor Report spends a lot more time in "discernment;" but that can be the topic for a different post.). But focusing on consensus highlights the differences between the two poles in the difficulties in the Anglican Communion.
Working toward consensus, and particularly governing by consensus, is a religious practice. It is the primary way of doing business of the Society of Friends, the Quakers. It has recently been adopted by the World Council of Churches as that organization’s way of reaching decisions. You can read more about that here and here.
Essential to understanding consensus is appreciating that the decision process is not over until it’s over; and no one is left out. That may mean that decisions take a long time. It may mean that some will continue to disagree, but will accede to the larger group because they have been thoroughly and fairly heard. It may mean that when a group cannot reach consensus they choose to live with that, and to announce simply that consensus is not currently possible. It does mean everyone is heard fully and respectfully. One significant difference from democracy, a difference that I believe is an advantage, is that it works against the “tyranny of the majority” – the possibility that a majority may use agreement to justify persecuting, marginalizing, or excluding the minority (sound familiar?).
The Episcopal Church has consistently taken the position that consensus on human sexuality is desirable, and that until consensus is reached everyone needs to keep talking and to keep listening. The Windsor Report, overall, seems to say much the same thing. That, at any rate, seems to be the consequence of continuing to insist on the listening process.
But majorities can be very uncomfortable with consensus; and this is even more true of minorities who feel that they can link themselves to a majority. The Global South primates are a minority (if a large one) among the total primates of the Anglican Communion, and a minority in economic strength; but they are quick to proclaim their majority at the 1998 Lambeth Conference, and in numbers of believers. The AAC/ACN folks are a minority in the Episcopal Church; but they are quick to attach themselves to the majority they see as claimed by the Global South primates, and within the larger American context. The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada are a minority within the Communion; but they cherish the Anglican Consultative Council and the majority there that wants to continue the Communion, as well as the majority of primates who have not severed relations (yes, I’m making a distinction between “broken” and “impaired” communion, but then so did the provinces that chose to use one of the other of those terms). GLBT members of the Episcopal Church are a minority, but hold fast to the majority in the General Convention of the Episcopal Church in 2003.
I fear, too, that all of these groups fear a consensus process, at least to some extent (and the more “fear-based” the position, the greater the fear). They fear the time it will take, during which their vulnerability (sometimes perceived, sometimes very real) continues. More critically, I think they fear that if there is a true consensus process, and everyone is fairly heard, those “other folks” may actually make some sense. They fear actually having to respect one another. There is a much greater sense of control when a democratic process ends with me in the majority. If I actually make the effort to listen in a consensus process, I might actually hear something that confronts me. I might actually be changed.
I have less hope than I once had that all of this will be resolved through a coherent process. I think we can seek a listening process and work for consensus; I think it’s worthwhile. I fear, though, that issues of fear and control will win the day in the short term, and that the Communion will be significantly changed, if not broken altogether. And perhaps that is God’s will. Still, if we are to seek to be one Body, we cannot simply dispense with the efforts for reconciliation and consensus. It is, we believe, God’s will that we all may be one. It may not be reached by a consensus process; it cannot be reached through efforts of fear, control, or expediency.