Robert’s Rules of Order: Meet Political Worship
In this post I want to think about the extent to which parliamentary procedure is an appropriate guide for churchly deliberation. To be more specific, I want to highlight and articulate some theological problems with Robert’s Rules of Order, which I will do by bringing it into contrastive dialogue with Bernd Wannenwetsch’s Political Worship.
For years I was very sceptical of Robert’s Rules of Order and didn’t bother to learn them. This kept me more or less on the sidelines of denominational decision-making processes. In advance of my denomination’s General Assembly this summer, however, I took it upon myself to learn the Rules–and, I must admit, I found myself surprised and hopeful because of their relative usefulness. I was ready to engage the process and give it a chance to help us deliberate wisely and faithfully as a movement of churches. But it did not go very well. I say this despite my pleasure at our landmark 2/3 majority vote to ordain women: The parliamentary process was a deliberative fiasco and an ecclesiological disappointment. It gives me no satisfaction to say this and as a full participant I share the responsibility: But there were highly contentious issues on the table and, just when we needed graceful procedures, the Rules were not up to the task.
I do not mean to blame everything on the Rules, but sometimes something has to be bent to the point of breaking before you confront its flaws, and when that happens you have to be ready to do some institutional soul-searching. The parliamentary inadquacies I wish to highlight rally around two main clusters of concern, and the first is this:
Robert’s Rules of Order assumes discord, favours the will and the voice of the majority, and does not give adequate attention to the goal of consensus.
A friend of mine recently pointed out to me that Robert’s Rules presume division. He’s right. They presume this by working everything out in a representative flow of appeals that culminate in, not a selection, but an election. Consensus is a happy bonus; but the system is built around persuading a majority.
Instead of setting up a system of back-and-forth debate revolving around theologically representative statements, parliamentary process forces us into a rapid succession of alternating appeals as loosely related to one another as the persons whose views they represent. In all of this the opportunity for clarification, direct response and, yes, even reconciliation is easily lost in the sea of one-shot efforts at mass-persuasion.
Now, obviously a voting system may often be a practical necessity (and if you submit yourself to that system and you end up losing a minority vote, you have no right to cry foul). My point is not to negate democracy altogether, but to highlight what we lose when we let drift to the presumptions of such a system. Thus, in contrast with this construction, note the following excerpts from Bernd Wannenwetsch’s Political Worship. These come on the heels of an in-depth consideration of the socio-political dimensions of Christian life and worship.
“In processes of decision in Church politics, unanimity has not always, will not always, and cannot always be attained; yet it is this which the Church as ‘body’ is in duty bound to strive for… This obligation to arrive at a consensus may certainly be incorporated in democratically constituted ways of striving for agreement, but it must also involve a critical reserve towards a complete take-over of the parliamentary democratic principle in the Church. In the parliamentary model, the formation of political opinion is often not much more than the discursive reflection of existing majorities” (299).
As a church, Wannenwetsch argues, we have to think about “what it means to avoid breaking off prematurely the joint struggle for consensus. In this connection we shall have to assess the part played by forgiveness, since this frees action from the vicious cycle of mere reaction, and makes it possible for people to make a fresh start with each other” (281).
Whatever functional procedures need to be utilized in order to have an efficient meeting, our deliberative process should primarily reflect that we are a community operating from faith in the reconciling God. This brings us to the second cluster of concerns:
Robert’s Rules of Order favours efficiency over patient deliberation; powers of persuasion over charity and clarity; and constituency-representation over theological representation.
Here I am burrowing further into the holes already found. Again, consider these evocative lines from Bernd Wannenwetsch:
“The loss of the ability to listen is often lamented today, but where should this ability be recovered?” (284). “It is one of the dilemmas of politics in our time that it is often unable to get beyond the level of mere reaction…. [T]he hermeneutics of suspicion is not a creation out of nothing. It is the result of countless processes of assimilating experiences of abused trust. This means that practically speaking this hermeneutics can only be replaced through the forgiveness of ‘those who trespass against us’…. The forgiveness received which people experience in worship then makes it possible for them to be led out of the vicious circle of mere reaction” (307-308).
I don’t know about other denominational Assemblies, but each time we gather for ours it seems like there is an increasing tension between the time and energy set aside for “worship” and the time and energy set aside for “business”. I’m sure the organizers feel the pressure to see these things in competition. But here are the questions I think need raising: Shouldn’t the deliberative process of the church flow out of (and into) the worship of the Body of Christ? More specifically, shouldn’t the Communion Table of the Lord and the Hearing of the Word of God be the impetus for the meetings that follow, informing not only their attitude but their content?
This isn’t about doing away with the rules, it is about checking our Rules against the political content of Christian worship; the social fabric of Christian life and community. As Wannenwetsch explains:
“[In worship] the strong and weak see themselves as all equally in need of the Word… Peaceable hearing is sensitive to soft voices. Attuned through worship, the discourse will be truly political … ‘through the Word, not through force’. The form it takes is, to use a grammatical metaphor, the continuous form of trust in the power of the Word… [P]eople who are engaged in a dispute with one another can worship together. And here stress is not on the fact that these people can nevertheless worship together; the emphasis is precisely reversed: as long as people can worship together, they can dispute freely with each other” (305).
I find this ecclesiastical vision as inspiring as it is challenging. At the very least it raises the question: If the Rules are not held in check by greater commitments, what is there to lead us toward a back-and-forth debate (complete with clarifications and rebuttals) carried out in the trust that we are one Church with one faith and one Lord?
With my critique of Robert’s Rules I do not mean to imply that they are unsalvageable. They remain a relatively usable tool with wisdom for leading efficient meetings. However, if we fail to give due attention to the ecclesiological dynamics that are at the heart of a church movement then we may forgo aspects of our Christianity at the altar of efficiency or the comfort of the majority. We may surrender too quickly to the presumption of discord and operate too readily from something other than the ministry of reconciliation.
In short, with the way Robert’s Rules of Order are structured, I think it all too easy for a church assembly to practise something other than faith-seeking-understanding together under the guidance of the Spirit and the authority of the living Word.