John Vest shares a section of the PC(USA) Mid Councils Commission Report in a post titled Differences, Divisions, and Conflicts. This paragraph leapt out at me:
Nonetheless, it may be that our discord more accurately reflects failed institutional practices than a disregard for Christian unity. Our polity is guided by parliamentary procedure and the processes of constitutional emendation, both of which rely on divisive debates and polarizing votes. This approach assumes that it is possible and desirable for the church to arrive at a single conclusion that will resolve a given conflict. We have relied on conflict resolution rather than polarity management.
I’ve long held the opinion that the church neither is nor should be a democracy, and this touches on some of the reasons why. The proper goals and methods of a civil secular society are not the proper goals and methods of an ecclesial society, because the goods of a civil secular society are not the goods of a church. It is sufficient for the state to make and enforce laws to regulate the behavior of its citizenry, but the church is concerned with conversion of hearts, not coercion of behavior.
One of the things I deeply admire about the Society of Friends is their practice called a “threshing session”. A Quaker glossary defines it as “A gathering of Friends to consider in depth a controversial issue but in a way that is free from the necessity of reaching a decision.”
As I first encountered the term, it was described as a process by which, if a controversial topic needed to be addressed, a threshing session would be held. During this session, people would talk, and people would listen to each other… and then go home, to further reflect on what they had heard of the concerns expressed by others.
What a concept! Imagine, having a controversial discussion and just holding everyone’s concerns in community, with sincere care for your sisters and brothers.
Of course, it takes patience, and it takes discipline, and it takes discernment. But the Quaker form of worship helps to form its members in precisely these skills, which are further practiced at an ordinary business meeting:
The first thing I noticed is that Quakers never call for a vote. We don’t vote, because a majority can never be allowed to decide for a minority. Everyone has to agree or nothing gets decided. That may seem a recipe for inaction, but surprisingly consensus is rather easily arrived at most of the time. When it is not, then Quakers give it more time. Sometimes lots and lots of time, but that time is not spent in loud discussion. Quakers avoid arguing. The process seems to consist primarily of listening to each other and pondering the issue in one’s own heart.
So I wanted to lift up this Quaker practice as a possible model for polarity management, as suggested by the PC(USA) report; and for ecclesial discourse generally. It strikes me as a practice that embodies a theological principle that we affirm about our Christian unity: that as we each grow closer to God, we must therefore and inevitably come closer to each other.