The art of consensus

consensusNIGEL TAPP

For those uninitiated in the decision-making process of the Uniting Church, it can be a little confusing to attend a meeting where three coloured cards – orange, yellow and blue – seem to dominate proceedings.

As Synod Standing Committee member Rev Dr Robyn Whitaker described in her sermon at the opening service to the 2017 Synod, it is the art of “wrestling with God and one another in our (the Church’s) very non-combative way of holding up coloured cards”.

This is consensus decision-making as defined by the Uniting Church. A model which moves away from the adversarial approach – where participants can become fixated simply on winning an argument – to a consultative and engagement process which allows more room for the Spirit of God to be present.

It is a model which has been used as a blueprint by the World Council of Churches and World Communion of Reformed Churches. The Uniting Church in Sweden is also investigating the model and many others churches, including the Reformed Church of America, have visited Australia to see it in action.

According to the UCA’s Manual for Meetings, consensus decision-making, particularly within the Synod or Assembly meeting context, is a three-step process beginning with an information session, through to a deliberative session and, finally, a decision session.

The first session allows for information to be shared and issues raised. In the deliberative session, issues are discussed and may be canvassed in table groups, pre-allocated working groups or ad hoc groups to consider and to report back to the meeting. The decision session is where the discernment is drawn together and specific resolutions are made.

The orange and blue cards allow a point of view to be visually indicated and can assist the Chair to assess the mood of the meeting as a way forward. The yellow card, a more recent initiative, indicates a person is seeking to contribute to the discussion.

Consensus decision-making is not a new concept. It dates back many centuries and has been used by indigenous groups, merchants, traders and even pirates.

The Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) have sought to facilitate a unanimous view on business for more than three centuries.

The Uniting Church first trialled a consensus model, at its 7th Assembly in 1994. A small group based in Melbourne investigated the Church’s Standing Orders and rules for debate following the 5th Assembly in 1988 and this work provided the catalyst for the 1994 proposal.

Former assembly president Dr Jill Tabart, who chaired the 1994 Assembly, said the group investigated how other churches structured their decision-making. This   included the Quakers and the New Zealand Methodists as well as the early church as outlined in the New Testament. Consultations were also undertaken with Aboriginal communities to consider their ancient decision-making processes.

Dr Tabart said the work group was conscious that, although there was not unlimited time to reach a decision, the amount of time required would depend on the movement of the Spirit of God.

“In the end it is about how you discern God’s will and follow the guidance of the Spirit in making decisions,” Dr Tabart said.

She recalls a sense of excitement in the Church when consensus decision-making was offered as new way forward based on biblical principles.

In 2000, it was discerned, based on modifications from lessons learnt over the previous six years, that consensus should be the preferred way of decision-making for all councils of the Church.

Dr Tabart admits that, while real efforts were made to ensure that moderators understood the model, it was probably not as clearly understood – and therefore successfully integrated – in presbytery and church council gatherings.

Although training in consensus decision-making was offered, the high turnover rate of church council chairs made this difficult. Dr Tabart considers that may be a reason some councils adopted a laissez faire approach to the principles of consensus decision-making – particularly at congregation level and in some presbyteries – rather than remain in tune with the expectations of the Manual for Meetings.

Former president and assembly general secretary Rev Gregor Henderson agreed that while the model is used well at Synod and Assembly level, there is room for improvement in presbyteries, church councils and some other decision-making bodies.

“If offering more training is the price we need to pay then I would be OK with that,” he said.

Mr Henderson said the move to consensus decision-making was one of the Church’s most defining moments over the last 40 years.

“It is a genuine conciliar process of decision-making as it requires more than a simple majority to say `yes, this is the will of God’. Achieving that by 50 percent plus one does not make good theological sense to me,’’ he said.

“Consensus is a much better discerning process and a much better listening process because people with oratorical skills tend to dominate under the old adversarial system rather than those with a real sense of conviction.

“You do not end up so much with people feeling disenfranchised.”

Mr Henderson said consensus had been particularly important in helping the Church effectively debate contentious issues such as sexuality, the Preamble to the Constitution and a range of social justice policy statements.

“Debates such as sexuality came with a lot of emotion and a strength of conviction and consensus was a gift which enabled us to deal with that,” he said.

“There was still significant grief but it was not as divisive as it would have been if it was 50 percent plus one model.”

Dr Tabart said many positives had come from the move to a consensus model.

“There has been the opportunity for quiet, or silent, voices to be heard even if it is just by showing a card,” she said.

“It has meant people have become more engaged in a discussion rather than seeking to win an argument at any cost.

“I believe that means we have become stronger and more fruitful in our decision making and in building relationships.”

Rev Terence Corkin – who teaches nationally and internationally on consensus decision-making as well as writing on the subject – admits some within the Church have become cynical about the model and question its value.

But, he said, this cynicism focusses on the techniques – such as the cards – rather than the values of consensus decision-making.

“There is a pressing need to refurbish the Church’s understanding of consensus decision-making, with the primary focus on the principles and values we say we believe in,” Mr Corkin said.

“The Robert’s Rules of Order (the original standard for facilitating discussions and group decision-making which were adopted by churches) was appropriate for its time (1700s-1800s) but the time is different now because we do not just accept things because someone tells us to.

“We need consensus decision-making because it resonates with our culture and our preferred theological conditions. If we want to discern the will of Christ for the Church with humility, trust, vulnerability love, care and building each other up then it requires a consensus approach.”

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