David Heap’s guest stint continues with a post that is very a propos for BCC.
I understand that there were two common governance structures of Christian churches at the time of the restoration: (1) hierarchical/episcopal—Roman Catholic, Anglican, Methodist, Orthodox, some Lutherans—in which power and authority were “top down” from the presiding leader(s) to the congregation/parish and its members, and (2) congregational—Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Baptists, Unitarians, some Lutherans—in which power and authority flowed up from the congregation and its members to elected leaders, i.e.,“bottom up.” In case law resolving intra-denominational property disputes, courts frequently draw that structural distinction so that in most cases involving congregational denominations, a congregation withdrawing from the denomination takes the meetinghouse with it; in episcopal/hierarchical denominations, the withdrawing congregation leaves the meetinghouse with the denomination. See a recent case along those lines.
The restored Church combines elements of both the hierarchical structure and the congregational polity. It goes without saying that the Church is structured hierarchically in a legal and practical way, in most cases, power and authority flow from top to bottom. Yet, reflecting a small element of the bottom up polity from congregational churches, in the restored Church, the principle of common consent provides that the authority and power of the hierarchical leadership rests on the common consent of the members. That is, in theory, those “governing” in the Church do so with the “consent” of the “governed”.
In the early restoration, LDS common consent was reflected in meetings that some times resembled New England town halls, assemblies in which varieties of viewpoints were expressed with vigor. Over time, common consent through “voting” in congregations or conferences has evolved to become largely a ceremonial function. I do not think this ceremony is an effective way for members to express approval or disagreement with particular decisions, or for leaders to receive meaningful feedback.
So, has the principle of meaningful common consent largely disappeared from the structure and processes of the restored Church (other than as a largely ceremonial ritual or as the name of this blog)?
I do not think so. I believe it continues, and is effected in many different ways. Here I focus on methods of communicating the consent/approval/agreement (or lack thereof) of the rank and file to the governing leaders.
1. At the congregational level, ward leadership interacts with ward members on a daily and weekly basis; informal feedback and assessment at the local level happens almost naturally. The structure of counselors in presidencies also helps quorums and other organizations to have a “finger on the pulse” of the members.
2. Ward councils and stake councils are mechanisms of interchange and expression, at least indirectly, of confidence or lack thereof of members in decisions and organizational direction.
3. The hierarchical lines of priesthood authority operate as a sort of neurological cord through which directives and messages are communicated from “top down”, and feedback is also transmitted from the “bottom up.” This is true even though some times leaders emphasize that “middle management” ecclesiastical leaders should face one way, representing the higher leadership to the members, and should not represent the rank and file to the higher leaders. See this article.
4. While the First Presidency and 12 are not structured representationally, there can be an element of practical representation, as each brings views based on his own personal experiences to decision making. Thus, the broader the cross-section of the Church from which the Brethren are drawn, the more likely views, perspectives, and experiences from a wide variety of members will be heard, considered, and reflected. The greatest implicit representation in the First Presidency and 12, of course, is that of older, long-term members of the Church. In my opinion, this is, in part, why the decisions of the highest Church leaders tend to be very conservative (and less likely to disturb long-time, older members of the Church).
5. One evident missing link in this priesthood hierarchical communication system is women. Matters that may be of concern particularly to women are communicated all the way “up the line” (and “down the line”) only as filtered through males. Female leaders at the general Church level do, of course, communicate with the presiding First Presidency and 12, just as female leaders at the stake and ward levels directly communicate with their stake or ward priesthood leaders. But there is not a direct top to bottom reporting system in the Relief Society, Young Women, or Primary.
6. The Church has an excellent and respectable Research Division with very capable social scientists (including anthropologists, sociologists, social psychologists, organizational behavior experts) who conduct frequent surveys of members and attitudes. Few of these studies are published or made public, but they provide valuable information to Church leaders about the views, circumstances and attitudes of members at large.
7. “Alternate voices” or the unsponsored sector of publications provide insight and information of attitudes of some segments of the membership.
8. Because of the quasi-anonymity, the blogosphere/bloggernacle provides uncensored, uninhibited feedback and information, positive and negative, regarding reaction of members to programs, teachings, and direction.
9. Members retain a largely unrestrained right to “vote with their feet.” By this, I do not mean necessarily passive aggression, but in the sense of prioritization or enthusiasm. For example, the lack of enthusiasm for scouting support and training (and tenure) of adult leaders, particularly for varsity scouts or venturers, is an indirect indication that local leaders are not persuaded of the utility and importance of those programs. (Another unfiltered evidence would be some of the debates in the Bloggernacle about whether scouting should be part of the Church program.)
What other ways can you think of in today’s Church structure and culture that allow implicit or explicit communication of “common consent” (or lack thereof) or of confidence in (or lack thereof) in programs or decisions?