Common Consent, A Comparative Glimpse

Archbishop of York John Sentamu ordains Right Reverend Libby Lane to the office of Bishop of Stockport, Jan. 26, 2015 (source: http://tinyurl.com/lvo4mam)

Archbishop of York John Sentamu ordains Right Reverend Libby Lane to the office of Bishop of Stockport, Jan. 26, 2015 (source: http://tinyurl.com/lvo4mam)

A few weeks ago, we were given a fascinating glimpse of the scriptural principle of “common consent” as practiced in the Church of England when the Rt Rev Libby Lane was consecrated as eighth Bishop of Stockport on January 26, 2015. It was very moving to see an action taken “by common consent” as the congregation present all shouted in unison “It is!” when asked if it was their will that Rev. Lane be ordained to the office of Bishop. This also evoked images of King Benjamin’s speech in The Book of Mormon, in which all in attendance responded in unison at certain points.

While performing the ordination, the Archbishop of York Dr. John Sentamu was interrupted during the assent by a lone dissenter who said that ordination of a woman to the office of Bishop was not in the Bible. The dissenter, according to media coverage, is someone who has so frequently sued the Church hierarchy that he has even been banned by the High Court from such future lawsuits.

In response to the objection, Archbishop Sentamu explained that this change has been made in canon law with all due process afforded by the Anglican system, and that it was now Church law and the law of the land (because the Church of England is the established religion of the United Kingdom). This was a relevant response to the protestor because he had objected that he believed female ordination not to be found in the Bible and therefore Bishop Lane’s ordination was incorrect. Common sense whispers that much of what currently exists in the practice of Christianity is not literally spelled out in the Bible. Rather, much of Christian governance, practice, and worship has developed as venerable and correct tradition over the ages through reasoned application of Christian doctrine and inspiration in leadership councils in Christianity as a lived religion and in the face of the practical realities that arise from the relevant context of the times. The core doctrines haven’t changed — Christ’s Sermon on the Mount, for example, is still the touchstone of Christian living — though peripheral accoutrements of the faith change in connection with context, assuring that the faith remains relevant to the lives and times in which the people are living. Archbishop Sentamu’s response conveys the understanding that the ordination of a woman to the office of Bishop in the Church of England is no different — it is one of these peripheral accoutrements of Christian living that does not change the core tenets and doctrines of Christian faith. Indeed, many in the Anglican communion reasoned that it is a necessary extension of Christian faith for our time, to keep the faith relevant for our lives and the times in which we live, even if it was not necessary or relevant in previous ages.

This is an uplifting comparative glimpse into the principle of “by common consent” that is shared between Mormonism and Anglicanism, as two different parts of the broader Body of Christ. The Church of England appears to apply this core Christian concept much more rigorously than we do currently in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. For us as Mormons, “by common consent” does not seem to incorporate age-old principles of due process or deliberative input of stakeholders (encompassing not only the highest leadership councils and mid-level clergy, but also the lay members — this “due process of law” and deliberative, democratic input is necessary in such official actions of the Church of England at least in part because it is the established Church in England and is therefore a public institution, with its Bishops sitting as the Lords Spiritual in the House of Lords in Parliament); I am aware that some have suggested that for us, “by common consent” has become meaningless because it is, they argue, a mere rote exercise, an automatic mechanism completely without input from the membership, and no public discussion or debate.

I am skeptical of such a conclusion, however, and not least because of an awareness that our entire philosophy of “sustaining” Church leaders “by common consent” has developed completely differently (whatever meaning it initially had for us, tying in, as it originally seems to have done, with the “common consent” tradition of the surrounding Christian tradition and practice of the period), without any expectation that it would or should play the role of ensuring a stabilizing element of due process. The role of the mid-level clergy and the lay membership is viewed differently in Mormonism. For better or worse, they are not viewed as an important voice in an input-driven interactive process through which the Holy Spirit works and leads to Providential ends. Rather, callings are understood to be dictated from the top down without any need for the input of the body of Saints. In our different system, then, the sustaining vote is not a mere “rote” or “mechanical” exercise in due process or inspired deliberation, though it is indeed devoid of substantive “democratic” content, as implemented currently. Instead, despite the terminology of “common consent” and the form of the vote, it in effect currently offers Church members the meaningful opportunity to publicly signify their support for the person who has already been chosen to serve in a particular calling or office. This sometimes involves conscious submission to the decision, an act of humility in the face of possible disagreement.

By contrast, the video of the ordination of Rev. Lane to the office of Bishop in the Church of England shows the older, more robust conception of “common consent” in the governance of a Christian community at work. It is therefore a valuable and informative glimpse into how the concept functions for some of our fellow Christians. The “common consent” on display in the video (the congregation’s unified shout of “It is!”) represents the culmination of a very long, detailed, and painstaking deliberative process of “by common consent” in which the issue was debated at length among Church leaders at the highest levels, then the clergy more generally. Finally, comment and input was sought from the general membership. And all of these groups voted for or against the change. (In fact, the Laity has substantial input, as witnessed in November 2012, when the proposition of ordaining women to the office of Bishop — they had already long been accepted into the priesthood — failed when put to a vote at that time because, as Ronan noted, even though “three quarters of the church’s General Synod voted in favour of women bishops,” since “a two thirds majority in all three Houses (Bishops, Clergy, and Laity)” was required by canon law and due process, “the proposal fell short by six votes in the Laity.”) The process took years and, once completed, represented, in the Anglicans’ view, the will of God as guided by the Holy Spirit through the process of inspired deliberation on the issue. Thus, when the protestor voiced his “no” and objected based on his belief that the ordination of women is not in the Bible and therefore the current action was incorrect, the Archbishop did not try to debate the issue based on whether it was in the Bible or not but rather responded by pointing to the culmination of the “common consent” process (which the Anglican communion believes is biblical) by which female ordination and now the ordination of a woman to the office of Bishop was now adopted both in Church law and secular law (“the law of the land”) in England.

For the outside observer who can appreciate the sincere devotions of fellow Christians, this comparative glimpse of the principle of “common consent” at work is enlightening. When Archbishop Sentamu asked if it was the will of the Church for this ordination to proceed, and the congregation shouted “It is!” in unison, even the outsider — such as myself — can view that as the crowning moment of a truly exemplary process of governance “by common consent” in the Church of England. From a perspective of Holy Envy, I see a lot that a faithful, committed Mormon such as myself can take away from observing this process, and I can be grateful that one part of Christ’s body — the community of Christians gathered in the Church of England and the Anglican communion — takes this approach in governing Church affairs!

Comments

  1. John,

    “By contrast, the video of the ordination of Rev. Lane to the office of Bishop in the Church of England shows the older, more robust conception of “common consent” in the governance of a Christian community at work.”

    How much older are you suggesting that this model is? If you’re suggesting that this goes back to a 17th-18th century, Protestant reformation model – as opposed to the ancient, restoration model the LDS claim to embrace, then I would suggest that it isn’t the older model at all.

    I mention this since the idea of common consent is very much at the heart of Jurgen Habermas’ The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, wherein he documents how the older, feudal form of publicity involve little more than a public acclamation of sovereign authority over which the people claimed no jurisdiction of any kind. In other words, common consent within the older version of public acclamation did not involve the people legitimizing public authorities in any way, but instead involved the public accepting the decisions that had already been made by those above them. This was meant as a sign of loyalty, obedience and unity, not as a check, constraint or justification of any kind for that authority.

    It wasn’t until much later that common consent in the public sphere was perceived to legitimize authority in any sense. and even then there was many, many different models of this process. While Locke and the Physiocrats thought that public debate could inform legislation and the like, they did not see the public as legitimizing sovereignty in any way (liberal republicanism). It was Rousseau and Kant who later made the transition to the idea that the general public were the ones who legitimizing sovereign authority (civic republicanism).

    Personally, I think it is Hegel’s, a contemporary of Joseph Smith, view of sovereignty that most approximates that of the church. (In)famously, he thought that legitimate sovereignty and truth flowed downward from the state to the people, who were otherwise marked by disunity and prejudiced opinion. Like Locke and the Physiocrats, he thought that the people informed their leaders, but in no sense led or constrained them – in principle.

    The most important between the church from Hegel would be: 1) Most importantly, the former does not employ compulsory force – thank God. 2) I think common consent in the church acts as veto power, if not in principle than definitely in practice – I’m not sure that Hegel accepted anything like this. 3) I think that common consent in a mechanism wherein the public are allowed to inform, but not legislate, those higher authorities that are ordaining mid- to low-level callings.

    The main point is that I think it quite inaccurate to say that the LDS is in any straightforward sense “less rigorous” in their application of common consent. The concept itself is so pluralistic and vague that “rigor” never gains any traction.

  2. “the ancient, restoration model the LDS claim to embrace”

    Do we claim that our present practice of “by common consent” is ancient, or is it instituted as revealed to Joseph Smith in the Doctrine and Covenants and then relatively significantly changed and modified as applied as the Church grew and developed in the decades following his assassination?

    How do you think our current practice of common consent compares to Biblical precedent?

    Yes, the Anglican process is sourced to the modern era, roughly the early seventeenth century. As such, it seems at least a couple of hundred years older than the implementation of common consent in Mormonism in the decades following Joseph Smith’s death, whatever it meant or however it was practiced during his lifetime.

    As to rigor in applying common consent, I find that your criticism fails to consider my brief analysis differentiating the purposes of common consent between the two traditions. I am sorry that you took “less rigorous” to be an insult to ourselves. It wasn’t meant that way — rather, it was descriptive. The common consent process at work in the Anglican communion simply is much more rigorous, requiring, as it does, a two thirds majority in all three Houses (Bishops, Clergy, and Laity).

  3. All good questions, which I don’t have definite answers to. I think that LDS model more closely parallels a pre-modern model than the Anglican version, for better or worse. I also think that LDS are more inclined to see theirs as a restoration of the ancient model or church and priesthood. These are both suggestive, but hardly the final word, nor am I totally uncomfortable with the church differing from or in some sense updating the ancient or Biblical model. I am uncomfortable, however, with members being uncomfortable with the church differing from a modern, Protestant model – which is what I took (take?) your post to be expressing to some degree.

    ” I am sorry that you took “less rigorous” to be an insult to ourselves. It wasn’t meant that way — rather, it was descriptive.”

    My apologies for misunderstanding your intent. With that in mind, I’m not sure “rigorous” is the best word to describe the difference in formality, participation and intent between the two traditions, but I would rather not get in a tiff over the meaning of one word.

  4. J. Stapley says:

    What we do know was not what JS and the church contemporaneous to him did, regardless of what anyone claims as ancient. Practice had varied fairly widely. Even relatively late into the 19th century, visiting GAs would take nominations for Bishop and have the ward vote.

  5. Here’ are the minutes of an 1895 example of electing a bishop (toward the bottom of the post), as mentioned by J.

  6. Yes, that’s a wonderful addition, Ardis and J. and what I was referring to in noting how we’ve done it differently ourselves in the past.

  7. Maybe this isn’t such a good model of common consent. After all, the laity voted NO a few years ago, but the leadership had already determined that the answer would be YES. So a process was begun to “educate” and “sensitize” the ignorant among the laity, and to stigmatize them, so that when the vote was presented again, the “right” answer was achieved. That’s the history.

  8. New Iconoclast says:

    I think ji has a point here; there’s no real basis for thinking that the Holy Spirit manifests its will in the older, more robust conception of “common consent” except wishful thinking. It thus very much looks as if the will of God eventually manifests itself as whatever society gets around to normalizing – and that the will of God manifests itself differently in different Christian communities using that older conception, depending on their general nature and cultural level of acceptance of certain things. As ji also mentions, the role of leadership in moving and influencing the rank and file to prepare them to “feel the right spirit” the next time the vote comes up shouldn’t be wholly overlooked.

    That said, the development of that “more robust,” bottom-up conception of consent can even be seen as a substitute for prophetic guidance. Once the top-down direction of the papacy is thrown off, and especially in more decentralized traditions with more localized synods, some method of determining the divine will had to be established. No one person could be trusted with what we Mormons would call “the prophetic office;” wisely, a lot of people thus prayerfully sought to hack things out together in council on the principle that multiple heads are better than one and that change would be controlled and probably not too rapid.

    The First Vision changed all that, at least for us. God makes his will known, at least in broad strokes, through a prophet. We sustain that prophet – and local leaders who have the right to inspiration for their bailiwicks. Our error as a people, over the last 20 years or so, has been in swinging the pendulum too far in the direction of “Mare Salis locuta est, causa finita est.” We need to stop that.

  9. it's a series of tubes says:

    ji, and New Iconoclast, I love you.