Messages of Hope

Politics and Consensus

Published / by Sandy

Rev Terence Corkin, previously UCA Assembly General Secretary, has been working on a project calling ‘Making Church Decisions’, focussed on consensus decision making. In this post, he reflects on politics and consensus, and then considers the implications for the church. A good read – both in the lead up to the Federal election, and in the time of transition in the SA UCA Synod to multiple Presbyteries to be rolled out year.

Politics is full of conflict. Observers call out for greater collaboration rather than political point scoring. People understand that as a society we have too many shared problems to enjoy the luxury of opposing the ideas of others for no good reason. Most people long for our leaders to constructively engage together in a search for shared solutions.

I am often asked if consensus decision-making processes can work in a political environment. Well, it depends!! The first observation that I make is that consensus can only be built if there are shared values. That usually get a knowing laugh and the assumption that consensus processes cannot work in politics.

In Australia, it is very difficult to see shared values between our political parties. Maybe it is because we are in a national election campaign that makes the aggressive rejection of each other’s ideas more strident. The “necessity” to create a product differentiation between the policies of the different parties in order to attract votes at elections brings out the worst in our politicians.

If we understand the political process as the pursuit of power then clearly there can be no shared values. In that context, there has to be a winner and a loser. So is consensus building doomed to be relegated to the fringes of society? Or is there a chance that it could take over the central power centres of our society?

Options for Politicians and Consensus
In the United States until the last 15 to 20 years there was often the capacity for bipartisan solutions to issues. The phrase ‘working across the aisle’ was the real experience of US political life. This is in stark contrast to the Westminster system of government that arose in England and is used throughout its former colonies. In that system parties always vote as a bloc and if a member of a party votes with the other side they can be thrown out of their party.

So in the US, and probably other countries too, there have been experiences of parties working together to achieve shared goals. In countries where this is the experience then there is a history and practices to draw upon which support seeking after consensus.

Even though the Westminster system has built into it the requirement to be oppositional to the other side, not everything is so black and white. There are many things on which all the major political parties in Australia agree. Foreign policy is not a seriously disputed space, opposition to the death penalty is unquestioned, none of the major parties opposes access to free health care and to cheap prescription drugs, and the list could go on. So another ground that might encourage consensus seeking is to recognise those areas where there had once been a difference and now there is general agreement. What lessons can be learned from the past that can encourage us into the future?

In addition to these things, there is also a place for pragmatism as a driver for seeking consensus. Sometimes opponents can agree to work on a common project because it matters to them for different reasons. In the United States, an area where there is an increasing willingness to co-operate across the political divide is in reducing the size of the prison population. For one side the cost of incarcerating millions of people is a burden on the budget. For the other side, they don’t want to see people going to jail for extended periods of time for minor offences. So the shared interest is reducing the size of the prison population. By working together on this project it is possible for people to understand the perspective and concerns of the other side. From this understanding arise strategies that will meet their needs and so help to keep the prison population lower over time.

So, three things that can help
* Remember when co-operation has been possible in the past and learn from this. What made it possible? Perhaps there was a crisis (eg war or natural disaster) that meant other things became less important, or there were genuine goodwill and relationships that enhanced co-operation. Learn from positive experiences.
* Recall where over time, issues that were once contested are now agreed. How have these positions been appropriated into the values system of the “different sides”? What made it possible to move? Why are they not contested now and can we find other issues where collaboration makes more sense than contesting?
* Identify the big issues on which collaboration will be required for both sides to get what they want. What are the things that have to get done or both sides will continue to lose what is important to them?

Lessons for Churches
As you have been reading this post have you been thinking “what has this got to do with the church?” I think that in many places we are in the same situation as the political climate of our times. Many churches are split along ideological lines and in many places co-operation with those who think differently has stopped.

Can consensus work in churches where there is a lack of shared values? No! However, I do not believe that such churches exist. There are always some shared values. There are always some things on which even the most divided Christians can agree. There will always be something to work on together for the benefit of all sides. But we have to be prepared to look for it.

For conflicted churches or denominations I have the same advice as I offered above.
* Remember when co-operation has been possible in the past and learn from this. What made it possible?
* Recall where over time, issues that were once contested are now agreed. How have these positions been appropriated into the values system of the “different sides”? What made it possible to move?
* Identify the big issues on which collaboration will be required for both sides to get what they want. What are the things that have to get done or both sides will continue to lose what is important to them?

The reason that ideologically and high conflict churches cannot use consensus-building processes is because they just don’t want to co-operate. For reasons of power and control, fear, or disrespect of their brothers and sisters in Christ too many Christians will not work together.

Yes, sometimes they cannot work together because of previously unresolved hurt that has been done to them. But good consensus processes include building safe places and dealing with those experiences.

Co-operation is not optional for Christians
Christ has called all Christians into one body. We have to learn to deal with it! We are one as Jesus and the Father are one. To refuse to live out of that reality is to refuse to live out of the identity that we have been given in Jesus Christ. Not good!!

There is insufficient space here to outline the many and effective strategies for seeking consensus in conflicted churches. Feel free to browse the blog posts for where some aspects of this have been addressed in the past. For example: Uniting the Church – Is it Possible?

However, for the present, I just want to challenge you to look for the ways that consensus building can be encouraged. Please do this in even the hardest places for the sake of the witness of the church. In these times more than any other it is an evangelical imperative to seek common ground among Christians. For as Jesus observed, it is through our unity that the mission of the church will be advanced (John 17:21).

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