Representative government is a question not adequately considered by the church these days. Church rhetoric frequently references itself as "democratic", but truth is the grass roots has very little direct say with what happens at the General Council level, and even less opportunity to express dissent by appeal or other useful means.
The conciliar system originated by The United Church of Canada Act actually has much to do with our present difficulties; made worse by a distorted interpretation which sees the conciliar system as hierarchical, not as it began with each level having specific rights and responsibilities not assumable by another level.
The different levels of the church are elected by the next lower level, successively distancing the higher levels from the grass roots, and as with other elections permitting disproportionate representation. Consider four "thoughts" represented by 75, 150, 75, 75 delegates respectively within a conference electing by majority vote representatives to General Council; if the delegates vote only for their "thought" and not a representative group, all representatives theoretically could come from the 150 as they can outvote the others! Of more significance is that it means the church will debate differences in a court other than the General Council, because the 225 without identified representation will look for other means.
The General Council has distanced itself from the grass roots.....
- the grass roots is disenfranchised by the conciliar system
While the language "representative" is used, other than reporting back the elected representatives typically do not represent the body which elected them:
"Commitment to the conciliar structure of decision-making and accountability
"Seventy-five years ago, the architects and shapers of the United Church determined that in order to be faithful and open to the continual in-breath of the Holy Spirit, it would be a 'conciliar' church, one where councils or 'Courts' rather than individuals, make decisions. The conciliar system affirmed that we are members of a single body, accountable to one another, and that the participation of many is required to make wise choices about our life and work. We believe that our theology and discipleship are tested with one another as we congregate together in Pastoral Charges, in regional bodies and in national meetings.
"An essential element of decision-making in the Court system is the freedom of members, delegates and Commissioners to be open to the leading of the Holy Spirit and free from the obligation to follow the dictates of the body that appointed them. In prayerful community, the elected members are open to new information and inspiration that may change their minds and hearts.
"Over the years, we believe that this model of decision-making has served the church well. It has sometimes caused grief when decisions involving 400 people cannot be made quickly. It has caused hurt when decisions made by the body do not reflect the views of individual church members or even a majority of church members. But the Working Group has not identified any reason to alter this basic foundation upon which the United Church is constructed." [Record of Proceedings 2000 p. 230]
- the constitutional rights of the grass roots are being displaced by language and practice
The Basis of Union identifies the pastoral charge as the basic unit of the church:
|4.2||The unit of organization for the United Church shall be the Pastoral Charge...|
|5.6||The liberty of the Pastoral Charge shall be recognized to the fullest extent compatible with:|
|5.6.1||the oversight of the spiritual interests of the Pastoral Charge by the member(s) of the Order of Ministry settled in the Pastoral Charge, and a body of persons specially chosen and set apart or ordained for that work, who shall jointly constitute the Session;|
|5.6.2||the efficient co-operation of the representatives of the various departments of the work of the Pastoral Charge by means of a meeting to be held at least quarterly; 5.6.3 the hearty co-operation of the various Pastoral Charges in the general work of the Church; and|
|5.6.4||the exercise by the higher governing bodies or courts of their powers and functions, hereinafter set forth.|
Use of language such as 'higher court' and reinterpreting conciliar system from a system with each level having specific rights and responsibilities not assumable by another level to a hierarchical system differing from a democratic system only in the way representatives to the higher levels are elected, are displacing constitutional rights of the pastoral charge.
- the right of the grass roots to express dissent in a healing way is thwarted
|(a)||An Appeal may be made only against a Decision or against a ruling of the General Secretary of the General Council. An Appeal may be made only by a person or a Court directly affected by the Decision or ruling.|
|001||In these By-Laws: "Decision" means any disposition of a matter by a Court, or by a body authorized to act on behalf of the Court, by motion.|
The church has not seen dissent as a constructive component, but rather as adversarial; and the right to dissent by appeal has been limited, often disqualifying the appellant by ineligibility or denying access to minutes of a decision being made where the prerequisite for most appeals requires appeal of a decision, a decision being "any disposition of a matter ...by motion".
The church needs to reconsider these limitations if legitimate dissent is to express itself in constructive rather than destructive ways.
- the General Council in 2003 may completely distance itself from the grass roots
Most persons are not aware the Record of Proceedings 2000 pp. 76, 218, 291 recommended and approved a small task group to explore options for funding General Council. At present General Council is funded primarily through the Mission and Service Fund, but givings have not substantially increased for over ten years whereas the purchasing power of the dollar has decreased by about one-third - resulting in much of the recent change at the General Council level. One option the task group might recommend is for General Council to allocate its expense to conferences in the same way conferences allocate to presbyteries and presbyteries to pastoral charges.
The initial rhetoric included 'funded equally with other ministries', but referenced only 12 conferences, the All Native Circle, and 94 presbyteries funded by allocations without considering some 2400 pastoral charges funded by free will offerings / directly accountable to the people.
The General Council being the body which makes decision on the task group report, levies the allocation, and hears appeal, will need some means of accountability other than representatives several times removed from the grass roots.
Interesting that our church has defended the right of representative government in other situations, but ignores the indicators of subservience within itself and will not "set its people free".