Paul Griffin sees the virtues and advantages in democracy and the use of democratic decision making within the Church but only within strict limits that do not transcend the Gospel
Democracy has come to be considered by many sensible people to be the best way to govern human affairs, though what is meant by democracy tends to become a little hazy at the edges. I can see no sign of its entry into the life of Christ on earth; but once our Lord is risen we come across voting in the replacement of Judas Iscariot as an Apostle. There the eleven seem to have prayed to the Holy Spirit and cast votes, the result being in favour of Matthias. By what majority this result was obtained we are not told. About what would have happened if there had been an absence or abstention, and the result had been a tie, it is mischievous to speculate. Was Peter the chairman? would he have given a casting vote? would one of the candidates (who chose them, by the way) have been adopted, and a period of reception declared?
Choice of the Spirit
Enough of mischief. The likelihood is that the prayer which preceded the vote brought about what our betters are wont to call a ‘Christian consensus,’ no doubt similar to that which prevailed at the Council of Jerusalem, when Paul and Peter debated their differences and submitted them to the Holy Spirit.
It was partly, perhaps, with this in mind, and partly because democracy is now so deeply rooted in our culture, that the Church of England established synods, with just enough uneasiness about the whole business to state the need in certain cases for a substantial majority.
There is a hope that prayer and loving discussion will produce unanimity; but there may also be a feeling, and a dangerous one, that after prayer any verdict, even a majority one, must be regarded as the Holy Spirit speaking. This is no doubt so in a sense, but I have an obstinate feeling that he sometimes has to use silly decisions, what he says not being quite what those voting fondly imagine.
We should note that the system of choosing what to do after preliminary prayer survives in the ritual of Parliament. To what extent this prayer is taken seriously we will not enquire. No doubt the Holy Spirit is able to use parliamentary procedures to effect his will, even where they are operated by many who do not believe in him.
Nevertheless, a parliamentary decision is not therefore infallible. If it were, Her Majesty’s Opposition would be in grave and permanent error.
Democratic decision making
True sincerity and fervency of prayer, as in a church synod, must render decisions less questionable than those of a non-religious assembly. It is also true that the Holy Spirit blows where he lists, even (though this is a matter for excited argument, so I will not press it) through the National Lottery. This last follows the different system of the short straw, also known in the Bible but not favoured today.
The choosing of Matthias was a type of decision particularly suited to democracy. Any group of men who wish to appoint a chairman or extra member will naturally use it. This is not the
same as settling an important point of principle: it is a group settling a point clearly within their province. When it comes to larger matters, we have to remember that the Council of Jerusalem did not take place between duly elected delegates of the whole Church, but between its current de facto leaders. This is mildly embarrassing if you are a doubter of the rather authoritarian principles that have governed the Roman Church through the ages, for the Council of Jerusalem was dead right, and traditional democracy would not necessarily have produced the same decision.
If asked whether others should acquire the privileges they themselves possess, members of a body may only too easily vote against, being anxious to defend their supposed rights; one reason why allowing Members of Parliament to vote their own pay and conditions is so unfortunate.
The principle should surely be that a democratic decision should only be taken when it satisfies the Athenian model, that is to say that it gives due weight to the interests of everybody affected by it.
Who can doubt now that the decision to make life easier for Gentile converts was in the interest of the whole infant Church? I presume also that the election of Matthias was not because he was rich or had a delightful tenor voice, but for the same reason of the general good.
The 1992 vote
In the light of all that, what can we say about the 1992 Synod decision? Only that while barely catering for the minority in the Church of England, it took little account of the views of the larger Anglican Church to which it belonged, and ignored the opinions of the vast majority of Christians.
There indeed was a curious version of democracy, a new version of authoritarianism, without even the authority to support it. The decision had the additional drawback in practice of giving synodical voting power to a large number of people who because of their personal position were unlikely ever to vote against it. Can some so-called democracy be anti-democratic? I fear it can.
Another form of government
In view of all this, can we in the Church call ourselves democrats? We have seen that the Church did not start that way, but that when its Exemplar was gone it began a long process of discovery (a better word than reception) that ended in the creation of Parliament and the Synods.
I said that democracy is considered by many sensible people to be the best way to govern human affairs. Most of us would agree that history has shown this, and that such matters as parochial decisions can hardly be taken in any other way. This means that for practical purposes, and with provisos indicated above we members of the Church can call ourselves democrats.
What it does not mean is that the Church of God is a democracy. The best government on earth is by consent, and although God surely welcomes, he equally surely does not require our consent.