The 221st General Assembly (2014) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) will be remembered for its approval of same-sex marriage, but its most lasting effect may be the decisive victory of proceduralism—the displacement of substantive consideration by parliamentary process in the service of prevalent opinion. The church’s reliance on legislative procedures produces, but decisions do not necessarily signify agreement. Presbyterians are divided on a number of important matters, but proceduralism overrides differences by simplifying issues, hastening legislative decisions, and producing winners and losers. Read more here. . .
I forget who said it but the surest sign of the death of a church is the constant attention to reorganization, constitution, and by-laws. Like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, it is easy to believe that the church will be saved from destruction by a new structure, by a review of constitutional procedures, or by a rehab of old by-laws. I am not at all suggesting that these are unimportant. What I am saying is that increasingly we decide things in the church more on the basis of constitutional provision and by-law implementation than by really speaking and hearing the Word of God. What I am saying is that representative democracy as it is practiced in nearly every church in America may be quite good at expressing the diversity of the faithful but it is not so good at expressing the unity of the faith. That said, we find it easier to resolve disputes with motions than the truth of God's Word and we use Robert's Rules of Order more effectively than our creeds and Confessions.
Maybe there was a time when churches using a legislative process enjoyed the ability to actually debate and come to unanimity of doctrine and practice but now does not seem to be that time. Church conventions are so often unreflective of the churches supposedly gathered therein. The enormous time and attention given to planning and executing the plans seems to silence dissent and make sure that votes pass with overwhelming margins. When there is honest disagreement, procedural tools are used to by-pass the messiness of real debate and discussion. So often the assemblies have little stomach for such conversations and reflect their lack of appetite for debate by shutting down that discussion rather quickly in favor of the overall agenda. In many cases those who can work the floor committees best rule the day.
What was seen at work in the most recent Presbyterian General Assembly is amply demonstrated among Lutherans, Methodists, Episcopalians, etc... Any group that has a legislative body finds it easier to address procedure and rules than confront the more difficult subjects of doctrine, faith, and practice. The Lutheran Church Missouri Synod is certainly not immune from this tendency either. Yet there is little that constitution, bylaw, and legislative assemblies can do but make sure that the drift from truth is orderly and by the book. In every church that has prevented or at least postponed the undercurrent of modernity, it has come because parishes and their people became directly involved in the process. They were not indifferent to what was going on in the church body or its agencies and they refused to sit on the sidelines while others made decisions for them.
There is no benefit to a silent majority even though there may be one. Lord knows I have oft opined about the average Midwestern parish of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and how out of step such a parish was and is with the Churchwide Assemblies and their controversial breaks with the Lutheran past. But as long as people are content to naively believe that the sins of the national church remain far removed from their own backyards, those sins will remain unchallenged and unchecked. Every church body which has a representative assembly runs the risk of having major issues decided by procedural votes when Robert's Rules of Order become the louder voice that Scripture, creed, and confession. Silent majorities have only mythological power and reality. If the churches are to remain within the pale of their creeds and confessions, local parishes, people, and pastors cannot afford to sit idly by and watch what happens at a distance, falsely believing it does not affect them.