Teaching people to be congregational: renarrating voting

To continue, in a very different key, the theme of the last post…

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: we do church meeting badly… (‘we’ = ‘most British Baptists of whom I am aware’.)

A part of the problem is, that we are very poor at teaching our congregations to be congregational. This is compounded by the fact that we have chosen to make use of artefacts borrowed from the world around, which stand in profound need of detoxification and renarration before they can be adequately employed. One such is voting.

I touched on this (and more on another similar artefact, the ‘business meeting’) in a contribution to a Festschrift in honour of Brian Haymes. Voting at church meeting is a fairly recent innovation in Baptist life: Fawcett suggested it was a good idea in 1797, but it may be that the first recorded use was Maze Pond Church in 1825. At that time, the practice was profoundly counter-cultural, a lived witness that gospel values were different from the values of the world. In England, at that time, voting in parliamentary elections was restricted to about 5% of the male population – all landowners, of course. For a church to take this symbol of cultural privilege and, in prophetic parody, put it in the hands of every member, of every social class, women as well as men, was a piece of genius. A poor woman voting on the call of a pastor was a profoundly powerful visible sign of the Kingdom.

Fast forward nearly two hundred years and we assume universal adult suffrage. A vote is our right, and we know how to use it: to promote the interests of the party we support. The continued use of the imported cultural symbol in church meeting is no longer an enacted prophetic protest. It is not wrong to use, but it is potentially toxic; it brings with it implicit meanings that are powerful, and in grave danger of overwhelming the gospel values that must be at the core of church meeting. One symptom of this is the practice of receiving young people into church membership but denying them a vote at church meeting until they reach a certain age; a church that does this has already lost the battle, as far as I can see.

Personally, I would like to do away with the practice of voting in church meeting: for a century it was prophetic; for another few decades it was useful; now it is toxic and undermining of the reality of what church meeting is about. If we are to keep it, however (and it may be that there are legal reasons why we must), we need to renarrate it powerfully enough and often enough that our people realise a vote at church meeting is not a way of promoting the interests of our party, but a way of participating in the shared task of discerning the mind of Christ.


  1. Mark L
    May 20, 2011

    Steve, many thanks for this, and the previous post. I haven’t listened to Driscoll’s comments, and don’t feel terribly motivated to do so by the summary I’ve read! But this fascinates me as someone who has “moved on” from a Baptist background, and now leads an independent church where we deliberately don’t do the voting thing (at least not routinely), but where I suppose I would want to maintain that our aspirations at least are congregational, in a broad sense of that word. As might be clear from how difficult I’m finding it to express what we do succinctly, the challenge, in the absence of clear cut voting procedures, is how to make this work in practise. Will be intrigued to read any further thoughts you might have on this…

  2. Trevor Neill
    May 20, 2011

    It’s just a thought, but I wonder if part of the answer on this issue is to be seek to be congregational in all we do, and not just at the Members’ Meeting. In the Baptist church where I’m minister, we’re trying to make a point of worship being multi-voiced, sometimes with Q&A after the sermon. A sense of participation at every gathering will hopefully generate more engagement when important ‘business’ decisions are being made also.

  3. David Bowler
    May 23, 2011

    Your comments on why voting was so radical are wonderful. I remember a church meeting where someone suggested that we needed to have a secret ballot, which goes contrary to the spirit of the idea. But if we do not vote, how do discern the mind of Christ collectively ?

  4. Steve H
    May 24, 2011

    [Cross-posted from previous post, because the comments seem to be heading in the same directions.]
    Thanks for commenting, all – and welcome to those who have not been by before.
    There is a tradition of congregational government by consensus (some Mennonite and Society of Friends traditions, from memory). I am unsure about that: it assumes a maturity in discipleship on the part of every church member which my Augustinian pessimism finds it difficult to believe we will ever achieve. Although – that should not stop us trying: I was in a church meeting recently where a secret ballot was taken with one person voting against; would there not have been something profoundly Christian about stopping at that point, asking to hear his/her doubts, and spending time praying and reading Scripture together to see if they could be overcome?
    If not consensus, though, how about this: the challenge of congregationalism is to ensure that all people in the congregation are granted the ability to participate in the shared task of discerning the mind of Christ. So we could split the congregation into small groups – perhaps homegroups; perhaps ministry groups; perhaps on demographic grounds; perhaps randomly – and ask each small group to pray and read and talk together until it was prepared to come saying, ‘we believe this is the mind of Christ on this question’. This might not be unanimity, but a point where doubters are prepared to be reconciled to the decision offered. Only when every small group (‘caucus’?!) can confess this conviction do we move forward.
    Or how about instead of voting we allow each member to take up one of three stances: ‘I believe this is God’s will’; ‘I am unsure’; ‘I believe this is not God’s will’, and then engage in a process of group mediation to get to a point where no-one is opposed, and only a few remain unsure.
    I don’t know if it still in print, but I have on my shelf a book called ‘The Mennonite Mediation Manual’ (or similar) which has literally dozens of ideas for bringing a group of people to consensus.

  5. Charles
    May 26, 2011

    Thank you!
    A really helpful post.Loved the history of voting which I was unaware of before.
    Some of my most distressing moments have been at church meetings and I found this helpful from the comment above”Or how about instead of voting we allow each member to take up one of three stances: ‘I believe this is God’s will’; ‘I am unsure’; ‘I believe this is not God’s will’, and then engage in a process of group mediation to get to a point where no-one is opposed, and only a few remain unsure.”
    Very time consuming though
    In fact up until recently we only had a large turnout if people were unhappy.
    Could there perhaps be more sharing of good practice and new ideas by the BU and Bu of Scotland or perhaps there is and I am not in the loop?

  6. Stephen Birchall
    Jun 1, 2011

    I find the historical aspect of voting fascinating. At a time when women and poorer people could not vote, Congregationalists felt the Biblical imperative that all men and women are equal in Jesus. Women and poorer people were able to vote in church meetings and yet were denied the Parliamentary vote. I wonder if this later led to women exercising a voice in the church rates protests of the early 1900s and support for the suffragette and suffragist movements, followed by early Nonconformist involvement in the Trades Unions and Labour party. They must have felt the contradiction between what the Church allowed and the allegedly Christian state denied.

  7. rachelmuers
    Jul 4, 2011

    That’s a fascinating account of the historical system of voting in the Baptist tradition – thanks for this! As a point of information, the 2 options you describe come pretty close to how Quaker congregational decision-making is supposed to work. It’s explicitly not consensus, and not exactly unanimity – as you’ve noted, ‘we are all prepared to recognise/affirm that this is the will of God on this matter’ (which is roughly what it means to accept a minute in a Quaker business meeting) is not ‘we all like this’! Other commenters are right – it’s time-consuming, and can require a lot of work if in the first instance the way forward is not clear; it is also, I think, a discipline that takes practice. For good or ill, one resulting tendency is that we put off a decision rather than risk making a bad decision.

    • Steve H
      Jul 5, 2011

      Hi Rachel – sorry if this took a while to appear; WordPress thought you were spam for some reason (it does that occasionally to a perfectly good comment; I can’t work out why…)
      Yes, I was aware of some similar practices in the Society of Friends. The Mennonites recently have been active in both recommending and interpreting their practices, so it is easier to point there in some ways (also contemporary British Baptists like to pretend they have a connection with the Mennonites, whilst ignoring completely the genuine connection they have with the Quakers…)

      • Rachel
        Jul 14, 2011

        nope, you’re ok, it didn’t take a while to appear, I took a while to catch up with your blog… There’s some literature on Q business method out there, albeit not enough IMHO for something that’s IMHO our most interesting liturgical feature. Most of it comes from the US. the definitive work is ‘Beyond Majority Rule’ by Michael Sheeran, a bit old now, but interesting (a Jesuit studying Quakers; maybe that won’t commend it to Baptists). I also note that there’s a recent book by Lon Fendall and others (Evangelical Friends – they do programmed & pastored worship along with Q business method).

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