Democracy and the Church of Ireland…

In the wake of last week’s controversial proceedings at Synod, Archbishop Harper explains how and why things are done in the Anglican Church of Ireland:

I think it is important, therefore, to understand the extent to which the Church of Ireland recognises and embraces the status and role of the laity in the life of the church.

That is why, in the House of Representatives, two-thirds of the membership is allocated to the lay people of the church. It is also why we can never be wholly insulated from societal and attitudinal change.

This does not mean, however, that we fall into the trap of endorsing the ancient Latin tag, Vox populi, vox dei – “the voice of the people is the voice of God”.

The church is not a democracy in that sense. Alcuin, writing to Charlemagne more than 14 centuries ago (in AD 798) declared: “Those people should not be listened to who keep saying the voice of the people is the voice of God, since the riotousness of the crowd is always very close to madness.”

That last could apply to a lot of things in these days of Twitter and ever faster speedy and fragmented conversations… As Bryan Appleyard noted at the RSA back in 2007:

Hyper democracy doesn’t work because you need somebody to decide what’s going on, somebody to have a degree of wisdom and insight prior to the wave of information, wave of reaction, wave of public response, to decide how to assess it.

Harper continues with another usefully conservative (small ‘c’) view:

GK Chesterton put it well when he said: “Tradition may be defined as an extension of the franchise. Tradition means giving a vote to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors.” Chesterton did not, however, imply that contemporary perspectives might never be entertained; indeed he said: “Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion.”

Thus, contemporary opinion deserves respect but requires to be weighed against established tradition as a test of its relative significance. So our reverence for the voice of the laity is not about some form of democracy.

That’s the poetic way of putting it. Alex Kane sees it slightly differently:

Having used a technicality to prevent the debate taking place on Thursday, all three motions were glued together, debated on Saturday and passed by 235 votes to 113. It’s what is best described as the “nothing has actually been resolved” outcome.

The General Synod affirmed the traditional stance on marriage (a relationship between one man and one woman); held out the hand of friendship and welcome to those with a different sexual orientation; and instructed a standing committee to “progress work on the issue of human sexuality in the context of Christian belief and also to bring a proposal to General Synod 2013 for the formation of a select committee with terms of reference including reporting procedures”.

Imperfect as it may be, there is at least a democratic muscle to be engaged, even if the result is less than pristine. Those, like Brian Rowan looking for change within the Catholic church have no obvious such channel to seek redress or reform.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty