In days as a curate, there was a rule regarding the monthly meeting of our select vestry (the quaint name for the committee that looked after parish buildings and finances); the meeting began at 7.30 pm and could only run beyond 10.30 pm with the consent of the majority of those present. In retrospect, one wonders how a meeting might last three hours, let alone need a vote to be extended. It is hard to now imagine church members sitting for three hours on hard chairs in a hall while roofs and windows were discussed. Newly ordained, the meetings seemed far removed from the idealism of college days, there was little connection with the years of study of Scripture and theology.
A colleague had a plaque on the wall of the vestry of his church, ‘For God so loved the world, he didn’t send a committee’. To a young, inexperienced curate, it seemed an excessively cynical and jaundiced view, although his suggestion that a camel was a horse built by a committee did have a ring of truth about it. In those early years, expressions of doubt about whether the matters coming before our monthly meetings were the real business of a parish, and whether the meetings were the best way of dealing with necessary matters, were met with knowing smiles by more senior colleagues; I would learn, they suggested.
Spending an evening at a diocesan meeting, camels wandered through the mind. If the Kingdom of God was advanced one inch by my presence at that meeting, then it moves in ways far more mysterious than I can possibly fathom. Why do we have bishops if everything must be resolved by meetings? Why appoint people to wear purple if their only function is to chair gatherings?
Although committed to democracy, I wonder, sometimes, if it is the best way to run church affairs. What would happen in the Bible if they had adopted a democratic committee method? Moses would have returned with the tablets containing the Commandments and told the Lord that after an extensive consultative process and after a show of hands at the meeting, the people of Israel had decided not to ratify the Law. Jesus would have told his followers that they must take up their cross and follow him and the disciples would have come to him and said that whilst they accepted the sincerity of Jesus’ words and whilst they agreed with him in broad terms, they didn’t feel able to recommend the programme he advocated.
Christian history simply would not have happened if a committee had been responsible. There is a Biblical mandate for sharing ministry, but there is also a Biblical mandate for getting on and doing things. Prophets would never have had any impact if they had appointed a committee to consider what condemnations were to be issued; Saint Paul’s letters would never have been sent if they had required a committee for their composition, it would still now be thrashing out what way the Letter to the Romans should be written.
Isn’t the point of having bishops that they reflect and then lead? If that is not their role, then what are they there for? It’s a weakness of our age that we regard the common mind as necessarily the voice of wisdom, is that how things would be conducted in any other sphere? Would we remember Einstein or Beckett or Van Gogh if they had heeded the common mind? Isn’t it a reflection of how little confidence we have in our own structures that we think a meeting even necessary?