Decision Making and Consensus : A Report for the Panel on Review and Reform

Irvine, Charles (2015) Decision Making and Consensus : A Report for the Panel on Review and Reform. Church of Scotland Assembly Arrangements Committee, Edinburgh.

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Each era brings distinctive challenges. The Church of Scotland is no exception. The opening years of the 21st Century have seen an unprecedented reduction in membership. At the same time the Kirk has faced some major controversies, with a number of congregations leaving in response to debates over human sexuality. This combination has produced a sense of crisis. A major focus of anxiety has been the process by which the Church and its constituent parts reach decisions, particularly where individuals or congregations leave (or threaten to leave) as a result. In 2012 the General Assembly instructed the Panel on Review and Reform to explore issues of consensus and communication. The Panel’s report referred to conflict, asserting: “methods of coming to a decision within the courts of the Church can leave sections of the Christian community feeling hurt and disenfranchised.” It spoke favourably of consensus- based methods of decision-making in use in other denominations and the wider society, while stressing that it had not yet come to a view on their applicability in the Church of Scotland. It described the findings of a small-scale research project into decision-making in the Church. These included a strong sense that, while complete consensus is neither achievable nor necessarily desirable, poor communication does contribute to conflict. Perhaps unsurprisingly it found almost unanimous support for the statement: “the decision- making process across the Church could be improved.” Alongside this report, the Panel sought and received funding for further research into the subject, involving: “a larger number and wider range of potential respondents” with the goal of “empower[ing] the Church in its communication and decision-making, at all levels, by providing accurate information which reflects the opinions of those within the Church of Scotland in a format which is accessible to all.” The current report is the result. In its remit to the author, the Panel stressed its desire for an approach that modelled consensus-based decision making. It asked him to facilitate local meetings of Church stakeholders alongside members of the Panel. The purpose of these facilitated meetings was not only to “gather information about people’s interaction in current decision-making structures (Kirk Session, Presbytery, General Assembly, committees and councils) and their views on how to build good government” but also to encourage ownership of and participation in proposals for change.