For our Second Friday gathering last week we invited local people who had attended the United Church General Council gathering in Newfoundland this past summer to have some conversation with those of us who didn’t about what it was like. Shelly Manley-Tannis, Bill Millar, Adrian Jacobs, and Stan McKay all told stories, recounted experiences, and reflected on what happens when “the church” meets to do business.
Although the discussion touched on decisions like the proposed restructuring of the church courts, the “one ministry” report, the divestment from the fossil fuel industry, etc., much of the conversation centered around the form of the meeting itself – how much time is given (and not given) , whose voices get heard and whose are silenced, and the ways that processes for decision-making shape the outcome.
Shelly admitted that she spent much of General Council crying, sometimes in joy and sometimes in grief. Bill noted that the way a meeting like General Council is structured works well for the middle class intelligentsia, but creates disconnection for others, including newcomer Canadians. Adrian worried about the co-opting of the language of “covenant” and “consensus.” And Stan told a story about how the live video stream from General Council was cut off when the gathered participants tried singing Happy Birthday to some of their members. (Happy Birthday is copyrighted, and General Council didn’t have performance rights!)
All admitted that there were attempts to keep the proceedings human, but their sense was that the adaptations (like coloured cards to gauge whether the group was close to consensus) didn’t really touch the underlying structure, which was adversarial and colonial. The planners and organizers bent the system as far as it could go, but at some point, the system itself needs to be examined.
Wonderful and challenging stuff to think about, and we’re grateful to those who came to share their impressions, and those who came with curiosity and questions.