From the Editor

The Virtue of Power-sharing

Michael L. Sherer

Michael L. Sherer

Letting the people in the pews share in decision-making is not a bad idea.

The terrible scene currently unfolding in the Roman Catholic Church is tragic on many levels. The sense of betrayal felt by lay church members is devastating. The pain inflicted on naive young people by those they were taught to trust is unimaginable.

But there are other unhappy side-effects as well. In his column on page five of this month’s print edition, Clark Morphew describes the corrosive effect of undue secrecy on a faith community. What’s made the secrecy possible, and pernicious, in the case of the Roman Church, has been the fact of a tightly-governed, top-down hierarchical system.

In a perverse sort of way, the clergy sex scandals now rocking that church body have yielded a positive glimmer of hope. A rising chorus of lay church members, especially in the United States, are asking why they can’t have a more open and responsive leadership, and more participation in their church’s decisions.

Lutheranism began with this question. When, in the early 1500s, a gutsy German monk took on the hierarchy of his day, he was ignored, then scorned, then vilified, then excommunicated. What exactly was it that Luther wanted? Among other things, he sought accountability from those at the top, and a process by which “ordinary” church members (including “ordinary clergy”) could have input into decision-making.

Tight hierarchies don’t favor such things. Those who ascend to positions of power are almost never eager to surrender it again. One argument we hear is that “participatory decision-making is messy and unpredictable.” And, as Roman Catholic leaders have often said, “church practice and policy ought not be ratified by majorities, because Christ’s church is not a democracy.”

I wonder what our friends in the Roman Church think was going on in the great ecumenical councils of centuries past. Key issues were wrestled with, and final votes were taken. Conclusions were far from foregone. Sometimes things got fairly nasty.

Lutherans have sometimes wondered whether addressing controversy in assemblies is such a good idea. Given the alternative, “messy” democracy looks pretty good.