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Interim Report on Consensus Procedures

Interim Report on Consensus Procedures, reported to the WCC Central Committee, 2003

02 September 2003

World Council of Churches
Geneva, Switzerland
26 August - 2 September 2003

Interim Report on Consensus Procedures

1. Following the decision of the Central Committee to move to a consensus method of decision-making a small reference group was formed by the General Secretary in consultation with the Officers. The group began with an analysis of the issues and questions to be addressed in this move, taking into account the report of the Special Commission and in particular its Appendix B. A progress report was presented to the Executive Committee in February 2003. The issue was further discussed at the meeting of the Steering Committee of the Special Commission, in Thessaloniki, 4-7 June.

2. The analysis took the present rules of debate (Rule XVI) as the point of departure. The comparison with the manual in use by the United Church in Australia led to the conclusion that the present distinction of three categories of session, i.e. general, deliberative, and business should be reconsidered and simplified. To provide more room for genuine dialogue and exchange of views on a particular subject it might be advisable to introduce a "hearing" session. Further, it was felt that more clarity was needed about the process of agenda setting and the distribution of items between the different governing bodies. The procedures of the WCC at present provide for the introduction of subjects for discussion and decision in plenary followed by detailed examination and the working out of recommendations in reference committees; most frameworks for consensus decision-making employ small groups to discuss a proposal with results being presented to plenary by a facilitation group. The advantages and disadvantages of the two approaches need to be considered. In addition, the order of speaking calls for review. Finally, clarity is needed whether consensus should be the normal method of decision-making for all items of business, or whether, as proposed by the Special Commission, certain matters should be reserved for voting.

3. Based on the advice and recommendations coming from both the Executive Committee and the Steering Committee of the Special Commission the reference group continued its consultations and is now presenting the following interim report.

I. Aims of the Move to Consensus

A. At its founding in 1948, the majority of the members of the World Council of Churches came from Europe and North America. From the beginning, the WCC rules of governance reflected primarily Western parliamentary procedures as practised by Protestant churches in those parts of the world. With the widening of WCC membership to a truly global fellowship of churches, as well as with the greater participation of women and youth church leaders, across time, many expressed increasing frustration with parliamentary processes. For some years, hopes and expectations have arisen that the methods by which the Council governs its life might more appropriately reflect the changes in the organization that have taken place since its inception.

B. The Eighth Assembly in Harare received the document on The Common Understanding and Vision (CUV) and more clearly defined the WCC as a fellowship of churches seeking together to fulfil their common calling. This included amending the Constitution and Rules. Building on the CUV, the Special Commission on Orthodox Participation in the WCC recommended, among other changes, that the WCC move to consensus in order to address long-standing concerns of Orthodox churches that, as a numerical minority in various governing bodies, they would continue to encounter substantial difficulties in having their concerns and perspectives heard and addressed. This recommendation resonated deeply with others’ convictions that the time for a change to consensus had come.

C. The manner in which churches govern their life together in the World Council of Churches profoundly affects the quality of the fellowship they experience and seek. The means by which churches search for a common mind is as important as the decisions they reach. Processes matter as much as end products. At its best, the WCC calls churches from various confessional traditions and disparate locations to be in closer relationship to one another, to build each other up within the body of Christ, to listen carefully to one another’s traditions and experiences, to intercede on each other’s behalf, to speak clearly and dialogue together on common convictions as well as deeply held differences, and thus to grow in faith and in bonds of fellowship. A significant image of the church in the New Testament is that of the Body of Christ, diverse yet one. In I Corinthians 12:12-27, Paul speaks of parts of the body needing each other. A fully functioning body integrates the capabilities and contributions of all the members. A set of procedures that makes the best possible use of the abilities, the history, the experience, the commitment and the spiritual tradition of all the members should be the aim of the WCC.

D. Consensus means seeking the common mind of a meeting without deciding issues by means of voting. A consensus is reached when one of the following occurs :

  • all are in agreement (unanimity) ;
  • most are in agreement and those who disagree are content that the discussion has been both full and fair and that the proposal expresses the general ‘mind of the meeting’, the minority therefore gives consent ;
  • the meeting acknowledges that there are various opinions, and it is agreed that these be recorded in the body of the proposal (not just the Minutes) ;
  • it is agreed that the matter be postponed ;
  • it is agreed that no decision can be reached.

E. No governance method is likely to function perfectly or easily at all times. Joy as well as pain will probably continue to be evident on occasion in WCC deliberations as well as in other dimensions of the organization’s life. Many desire to move away from parliamentary styles, however, because by their nature, they promote adversarial interactions. Proposals are debated ‘for and against,’ and exploration of a wider range of viewpoints often is not possible. The change to consensus reflects the hope that all parties to the dialogue will have parity with one another; minority traditions, small churches, and larger churches alike. The shift attempts to assure that all parties will be empowered to participate more fully. Consensus aims to promote greater openness and honesty in communication as churches address the challenges and opportunities of their commitment to stay together.

F. Consensus should be the norm for all levels of deliberation in the life of the Council, including staff meetings, all sub-groups of governing bodies, the Central Committee, and the Assembly. Consensus should also be the norm for choosing which topics and issues will be discussed as well as how they will be addressed, that is, setting the agenda. Discussions and draft reports should seek to address and accommodate all points of view during the entire process, from beginning to end. Consensus in larger governing bodies is likely to be facilitated when all the sub-groups and committees use the process, that is, when they report outcomes that reflect common convictions where agreement can be reached and the range of opinions where agreement is not possible. Striving to pronounce agreement where it does not exist often inhibits participation and genuine dialogue. Pronouncing agreement where it does exist demonstrates the powerful, common witness of the fellowship.

II. Principles of Governance

A. Any system of governance in the WCC should strive :

(1) to be as simple as possible and only as complex as is necessary ;

(2) to be transparent;

(3) to enhance participation and dialogue across the whole group;

(4) to check the possibility of domination by any participant or small group;

(5) to manage with courtesy, respect and grace discussions where participants bring deeply held, contending perspectives on matters at the heart of their Christian convictions;

(6) to provide orderly deliberations and timely decisions;

(7) to explore creative alternatives;

(8) to check the power of a few participants to obstruct decisions when the vast majority is ready to move;

(9) to check the power of any moderator to steer the deliberations in directions other than those desired by the body;

(10) to strengthen the capacity of the churches in fellowship in the WCC to engage in common witness and service.

III. Agenda Setting and Distribution of Agenda between the different Governing Bodies

A. When the Special Commission referred to the setting of the agenda of the WCC it was thinking less of the specific agenda for decision-making during a given meeting of a governing body, but much more of the process by which certain issues and themes are included in the working agenda of the WCC. We should, therefore, distinguish between the "programme" and the "business" agenda of the Council. The basic directions for the programmatic activities of the WCC are provided first by the Programme Guidelines Committee of an Assembly and then developed further by the Programme Committee during the period between Assemblies. In addition, efforts have been made through the introduction of the Policy Reference Committee II to enable the Central Committee to take initiatives regarding the programmatic agenda by addressing proposals to the Programme Committee or to specific advisory bodies. The commissions and advisory groups contribute to the shaping of the programme agenda of the council in an advisory capacity. It will be important to clarify the ways in which the "parity committee" will participate in the process of preparing and monitoring this "programme agenda".

B. The common understanding of "decision-making" refers to the "business" agenda of the governing bodies of the Council. For better understanding it is important to distinguish the different levels of governance and to assign the relevant agenda items to each level:

Assembly: elections of Central Committee and Presidents; revision of Constitution and Rules; reception of the account of the Central Committee and adoption of Programme Guidelines.

Central Committee: election of Executive Committee and Officers, including the General Secretary; appointment of Commissions and Advisory Groups; appointment of senior staff leadership; budget and financial policy; programme policy.

Executive Committee: administrative decisions; staff appointments.

C. Public statements can be issued by all governing bodies, including the Officers and the General Secretary. Public statements by the Assembly or the Central Committee concentrate on issues of at least medium-term policy nature.

D. In reviewing the procedures for setting the agenda it should be the aim to increase the transparency of the process. Normally, the setting of the "business" agenda is being monitored and directed by the Officers and the Executive Committee. The practice of preparing annotated agendas for all meetings where decisions are to be taken has met with positive responses. For meetings of governing bodies it would be desirable that an annotated agenda, together with the supporting documents, be sent to the members 4-6 weeks prior to the meeting.

E. Many smaller agenda items are not presented first in plenary and then referred to the sub-committees or reference committees. They are included in the agenda of the sub-committee from the start; the supporting documents are distributed to the sub-committee and made available for information to the plenary. In order to increase the transparency of the process it is being proposed to send the annotated agendas of the different reference or sub-committees to all members of the Central Committee or to all delegates of the assembly. Since the recommendations for decision will be worked out in the reference or sub-committees, this advance distribution of agendas will enable members to share urgent concerns with the sub-committee other than the one to which they have been assigned, or to ask for a transfer. In addition, sub-committees should be encouraged to keep minutes of their discussions, available upon request to all members of governing bodies; in this manner the report and recommendations to be submitted to the plenary body for consideration and decisions could concentrate on a limited number of substantive issues.

IV. Categories of Sessions

A. The present rules state: The Assembly shall sit either in general session [see Rule XVI.4], in business session [see Rule XVI.5], or in deliberative session [see Rule XVI.6]. The Business Committee shall determine the category of session appropriate to the matters to be considered. In practice this distinction has not always been followed and the category of session has changed in the course of one and the same session without a clear decision or ruling, thus creating confusion for members.

B. The main distinction is to be drawn between sessions that are reserved for discussion, dialogue and exchange, and those where decisions are to be taken. Dialogue sessions can be provided for general or ceremonial purposes, for public acts of witness, for information, for deliberation, or just for hearing different points of view. Only procedural decisions, like considering a report for further deliberation or referral of an item to a sub-committee, should be allowed during such sessions for which a simple majority vote might be used.

C. The other main category are decision sessions. These sessions would deal with elections and appointments, proposals with reference to the structure, organization, budget or programme of the World Council of Churches and matters of theological or general policy nature. Normally, a decision session of an Assembly or the Central Committee would proceed on the basis of a report, recommendation or proposal that has been fully considered before and is supported by the consensus of the proposing group or sub-committee. The moderators should clearly indicate the category of session; passing from one category to the other while dealing with the same agenda item may require the approval of the body.

D. During dialogue sessions, especially in plenary, ample time needs to be given by the moderator for all views to be heard. Opportunity should be given frequently for exchanges at table groups or in small groups. In this way participation in the discussion can be increased and complex issues can be unravelled. However, ways need to be found to feed the table conversations back into the dialogue in plenary. The experience of churches that have begun to apply consensus procedures provides different methodologies to achieve this purpose.

V. Governance Procedure

A. Consensus should be the default position for all decisions in meetings of the WCC governing bodies. There is no reason to divide matters which are interwoven and interrelated. Budgetary and other financial decisions affect programmatic and staffing decisions and vice-versa. It does not seem consistent with the move towards a change of culture to use the traditional method of voting in some cases, and consensus in others.

B. The Steering Committee of the Special Commission felt that reception of new member churches should also be handled by consensus. Since this would imply a change in the WCC Constitution (Article II), a clear instruction is needed from Central Committee.

C. It would seem necessary or reasonable to keep the majority or qualified majority voting system in the following specific cases:

  • Constitutional changes (which need a qualified majority);
  • Elections (following specific rules in each case);
  • Adoption of yearly accounts and of the financial audit report (simple majority);
  • A certain number of smaller procedural matters (simple majority).

The first three mentioned cases would need to be specified in the Rules.

D. Concerning the smaller procedural matters, they should either be mentioned case by case or the Rules should carry a general formulation, allowing the moderatorial group to exercise discernment. The idea is to expedite procedurally the meeting without losing time. Examples would be the adoption of an uncontested agenda, the election of scrutineers and decisions to change the time-schedule of a day.

E. All preparatory processes for a decision by a WCC governing body, including the preparations for decisions taken by vote as mentioned above, should be conducted following the consensus method. This concerns e.g. all (sub-)committees of the Assembly or the Central/Executive Committees. In case consensus is not reached during the deliberations of such a (sub-)committee (Policy Reference, Finance, Nominations, etc.), the dissenting voice(s) should be mentioned in the report to the governing body.

VI. Order of Speaking

A. The order of speakers in any deliberation can significantly shape the direction of a discussion. The current system in large meetings (e.g. the Central Committee and Assembly) gives authority and power to moderators to choose among those who have submitted written requests to speak. This method allows the moderator to manage the order of speeches between those that support or challenge proposals, those with questions, and those with alternative proposals. This method also allows for the presiding officer to extend invitations to particular participants to speak, an important matter of courtesy in some traditions.

B. Under this system, however, despite the best efforts of those moderating, some who do not get to speak may experience frustration that the debate did not reflect their key concerns, or that speakers were chosen according to some criteria not transparently evident to all.

C. One alternative method for ordering speakers is to have three or more sets of microphones where those wanting to speak could form lines. One microphone could be for those in general agreement with a proposition, one for speakers critical of a proposition, one for those with questions or alternative proposals, etc. The moderator could manage the discussion by alternating between microphones in such a way as to allow for a full exchange of points of view. Similar systems have been tried with some success in some large WCC gatherings.

D. This approach, however, requires participants who want to speak or be recognized to take initiative to join a queue, a practice that might inhibit the participation of shy people or discourage those who prefer the courtesy of being invited by the moderator to speak.

E. A third alternative is to mix these two methods within or between sessions where a topic or proposal is being deliberated. Other alternatives may exist and need to be explored.

F. Whatever method is chosen, the following overarching procedures should be followed:

  • a participant may speak only when granted the right to do so by the moderator;
  • any participant may raise a point of order at any time;
  • all speakers should state their name and the name of their church;
  • time limits should be placed on each speaker in order to maximize participation.

G. Persons who wish to participate in the dialogue but do not have the right to participate in the decision-making process, such as representatives of churches in association with the Council, ecumenical delegates or observers, may only speak if recognized by the moderator following submission of a written request to speak. Without the permission of the moderator they may not join a queue during the open microphone portion of a session.

VII. Assistance to the Moderator

A. Obviously, the role of the moderator is decisive for handling consensus procedures. All manuals of churches working with the consensus method insist on the importance of providing proper training for moderators. In the setting of the WCC where different ecclesial and cultural traditions come together an appropriate moderatorial style has to be developed which facilitates consensual deliberation and decision-making. A manual with guidelines specifically for moderators in WCC meetings should be developed.

B. Ways should be found to benefit from the experience of churches like the Uniting Church in Australia. Consultants from such churches could be invited to an Officers' meeting prior to the first use of consensus procedures to alert the Officers to the changes regarding their role that are implied in the consensus method. Such consultants could then also be invited to sit with the Officers during the first Central Committee meeting where consensus procedures are to be used, and during the Assembly in 2006, in order to monitor the flow of the proceedings and to offer advice to the Officers.

C. The other aspect which requires special attention under consensus procedures is the way in which the proceedings are being recorded. In many instances the record of the dialogue will be more important than the wording of the final resolution or recommendation. Guidelines should, therefore, be established for those responsible for taking the minutes. It might be helpful to place the recorder or minute-taker in close proximity to the moderator so that he/she can intervene if there is lack of clarity regarding the precise content or wording of the agreement reached. The recorder or minute-taker should be considered as being part of the "moderatorial group" for the respective meeting.

VIII. Proposal of Co-Moderators

A. The exploration of all possible ways in applying the principle of "parity" led also to the idea of having two moderators in the governing bodies of the WCC and two vice-moderators. While the logic; and, by extension, the legitimacy; of this possibility have gained wide respect, the practical implications are being seriously questioned.

B. Some of the points that need careful consideration in this debate are:

  • the "symbolism" of one person leading a governing body (as is the case in practically all ecclesial conciliar bodies);
  • the technical difficulties for two persons to "represent" the fellowship simultaneously (especially in emergency situations);
  • the uncertainties related to a potential "rotating" system (within a time-limited mandate);
  • the high expectations of the moderator in a moment of transition to the consensus method;
  • the likelihood that co-moderators would strengthen the power of the General Secretary.

C. Several attempts to find a solution have remained inconclusive, including the latest discussion of the matter by the Steering Committee of the Special Commission (Thessaloniki, June 2003). Therefore, there is a need for the debate to continue. A few questions could serve as discussion starter:

  • Is parity at the level of the "moderator(s)" the only way, or could it be considered at the wider level of the "officers"?
  • Could parity be envisaged, at least for this transition period and on an experimental basis, for all the reference committees of the Central Committee?
  • How could the parity principle be reconciled (harmonized) with the imperative for regional and gender balances?

IX. Further Process

A. The further process has been considered by both the Executive Committee and the Steering Committee of the Special Commission. Both agree that the Central Committee at its meeting in August/September 2003 should provide the basic directions for further work on the basis of this interim report prepared by the small reference-group.

B. Following the Central Committee meeting in 2003, a special consultation, including representatives of churches which practice consensus procedures, should be organized prior to the meeting of the Executive Committee in February 2004. The main purpose of this meeting would be to elaborate on the first draft of the new rules of procedure and to prepare a manual for their introduction.

C. After the Executive Committee meeting in February 2004 the draft rules should be shared with member churches and members of the Central Committee for their information and eventual comment. In the light of comments received the small reference group should revise the draft to enable the Executive Committee at its meeting in the fall of 2004 to finalize the new framework.

D. The Central Committee meeting in February 2005 should use for the first time the new consensus procedures and thus serve as a testing ground for the method. In the light of the experience at this meeting the framework, i.e. the rules and the manual, may have to be revised once more before their final adoption for use at the Ninth Assembly.