Consensus is also a process of seeking the common mind of a meeting without resorting to a formal vote, and engaging in genuine dialogue that is respectful, mutually supportive, and empowering.
Emily Evans, from the Uniting Church in Australia, was part of a team that helped introduce some WCC assembly delegates to the consensus process.
Though the Uniting Church in Australia uses a consensus approach, the WCC holds a broader definition of the body of Christ, reflected Evans. “Through this diversity, the WCC seeks to achieve consensus and be the visible unity we seek to be,” she said. “Consensus doesn’t happen overnight, and that it’s important to emphasize that it’s a process—not only a vote where people win or lose.”
On a daily basis at the assembly, Evans, as well as Celina Falk, from the Church of Sweden, reminded assembly delegates that, occasionally, it takes time to develop the openness required to reach consensus. “It was important to remind people of the ‘rules of the day’ to ensure that people were able to enter into the discussion in a productive way,” said Evans. “The biggest challenge is enabling a space where this is able to occur.”
With tight timetables, many emotional calls for addressing global challenges, and a strong desire to send messages of unity to the world, assembly delegates struggled at times.
But they were prepared for that struggle, reflected Falk. “I think it was great that we had so much time to talk about consensus, both at the orientation plenary and in the beginning of every business session,” she said. “Many of the member churches use different styles of decision-making and consensus may have been a new experience.”
How they prepared
To introduce delegates to the consensus process—and to help those already familiar with it to hone their skills—Evans and Falk provided a friendly introduction, as well as some role-playing dialogues.
Recalling when they were both new WCC central committee members at the WCC 10th Assembly in Busan, they knew all too well how overwhelming the WCC assembly decision-making process can be.
Falk remembered some of the questions she had at the time: “What do I do if I have something to say? What are the committees doing?”
She and Evans tried to address different questions during their dialogues.
Like Evans, Falk said one of the biggest challenges was the time crunch. “Building consensus is a process where we need to listen to each other, reflect and be prepared to change our minds,” she reflected. “Consensus is not something that occurs by itself; it happens when we are open to let the Spirit move us and respectfully listen to each other.”
Falk observed that building consensus isn’t just for assembly business plenaries but happens in every encounter: in the queue for lunch, during prayers, in committee meetings, during Ecumenical Conversations, and in the Networking Zone. “To talk and listen to each other takes time, but it is the most important thing we do,” she said. “Building the common mind of the fellowship is what makes the World Council of Churches a strong voice and what brings us to unity.”
A spiritual foundation
Georges ‘Yorgo’ Lemopoulos, who has served as deputy to four WCC general secretaries, might be called “the spiritual guide” for consensus.
“In the Orthodox tradition—and for others as well—the liturgy of St John Chrysostom plays a key role in the spiritual life and growth of the community,” he said. “As we celebrate this liturgy day after day and week after week, we pray ‘Let us love one another that in one mind we may confess’ (cf. Phil. 2, 1-8) our faith.”
The phrase “one mind” is key for consensus, said Lemopoulos. “We need one mind to confess together our faith,” he said. “And as we confess our faith together in one mind, we can come together to the one table, to share the Eucharist, the ultimate expression of our unity.”
There is an obvious analogy when Christians from different traditions come together, aspiring to their unity and their participation in the common table, Lemopoulos reflected. “The one mind is a fundamental element in their journey towards unity,” he said. “Thus consensus, aiming by definition at building the common mind, could also be understood in a liturgical and sacramental perspective.”
No matter how long consensus seemed to take at the WCC 11th Assembly, in fact it worked, said Lemopoulos. “As memories from Karlsruhe are fresh, business sessions were limited in numbers and yet all decisions that had to be taken were reached successfully!” he said.
What’s more, decision-making shouldn’t be judged by speed, Lemopoulos added. “What is more important for a fellowship of churches like ours: is it the speed of decision-making or the acceptance and implementation of the decision in a long-term perspective?” he asked. “Is it not true that decisions can be taken rapidly by simple majority, but then the ‘losers’ invest time and energy to undo that decision?”
Consensus may save us from entering an endless spiral of doing and undoing decisions taken without a mature agreement on a given matter, he pointed out.
“Is it not better to spend time and energy together—even if the path is somehow longer and the pace slower—in order to reach consensus?” he asked. “Is it not better to think of and be inspired by the African proverb: ‘Walk alone if you want to go fast; walk with others if you want to go far?’ “
In reaching consensus, listening to one another becomes an imperative because discernment is of fundamental importance, noted Lemopoulos. "Discernment is always ‘between,’ ” he said. “In consensus methodology, if agreement to accept a proposal is possible, variation of a proposal is equally possible.”
Various opinions may be held on the same matter and these have to be carefully and extensively discussed, he said. Ultimately, consensus means taking seriously the voice of every sister and brother who are part of the fellowship. “A matter can be referred to a small group holding a range of points of view,” said Lemopoulos. “Even if a broad consensus is reached, a different opinion could be heard and recorded as a minority opinion or an objection to the decision.”
In the end, Falk said, it helps to picture a true body of Christ: “If the foot says it’s not possible to walk, the rest of the body needs to listen and find other ways forward,” she said.