Monday, January 27, 2014

The people taking council together

In the Episcopal Church, the annual parish meeting is something like the New England town meetings of democratic lore. Members discuss the hydra-headed work of the community and, at least in this diocese, we elect members of the group that serves as the community's board, as well as our representatives to regional bodies. Episcopalians can be clergy-centered at times -- after all, we boast we have bishops -- but lay participation matters here. Most of our clergy seem to understand that this big old voluntary institution wouldn't perk along without the work of all of us.

The parish of St. John the Evangelist in San Francisco held its annual meeting yesterday.

Here we are pouring over the agenda and booklet containing reports of activities and finances. There's a lot to read because a lot of people keep this place going. Yes, some of us are nibbling; meeting is hungry work.

Thanking members for their various tasks is a vital part of the meeting. Then we go on to cast ballots in a (gently) contested election for the various positions that need to be filled.

While we're waiting for the election results, the treasurer explains the balance sheet and budget. Since we're perennially short of money, this can get acrimonious. This year went smoothly -- for the first time in years we didn't overshoot our planned expenditures, mostly by cutting everything to the bone.

Eventually, we hear the election results, applaud the outcome, and go our separate ways, feeling at least marginally recommitted to work of the community. At times and seasons when the parish is functioning reasonably well, annual meetings are smooth, even pro forma, the people content to hear leaders lay out our situation. When we're not feeling so good about the community, we raise questions and concerns. Yesterday was close to celebratory, after a long shaky season.

As the sociologists have been pointing out for several decades, the experience of organizing and maintaining voluntary institutions has become a less frequent and conventional part of U.S. society. That loss is probably bad for democracy in all facets of our lives. This form of collective responsibility takes practice.

The annual parish meeting is a rare setting where the experience thrives, at least some of the time. Where else in our lives do we get that? In what settings do you experience participatory democracy?

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