I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: we do church meeting badly… (‘we’ = ‘most British Baptists of whom I am aware’.)
A part of the problem is, that we are very poor at teaching our congregations to be congregational. This is compounded by the fact that we have chosen to make use of artefacts borrowed from the world around, which stand in profound need of detoxification and renarration before they can be adequately employed. One such is voting.
I touched on this (and more on another similar artefact, the ‘business meeting’) in a contribution to a Festschrift in honour of Brian Haymes. Voting at church meeting is a fairly recent innovation in Baptist life: Fawcett suggested it was a good idea in 1797, but it may be that the first recorded use was Maze Pond Church in 1825. At that time, the practice was profoundly counter-cultural, a lived witness that gospel values were different from the values of the world. In England, at that time, voting in parliamentary elections was restricted to about 5% of the male population – all landowners, of course. For a church to take this symbol of cultural privilege and, in prophetic parody, put it in the hands of every member, of every social class, women as well as men, was a piece of genius. A poor woman voting on the call of a pastor was a profoundly powerful visible sign of the Kingdom.
Fast forward nearly two hundred years and we assume universal adult suffrage. A vote is our right, and we know how to use it: to promote the interests of the party we support. The continued use of the imported cultural symbol in church meeting is no longer an enacted prophetic protest. It is not wrong to use, but it is potentially toxic; it brings with it implicit meanings that are powerful, and in grave danger of overwhelming the gospel values that must be at the core of church meeting. One symptom of this is the practice of receiving young people into church membership but denying them a vote at church meeting until they reach a certain age; a church that does this has already lost the battle, as far as I can see. Personally, I would like to do away with the practice of voting in church meeting: for a century it was prophetic; for another few decades it was useful; now it is toxic and undermining of the reality of what church meeting is about. If we are to keep it, however (and it may be that there are legal reasons why we must), we need to renarrate it powerfully enough and often enough that our people realise a vote at church meeting is not a way of promoting the interests of our party, but a way of participating in the shared task of discerning the mind of Christ.