Contentious issues arising from Assembly Resolution 84 are not confined to biblical, theological and ethical domains. The UCA publication – Sexuality and Leadership in the Uniting Church – contains a range of thoughtful searching material which should not be minimized or downplayed. However, I am aware of a dimension to the debate which, so far as I can tell, remains subterranean, and which, I believe, needs to surface. It is a dimension which may be helpfully elucidated by reference to aspects of political and organizational theory.
My reflections in this regard have been prompted by a recent reading of Paul Collins’ Papal Power, wherein I encountered a seminal idea. It concerns what Collins calls "the doctrinal principle of reception." (p.175) , and what struck me about Collins’ discussion was neither the theological nor the biblical grounding of ‘reception’, but its political character.
Lamenting the recent neglect of this doctrine in the Roman Church, Collins states that "reception is the confirmation and acceptance by the people of the teaching of a council, Pope or the Church’s magisterium." (p.116) Now, there is a certain logic to the idea of reception which looks to be straightforwardly obvious. For example, "reception" is closely inter-connected with "acceptance" Indeed, one of the necessary features of realistic decision-making – especially when made for or on behalf of others – is that the decisions be accepted, embraced, welcomed by those most affected. If a decision is ignored, by-passed or rejected by the "constituents", then even if the written records show a decision as being made, its status as an effective decision must be questioned. A formal decision only becomes an effective decision upon reception.
Now, even the most casual UCA observer over the past three years could not help but notice that Resolution 84 has not been "received" by many of its membership – arguably a majority but certainly a very significant minority. The reasons for this state of affairs require and are receiving careful analysis, but the fact of , ‘non-reception" cannot be ignored. This being so, the next question is: can the Church find a way forward which takes seriously the idea of "reception." If so, then that way will need to be articulated by reference to political and organizational theory as well as from biblical and theological reflection.
Let us now consider briefly two dominant decision-making models and how "reception" functions. We take firstly a traditional, top-down organizational structure, and then, secondly, consider secular liberal-democratic processes.
I – Top-Down Structure
In an organizational culture with an authoritarian, top-down structure of decision-making. with its attendant emphases on tradition and obedience, "reception" is seen more in passive terms. It functions as the last step in a sequence of events mediated from C.E.O. or Pope, or "the great leader" downwards to the masses. This decision-making process is terminated through hearty displays of corporate unanimity. In this culture, "reception" functions passively insofar as implicit acceptance is presumed by the inner-circle of power-holders. Not surprisingly, authoritarian regimes of all kinds, ranging from corporate economic managers to political regimes Fascist or Marxist varieties through to certain religious or ecclesiastical regimes, make much of public displays of , ‘reception," which are usually carefully choreographed by mass-media experts for popular consumption.
The struggles of Father Collins within Roman Catholicism have been brought about because of a clash of cultures between quasi-liberal views of governance on one hand and traditional expectations of passivity on the part of the faithful, on the other. Collins’ dilemma is painfully exposed in his rather bold point that papal teaching on contraception in Humanae Vitae lacks authority and authenticity because it has "consistently not been received by many in the Church most affected by it" (p. 127-8) – namely women. My occasional conversations with Catholic parents, teachers and academics lead me to the view that many Australian Catholics have overlooked or ignored papal teaching on contraception and have allowed their attendance at Mass to lapse. While the demographics of such a trend may be problematic for the Roman hierarchy, more problematic is the challenge to authority and the authoritarian management structure from liberal democratic values. Indeed, top-down authoritarian regimes of any kind do no normally allow or do not encourage public contestation of decisions, for such would be perceived as signs of weakness or signs that authority has been or is being undermined.
What then happens to "reception" when authoritarian regimes come under challenge – that is to say, when on-line decisions are ignored? Father Collins claims, in respect of his Church, that in such cases good grounds arise "to argue that (the teaching) is simply wrong" (p.128) and that reasonable bodies should "re-examine the teaching and the reasons for lack of reception." (p.46) However, Collins here is engaging in fanciful wish-fulfilment, for when under challenge, top-down regimes usually react with counter-pressure – sancti6ns, punishment, threats, bullying and intimidation. The authority of authoritarian regimes must be seen as unassailable – and almost any means seems to be used to serve that end. In such cultures, the end unhappily for dissenters always seems to justify the means used to achieve those ends.
II – Bottom-Up Structure
By contrast, how does "reception" function in less authoritarian organizational cultures where more democratic or "bottom-up" values are taken seriously, as for example in liberal democratic secular political States? Cultural contexts where authority is perceived as arising "from below" through the principle of "the consent of the governed" take the organizational form of representative democracies. Organizational members function as constituents who elect persons to represent them in a parliament, councillor some other democratically-elected body. Those elected are described by sociologist Max Weber as having "legal-rational" authority. Their authority is "legal" because they have been elected to office by constituents who "constitute" their power base within the legislative terms of a constitution, and they are "rational" because of the rules governing their office, not because of their personalities. For such, their line of accountability is both downwards, towards their constituents, and sideways and upwards towards their parliamentary colleagues and to party officials. They occupy their office within a limited time-frame – three or four years – and are subject both to a nomination process within their party and to an election process within the wider community.
Most Australian citizens will be well aware of their civic responsibilities, which encompass values and practices appropriate to that of secular democracies. In this kind of decision-making culture, the idea of "reception" does not constitute the end-point of a "top-down" process which is passively received without dissent. Rather, "reception" is perceived more dynamically, insofar as politics and practices are tested pragmatically at a number of points in the decision-making process, and are amended, rejected, modified, or promoted within a more critical climate of contestability, compromise, practicality and feasibility. Of course, ultimately, in ~ representative democracy, policies are tested pragmatically at the ballot box, so that the non-reception or rejection of a significant raft of government policies by a majority of electors usually results in a change-over of power – opposition becomes government and vice versa. Importantly however, in a secular democratic context, "reception" is not a passive terminating point but a pragmatic or more dynamic yard-stick in which government performance is tested via the ballot box.
Furthermore, built-in to the Westminster system is the concept of an "opposition" – an alternative government – which provides an element of choice for the electorate. Of course, no such scope is found or tolerated within an authoritarian "top-down" management structure.
Reception and the Uniting Church
How does this brief and over-simplified analysis of "reception" bear upon the UCA and its decision- making processes? Firstly, although the UCA sees itself as working "within the faith and unity of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church" (Basis of Union, para 2), this does not mean and nor can it be inferred that it should adopt a ‘Roman’ style of decision-making or a Roman view of "reception". But on the other hand, the fact that the UCA was formed within a nation State which, in Manning Clark’s words, was ‘born modern," does not necessarily entail that the values of the national political system – secular representative democracy – should dominate UC governance and policy. And indeed it does not! Delegates to Assembly or Synod are not elected by constituents or by an electorate to whom they have a direct line of accountability for their actions. Nor are they accountable through a ballot-box. Nor are they paid a salary or fee for their labours, for they act in a voluntary capacity. To regard the local church congregation as a political constituency may be to make as big an error of judgment on the "democratic" side of the equation as it would be if an authoritarian structure were to be preferred. The word "catholic" does not mean "Roman", and the word "democracy" does not necessarily mean secular representative or "legal-rational" governance. The former has its historical roots in the structures of the Roman Empire; the latter in the writings of early modern thinkers such as John Locke and Jacques Rousseau, and I do not think that UCA would claim exclusive allegiance to values represented by either of these dominant Western traditions.
How then, might the idea of "reception" be taken within the culture and structure of the UCA? To what extent should it embrace some, if not all, of the values of an authoritarian top-down model? Should "reception" be understood within a hierarchical model of decision-making, with emphasis on tradition, precedent, and top-down authority? Or should "reception" be seen not as a passive receiving of decisions but as something more dynamic, more "bottom-up", more democratic, more modern, more representative, more pragmatic, where decisions are taken within a culture which is critical, open and revisable? Should the DCA embrace some, if not all, of the values embedded in secular political democratic states, and if so, which ones? Where is the appropriate place for a doctrine of , ‘reception" in UC governance’?
These questions are not merely theoretical! The day is far gone and the need to exercise a proper sense of political realism is upon us. What modifications, if any, need to be made to the decision- making processes within the UCA? If the answer is "none at all", then the next question must be: – what can be done to ensure that the existing structures work more effectively and efficiently? That is to say, what can be done to ensure that clear, prudent and appropriate communication takes place between and among Assembly, Synod, Presbyteries, and Congregations?
The sexuality and leadership debate is as much about political realism as it is about theology, ethics and biblical studies. Solutions for future unity can be found, but if, and only if, insights can be drawn from a wider range of disciplines than, hitherto, seems to have been the case.