Wednesday, August 15, 2012

On bylaws, creeds, confessions and handbooks

In Agnes' Garden.
A charitable organization operates under strict federal and provincial laws which must be satisfied if it's to maintain its charitable standing (I can already see you yawning). Underneath these imposed laws, it generally creates bylaws and a procedural handbook, partly to ensure that the provincial and federal laws are satisfied from generation to generation of boards and partly just to make it easier for newcomers to leadership to understand the history of “the way things have been done up to now.” That's simplified but will have to do for today's purposes.
    Although I've never heard it in this way before, I think it's a usable analogy to the writing of creeds, confessions of faith, even the hymns and sermons in our churches. Historically, the Holy Bible has been the federal/provincial “law” that over-arches common faith and practice; creeds and confessions have been the bylaws that have sought to regularize their application and the hymns and sermons are, let's say, handbook material.
    One would think that if the over-arching “law” remains the same, the subsidiaries should also be static, but in the case of a charitable organization, almost every membership meeting includes tinkering with bylaws, and handbook directives are even more fluid.
    Without stretching the analogy too far, can creeds and confessions also be seen to be tentative and subject to amendment, not because the “law” changes necessarily, but because the understanding of the “law” changes in response to scholarship and the passage of time? It's no surprise that since they are interpretive of the Bible itself, they carry the aura of sacredness and their rethinking is undertaken only reluctantly and with appropriate gravity. But clearly, whatever view we take of the inspiration of scripture, creeds and confessions are man-made.
    Let's go back to bylaws and handbooks for a moment. My experience has been that occasions arise—and not infrequently—when it just seems right to take an action even though it's not prescribed or sanctioned by the “rules” we drafted last year, and so we break (or bend) them to fit what seems right at present.  History has shown that the sky doesn't fall at the circumventing of a “rule,” say, to hold the annual meeting in February when bylaws specify January.
    Does the same apply to confessions and creeds?
    There's a case study on the horizon for many churches. The law of the land allows for same-sex marriage; if the Confession of Faith of a certain church says that God has ordained that marriage is a union between one man and one woman and the license to perform marriages is granted or withheld by the state, and a loving gay couple asks to be married in a church, what's a pastor to do? (That's a rhetorical question; the answer is already proving to be different from denomination to denomination, from congregation to congregation.)
    Typically, the circumventing of a bylaw or handbook provision draws protests from those who take comfort in rules, especially written ones. “You can't do that; it's not in the bylaws,” is a typical response and the protestors have a version of right on their side: if you don't follow your own rules, why write them in the first place?!?
    One answer to that is that we draft creeds, bylaws, confessions to slow down change, to prevent precipitous adaptations that might incrementally draw us away from our goals and mission, or put us in opposition to the over-arching law of the governing body—the Bible in the case of the church. Another answer is that the slavish adherence to rules set at a given time is retrograde to progress; every bylaw, handbook, creed and confession is, in effect, an anachronism—a thing out of its time—precisely because it was written for a day that is not now.
    Critical to the change vs. stability tension is not so much the question of what precisely we believe on a subject (like same-sex marriage, let's say) as is the approach by which we contemplate, debate and decide what action we will (or will not) take together. The adversarial system in which we live has pervaded every facet of our lives; typically, we fore-go real, discerning debate and go straight to picking sides and working to see that our side wins. Or we keep silent on tense issues in order to preserve unity. Neither approach is salutary in the long run.
    Ideally, when pressures of one kind or another suggest a possible “bylaw” change, a process of consideration should exist to guide us; would the person who can teach how this is done well please step forward.
    The analogy breaks down, of course, as all analogies do if stretched too far. The law of the land changes with time; the Bible is “written in stone,” for all intents and purposes. The strain on scholarship and “interpretation for our time and situation” has caused some of the tensions we're experiencing right now; unable to anticipate any adaptations in The Book, we must decide if same-sex marriage, for instance, is retrograde-to or supportive-of the spirit of the will of God, which is clearly to rescue people from the tentacles of evil and to restore creation to an Eden-like harmony.

    At least, that's my understanding . . . today.


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