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Conference 2016 - The Caucus Race | Updated 1995 paper by David Bell


David Bell's profile picture
Posts: 1067

19 October 2016, 2:51 PM

What is the Caucus Race?

In 1995 I wrote a paper called The Caucus Race. Today I have revised it in the light of the poor quality and demeaning leadership decisions taken at Conference 2016. It should provide historic light on what has gone wrong yet again. My revised and updated paper goes thus.

I was reminded in 1995 of the Caucus Race from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The Dodo explains very seriously that it is a race in which there is no starting line, no finishing line, everyone beginning more or less when they want, and likewise stopping when they want, and there is not even much of a course to run around. “The exact shape doesn’t matter.” Everyone was declared a winner after the Dodo called out the race was over. But equally they could have been called losers. “Alice thought the whole thing very absurd, but they all looked so grave that she did not dare to laugh.”

The Caucus Race looks to me to like the effects of what we call the bicultural journey. It’s a complete misnomer. I have been a critic of this form of the bicultural journey from its beginning. At one stage I was almost prevented from returning to parish ministry because of my stance. Since the bicultural journey was first mooted, it has seemed to me to be fundamentally flawed, for much the same reasons that Alice’s Caucus Race was never really a race in the proper sense.

It has caused distortions in our theology of the Church and the practical workings of many Church meetings at many different levels. There have been extremely serious misunderstandings about the Church’s role, its ministry and its mission, ever since the doctrinal basis shifted from the Gospel as the Church’s primary focus, to the Treaty of Waitangi and the bicultural journey as the primary focus. From the mission statement we read, “The Treaty of Waitangi is the covenant establishing our nation on the basis of a power-sharing relationship, and will guide how we undertake mission.” My italics.

Lest anyone think these comments are anti-Maori I want to categorically state that Maori issues ought to be at the very forefront of our Church’s agenda. I have written elsewhere that there are numerous and long-standing injustices that have to be righted. This is truly an integral part of the Church’s mission and is part of the universal affirmation of human rights along with a recognition of the appalling treatment of indigenous cultures during colonization, and a united concerted and whole-hearted effort to front up to the problems that were caused. But that is not, and ought not to be, the overall guide to the church’s mission.

Somehow other important distinguishing features of Church life have been blurred. First, the bicultural journey was a crucial step to multiculturalism. It began with the idea that we were all on an individual bicultural journey. Do you remember there was one President who said the Church could only proceed on this journey at the speed of the slowest moving member? But this was not to prove satisfactory to some who wanted both quicker and more radical change. Later, as a consequence, implementing the first clause of the Treaty of Waitangi took precedence over all else. Then, a few years after that, the second clause, tino rangitiritanga, became the fulcrum around which all church life rotated. By this stage, it was clear to some of us that, at the national level, the Church had in effect ceased to be a Church, in the sense of having a theology that was true to its wider Christian foundations. On this “journey” we had enshrined a Caucus Race called “Consensus Decision Making” at the centre of church gatherings.

The Caucus Race at Conference has produced the most excruciating results. Voting was viewed with extreme displeasure. Instead of voting, we may vigorously nod our heads. We are told this is using our body language to indicate our preferences. We even engage in taking “straw votes” - as if this were not an indication of voting strength. I have heard it described as the Clayton’s vote, taken when you are not permitted to take a vote.

In all of the above, we behave with that sense of gravity Alice saw was so necessary to keep up the pretense. Thus, eventually decisions are taken which, because of the processes of consensus, are not really regarded by many of us as decisions at all.

However unpalatable it is to me personally, it is nevertheless a fact that the bicultural journey has become the raison d’ être of the Methodist Church’s institutional life at Conference and Synod level and this has been so for half my working life as a presbyter.

It is a remarkable Church transformation. I am confounded by those who have achieved it, in the face of the apathy of many on the one hand and the fear of some on the other hand.

The Real Nature of Institutions

John Wesley would have had a timely word to say about the frenzy to institutionalize the bicultural journey, the rush to ensure it governed all our workings. His greatest fear about Methodism was that enthusiasm for the Gospel would be lost while a form of the Church would remain. That is, the body of Methodism would be an inert framework without a living heart.

Let me go a step further. The form without the content, the Church without the Gospel, is more or less what what we have become, and it is re-iterated by each new group of church leaders. In general, this desire to enshrine dogma in institutions of any kind results in a curious paradoxical result. The more we want to enforce “great ideas” in the guise of superior moral virtues, the less they are believed in general. William Blake said it so very well: “If Moral Virtue was Christianity, Christ’s Pretensions were all Vanity”.

In reality, the Church is no more proclaiming the Gospel by adopting biculturalism than it is by adopting fundamentalism, socialism, or liberalism. The Gospel is essentially different from all “isms” including moralism, whether of the Christian left or the Christian right. We talk up the alleged superiority of our consensus model, which has happened in a public way at World Methodist Council meetings and on social media, yet the litany of its failures in natural justice and pastoral ineptitude is never voiced by leadership.

I thought it very significant at the time, that the ten year review of biculturalism was undertaken by those who were its staunchest advocates. Since then, the evidence is crystal-clear that the system has failed to deliver on fundamental human rights. The past mistake of the “embargo” on employing overseas supply ministers (lay and ordained) even captured the attention of the Race Relations Office. It seemed to say that an “embargo” was a breach of the Human Rights Act, which states that employers cannot discriminate on the basis of colour, race, ethnic or national origin or religious belief. But the same embargo message has never been far from the surface in more recent years.

Not only was the “embargo” wrong in law, it does not belong within a Christian ethos at all. The possibility of being open to the insights, hopes, fears, tears and joys of widely differing perspectives is denied under ”embargo” conditions. One might even say the freedom once implied by a journey becomes nothing but an enforced ideological route march.

But basic human rights have long been trampled on via the Consensus Decision Making procedures. Down the years various candidates for church office have been blocked by one Caucus or the other. Sexual orientation has been the excuse on cultural grounds to deny office to Presidents and will be so again in other Connexional appointments. Candidates for ministry have been denied because, although legitimately married in the eyes of the state, this didn’t satisfy church purists (who seem to have no idea about the origins of Christian “marriage”). I have even seen ordination denied because the candidate’s spouse offended someone of a higher rank. None of this is worthy of a Christian church in the New Zealand context..

Now, 2016, as the Conference moves to a two yearly gathering, the two Caucuses have once again denied leadership to various candidates. Well, that happened once to me a long time ago, some years after I first analysed and wrote about the Caucus Race. It happened despite a very strong affirmation on the floor of Conference itself. When I first wrote about the Caucus Race I said that ultimately it was divisive, personal and unworthy of a Church. That much maligned man, St. Paul, had a timely observation about the effects of parties and divisions in the Church, and the real need to seek unity across caucus lines. The Caucus Race philosophy has swept that concept of unity aside. The one and only place where the various cultural groups can come together in a formal way is at the Conference itself. And this, now, only every second year. The underlying message is clear; ordinary Conference members and their opinions don’t count in the revised methodology.

The results of the Caucus race couldn’t be clearer. If one partner disagrees the discussion is ended. These disagreements may just as easily be fomented between men and women, Samoan and Palagi, charismatics and liberals, as between Maori and Pakeha. Such is the real nature of the Caucus Race. That is why members from every cultural group have been pastorally demeaned by the procedures, members from each Caucus.

The Wider Church and Beyond

The Church in New Zealand lost most of its influence after the boom of the post-war years because it did not sense the major shift of paradigms of Weltanschauung or world-view - seeing all cultures in the light of the global village. This has become even more apparent today with the development of the internet. The world continues to grow smaller. All people and cultures in this country and across countries and boundaries are growing into a global unity of values that cannot be stopped.

Like the Great Wall of China, however, Connexional Methodism has fenced itself off from outside influence, and equally hedged its people inside the wall into the sect; the Council of Conference. That is why the same lay and ordained faces appear endlessly recycled around the Connexional committees.

It is precisely this re-cycling of leadership which ought to make us alert to the shaky theological foundations upon which today’s bicultural journey is predicated. It could be wrong to claim, as a few have done, that there is no theology undergirding this shift. There is a theology, but it is an inadequate theology based upon a philosophy called deconstructionism.

That is the nub of the matter. Deconstructionism is remarkably close in spirit to the Caucus Race. Truth is what you will. Today it is a bit of this, tomorrow a bit of that, and anyone’s truth will do, because it is all relative and culturally conditioned. This philosophy is not at all modern. It actually had its origins in pre-Socratic Greece amongst the sophists. Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle exposed its fallacies long ago. John Silvester’s very fine article in the same edition of the Methodist Theological Review in which the Caucus race first appeared shows the problems with Fundamentalism, Liberalism and Pluralism as modes of church operancy. This article will soon be available in kiwiconnexion.nz in Through the Year with John Wesley as a forum posting.

The worst aspect of deconstructionism is that at its core, it cannot effectively say anything whatsoever about truth. Instead, it is a philosophy of despair, a philosophy of trivializing everything, an act of washing one’s hands like Pilate. “What is truth?” was his bleak question. The answer was in front of him but he was not able to look into the heart of the man of truth, let alone begin explore the implicate order of his universal values. I fear the Methodist Church has turned its back on truth in the same way and as an institution has not proven worthy of bearing the Good News. Urgent reform at a theological and spiritual level is long overdue but unlikely to happen.

The rules have been set aside once too often, taken away from the ordinary members of Conference, for anyone to proclaim ours is a good news institution.

Edits to this post:
Stuart Manins's profile picture
Posts: 140

25 October 2016, 6:55 PM

In the hinterland of kiwiconnexion.nz, (Forums/ Methodist Survey:
Through the Year with John Wesley, Nov.) are two amazing statements
that call for comment. They are a paper by Rev Dr David Bell, ‘What is
the Caucus Race?’ and a pastoral letter from the President of the
Methodist Church of New Zealand, Rev Prince Devanandan. After reading
them, I had a vision which went like this. There was an airplane in
the skies with the livery of a waka, named Spirit of Methodism (NZ).
It approached its final destination. The Captain spoke confidently
over the intercom, “Dear friends, how are you today? Some of you will
have noticed that for some time we have been losing altitude and
indeed some passengers have already bailed out. But there is no
immediate cause for concern because we have the matter in hand and
are pressing onward despite certain difficulties. We have also lost
our way and are not sure of the correct direction to follow." After
this was silence.

David Bell's profile picture
Posts: 1067

04 May 2017, 10:17 PM

I mean not just one church, but a whole denomination. Just imagine. Here’s the gameplan. First, the leadership has to make sure that it doesn’t play by all the agreed rules. Instead keep changing them as circumstances dictate. Move the goalposts, and at all costs insist that this strategy is both the right and the prerogative of the leaders.
Second, ensure the membership is kept in the dark about what they all really want. Under no circumstances allow anyone to know how anyone else felt. Discourage wide ranging, well-recorded and well-reported discussion by all Conference members, and never allow the results of voting to be disseminated, in case it created expectations.
A parody? Your call. This seems to be happening in the Methodist Church of New Zealand as it moves within the new system of biennial Conference. It failed to enact any law changes at Conference 2016, it now fails to encourage proper debate over the impasse over the appointment of the next President. In May 2016 a number of us forewarned how this might happen.

David Bell's profile picture
Posts: 1067

04 May 2017, 11:36 PM

In a  post to May 2017 Touchstone the General-Secretary of the Methodist Church put forward a number of alternative facts, but it is one in particular that ought to give the Church cause for grave concern.

He claimed, "... no authority stands above Conference, and it is not bound by previous decisions of Conference. Conference was fully in its rights to make the decision to hold the new selection process in the year that it does not meet”.

Are we reading the same Lawbook? The copy on the church website states that "...no change shall be made affecting what the President, acting on the advice of the President's Legal Adviser, deems to affect constitutional matters or the rights and privileges of the Ministry or Laity, unless such changes shall have been previously submitted by the Conference to the Districts and Regions, and confirmed at the next succeeding Conference by a resolution passed by a consensus decision of not less than fifty-five per cent of the votes of the members present and voting."

There are also a number of  other ways in which the constitution of the church constrains all Conferences, including Conference 2016. These are explicitly stated in the rules and regulations.

David Hill's profile picture
Posts: 79

05 May 2017, 8:01 AM

What a load of horse shit - has David Bush been taking lessons from Donald Trump.

I could ask for a please explain, given the church's treatment of my offer of candidacy - but I'm over it.

I'll just leave the church to wilter under its own big halo...

David Hill

Stuart Manins's profile picture
Posts: 140

05 May 2017, 9:43 AM

I like parables. Particularly this one because it is true to the situation as I have observed it. As the writer of Proverbs  (3:8) says "...Health to your navel and marrow to your bones". But remember what 'they' did to the prophets? I think you and the others affected are getting the same treatment.

David Bell's profile picture
Posts: 1067

05 May 2017, 11:58 PM

Yes, what the church has done to David Hill is less than satisfactory. In fact an injustice which denied human rights. 

But now we see the emergence of alternative facts - an attempt to pull the wool over the eyes of Conference members, very few of whom have any idea of what the rules and regulations state.  

David Bell's profile picture
Posts: 1067

10 May 2017, 10:40 PM

I wrote the following for Ardet #63, and have sent it on to Touchstone.

In a letter to Touchstone, May 2017, the General-Secretary of the Methodist Church put forward a number of what can only be called Alternative Facts. It is one in particular that ought to give the Church cause for grave concern.
He claimed, “... no authority stands above Conference, and it is not bound by previous decisions of Conference. Conference was fully in its rights to make the decision to hold the new selection process in the year that it does not meet”.
As is clear from the extracts from the Lawbook (quotes below) that is hardly accurate. But what was his motive in so doing? A General-Secretary, perhaps more than anyone else, ought to be aware of what the rules and regulations state. And if there are new rules and regulations, why are they not on the website, and have they been processed in the way they have to be, as they most certainly affect the rights and privileges mentioned in the law.
There are also a number of other ways in which the constitution of the church constrains all Conferences, including Conference 2016. These are also explicitly stated in the rules and regulations.
I see in recent days the Auckland Synod Nominations Committee calling for nominations. Perhaps it came as a result of being emboldened by the presentation of the Alternative Facts article? Not a sound move, however, in such circumstances. All this may cause the ordinary person to consider how often the Alternative Facts strategy is now being used

Lawbook quotes

The 2013 Lawbook on the church website states that “...no change shall be made affecting what the President, acting on the advice of the President’s Legal Adviser, deems to affect constitutional matters or the rights and privileges of the Ministry or Laity, unless such changes shall have been previously submitted by the Conference to the Districts and Regions, and confirmed at the next succeeding Conference by a resolution passed by a consensus decision of not less than fifty-five per cent of the votes of the members present and voting.”  

Edits to this post:
Rosalie's profile picture
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David Bell's profile picture
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12 May 2017, 3:33 PM

I have offered the opportunity to David Bush to reply directly into this forum before anything is published in Touchstone, so he has a chance for further reflection. To assist  us all in terms of church history, I am currently trying to unearth the correspondence from the 1990s when 3 ex-Presidents of the Conference wrote deploring the cavalier attitude to decision-making. This was as the current 2016  'caucus race' procedures were being implemented. The more things change, the more they stay the same? But Christians who are proponents of belonging to an Open Society will see less and less attractive about the church. The reasons not to belong may soon be insurmountable.

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