How the Cinderella of politics apes the Cinderella of theology: get your constitution and polity sorted!

Gordon Brown has popped up with a 40-point plan for constitutional reform. Keir Starmer has also been pushing it, saying it is something Labour will do (though hasn’t stated exactly when). Which led to this interesting discussion on Politics Live:

What was perhaps most interesting about it was the broad consensus that the Lord’s should be reformed, but this is not a vital issue and now probably isn’t the time for it. Of course, it remains unclear exactly what Peter Hitchens wants, but it sounds like he agrees the current system is terrible but he would like a return to an unelected, non-hereditary upper chamber. But most were in favour of reform, but potentially not this, certainly not now and definitely not something that should be an election-defining matter.

At the risk of begging to differ, whilst I agree that reform is a good idea and I essentially like the plan being pushed by Brown and Starmer, I don’t see why it shouldn’t be discussed now nor why it shouldn’t be a part of a manifesto. There is an element of Brexity-ness about it. Starmer has finally cottoned on to the fact that many people in the Red Wall areas were voting to leave the EU because they wanted more direct democratic control over the decisions that affect their lives. The 40-point plan outlined by Gordon Brown taps directly into that concern for greater and clearer democratic systems.

But the other reason why I think now is the time to do this is because, if not now, when? Nobody ever thinks democratic constitutional issues matter. That is, of course, until they hit upon democratic constitutional problems. Only, at that point, you can’t fix them. You have to deal with whatever the issue is as it is presented to you. Of course, once the problem has been dealt with as best as is possible in the system that we have, people quickly forget about the systemic issues because the presenting issue they were mainly concerned about had, for the most part, been addressed. Never matter that it may not have dealt with as quickly, easily, effectively or fully as possible because of limitations of the system – the issue has been dealt with well enough. And that will do… Until the next time where we repeat it again.

This is fundamentally how people operate whenever it comes to constitutional reform. It is the Cinderella of politics. Nobody cares about it until it becomes a problem. Once we have navigated a torturous way through the issue, it goes away and is forgotten until the next time there is a problem caused by our existing constitution. Which is to say, the only way to find a right time for constitutional reform is to determine you are going to reform the constitution because there is never a good or right time. There is never a time when there isn’t something someone considers more pressing and important.

It doesn’t take much to see how these sorts of things play out in the life of the church. Constitutional matters are never deemed pressing and important. Matters related to church discipline and polity are rarely considered the right or appropriate time to address these things. Until, that is, we hit on a constitutional problem or a matter that requires clear and evident structures that we just haven’t bothered thinking about. Nobody cares about polity until, of course, you are faced with a problem that can only be addressed by rightly applied and implemented biblical polity. But if you’ve kicked the can down the road until a problem arises, it is just too late by then. There is little messier than making up church discipline on the fly and inventing structures as you go through addressing a problem before you for which there are none.

There is a small band of super geeks who absolutely love rolling around in questions of polity and ecclesiology, among whom I am clearly numbered. But I appreciate most people do not love reading through church constitutions and rule booklets. And that’s okay, it isn’t something everyone is going to relish, just as I can’t get excited by – no matter how hard I try – by church financial reports. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t recognise they are important and need me to get a handle on, even if I don’t relish doing so. By the same token, finding church documents and constitutions and polity deeply tedious stuff is okay, but that doesn’t stop them being important and something that you rightly need to get a handle on. Just as I might ignore the financials because they bore me and then end up spending money we don’t have, if you ignore polity issues because they bore you, you might just find you get into major disciplinary troubles and end up tanking your church because you don’t have the structures to meaningfully and appropriately address the problems in your midst.

Just as many want to kick the can down the road and put off constitutional reform in the UK, so many want to put issues of church polity on the backburner too. After all, just as the UK has a cost of living crisis and is awash with the need for food banks, the church is surely more concerned about the daily discipleship of its members and the souls on its doorstep heading to a lost eternity. And make no mistake, all those things matter and are important. Deeply important. But just because there are other important issues, does not mean that these other issues are unimportant. It is simply the case that we don’t realise how important these other matters are until we are facing crises that cannot be addressed because of our lack of thinking them through. Sometimes those matters that we deemed unimportant prove to be the undoing of our church. What, precisely, do we think will happen if a leader in egregious sin cannot be disciplined because there is no mechanism for doing so and no church structure that allows it to happen? As we well know, more than a few churches have gone under because of such matters.

So, just as I think this is precisely the right time to think about UK constitutional reform – for when else will we do it – so I think now is the time for us to think about church constitutions and polity, for when else are we going to do it? There are issues caused by not thinking these matters through and so it pays to think about them now, before those issues arise. Better to do the work of thinking through structures and process now – in the cold light of day whilst considering them in principle – rather than cobbling together something barely passable in the heat of whatever happens to be ailing us at the time. The uncodified constitution of the UK has that particular foible baked into it to some degree, but the church does not need it to be so. We have the scriptures available to us; the codified regulum by which we can work these matters out. We have church history behind us, showing how believers throughout the ages have worked these things out based on their understanding of the scriptures; our judicial precedents if we like. We have all that we need to work these things out. So let’s not delay, for there will always be matters that seem more pressing… until, of course, there isn’t and the only pressing matter is the one we kept kicking down the road.