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Consensus: The Romantic’s “Robert’s”

CHRIST & NEIGHBOR

By John C. Cort | November 1989

My first choice was to call this column “Consensus: The Lazy Romantic’s Robert’s,” but I decided against that because I am going to deal with very sensitive people here, people with high ideals and aspira­tions, people who have often led the way toward the implementation of those ideals and aspirations, people who have often demonstrated great courage and sacrifice.

But first I must translate the tide for the uninitiated. Robert’s Rules of Order, more commonly just Robert’s, is the most respected and accepted authority for determining questions of parliamentary law or procedure. Parliamentary procedure is the body of rules and regulations that has grown out of the legislative experience of the British parlia­ment and the U.S. House of Representatives. These rules have also been accepted by many foreign legislative bodies, including the Japanese Diet. In simplified form they have been used by thousands of other organizations, notably trade union, fraternal, social, and religious bodies.

Consensus is a different technique for resolving the same sort of questions that are resolved by the use of Robert’s. Somewhat appropriately, it does not recognize any one authority or set of defined rules. There are numerous authorities. It has several major sources. One would be the Quakers, as well as other apostles of pacifism and nonviolence. Another would be the radical activists of the 1960s as represented by Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) before its anti-authoritarian passions led it into the crazier forms of violent nonviolence. Among the more reasonable spokespersons would be types like Dave Dellinger and Staughton Lynd. Mahatma Gandhi is a frequent reference point, also Martin Luther King Jr. and Dorothy Day, although none of them, to my knowledge, ever wrote anything about the consensus method as such.

Now that a new wave of lay participa­tion is rolling onto the rugged rocks of the Catholic Church, and parish councils are being organized in the Church hither and yon, I note that consensus is sometimes recommended as a preferred method for resolving differences of opinion in parish councils. Therefore it might be useful to examine the two methods and try to make an evaluation. Most consensus manuals recommend a few minutes of evaluation at the end of each meeting, and this is, I think, one of their more useful innovations.

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