Recently, a recording of an online Parish Council meeting in Cheshire (England) went viral. At least five million people have watched it, as this unfortunate example of local government in action has become a source of amusement. There must have already been some disunity on the council, as some councillors had called in a representative of the Local Association of Cheshire Councils to provide support for the meeting. The meeting became infamous because of the apparently disorderly way in which it was conducted, and with the authority of several members openly disputed during the session.
This is a sad state of affairs and not conducive to making good decisions. It has to be said, of course, that consultation is more difficult online than in person, but it seems that there must have been a history of serious disunity to bring the meeting to such a pass. The subsequent meeting (attended this time by many spectators) was not much of an improvement.
Bahá’ís see unity as the necessary basis for any kind of consultation. Bahá’ís use a special method of consultation for their deliberations, with principles and procedures set out in writing as goals and ideals, rather than as clauses and sub-paragraphs. I have described before the method by which Bahá’ís elect their representatives at various levels, which means that the community should end up with relatively selfless individuals on their decision-making bodies (see below for a link to a previous blog explaining this). The main principles of Bahá’í consultation are described below. A chairperson will have been elected, by secret ballot, to ensure the smooth running of the meetings.
The goal of Bahá’í consultation at every level is to discover the best course of action to take for the well-being of all. This means everyone, not just those immediately affected or within the particular area. Those who are consulting together need to be open-minded in order to be able to assess the facts properly and make the right decision. If they have any private goals of their own these will only get in the way and the consultation will not be successful in achieving its objective. Above all, those who consult must be united in their desire to make the best decision for all concerned.
Before starting the consultation the group members will begin with prayers. This helps to promote a spiritual and positive frame of mind, for “True consultation is spiritual conference in the attitude and atmosphere of love.” The first step of Bahá’í consultation is then to establish the facts, and the second step is to decide on the principles to be applied to the situation. This will include deciding on the goal of the consultation and the considerations which need to be taken into account.
Bahá’í consultation calls for unity of purpose, rather than unity of opinion, and it states in the Bahá’í writings that, “The shining spark of truth cometh forth only after the clash of differing opinions.” It is important to note that it is the opinions which clash and not the people! Everyone should express his or her opinion with the conviction that it will contribute in some way to the discussion. No-one should be too shy to offer an idea. Even if it is not adopted, it may inspire a better idea in someone else.
Each person should speak frankly, but with courtesy and moderation. After a point of view has been stated, it should not need to be repeated: “They must in every matter search out the truth and not insist upon their own opinion, for stubbornness and persistence in one’s views will lead ultimately to discord and wrangling and the truth will remain hidden.” All opinions must be listened to with respect and judged fairly. Any kind of conflict will only obscure the truth and make proper consultation impossible. The chairperson has the responsibility to ensure that everyone participates, that each opinion is listened to carefully and courteously and considered on its merits and that no-one is allowed to dominate or divert the discussion.
Each idea should be offered to the group as a gift: it should not be identified in anyone’s mind with the person who first suggested it. This means that the idea can be changed and developed, or even rejected, without anyone feeling hurt. If the participants are adopting the right approach, they will be able to see the best course of action to be taken, whatever their own original opinions might have been. It sometimes happens in Bahá’í consultation that a person will change his or her mind completely during the course of the consultation and even argue against an idea which he or she originally suggested!
If the consultation has gone successfully through these steps, making a decision will probably prove to be the easiest part. It is likely also that it will be a unanimous decision. But if efforts to reach unanimity are not successful, a majority decision will have to be adopted. Most importantly, each member should respect the consulting body enough to carry out its decision confidently - even if he or she did not vote in favour of it. This unity brings immense benefits, because with everybody actively supporting the decision, it will be much more likely to achieve a positive result. On the other hand, if it turns out to have been a mistake, that will more rapidly become obvious!
Most people feel instinctively that we should, as human beings, discuss things and come to a collective decision, but personality often gets in the way. Jesus said: “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” This has been a cherished quotation ever since – during centuries of rule by people intent on wielding power - but it has never been made clear how, or when, the meek would inherit the earth. The Bahá’í method of elections and of consultation seem to offer some suggestions which may allow the meek to take their rightful place in the governance of society.
This is a link to one of the blog posts (July, 2016) which explains how Bahá’í
Assemblies are elected. It is called “For many are called, but few are chosen”: