We should’ve just drawn straws!

This post is a reflection on the most recent General Assembly of The Presbyterian Church in Canada and, specifically, on the ranked-ballot process followed as it worked toward decisions on questions of human sexuality and the welcome of LGBTQ persons. As the title makes clear, I think we should’ve just drawn straws…

In Acts 1:23-26, rather famously, the disciples of Jesus draw lots in order to choose a replacement disciple for Judas. The narrative identifies the need to replace him, then continues: “So they proposed two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also known as Justus, and Matthias. Then they prayed and said, ‘Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which one of these two you have chosen to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.’ And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias; and he was added to the eleven apostles.”

Many in the church today will wonder whether such a drawing of straws is really a legitimate way to discern the will of God – whether we can trust that the Spirit could be at work in such a process. But evidently Luke and the early church had no such qualms. The 11 disciples ended up with two options candidates before them, and rather than enter into protracted and vigorous debate about the merits of either candidate, they drew straws. “Ok, Matthias, you’re the one.”

As I think about the ranked-ballot process recommended by the Special Committee and followed by the General Assembly, I offer the following (rather strongly expressed, I realize):

Drawing straws would have been as rational and scientifically rigorous as the ranked-ballot process followed by the General Assembly. And, from the other side, the ranked-ballot process was as irrational and lacking in scientific rigour as would have been a process of drawing straws.

I accepted the process.

I should acknowledge that, as a commissioner to the General Assembly, I accepted the ranked-ballot process presented by the special committee. While there were some who expressed concerns about the process on the floor of the Assembly, and one suggestion of separate ballots at each step (which would have profoundly wise, in retrospect), the process was approved and followed.

I accepted the process. But hindsight is, as they say, twenty-twenty. And I should clarify that my suggestion, now, that the process was flawed is not for me to question the good faith of anyone involved. It is also not to suggest that the final decision of the General Assembly is illegitimate. It is simply to say, again, that drawing straws would have been as coherent and helpful as the ranked-ballot approach was – or, that we should raise serious questions about the balloting process we followed, and about how the Spirit may have worked through it.

The only reason given for following a ranked-ballot process was that the church has used this same process for electing moderators. But the astonishingly obvious follow-up questions are: Did anyone consider whether such a process can be meaningfully or legitimately transferred to a situation of decision-making on theological and ethical questions? Were the ambiguities of ranked-ballot processes identified and worked through? Why were the pitfalls of such an approach not clarified and explained? (Or why did we, mostly, not ask these questions on the floor of the Assembly? We, after all, are finally responsible, and not the committee members.)

On top of the ambiguities and uncertainties of the ranked-ballot process itself, we also have to reckon with the fact that the General Assembly decided not to reveal the results of the vote – of the ranked ballot-process. This means we don’t really know what happened. We know little or nothing about the ranking choices and processes that led to Option B as the preferred option (with at least 50% + 1) after one, two, or three rounds of “voting”.

If we had drawn straws we would at least have known exactly how we ended up with the straw labelled Option B!

What was the problem with a ranked ballot?

The short answer to this question is that a ranked-ballot process, such as that followed by the General Assembly, allows a more one-sided option (Option B) to prevail even if the majority preferred (or gave first place) to a compromise position (Options C and D, combined). That is, it is entirely possible that a majority of commissioners voted for a compromise approach as their first choice, AND that the process nevertheless reached a no-compromise solution (Option B).  As a reminder, here is what the ballot looked like:

Option A – Traditional Option
Option B – Progressive Option
Option C – Compromise Option (leaning traditional?)
Option D – Compromise Option (leaning traditional, or progressive?)

I’m fairly astonished to say, again, that it’s possible that more than 50% of commissioners voted for C and D and that we nevertheless landed on B. Here’s the math showing just one possible example of what might have happened.

Math - Ranked Ballot

Here we might ask in a preliminary way: Was the Spirit in the majority’s likely preference for a compromise or was the Spirit in the final no-compromise result?

To say that the wish of the Assembly for compromise may have been thwarted, in some sense, by its own process, is not even to raise other important questions about how various preferences are ignored by this type of ranked-ballot process. Note that after the second round (in my theoretical example), the compromise options (C and D) have vastly more votes than B.

At least one commissioner asked why Options A and B were even on the ballot, since they seemed not to be oriented toward holding the church together, and were thus inconsistent with the mandate of the special committee. But more important, I think, is the reality that there were two  compromise options on the ballot. With two compromise options on the ballot, it seems likely that the process was unintentionally designed to fail (at compromise). I’m not a social scientist versed in quantitative research methods, so I can’t give you the ins and outs of all of this, but neither does it seem that any such social scientists were consulted about the process! All I know is that it is possible (and I personally think it is likely) that compromise won on the first round of voting, but that a no-compromise Option came out the winner.

All of the above is only further compromised (adding insult to injury?) by the fact that the General Assembly voted not to disclose the details of the ranked-ballot voting. In other words, we seem to have been dealing with a flawed process, and on top of that we are now incapable of learning anything about the process that actually unfolded. Maybe B won straight-out in the first round. Maybe it eked out a win in the third.

Do you see why I’m suggesting we should have drawn straws? At least the process would have been fully transparent.  We would all have known exactly what was happening and why.

Based on a drawing of straws (in favour of Options B) we would all have known that a majority of the commissioners didn’t actually believe that those holding traditional points of view finally have no place in the church – and we would have avoided the hurt that resulted from that conclusion.

A drawing of straws would also have taken the sting out of the process (for some progressives), who saw the General Assembly first affirm Option B (full inclusion) and then strangely backpedal from it. (Of course it backpedaled from it, since that’s not what the Assembly wanted, I think – for what its worth, again.)

Drawing straws in the preliminary process would also have made it very clear to us, as commissioners, that we were going to have to hash out a compromise (which we had to do in any case), since the result itself wasn’t based on what commissioners intended or wished for. And (surprise, surprise) the compromise that was hashed out looks like some odd conflation of Options C and D (and a bit of B?).

And again, we will never know what the commissioners voted for through the ranked-ballot process. We can’t know whether the first/preferred vote was for compromise, or whether the first/preferred vote was for no compromise. We decided to keep ourselves in the dark about what we had done.

Back to where I started: We should have just drawn straws. At least then we would have known what we were doing.

Where was the Spirit in all of this?

Throughout the General Assembly itself, and in subsequent reflections, a good number of people have said that “the Spirit is/was at work in the process” – both in the sense that we should trust the process while we were in it and that we should accept the result of that process once it was concluded.

In reply to this, my initial response is twofold: In the first place I am prepared to acknowledge that the Spirit can be at work in any kind of church process, whether that process is logical or incoherent (by our standards). That is, in the long term and in the big pictures, the Spirit that Christ has breathed upon his people will be seen to have worked in ways we couldn’t have imagined to fulfill God’s purposes and bring glory to God (see the narrative of Joseph, of course). At the same time, I am also prepared to say that a General Assembly’s movement toward consensus on some question, or agreement on that question, is no guarantee of the presence or movement or agreement of the Spirit.

And what are we to make of a ranked-ballot process that possibly (likely?) elevated a more one-sided Option at the expense of the majority’s first preference for compromise? Should we say the Spirit led this process? Or should we say that process was deeply flawed? Or should we say both?

Of course, if are prepared to say both of these things (which maybe we should?), then we are back in the realm of drawing straws. And again, if we had drawn straws we at least would have known what we were doing, and not pretending the process was more than it was. Having drawn straws, I think we would also have been in a better position to honestly explore the question of how the Spirit is or was present in our decision-making, even if the better answer is, “We don’t know.”


drawing straws


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