Local control is a good thing. When every policy and practice is dictated by a distant, centralized authority, a local organization can lose its flavor. And the flavor that is not lost will make that small group of people feel alien when word comes in from HQ on how they are to behave. In essence a one-size-fits-all approach to governing a vast, diverse group of people will invariably mute the differences among the individual units that ought to be thriving and making the overall organization stronger.
And that is why I support federalism. Did you think I was talking about something else?
If you did, you may be part of the trend that seems to be sweeping the church (or just the bloggernacle?)– the “We think correlation is ridiculous” crowd. It’s ironic, of course, that there’s a decent chance that many correlation haters also support increased federal control of states. But the irony is double-edged– I, being a federalist, should also support local control in the church in the name of some “laboratories of spirituality” philosophy, but I don’t. So let’s analyze: How can you support both correlation and federalism? Conversely, how can you oppose them both? Isn’t the only coherent position one in which centralized control is either uniformly despised or venerated?
Here is my defense. (I’ll leave the defense of the other other position to those that understand it). As I’ve alluded to above, one of the major motives for supporting increased state control is the idea that states are lithe and maneuverable, able to innovate and experiment in ways that an entire nation cannot achieve. This possibility is sometimes referred to as a “laboratories of democracy” theory, because it views the states as test tubes in which workfare or illegal alien driving permits can be safely tested out without nationwide ramifications. Another benefit touted by federalists is greater democracy. If Utah is as different from Vermont as many think it is, then Utah and Vermont should be run differently, so that each set of constituents can have their way. While there are several other arguments in the federalism arsenal, I’ll limit my thoughts to these two for simplicity (bring up whichever others you’d like, if you can find a way to link them to correlation).
So, now you know why I think local control is a good thing when speaking of governments. Why not in the church? First of all, because wards are not laboratories. The “rumors” of the Pleasant Grove ward that is currently testing out a two-hour block schedule notwithstanding, (you hadn’t heard???) I don’t think it does much good to approach a unit of the church as a place to innovate and experiment. Yes, a bishop needs some authority to cater to the needs and strengths of his congregants, but to the extent he needs it, I think he has it under the current system. What a bishop is not able to do is change the structure of sacrament meeting or introduce a different curriculum in Sunday School. And why is that a bad thing? Jesus never suggested that his flock should be multivaried, diverse, and different based on local custom and regional quirks. ‘One flock’ is the goal, and I’d say we are probably living in the moment in which the Lord’s church is more unified in its modes of worship than any other. I see that as success.
(You may object that experimentation is happening in some wards and programs. Yes, but notice that that experimentation, when officially sanctioned, is being run by HQ, under centralized guidance– never at the whim of a local Bishop.)
Further, a ward is a horrible place to foment democracy. Sure, there’s the ordinary argument about church leaders not being elected by popular vote. But equally important: I’m not sure it’s a good thing for my neighborhood to create its ward in its own image, and your neighborhood to do the same. Where the goal in American government is accurate representation, the goal in church governance is perfection. Assuming there’s some ‘best’ way for a ward to be, the way to achieve it is not to allow each ward to do whatever it feels like. If my Salt Lake ward is different from your Little Rock branch, it’s because one or both are not exactly what they should be. Is it so unreasonable that the Lord’s prophets might be able to suggest to each unit what it ought to become, rather than the reverse? Why do we accept that a Prophet make suggestions for individual growth, but shun advice concerning the collective?
In the end, I can’t think of a reason not to trust President Hinckley, his counsellors and associates in the quorum of the twelve, and all of the committees and other workers whose decisions and curricula they pass off on. It’s a huge waste of time to insist on experimenting when you’ve got messengers from God telling you the formula. And it’s equally wasteful to fight for the elevation of your local identity, when you’ve been baptized into Christ’s body. And the eye cannot say to the hand ‘I have no need of thee.’
Perhaps the best summation of the feelings of federalists is that they simply lack faith in large, impersonal institutions. Most people do. The question is whether we ought to view the Kingdom of God on earth with a similarly jaundiced eye. For myself, I think the church is something altogether different from a national government– not given to incompetence, waste, and corruption, because it is led by extraordinary men, with an extraordinary power, for an extraordinary purpose. Far from being a democracy, the church is government of the people, for the people, by the Lord. Or is it something else?