The Christian heritage of voting

2015 has been marked red in my diary for the last four years with one clear message: ELECTION YEAR.

With the election only 124 days away, I am opening this crucial year with a feature on one of the very first articles I read for my course on Voting Theory, which acknowledged a rather surprising contributor to development of electoral democracy – the adoption by the medieval Church of the conclave to elect a new Pope. Now, with my reformed Protestant theology I was not expecting that I would be very warm towards the article, but the explanation of how the Conclave came about was a fascinating insight into how the historic church used a form of democracy to achieve unity – while of course acknowledging that when the church was to divide in the reformation, one of the issues at stake was Papal Primacy! If one sets aside the religious aspect however, the problem faced by the medieval church was rather similar to what all modern democracies face – making a choice.

If you will forgive a brief history lesson – the Conclave was introduced in the first instance because the Church had to reconcile the fact (notionally at least) that God had appointed one person to the role of Pope, but that the Cardinals held sincerely different beliefs whom that man should be. A democratic vote was judged the means of acknowledging there was a division, and achieving a united result. In actual fact, the subsequent development of the distinct features of the Conclave vote, namely the necessity of a two-thirds majority, a secret ballot, and the Cardinals being locked away until a decision is reached, were all intended to achieve a final result that would be clear, achieved quickly, and would not be challenged afterwards.

The church may have been authoritarian in nature, and the era described many centuries previous to us, but there are some good lessons to learn from the choice by the medieval church to adopt a voting mechanism to choose their leader:

1. Division is to be expected
One of my favourite quotes is attributed to former Conservative Prime Minister Arthur Balfour: “Democracy presumes a people sufficiently united as to bicker.” There is a worrying trend in modern politics to criticise opponents for daring to have a contrarian view – which in my view is both an attack of freedom of expression, and also what Sir Humphrey would refer to in Yes Prime Minister as ‘playing the man, not the ball.’ Let’s not be disheartened that division occurs, but rather be glad that we can enjoy earnest debate, reassured that every government will be challenged and held accountable for the decisions it has taken, and embrace the opportunity each of us has to assess the personal performance of our local MPs.

2. Elections are meant to ultimately unite
The intention of the Papal Conclave was (and still is) to unite the church in support of the man elected as the Pope, regardless of whom the man might be. The General Election of May 2015 will be exactly the same – it will tell us whom the country has chosen to entrust to the task of governance for the next five years, whether they should govern alone or in some form of coalition; and potentially even whom the principal opposition should be, or with whom the largest party should form a coalition. At the moment we can only guess, but by the morning of Friday 8th May 2015 we will know.

3. The choice is ours
With that in mind, we should remember what a great privilege it is that we have the opportunity to choose who represents us in Parliament, and therefore to determine indirectly whom will form the next government. The obvious flaw of conclave was the limitation of the franchise to certain Cardinals – whereas the vast majority of us enjoy the right to vote for our MP. We’re going to be divided in our sincerely held beliefs, but we’re also going to achieve a clear outcome by the end.

I would not be so arrogant as to attribute sole success of democracy to this part of the Church’s history – but when we ask what Christians have done for us, we can certainly learn from this aspect of their history, and take to heart the lessons for today.

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