The United Church of Canada has a Manual which is sort of our constitution and bylaws all rolled into one. It is a document that is re edited by every General Council and then every minister eagerly awaits its publication. The Manual is 247 pages long, 247 pages of rules explaining how to be the church, though some sections simply point to lengthy handbooks that are published separately that cover various committees and processes.
Now many of us love the Manual. It is wonderfully clear. If you aren’t sure of how to go about something you simply turn to the appropriate subsection of the section related to the relevant court of the church and presto there’s your answer. Of course others find this limiting and even sad that a church needs so many rules. There is a romantic notion that churches run on love and the spirit and that that’s enough.
As many of you know I’ve been reading a biography of St. Francis of Assisi; lived in the 1200’s, established the Franciscan order. Francis was pushed several times to write a set of rules for the order, a Manual if you will. He was terrible at it. He wanted to quote a few gospel passages and leave it at that. He lost that particular battle and like all big organizations a set of rules was established.
In our biblical tradition Moses handed down 613 laws, again a Manual if you will, to help the people live up to their potential. Jesus seems to have been a bit more like Francis and liked to believe that a few good pithy quotes would suffice. It’s a classic case of one style gets an organization started, the other keeps it running.
I have no doubt that you know which type of person you are – Manual or free spirit. Hopefully you aren’t too disparaging of the other type. It would be good if we avoided the language of ‘rule bound’ or ‘laissez-faire’ and instead used the strengths of each to build the church into a place that is safe and good for all. As it says in the Introduction to the Manual, “The need for a document such as The Manual is an acknowledgement of our human limitations, both individual and corporate, and of our desire to point to God’s dominion in our interactions with others…. The Manual is one of the means by which the United Church does its work and safeguards its members.”
(to see or down load a copy of the Manual go to united-church.ca)