Admittedly, this isn’t the best time of year to be talking about murmuration, but in a few months, by the end of September you’ll see firsthand how starlings gather to do their annual “thing.” In large flocks they ungulate, forming constantly changing shapes and shadows. Maybe like me you’ve pulled off the road to watch for a minute or two. It’s mesmerizing. Scientists say that starlings (a European species, introduced in the U.S. and considered a pest) model a complex physical phenomenon known as scale-free correlation. When one starling changes direction or speed, the other birds respond to the change, almost simultaneously and regardless of the size of the flock. So a starling on one side of the flock can respond to what others are sensing all the way across the flock, which is tremendously helpful when you’re trying to avoid a predator. It’s group-think in its finest, purest form. The flock assumes a combined consciousness, forming a single entity that moves in a perfectly choreographed dance, swooping, swirling and swerving, graceful and fast, without a single mid-air collision. Here’s a video that went viral a few years ago:
I went to Portland, Oregon for a little group-think last week, though that wasn’t what I was expecting. I was expecting to get all fired up about a new cause, so I could come home ready to step out into the next great adventure (NOTE: the expectations were all about ME). That didn’t happen. When the dust finally settles from all that transpired in Portland, it might just be that I’ll settle, ready to re-engage in a lifelong passion in a more committed way. “Earth care” is already a thing with Presbyterians, I’m just late to their party. Group-think to the rescue.
At first, the 222nd General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) was overwhelming. For the un-initiated, the “GA” as we call it, is a biennial gathering of representatives from the entire denomination: ruling elders, teaching elders, presbytery executives, stated clerks, representatives of Presbyterian agencies, presidents of Presbyterian seminaries, advisory delegates, youth delegates, resource people and issue advocates. We all convene in one place for ten days to discuss the business of the church, set policy, reflect on the current state of affairs and set a course for the future. Our lofty goal is no less than to discern God’s will. Rightly understood, it’s more group-will than group-think. We earnestly seek God’s will for our church through worship, discussion, debate and prayer.
I was honored that my Presbytery selected me to go. But until I was there and the Assembly was called to order, I hadn’t seen what was coming. The sheer number of people (1200+), the size of the venue, the scope of issues and the volume of business -- it was staggering. Each of the fourteen committees had a full agenda of 15 or more overtures referred by 172 presbyteries, representing more than 10,000 congregations. Some overtures were closely related to others. Effective committees sorted through all the issues and addressed several overtures at once. We worked in committee on Monday and Tuesday and I was vaguely alarmed that we wouldn’t be able to get through all the business once we were back in the larger Assembly. But that was why we had gathered and what we must accomplish.
The moderators of the individual committees controlled the flow of business before the Assembly. Slam-dunk, non-controversial items went on a consent docket, while other more substantive actions were slated to be addressed and debated by the whole Assembly. Commissioners could remove an item from the consent docket without providing a reason. This was one of the ways personal agendas played out. Some committees’ work got bogged down in parliamentary procedure. Any commissioner could make an amendment or suggest an alternate motion. So there were motions, amendments, questions of privilege, substitute motions, points of order...it was excruciatingly slow at times. Some people came to the Assembly with the sole purpose of advocating their particular issue, hoping to influence group-will.
It was hard work, frustrating at times. I’m not entirely sure we actually accomplished God’s will (though I suppose it would be presumptuous if I were to claim that I was sure). Sometimes, it seemed we didn’t trust each other and the hard work that went on in committee. Hard-fought resolutions seemed less than satisfying as we got lost in the details. Even as we earnestly tried to do good things and move the church in the right direction, the results were anti-climactic and seemed to fall short of the ideal.
For example, the Assembly struggled and wrestled with language for an apology to the LGBTQ/Q community. The Committee that worked on it offered a statement of “regret” for pain caused on both sides. This was in keeping with the theme of reconciliation established in the opening worship service with a sermon on Joseph and his brothers and the Prodigal Son. As soon as the Assembly passed it there were murmurings of “injustice!” and “travesty!” It was neither of these...it was a moderate, middle of the road response. That’s what Presbyterians do, mostly. That’s probably why I'm a Presbyterian. I’m comfortable in the middle...sitting on the fence of controversial issues.
After murmuration, do starlings have a sense of accomplishment? Do they quietly congratulate themselves for a job well-done? Probably not. But they’ve perfected group-will and are in tune with who the Creator made them to be and how the Creator intended them to move together. Murmuration as the purest form of group-will is a beautiful thing to witness.
While GA may not have been pretty, it is elegant in its conception. We came away from the time together humbled; having the sense that we participated in something larger than ourselves. There were squabbles and mid-air collisions, but as the days passed and we practiced the dance, we became better at being together. We learned to sense how our fellow-commissioners were feeling. We anticipated rough spots and avoided some obstacles. We began to think as one body…a combined consciousness…an entity that was bigger and better than the sum of its parts.
Group-will, in both starlings and Presbyterians, is a survival strategy. While the birds have the upper hand for now, having been at it for eons, Presbyterians are making progress. God-willing, there will be more General Assembly’s in the years to come, and the dance will go on and get better.