The Local Spiritual Assembly
The Bahá'í Faith is a religion without a clergy. Indeed, it is a religion without individual leaders in the usual sense of the word. As near as we can tell from the available traditions and historical studies, the Founders of the world's great religions have typically left the matter of organization and authority to their followers. But in the present age, Bahá'u'lláh created the administrative structures that would run His religion, in so doing resolving the question of authority that has plagued every previous religion.
In the Kitáb-i-Aqdas, His book of laws, Bahá'u'lláh vested interpretational authority in His Son 'Abdu'l-Bahá and legislative authority in nine-member elected bodies named Houses of Justice. He stipulated two levels of Houses of Justice, one at the local level and one at the international level. After Bahá'u'lláh's death in 1892, 'Abdu'l-Bahá oversaw the creation of elected bodies called Local Spiritual Assemblies, the embryonic forms of the Local Houses of Justice. He also set forth many of the details that would be needed to understand the workings of these Spiritual Assemblies, the Universal House of Justice, and the institution of the Guardian, which was to assume interpretational authority after His own passing. In His will and testament, 'Abdu'l-Bahá appointed His grandson Shoghi Effendi to be the first Guardian. In turn, Shoghi Effendi continued fostering the creation and development of Local Spiritual Assemblies and National Spiritual Assemblies around the world, and laid the groundwork for the election of the Universal House of Justice in 1963.
Each year during the Festival of Ridván (April 21 through May 2) which celebrates Bahá'u'lláh's declaration of His Mission on the eve of His departure from Baghdad in 1863, Bahá'ís around the world elect their Local and National Spiritual Assemblies. It is therefore an appropriate time to reflect upon the unique character of these institutions and seek a deeper understanding of their purpose and functioning.
The fundamentally spiritual character of the Spiritual Assembly is indicated by its name, but it is not sufficient to pay lip service to the concept. The members are charged with the heavy responsibility to embody that character:
Now must those elected representatives arise to serve with spirituality and joy, with purity of intent, with strong attraction to the fragrances of the Almighty, and well supported by the Holy Spirit. Let them raise up the banner of guidance, and as soldiers of the Company on high, let them exalt God's Word, spread abroad His sweet savours, educate the souls of men, and promote the Most Great Peace.
(Selections from the Writings of 'Abdu'l-Bahá, p. 77)
The method of decision-making, consultation, is itself based on spiritual principles. I have discussed this in detail elsewhere (see the "Further Reading" box at the right), but let us note this brief summary, which in its insistence on freedom from discord emphasizes the spiritual requirements of consultation:
The members [of a Spiritual Assembly] must take counsel together in such wise that no occasion for ill-feeling or discord may arise. This can be attained when every member expresseth with absolute freedom his own opinion and setteth forth his argument. Should anyone oppose, he must on no account feel hurt for not until matters are fully discussed can the right way be revealed. The shining spark of truth cometh forth only after the clash of differing opinions. If after discussion, a decision be carried unanimously well and good; but if, the Lord forbid, differences of opinion should arise, a majority of voices must prevail.
(Selections from the Writings of 'Abdu'l-Bahá, p. 87)
Implicit in this description is a preference for a unanimous decision. In practice, actual voting is a rare thing on a Spiritual Assembly. Rather, the aim of consultation is to bring about a decision that all members can agree to support. Sometimes this consideration moves a member to set aside objections and go along with the majority, while other times it leads the majority to postpone a decision until the objections of a single member can be fully analyzed and discussed. The importance of unity cannot be overstressed. Indeed, its importance is not confined to the decision-making process within the Assembly's chambers, but extends to the support the community must give the decisions of the Assembly and to the relationships between Assemblies in different localities and nations:
The question of co-ordinating and unifying the two Spiritual Assemblies, that of Chicago and of New York, is of the utmost importance, and once a Spiritual Assembly is duly formed in Washington, these two Assemblies should also establish ties of unity with that Assembly. To sum it up, it is the desire of the Lord God that the loved ones of God and the handmaids of the Merciful in the West should come closer together in harmony and unity as day followeth day, and until this is accomplished, the work will never go forward. The Spiritual Assemblies are collectively the most effective of all instruments for establishing unity and harmony. This matter is of the utmost importance; this is the magnet that draweth down the confirmations of God. If once the beauty of the unity of the friends -- this Divine Beloved -- be decked in the adornments of the Abhá Kingdom, it is certain that within a very short time those countries will become the Paradise of the All-Glorious, and that out of the west the splendours of unity will cast their bright rays over all the earth.
(Selections from the Writings of 'Abdu'l-Bahá, p. 83-84)
The actual work of Spiritual Assemblies is far-reaching. Shoghi Effendi gave a detailed account of its scope. For brevity, I will merely summarize it here, but those interested will find it the complete quotation in Bahá'í Administration, pages 37 through 39. The full attention of Spiritual Assemblies should be given to teaching the Bahá'í Faith; consolidation of the Bahá'í community; protection of the Bahá'í Faith from "the dart of the mischief-maker and the onslaught of the enemy"; promotion of amity and concord within the Bahá'í community and dispelling distrust and estrangement; securing the cooperation of all community members in service to the Faith; helping the poor, the sick, the disabled, and orphans and widows without regard for race or social status; promote the education of children and, where possible, establish Bahá'í educational institutions; maintain frequent contact with Bahá'í centers throughout the world to share reports of activities and to share with their own members the news from other communities; encourage and stimulate through subscriptions and contributions various Bahá'í publications; arrange for regular observance of Feasts and Holy Days within their communities, as well as special gatherings to promote the social, intellectual, and spiritual interests of all people; and supervise Bahá'í publications that fall within their jurisdictions.
Clearly, a lot of responsibility rests upon the Spiritual Assembly. The degree to which any particular Assembly can undertake all of these tasks depends to a large degree on the size and state of development of its Bahá'í community. Where possible, special committees are formed, operating under the authority and supervision of the Assembly, to handle them. In many communities, however, the capacity to effectively deal with more than a few of these areas has not yet been developed. If one were to travel around the world, one would find Local Spiritual Assemblies at all stages of development.
Given the responsibilities and challenges facing Local Spiritual Assemblies, Bahá'ís everywhere would do well to reflect upon the charge given them by the Universal House of Justice in its 131 B.E. (1974) Ridván Message:
The friends are called upon to give their whole-hearted support and cooperation to the Local Spiritual Assembly, first by voting for the membership and then by energetically pursuing its plans and programmes, by turning to it in time of trouble or difficulty, by praying for its success and taking delight in its rise to influence and honour. This great prize, this gift of God within each community must be cherished, nurtured, loved, assisted, obeyed and prayed for.
(The Universal House of Justice, Ridván Message for 131 B.E., 1974, para. 16, p. 4)
© An article from Planet Bahá'í
by Dale E. Lehman