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Signed by Five

Posted by Sen on October 6, 2019

As I have often pointed out, it’s important to distinguish between the letters written by the Guardian and those written on his behalf. It is also important to distinguish between letters from the Universal House of Justice and those from the Secretariat or another body at the Bahai World Centre. Knowing which is which requires some checking and perhaps a direct enquiry, because many publications and databases quote from letters issued by the Secretariat, saying that they are quoting the House of Justice. Moreover letters from the Secretariat quite often cite memoranda from the Research Department, so that these too come to be cited as ‘from The House of Justice’ or on behalf of the House of Justice. This is a muddle: some clarity is needed.

In 1996, a letter on behalf of the House of Justice described the procedure used for letters signed as coming from the secretariat:

As to whether there is a distinction between correspondence from the World Centre that has been signed “The Universal House of Justice” and that signed on behalf of the Secretariat [sic: they mean, “on behalf of the House of Justice”]: In brief, the manner in which each of these letters is prepared depends upon the contents of the letter. Drafts of letters which contain newly formulated policies are consulted upon and approved during a meeting of the House of Justice; correspondence dealing with previously enunciated policies, or with matters of a routine nature, are prepared, as delegated by the House of Justice, by its Secretariat and initialed by at least the majority of the members of the House of Justice before being dispatched. All letters written over the signature of the Department of the Secretariat are authorized by the Universal House of Justice.”
(22 October 1996)

Twenty years later, the procedure was described to me – and I welcome independent updates on this – as based on departmental responsibilities, with each department of the Secretariat overseen by a member of the House of Justice. Each member reviews the matters arising relevant his department, and selects some for consideration by the House of Justice itself. Others he handles himself, or passes to his secretaries to respond to. In either case, this produces a draft communication, which will usually be a letter but may be instructions to be given orally, either to a Counselor or, more rarely, to the Secretary of a National Spiritual Assembly. The drafts approved by members are deposited at a central place where other members can read them. When a draft has received the signatures of at least 5 members, it is sent as a communication from the Secretariat in the name of the House of Justice.

The two descriptions are not contradictory. Pending an update of the 1996 letter, it appears that individual members are expected to recognize issues that call for “newly formulated policies,” implying that there is a set of reigning policies. Either these policies do not exist in a codified form, or the codification is not communicated to the community. The first of these seems more probable, i.e., that “current policies” are determined by the individual member in accordance with his personal understanding which is a mix of where he thinks the House of Justice should go, what he has experienced of the House in action, how much he knows of the relevant Writings, and how much he thinks he knows, but incorrectly.

If there was a compilation of established policies, I think it would have been published, enabling the entire community to know the policies and understand the thinking of the Universal House of Justice and implement it intelligently in their own diverse circumstances. Moreover, the House of Justice, as a body charged with ‘elucidating’ (‘illuminating’) obscure matters would surely be transparent about its collected policies if it was in a position to do so. Non-transparent illumination is a contradiction in terms. So I think it very likely that the established policies of the House of Justice are determined by the members individually, case by case.

In my opinion it would be desirable for policies that are intended to guide the community as a whole to be published as a matter of course, and also for the community to be notified when a policy is no longer in force, through the same ‘gazette.’

From both descriptions, it appears that where a letter is sourced from the Secretariat, either an individual House member or a secretary has investigated, decided on a response and drafted the letter for signature by the designated member and four others. This means that the particular circumstances of the case in hand are known, at most, to one member of the House: the other four signatories see only the draft response. If the draft is prepared by the Secretariat, as stated in the 1996 letter, then none of the members would be informed of the facts of the case. To be more exact: neither description of the process says that the background file is attached to the communication, let alone that the signatories are expected to read that file. Given this limitation, their signatures are in the nature of a “no objection” to that response, for they do not have enough information to say whether this response is the best possible response in the circumstances. They can say whether the response is in accordance with their own understandings of existing House policies, but not whether it is correct as regards the facts of the case, unless they take the initiative to inform themselves diligently. Neither of the descriptions mentions this possibility, but no doubt it is possible for a member to ask for more information before signing the response. The members could also, presumably, disagree with their colleague’s judgment that the issue did not warrant consultation by the House as a body. But it’s not likely to happen, if they have only read the draft response. That response by definition will present the issue as a routine matter covered by existing policies.

Neither description of the 5-signature process provides for any consultation, although it is presumably available as an optional extra. The procedure as described assumes that the response is prepared by a single member of the House, or by “the Secretariat” – without specifying whether that is one or more secretaries. Baha’u’llah writes “The maturity of the gift of understanding is made manifest through consultation.” (Translated from the Persian, in the compilation _Consultation). So if such communications seem sometimes to lack the gift of understanding, this may be attributed not to the limitations of the individuals, but rather to the procedure they work within. Anyone working in this framework day after day, making individual judgment calls checked only by people not familiar with the facts, must be forgiven for some suboptimal decisions. It is admirable enough if the person given such individual responsibility — to speak on behalf of the House and shape the lives of individuals and communities — can win the spiritual battle against developing a god complex.

Letters sent out by this method – with five signatures – are sent in the name of House of Justice and generally received as coming from the House of Justice and covered by infallibility. Some have even called them letters from God – a blasphemy if meant literally, but perhaps excusable as rhetorical exaggeration. But then again, not so excusable, if the exaggeration is designed to be taken literally by those culturally and psychologically predisposed to do so!

It would be a mistake to have very high expectations of the outcomes of such a process, and such letters certainly cannot be considered infallible, because of the lack of investigative procedures such as hearing both sides, because of the role that individual members’ understandings have played in the process, and because the infallibility of the House is limited, formally and procedurally, to decisions taken in a meeting of the body, whether unanimously or by majority vote. Abdu’l-Baha says, in Some Answered Questions:

… infallibility in essence is confined to the universal Manifestations of God and infallibility as an attribute is conferred upon sanctified souls. For instance, the Universal House of Justice, if it be established under the necessary conditions — that is, if it be elected by the entire community — that House of Justice will be under the protection and unerring guidance of God. Should that House of Justice decide, either unanimously or by a majority, upon a matter that is not explicitly recorded in the Book, that decision and command will be guarded from error. Now, the members of the House of Justice are not essentially infallible as individuals, but the body of the House of Justice is under the protection and unerring guidance of God: this is called conferred infallibility.

This limitation of the infallibility of the House to decisions taken by the body, and not by members individually, dovetails with other Bahai teachings: the abolition of the clergy within the Bahai community, the central role of consultation in Bahai affairs, and the high evaluation that Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha accord to discursive rationality in all spheres of life. Trust in reasoned discourse, in turn, relates to their teaching that humanity has reached the age of maturity. I leave all these interesting topics aside here, noting merely that what appears as a mere procedural requirement regarding meetings of the House is a necessary result of deeper and wider teachings about human nature, and the nature of the Bahai community and modern society.

The section of the 1996 letter I have quoted above (from the Secretariat) ends with the sentence “All letters written over the signature of the Department of the Secretariat are authorized by the Universal House of Justice.” Respectfully, I disagree. The author of this letter has just described the procedure of preparing a draft that is then “initialed by at least the majority of the members of the House of Justice before being dispatched.” The procedure as described does not leave any room for authorization by the Universal House of Justice itself before dispatch. What we may assume is that the House of Justice has implicitly or explicitly authorized the Secretariat’s procedures. It has not authorized the contents of individual letters or verbal communications delivered in its name, unless the body itself has consulted on the exact wording of the communication. In that case, the decision always comes in writing, and with the signature of the House of Justice.

As regards memoranda from the Research Department, which are often cited or enclosed with letters from the Secretariat, the same 1996 letter states:

As to whether the materials prepared by the Research Department constitute the authoritative word of the Universal House of Justice on a particular subject, as raised in your third question, the House of Justice indicates that such materials, though prepared at its direction, represent the views of that Department. While such views are very useful as an aid to resolving perplexities or gaining an enhanced understanding of the Bahai Teachings, they should never be taken to be in the same category as the elucidations and clarifications provided by the Universal House of Justice in the exercise of its assigned functions. However, the House of Justice chooses to convey the materials prepared by the Research Department to the friends because it wishes them to be thoughtfully attended to and seriously considered.

Given that this letter is from the Secretariat, and that it is usually the Secretariat that cites or encloses the research Memoranda, “the House of Justice chooses to convey the materials …” should be parsed as “five or more members of the House of Justice have undersigned our decision to convey the materials…” A few of the communications of the Secretariat give me the impression that the authors think of themselves as the outward face of the House of Justice, rather than as staff of a subordinate auxiliary to the House. This is one example.

The International Teaching Centre

The International Teaching Centre has become a very prominent feature of the Bahai Administrative Order at the global level. From what has already been said, it is clear that ITC letters are not equivalent to the decisions taken by the House of Justice in consultation, and are not covered by infallibility. The process by which these letters are composed is entirely obscure: are they written by individuals designated with particular responsibilities, or are they the fruits of a consultation within the ITC, or with other parties? Yet I have recently noted a regrettable tendency to include these letters under the term ‘the guidance’ and to give them equal status with letters from the House. An example is John Hatcher’s 2007 ‘commentary,’ which was the subject of another commentary, by Eric Hadley-Ives, published on his blog a few days later. Eric Hadley-Ives quotes John Hatcher, “. . . When we have questions about any part of the guidance we are receiving [we should] go to the source itself: the authoritative text of the letters of the Universal House of Justice and the guidance in documents that have been prepared at its behest by the International Teaching Center.” Eric goes on to wonder why the writings of Baha’u’llah, Abdu’l-Baha, and Shoghi Effendi are omitted here. That would be because John Hatcher believes that “letters that emanate from this infallible institution” [the House of Justice] are just like “a letter from God giving us the best advice for those actions we need to carry out right now.”

Consequences

I think it would be fair to say that Bahais and Bahai institutions, and not just in the English-speaking world, have been unaware that the great majority of the communications from the World Centre do not originate with the House of Justice itself, and are not covered by the infallibility of the House of Justice. This ignorance gives individuals and National Spiritual Assemblies the impression that infallibility is available “on tap” to answer their every question. And if you thought infallible guidance was available, why would you not use it, in preference to fact-finding and consultation? Especially if, as a National Assembly, you have past experience of your decisions being countered by the ‘House of Justice,’ which in most cases means, countered by the individual member of the House of Justice responsible for that branch of affairs or country. It is a vicious circle: given the promise of guidance and threat of correction from above, the possibility of asking the House for advice is over-used, so the system generates a volume of queries that makes the system a practical necessity.

The idea of “infallibility on tap” has another negative consequence: there is little dialogue between the House of Justice, the National Spiritual Assemblies and the community, because the House of Justice is seen as giving divine guidance on every point, so there is no need for discussion. Those who believe in infallibility on tap have also set themselves up for a crisis of faith, for it is inevitable that some decisions made with such a cursory process will be wrong in ways that even a true believer cannot deny.

Because National Assemblies routinely check their decisions with the House of Justice, and base the wording of their decisions on what they have received from the Secretariat, the possibility of a local Assembly or individual appealing an NSA decision to the House of Justice becomes a moot point, unless they word their appeal to emphasize that they believe the case is not covered by existing House of Justice policies. That will maximize the likelihood that the House of Justice itself may consult on the matter, and will benefit from the spiritual guidance it is promised when it consults collectively. But so long as the illusion exists that everything coming from the World Centre shares the infallibility of the House of Justice, it is hard to see how the evils of excessive centralization of decision-making can be avoided. If detailed divinely protected guidance is available, how can rationality, consultation and the development of local and national institutions compete? And so far as decisions come largely from the top – even if this follows a request for guidance — then compliance with the decisions must be monitored from the top, requiring great diligence from the Counsellors and the Assistants in the suppression of national and local subsidiarity.

The five-signatures method encourages a culture of perpetual infancy, and is irreconcilable with Baha’u’llah’s image of the human person as a mature subject, and of society entering the age of maturity. The availability of guidance on tap – if we give way to the temptation to use it – reduces the individual to a passive receiver of messages from above. It is hardly surprising if Feasts that are dominated by reading the messages of the month — assumed to be divinely guided – are not socially or intellectually stimulating. Passivity is being bred in to the community.

For National Spiritual Assemblies in particular, it creates another difficulty that they should be aware of. We do no know (I do not know) how the areas of responsibility of the House members are defined, or who is responsible for what area. Are they purely geographical or a mixture of geographical and thematic? The thing is, a National Assembly might develop a good understanding of the thinking of the House of Justice (in fact, of the member of the House they are dealing with, without knowing his name), and then be astounded by a letter on behalf of the House on, for example, the affairs of Iranians in exile, or Bahai Studies, or social and economic development, in their jurisdiction, simply because that theme is handled by a different member of the House, with a different understanding of House policies. For this reason I think it desirable that letters on behalf of the House of Justice should be signed with the name of the House member supervising that communication.

The Department of the Secretariat has made some attempts to restrain the tendency of individuals to ask the House of Justice for guidance on every issue, as a substitute for consultation at the lowest level possible (subsidiarity). One letter says :

[as for] …the circumstances under which an individual believer may submit questions to the National Assembly or the House of Justice, directly. As you know, Baha’is turn to Baha’i literature, their fellow-believers (particularly those well-versed in the Writings) and the local and national institutions of the Faith for answers to any question they may have. If these avenues are explored to the utmost and further clarification is still needed, the friends are free to refer to the House of Justice for such guidance.” (1998-01-02)

According to the “to the utmost” criteria, the believer who, disagreeing with a Facebook moderation decision or with another participant, gets on her high horse and writes to the House with a twisted report of the case, should be told firmly that this is not an issue to be resolved by guidance from the World Centre. She should be reminded that consultation is a great good, and the wider the better. I’ve never heard of that happening. The theory of encouraging wide consultation with institutions and knowledgeable believers needs to be backed by a firm policy of refusing to respond to requests unless they show that consultation has been tried first, and particularly with the Bahai whom the writers thinks is in need of correction.

Lack of awareness of the five-signature procedure also inclines Bahais, in a few cases, to exaggerations that make the Bahais appear to the outside world like a hair-brained cult. The natural tendency to remember the memorable and forget the unremarkable means that even a few memorable exaggerations can do harm to our public image for many years. Some examples of memorable and harmful exaggerations about communications from Haifa are included in Eric Hadley-Ives’ commentary, linked to above. I will not prolong their unfortunate life by repeating them here.

In ‘the supreme institution’ on this blog, I’ve pointed to the dangers of exaggeration, particularly for a new religious movement :

… In all religions, there are minimisers and there are exaggerators, and there is an internal dynamic that favours the exaggerators, so that in the long term the metaphysical claims a religion makes and the titles it uses inflate. … an exaggeration always appears more pious, even if technically wrong. And what is just “more pious” in this generation, is self-evident orthodoxy for the next. Those who want to seem more fervently pious then have to move up one step of hyperbole. … [but] hyperbolic language invites negative reactions from the state and society and other religious communities, it promotes conflict and is a barrier to conversions.

Implications

I’ve spoken about the consequences for the community of recognizing, or not recognizing, the qualitative difference between letters that are the fruit of consultation from the House of Justice, and the other communications we get from the Bahai World Centre, from the secretariat, the Research Department and the International Teaching Centre. The distinction also has implications for the debate about the scope of the infallibility of the House of Justice. Udo Schaefer’s argument for a scope that is tightly limited to legislation gets its motivation and persuasiveness from lumping together all the communications of House and the Secretariat, and saying, if all these are infallible, the result is absurd. That is an argument from results: it is not logically valid, but it certainly is a good reason for suspecting that a premise must be wrong somewhere. Udo Schaefer thinks the wrong premise is that all decisions of the House of Justice are infallible. He argues that in fact infallibility applies only to the “supplementary legislation,” defined as “the establishment of universal abstract legal norms that … are binding upon the entire world community” (An Introduction to Baha’i Law by Udo Schaefer, p. 354). Its judicial, administrative and policy decisions are not infallible, in his view. I have already critiqued his argument briefly on this blog.

It appears the Schaefer was unaware of the difference between letters from the House of Justice and those from the Secretariat when he wrote his main publications on infallibility, notably the 2002 ‘Infallible Institutions.’ He would not have had to abandon his argument however, because there are examples enough of errors in letters that are from a consultation of the House of Justice itself. An example is the Ridvan message of 2000, which erroneously stated that the German edition of Making the Crooked Straight had appeared “last year” [in 1999], when in fact it appeared in 1995. Circle shape, BorisThe message was silently corrected, and the original text is hard to find. I recovered it using the wayback machine / internet archive. This reminds me of a joke I heard attributed to a member of the House of Justice:
– “How do you make decisions when you are infallible?”
– “Very carefully.”

Given such errors, we still need either to understand infallibility as limited to a selection within the decisions and communication of the House itself – the Udo Schaefer approach – and/or understand infallibility as allowing for errors of a certain kind and/or degree of importance. The latter is my approach, which I will not enlarge on here. Suffice to say that excluding letters from the auxiliary institutions simplifies the picture, but does not resolve the issue of the meaning and scope of the infallibility of the Universal House of Justice.

An alternative

The House of Justice might consider the virtues of the model used by the United States Supreme Court and the Supreme Courts of other federal systems: the Court first filters cases presented to it, and in most cases refuses to hear them, for its function is not to provide for justice in each individual case – that is the task of the lower courts or in our case, of the National Spiritual Assemblies. Its task is to ensure coherence between the principles applied in the diverse lower courts, and to provide the _authoritative ruling on new issues. Normally, the lower courts (assemblies) themselves identify the principles involved in new issues, and make rulings that are tested by critique and by their effects over time. It is not the case that every new issue must _first be decided at the highest level: that is a recipe for paralysis. Rather, there must be a possibility of a decision at the highest level at some point, if and when this is necessary to ensure effectiveness and unity.

Related content:
Infallability and the meaning of khata’
Infallability as freedom

On Will McCant‘s blog:
Shaykh Ahmad on Infallibility

Short link: https://wp.me/pcgF5-38h

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Bahai courts – a short guide

Posted by Sen on August 10, 2018


This posting will look at the institutions of Bahai courts, the House of Justice, the International Bahai Council and the International Tribunal as they are described primarily in the writings of Abdu’l-Baha and Shoghi Effendi. I will assume that readers know what the Universal House of Justice is, and how the National Houses of Justice, known as National Spiritual Assemblies, are elected and function. Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Aqdas and Law, Church and State, Community, History | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

“Matters of State” or “administrative matters”: the scope of the House of Justice

Posted by Sen on November 5, 2011


[Updated May 2012, December 2016]
In 2008, I posted an entry about the translation of the Eighth Ishraq, which is the eighth section of one of Baha’u’llah’s shorter works, the Ishraqat or Splendours. The posting explained why I thought that the 1978 translation authorized by the Universal House of Justice was incorrect where it says “All matters of State (‘umuur-e siyaasiyyah) should be referred to the House of Justice.” The earlier translation by Ali Kuli Khan, “Administrative affairs are all in charge of the House of Justice, and devotional acts must be observed according as they are revealed in the Book” was, I thought, more accurate, and more consistent with other works by Abdu’l-Baha and Baha’u’llah. Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Bahai Writings, Church and State, Community, Translations | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 35 Comments »

‘You can never organize the Bahai Cause’

Posted by Sen on December 16, 2010

I’m not a historian: I’m interested mainly in the timeless task of understanding the Bahai teachings, leaving history to those able, and crystal-ball gazing to those interested. But those who don’t know their history, will repeat mistakes in understanding quite needlessly, so sometimes we need to look back at the history of an idea in the Bahai community, especially where it is a mistaken idea that keeps resurfacing. In this case I am looking at some words attributed to Abdu’l-Baha, Read the rest of this entry »

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Abdu’l-Baha on religious law and the House of Justice

Posted by Sen on November 22, 2010

This tablet by Abdu’l-Baha, dated around 1899, responds to detailed questions, “concerning the wisdom of referring some important laws to the House of Justice.” Abdu’l-Baha replies that, in principle, the Baha’i Faith is similar to Christianity, whose scriptures also specify only a few laws.

The Bahai Faith, he says, has little connection to worldly concerns. Religion’s primary function is to refine characters and bring light in darkness. However the Bahai scriptures do specify some foundations of our religious law, leaving subsidiary matters to the divinely-inspired House of Justice, which can make ‘cultural laws,’ (ahkaam madaniyyih) in accordance with time and circumstance. Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Aqdas and Law, Ethics and Morality, Translations | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments »

Too tender for the House?

Posted by Sen on May 23, 2010

The Universal House of Justice is an elected body that serves as the head of the world-wide Bahai community. It is empowered to decide when Bahai laws are applicable for Bahais, to provide the necessary framework so that they can be applied, and to make laws and rulings for situations that are not covered in Bahai scripture. So it has a very important role in Bahai community life. Unlike all the other Bahai institutions and roles and positions in community life, membership of the Universal House of Justice is, at least for now, reserved for men. I will return to that ‘for now’ briefly, at the end of this posting. Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Church and State, Community | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | 44 Comments »

Defending Shoghi Effendi

Posted by Sen on November 22, 2009

Shoghi_Effendi_stands This posting begins by discussing a letter written on behalf of the Guardian, which refers to “the Bahai theocracy” as a divinely ordained system, and goes on from there to address the claims that there is ‘a theocratic undercurrent’ in Shoghi Effendi’s writings, or that he contradicted himself, changed his mind or concealed his real views for reasons of prudence. In addition to the few places where Shoghi Effendi speaks directly on the topic, we can look at the Bahai writings he translated, to see what teachings he thought were central and important for the English-speaking Bahais to understand.

The posting continues by looking at the future renaming of the Assemblies as Houses of Justice, and what Shoghi Effendi says about the role of the Universal House of Justice in the Bahai Commonwealth and in a future superstate, which leads to some considerations regarding the role of an established religion, or state religion, in a society. Another section looks at a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi which says that, one day, “the Bahais will be called upon to assume the reins of government,” and at another letter on behalf of Shoghi Effendi that speaks of the International Tribunal and Court of Arbitration being merged in the Universal House of Justice. Read the rest of this entry »

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Abdu’l-Baha’s ‘socialism’

Posted by Sen on June 11, 2009

wheatfieldI was led to this subject by one of the friends, who commented that the House of Justice’s revenues include mines, and its expenditures the care of the poor, both governmental matters, so it is not unreasonable for Habib Taherzadeh to say, in his translation of Baha’u’llah’s Tablet of Ishraqat, that “matters of State should be referred to the House of Justice” (Tablets of Baha’u’llah, p. 27)
Read the rest of this entry »

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House of Justice, House of Worship

Posted by Sen on January 21, 2009

wilmette1hoj-pillarsNow concerning nature, it is but the essential properties and the necessary relations inherent in the realities of things. And though these infinite realities are diverse in their character yet they are in the utmost harmony and closely connected together. As one’s vision is broadened and the matter observed carefully, it will be made certain that every reality is but an essential requisite of other realities. Thus to connect and harmonize these diverse and infinite realities an all-unifying Power is necessary, that every part of existent being may in perfect order discharge its own function.
(Abdu’l-Baha, Tablet to August Forel, pages 20-21)

In a letter dated 7 April 1999 the Universal House of Justice warns among other things of an “attempt to suggest that the Mashriqu’l-Adhkar should evolve into a seat of quasidoctrinal authority, parallel to and essentially independent of the Local House of Justice.” Although I am not aware that this idea has ever been put forward in the English-speaking Bahai world, the letter may be taken as evidence that it has or may emerge somewhere. So it seems a good idea to consider the relationship between the Mashriqu’l-Adhkar or House of Worship and the Houses of Justice (i.e., the Bahai administrative institutions, which at the local and national level are now known as Spiritual Assemblies). To understand the institutional relations at the core of the organic Bahai community, we will also have to include the guardianship.
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Posted in Community, Devotions, Mashriqu'l-Adhkar, Theology | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

He cannot override …

Posted by Sen on December 30, 2008

wobIn Shoghi Effendi’s 1934 letter ‘The Dispensation of Baha’u’llah,’ there’s a well-known paragraph in which he says that “the Guardian of the Faith has been made the Interpreter of the Word and that the Universal House of Justice has been invested with the function of legislating …”. I want to look at the paragraph after that, which deals with the fact that the Guardian is a member of the House of Justice; so that while the spheres of the two institutions are distinct, their memberships overlap. How would that work, with the Guardian or his representative in the room, while the House of Justice was making its decisions?
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