Once a month (typically), each local congregation (styled as a ‘monthly meeting’) meets ‘for worship with attention to business,’ generally after the rise of our regular worship meeting, facilitated by a clerk. Anyone who is part of the meeting may attend and participate. Decisions are made without voting. Rather, the participants may each speak to the matter at hand (preferably only once), and listen to one another for a sense of spiritual unity on the issue. We try to maintain an attitude of worship, the silently prayerful ‘gathered stillness,’ throughout the process. Once everyone has had an opportunity to speak, the clerk attempts to draft a ‘minute’ that expresses the ‘sense of the meeting’ on the issue. They then ask if the minute is acceptable to the meeting. If there are no objections or proposed changes, the minute is recorded. Otherwise, the discernment process may continue until unity is reached, if time permits, or be held over for ‘seasoning’ and taken up again at a subsequent business meeting.
Higher-level Quaker bodies, encompassing regional groupings of monthly meetings, meet less frequently and may transact business as well. My home monthly meeting of Edmonton, Alberta, for example, belongs to Western Half-Yearly Meeting, covering Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia, and Canadian Yearly Meeting for all of Canada. Any members or attendees of a monthly meeting may participate in business meetings of the higher-level meetings to which their monthly meeting belongs. The business process is substantively the same at the monthly meeting level and higher levels. Quakers who are not able to attend business meetings are expected to trust those who do attend to follow Quaker process and arrive at good decisions, for both the monthly meeting and higher level meetings.
Formally, there are similarities of the Quaker business process to ‘consensus decision-making.’ In both processes, a single individual has the power to block a group decision. But, the underlying attitude is quite different. The process is not a debate. We are not trying to reach ‘consensus’ among ourselves. Rather we seek to discern what the Holy Spirit – that sacred Wisdom deep within us and among us – is leading us to do as a group.2 Sometimes we go into the meeting thinking our options are either A or B. ‘Consensus’ would suggest trying to find some middle ground, a compromise position between A and B, that perhaps nobody is entirely happy with. The Quaker discernment process often leads us to realize that there is another option altogether, superior to both A and B, which we can all unite behind. Something about the attitude of worship and detachment from the outcome seems to foster a certain openness of mind and heart that allows these group epiphanies to happen. They feel quite miraculous. Moreover, the goal of reaching a decision is distinctly secondary to the goal of developing the health and vigor of the relationships among the members, thereby creating a stronger, more loving, and more resilient community.
The process is not easy nor is it always comfortable. Spiritual discipline and great patience are required for the process to operate well. There exists within each of us, I believe, a ‘shallow self,’ a complex of unexamined wants and belief systems, often fraught with defense mechanisms, often heavily shaped by the conventional wisdom of the surrounding culture. This shallow self must be kept out of the driver’s seat during business meeting. We must avoid reacting superficially to the words coming out of others’ mouths and listen with empathy to the intentions underneath the words and to the deep response of love and truth within our own hearts. That is how we discern what the Spirit is leading us to do. Effective participation (actively and passively) in the Quaker discernment process is a skill that grows with practice. And it cannot be reduced to a set of rules; it depends upon the good-will and openness to the Spirit of the participants.
Sometimes, of course, a difficult conflict will arise within the meeting. But there are some strategies that help to move us through such conflict.
- Give it time: Quakers are comfortable taking a long time, if necessary, to reach a good decision. We call this ‘seasoning’ the matter. For example, Quakers took fifty-some years, in the early eighteenth century, to decide that slaveholding was impermissible, Once they reached unity, Quakers quickly became the most active opponents of slavery outside the African-American community itself.
- Use this time constructively: Between meetings, pray about the issue, learn more about it, engage in one-on-one discussions with others in the meeting, particularly those on the other side of the issue to better understand where their perspective.
- Take feelings seriously: The disagreement may be partially rooted in personal conflict between members. Personal feelings should not be suppressed but dealt with honestly and compassionately. This is probably best done off-line, perhaps with someone acting as a mediator. Use the conflict as an opportunity to deepen bonds between members.
There exists a controversial last-resort option. The clerk may propose that ‘the sense of the meeting’ is to go ahead with some decision, over the objection of a small minority, if the rest of the meeting strongly supports doing so. This move is more likely to be viewed as legitimate by the meeting if the seasoning process, described above, does not seem to be leading towards resolution (e.g if the minority refuse to engage constructively with others in the meeting about the issue), if there is some urgency to the decision, and if the minority’s opposition does not appear to be grounded in any principle consistent with the Quaker Testimonies. So a Quaker meeting may, as a last resort and with discomfort, engage in coercion towards a minority. But this state of affairs should be regarded as a breakdown of Quaker process rather than its successful operation. It is a wound to the fabric of the meeting. In the aftermath of such a decision, members will have to work to remain in compassionate dialogue about this issue, to revisit the decision if necessary, if the wound is ever to heal. Most Quaker meetings will therefore go to extraordinary lengths to avoid using this coercive option.