How do Quakers take decisions collectively? We don’t vote or aim for consensus. We believe we are led by (and here individual Quakers will insert their own word for…) God/the Spirit/the Guiding Light/Presence/Christ to discern the way forward…or to wait a while longer.
‘But how do you know’, I asked the tutors and the students on the webinar*, ‘when the spirit is present with us during group discernment?’ And the answer came back to me straight away and was so simple. It’s the same feeling as in meeting for worship! We’ve all experienced the power and wonder of people speaking in ministry, sometimes for the first time, and revealing how the spirit is working in their lives. We are moved and left deepened by our sharing. ‘So, that’s how you make decisions in your meetings..?’ ‘Well, this is the ideal. All sorts of things can get in the way, like if you’re feeling stubborn, like the bear or sad, like the wolf (Isaiah 11: 6-9)) We don’t always succeed in holding a fully ‘gathered’ meeting for worship but we feel it when we do.
American friend, Bill Taber, described the way a meeting makes decisions. It starts with waiting, he wrote. For how long? For as long as is needed. He recognises five gut feelings, which show a healthy group discernment meeting. The first is Joy in Being Together with friends, part of supportive, challenging community, large or small. The second is Joy in the Presence of God. Thirdly, there is the Assurance we will be helped by God’s guiding presence, if we listen well. And fourthly, there is Trust in the process. It works. It may take time, although some decisions may be reached very quickly. It isn’t always about time. It can be more about intensity, when decisions come quickly. During the meeting, we are enabled to step out of our own individual minds into the mind of Christ, while maintaining our self-awareness.
The fifth gut feeling tickled me – Excitement! How often do we experience the excitement of entering the room, leaving it up to God to discover what is going to happen with surprising results! We do have fun in our meetings at times but not excitement. I’m not sure I’ve ever experienced excitement but, perhaps, I’ve never known it was there.
Time places great demands on friends, we heard. Our meetings can feel long and laboured. Too often, tasks fall on the same group of individuals, who do the work but lack the joy. How do we encourage more friends to come to business meetings when we have so many callings on our time? One of our tutors told a story. Two friends were talking about the next Business Meeting. ‘Oh, no,’ said one, ‘how am I going to get through three or more hours of agenda!’ His friend replied, ‘ I can think of no finer or more joyful way than spending time with God, discerning our way forward.’ And I’ve felt this too at times but also felt the slow hand ticking of the clock.
How do we learn and practise our business method? It’s true that by contacting Quaker Life at Friends House, you can arrange for a team of Young Friends to visit your meeting to model good and bad practice. And I wondered about holding a business meeting in our children and young person’s meeting in January. The children could take on roles of clerking, eldership and ministry. It would help us be clearer about what we can do the rest of the year and who we can ask to do it. Bill Taber emphasises the importance of a daily spiritual practice in helping us arrive at meeting with ‘heart and mind prepared’.
‘And the ministry, so often dry in business meeting, so moving in meeting for worship’, commented a friend on the webinar. ‘That’s it, Christine! That’s it!’ It stuck me forcibly that I’d always put an subconscious divide between the two forms of worship. Yet they were both the same. I’m feeling so excited about attending my next business meeting for worship!
Links and further reading:
A Sustainable Life, Woodbrooke course*
Douglas Gwynne, A Sustainable Life
The Mind of Christ, Bill Taber on Meeting for Business, Pendle Hill Pamphlet 406
Alistair Heron, Quaker Speak
Brian Drayton and Bill Taber, Language for Inward Landscape
Emilia Fogelklou Norlind, The Atonement of George Fox, Pendle Hill Pamphlet 166 (1969)
Ben Pink Dandelion, Quakers, A Very Short Introduction