Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Meeting for worship for business

The author of a comment on a previous posting reported that he had heard that Quakers do not believe in voting, because they believe that God decides all things. This observation puzzled me, and I responded that Quakers tend to be quite engaged in the political process. Only later did it occur to me that what the author of the comment had been referring to was Quaker meetings for business, not to political elections. He was quite right in noting that in Quaker meetings for business within the Quaker organization, there is no voting. There is no voting, because there are no motions made during a meeting for business. There is nothing to vote on. This no doubt sounds mysterious to those who have never attended a Quaker meeting for business (more properly called a meeting for worship with attention to business). In what follows I shall try to describe how Quakers conduct business within their monthly meetings for business within the Society of Friends.

In meetings I have attended, the custom is for the clerk of the meeting to set an agenda of items to be discussed and decided. Agenda items are suggested to the clerk throughout the month and so arise from the concerns of members and attenders of the meeting for worship. The agenda of a business meeting is usually posted before the meeting so that those who attend the business meeting have an idea of what is going to be discussed. Like every other Quaker meeting for worship, the meeting for worship with attention to business begins in silence. Friends typically take advantage of the silence to settle their minds and, as far as it is possible, to leave prejudices aside so as to consider each concern with an unbiased mind. After several minutes of silence, the clerk will introduce an item on the agenda, perhaps inviting the Friend who submitted the concern to express the nature of his or her concern. Once the subject has been introduced, Friends again enter into silence to consider the concern. As they are moved to speak to the issue, Friends will rise to express their insights into the matter under discussion. Usually no record is kept of any of these expressions of insight. Eventually, after as much discussion as seems sufficient, the clerk of the meeting will “try a minute.” That is, the clerk will try to summarize what the collective will of the meeting is. To put the matter as Quakers usually put it, the clerk tries to express where the spirit has led the members of the meeting. Either the clerk or a recording clerk will write this minute down and then read it aloud. If the minute as formulated by the clerk or recording clerk seems to have captured the spirit of the meeting, the members will approve the minute. If any Friend feels the minute has not adequately expressed the sense of the discussion, recommendations will be made to alter the minute in some way. The approved minute is then recorded in the archives of the Meeting.

Perhaps needless to say, there is not always consensus on an issue. A Friend may disagree with where the spirit has led the rest of the Meeting. If so, that Friend will discern whether he or she feels a strong need to stand in the way of the decision expressed in the minute. If the Friend stands in the way, the minute is not acted upon. It is acted upon only if there is approval of everyone at the meeting for business. It is rare for a Friend to stand in the way of a spirit-led decision. Occasionally a Friend will ask that it be recorded in the minute that he or she dissented from the decision but has decided to stand aside rather than blocking the decided action.

A Quaker meeting for business is quite different from a meeting run according to Roberts Rules of Order. The minutes approved rarely mention the name of anyone involved in proposing the concern or in discussing it. Only if a Friend requests that his or her name be recorded as dissenting from the rest of the Meeting will any specific name be recorded.

The kinds of issues typically discussed at a Quaker meeting for worship for business can be quite varied. Someone who has been attending the meeting for some time may ask for membership. An attender or member may ask to be married in the care of the Meeting. The Meeting may decide whether to send a letter to the local newspaper on some social or political issue, or whether to make a financial donation to some charity. It may decide to form a policy on whether to allow same-sex couples to be married under the care of the Meeting.

The Quaker way of making decisions takes a good deal of time and therefore seems inefficient to some. It would probably not work very well for a group larger than a few hundred people to make decisions in the spirit-led way. It would be difficult to run a nation by Quaker business procedures. So when it comes to being citizens of a nation, most Quakers vote for candidates to public offices along with everyone else. If the candidates elected decide to do something that individual Quakers find highly objectionable (such as deciding to go to war), then individual Quakers will make their own decisions about, for example, whether to refuse to pay taxes and to go to prison instead. Quakers have a long history of choosing to go to prison on matters of conscience. Such decisions are made by individuals after considerable reflection, prayer and consultation with other Friends. About such decisions more will be said later.

My own experience with Quaker meetings for worship business has been enriched in recent years as a result of my serving as recording clerk at the Albuquerque Monthly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends. Serving in this capacity has taught me a good deal about listening carefully and without judgment. Listening carefully has in turn taught me something about speaking and writing more carefully.