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How Friends (Quakers)
Conduct Church Business
by Bill Samuel
Originally published September 1, 2000 at Suite101.com
Friends are not to meet [in meetings for business] like a company of people about town or parish business ... but to wait upon the Lord. (George Fox, Letters)
Friends (Quakers) do many things in a different manner than most do. One of these things is how Friends conduct their church business. In a study on this subject, Beyond Majority Rule (Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends, 1983), Michael J. Sheeran, S.J. states Friends "...may be the only modern Western community in which decision making achieves the group-centered decisions of traditional societies."
Democracy or Theocracy?
Some people, even some Friends, look at the open and participatory aspects of a Friends meeting for business, and conclude it is designed to be democratic. In fact, its intention is not to find what the most people want to do, but to find the will of God for the body that is meeting. Friends decision making is fundamentally theocratic rather than democratic.
Friends decision making is a matter of spiritual discernment. It is based on a belief that God's will can be perceived by human beings. Furthermore, it assumes that God speaks consistently to all and therefore that all who genuinely seek the will of God can find unity in what it is.
Doing Business in Worship
A Friends gathering to conduct business is first and foremost a meeting for worship. Friends gather in silence, waiting upon the Lord, open to whatever God may bring them in ministry and in business.
While it may be difficult, it is key to the proper conduct of business that Friends remain in a spirit of worship when they move out of the silence to consider agenda items. It is essential that the focus remains on what God wills, not what are the personal desires of those gathered. When someone speaks, they need to do so without ownership of what is spoken, allowing what is spoken to be used in whatever way helps the discernment process. In keeping with this principle, it is customary that minutes of a meeting do not state who offered a point of view. There should be no rush to speak immediately after another, and more extended periods of silent waiting can be very powerful when a meeting seems divided.
Friends do not vote in their business gatherings. Rather, they seek unity - unity with the will of God for the meeting. Friends understand that the majority of a body may be leaning one way while a minority, perhaps even only one person, may be who has discerned God's will. Friends do not rush business, allowing time for all to grasp what God would have the meeting do. When it seems there is a "sense of the meeting" on an item, the clerk (the presiding officer) formulates that sense in words. If the body gathered concurs that the clerk has correctly formulated the matter, it is recorded in the minutes.
One difficult point to grasp is that unity is not identical with unanimity. While no one's sense of God's leading is to be ignored, it is the unity of the body as a whole with the will of God that is critical. Sometimes a person may not be clear on the course of action but feel the meeting is ready to act, and "stand aside" on the issue. An even more difficult situation is one in which the meeting as a whole is clearly united, but someone stands outside that unity without standing aside. To move forward in such a situation must be done with great trepidation, since it involves a conclusion that the person is not being open to the Spirit on the issue, but there are times when it is done.
A Precious Gift
A Friends meeting for business truly held in the spirit can be a truly awesome experience as one can witness God at work within a body of people. It is not a form, but a precious gift of God to be treasured. When Friends follow the outward appearance of this method of conducting business without truly being in the Spirit which is to lead it, the gift is not respected. The conduct of business can then become divisive and enervating. In practice, Friends vary widely on how successful they are in living up to the promise of their method of conducting church business.
I have not found much on the Web about Friends conduct of church business, but these items are available:
© by Bill Samuel. Do not reprint in whole or in part without prior permission of the author, except for limited quoting in accordance with "fair use" principles. You are welcome to link to this page.
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