Sunday, May 13, 2007

Where the Decisions Come From

I recently attended a workshop on clerking at Pendle Hill, which is a Quaker center for spiritual growth, study, and service in Wallingford Pennsylvania. During one of the workshop sessions, the leader asked us why we are concerned about unity in our meetings for business and why strive for a "sense of the meeting."

I have some thoughts about an answer to that question, but some explanation of Quaker process may be needed first in order to make the question understandable to non-Quakers.

The members of Quaker meetings (by which I mean the churches or congregations of Quakers) conduct their business (such as the adoption of budgets, elections of officers, and other matters relevant to the meeting) through a "meeting for business," also known as a "meeting for worship with a view towards business." It might also be described as a "meeting for business in a spirit of worship." In a meeting for business, the members of the meeting strive to achieve unity in every decision, and much of the workshop I attended was devoted to understanding how the clerk of the meeting (who presides at meetings for business) can help the meeting achieve that unity. But why do we Quakers care about unity? Why can't we simply take a vote and let the majority rule, or why can't we simply negotiate a consensus? Why do we struggle with the leadings of the Spirit and strive for unity?

In thinking about those questions, I remembered a story that John Woolman (1720-1772) related in his Journal. Woolman described a meeting for worship that he attended along with several native Americans. After hearing a long prayer from Woolman, one of them put his hand on his own chest and said "I love to feel where the words come from." That is very good description of the joy of Quaker worship. When we are lead by the Spirit and speak out of silence, and we hear the words of others who have been lead to speak, we can feel a connection to God and it is that connection that brings us both peace and joy.

Quakers also love to feel where the decisions come from. When we are able to reach a sense of the meeting in unity, there is a great sense of both peace and joy. If there is that of God in all of us, and we are able to share that part of God in our decisions, then the decision-making process (and the decision itself) becomes part of our connection to God and to each other.

The Quaker decision-making process is therefore an outward manifestation of our inner faith. It is one of the ways in which we try to put our belief in the goodness and sacredness of each person into practice. And when we are successful in achieving unity, it is indeed a form of worship, a sacred "thin place" in which we can become closer to the Divine.