Eden Grace explains how the sacred discernment of seemingly trivial decisions can transform the world.
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- Have you ever heard someone characterize the Quaker decision-making process as “consensus”? Do you correct them?
- Eden Grace says, “We start from a really strong affirmation and presupposition that God has a will. God has a will for us as individuals. God has a will for us as a spiritual community in the Meeting, and God has a will for this world.” What do you think Eden means by this? Do you share this belief? What does it mean for your life?
- Eden uses the example of community discernment over the color of a carpet as an example of a decision that seems trivial but becomes transformational. Have you had an experience of coming together with a group of people to decide something trivial and emerging transformed?
The way Quakers do business is a really significant part of our spirituality, our practice, our identity as Friends, and that isn’t always something that’s easy to understand upfront because I think for most Christians and most people in the world, a business meeting is sort of a tedious thing that has to be gotten through. In my understanding of Quaker spirituality and Quaker theology, a business meeting is an opportunity for sacramental encounter with God.
Sometimes people talk about how Friends make decisions by consensus. That’s a secular term that has some kind of meaning that people understand: ok, you’ve all agreed on something. But that isn’t the nature of our spiritual experience and our theological understanding of what we’re doing. We’re not looking for a place where we all agree, “alright, good enough, let’s just do that because nobody is objecting.” We are looking for obedience to the will of God.
And so we start from a really strong affirmation and presupposition that God has a will. God has a will for us as individuals. God has a will for us as a spiritual community in the Meeting, and God has a will for this world. And God wants to communicate God’s will. We don’t have to puzzle it out, it’s not that hard. You don’t have to have a PhD. to figure out the mind of God, because God by God’s nature is making that mind known to the community. All we have to do is get out of our own way.
And believe enough to be able to stick with it though all of the ways in which that process exposes our sins and weaknesses and failings to ourselves and to each other, the ways in which we can get ugly with each other. That’s a holy process. My experience has been that Friends actually really do stay in it; stick with it.
You can say, “well, God doesn’t care what color the carpet is in the fellowship hall. Why does that really matter? Why do we have to seek God’s will for color of the carpet? Let’s just choose the carpet.”
And maybe there’s a whole lot of of other issues that get raised up around the carpet that we pick for the fellowship hall. Maybe different colors have different psychological meanings in peoples’ lives and you can get into color theory, or maybe there’s off-gassing from this brand, or maybe this company uses child labor in Pakistan. A carpet decision can raise all kinds of other stuff. And maybe God does care about the carpet, because certainly God cares about the child laborers in Pakistan and God cares about the toxic waste of the carpet manufacturing processes. And God cares about us as a community walking through that process together, the spiritual fruits that can come from seeking deep unity on the choice of a carpet. It’s not about the carpet, it’s about the transformation of the world through the choice of a carpet.
So yes, we say that each and every decision facing the Meeting is a holy and sacred and sacramental opportunity. There is no secular work.
11 thoughts on “How Quakers Make Decisions (It’s Not Just Consensus!)”
Thanks so much Eden for your deep and meaningful description of our decision making process. I so often am put in the positon of trying to explain our meeting for worship with a concern for business and your words will help me the next time I am called to that opportunity. The entire Quaker Speak has been so inspirational – and what a joy to see Friends that I know and love and meet new people in our Beloved Community. Much gratitude to Jon and Friends Journal and others who are making this possible!
I find secular and spiritual to be synonymous and God to be optional.
Thank you for showing us an insiders view of the “theological” practices of your faith traditions.
Thank you Friend Eden. Your last statement hits home with me. ‘There is no secular work.’ has been a center in my Life. All that is done by all people, is spiritually influenced. When a group does as you presented earlier, ‘alright, good enough’, they appear to be disregarding spirit within. It is similar to just accepting certain rites, rituals, and ceremonies. Some religious organizations do not believe in questioning their system. With growth in belief of a Global Consciousness, this Quaker view, you ended with, is valuable for the residents of earth.
What a simple, straight-forward way to describe Quaker meeting for worship to conduct business!
I regret that I am unable to interpret or understand phrases such as “the will of god” or “god wants…” If god is the all-powerful creative deity, the words “will” and “want” have no semantic trsction for me.
I sympathize with your remarks. “Theist” may not be the default position of life, with “atheist” being a diversion. “Secularist” may be the default position of life, with “Theist” being the diversion.
“God” is one metaphor for spirituality. “Weather” and “electricity” are a few of the alternative metaphors.
Eden does give a beautiful, clear understanding of the Quaker way of doing business. The example of the carpet is especially useful, as it is SO often mentioned.
Joan Liversidge and Chester Kirchman add more material for contemplation, especially for this Friend who has difficulty with the concept of an anthropomorphic God – yet can find no better way to express that ineffable sense of connection that can happen in worship.
Thanks to all involved in the gift of Quakerspeak! It too is a valuable gift to Friends and seekers.
It seems a bit strange to be replying to Sam, replying to Hank, over 3 years later but Friends Journal apparently shared the original post on Twitter today so here I am.
Sam writes: “I sympathize with your remarks. “Theist” may not be the default position of life, with “atheist” being a diversion. “Secularist” may be the default position of life, with “Theist” being the diversion. ” I understand and maybe concur with this. (In 2017 in the UK, not sure about the US though, it’s pretty much a matter of fact that the majority, if not the ‘default’ are secular).
Don’t understand though how Weather and Electricity might be alternative metaphors for spirituality. If God is a metaphor (for whatever…) I wonder what the ‘non-theist’ or secular understanding of Meeting for worship for business might be? (‘Sense of the Meeting’ is a bit of a cop out?).
Maybe we will discuss this in the UK at the NFN Conference at Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre, Birmingham, England in March, considering the future of Quakerism. https://nontheist-quakers.org.uk/ for full details and all welcome!
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