What do Quakers think they're doing?

As a practicing Quaker, my ears perk up when I hear folks refer to Quaker consensus or the like. Most people I know in the Religious Society of Friends, as we’re also known, do not think we are making decisions by consensus. Rather, more common understandings are unity in the Spirit or sense of the meeting. This is articulated in an article, An Introduction to Quaker Business Practice, by Eden Grace, a Quaker from Massachusetts:

“Consensus” is a word sometimes used to describe a Quaker-like process. Yet Quakers would insist that this is not the most suitable term. Consensus (or unanimous consent, or general agreement) are based on the work of human wisdom and reason, whereas “the Sense of the Meeting” is based on the prompting of the Spirit. Consensus is commonly understood to require mutual compromise – shaving away at positions until we find a core which is objectionable to none. The Quaker approach tries instead to reach toward a higher and greater Truth that speaks to all concerns in ways that could not have been foreseen. We discover what God wants for us, as opposed to what we thought we wanted. “Consensus is the product of an intellectual process. Sense of the Meeting is a commitment of faith.”

This difference is more than semantic. In resisting the word “consensus” we refuse to allow our Sacrament to become secularized. Preferred terms would be “Unity” or “Sense of the Meeting”. The latter emphasizes the goal for the Gathered Meeting, and the former evokes the core theological affirmation of God’s will for humanity.

As a child, Gerhard Endenberg attended a school that was established by a Quaker family seeking to live out their values. Equivalence is one of those values: the Spirit can speak through man or woman, adult or child.

Creating the conditions to listen attentively to every voice (and subvert dominating or controlling voices) is an expression of equivalence that is reflected in our modern practice of sociocracy. Just the same, I welcome a conversation that acknowledges the spiritual context and intent of Quaker practice. Make sense? What are your thoughts?

Read more about Eden Grace.

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