from the Committee on Ministry and Counsel
This month’s Reading is excerpts from Barry Morley’s Beyond Consensus: Salvaging Sense of the Meeting (Pendle Hill Pamphlet #307, 1993), reprinted with permission. This pamphlet was explored in Reading and Discussion in March, carrying through on the wishes of two Friends that more of us become more familiar with this description of how Quakers conduct business.
Sense of the Meeting
If the process by which we discover the sense of the meeting is to work, we must be willing to lay aside personal needs and grievances; we must be willing to reach beyond what you or I want. When I am able to set my ideas aside, and you are able to set your ideas aside, doors are opened which allow solutions to enter on a shaft of Light.
The sense of the meeting is not discovered through competition of ideas. Outcomes should be determined neither by rhetorical skill, nor logical brilliance. The test of reason is not the test. Though compromise and moving toward consensus are tools which can assist early in the process, they must be laid aside as we reach for the Inward Presence.
Ideas should be offered and explained, rather than argued. They should be heard thoughtfully and respectfully, just as messages in meeting for worship are heard thoughtfully and respectfully. Sense of the meeting requires listening rather than contending, weighing rather than reacting. It requires the kind of patience that understands that all things will work themselves out in due course. Unless we are willing to settle for consensus, pressures imposed by urgency must not be allowed to erode the process. Quaker business procedure, subjected to a clock, is always corrupted.
Sense of the meeting was seriously tested by the epic Sandy Spring balcony dispute. After the founding of Sandy Spring Friends School, the local meeting house could not contain the large crowds which arrived for choral concerts and graduations. Performances and celebrations were marred by disgruntled, disappointed people milling around outside.
Probably through a sense of the meeting, the building’s designers foresaw that a balcony might someday be needed. They built the ceiling two stories high in order to accommodate the future construction. Now, a hundred and fifty years later, their vision seemed warranted.
No one challenged the need for a balcony. The dispute arose over remnants of the ancient partition which had once separated men’s and women’s business meetings. The partition’s lower section had long since been removed. But the upper half cut across the open second story and bisected the wall against which the balcony would be constructed. It served no structural or functional purpose except to remind Friends of their history.
History, it turned out, carried weight. Some Friend, often elderly, would say, “But I love that old partition. It reminds me of where we’ve come from.” Another Friend would say, “That partition has been there all my life. I’m not sure I could worship here any more if it were gone.” Someone would add, “It wouldn’t look like the meeting house without it.” Another Friend would look up wistfully and say, “I love those beautiful old panels.”
Sandy Spring’s business meeting reached impasse. “Those beautiful old panels” became the symbol of the impasse. In doing so, they provided the narrow opening through which we could reach for the transcendent solution. During a meeting for worship, three years after the balcony issue had been raised, Brook Moore was moved to rise from the facing bench to say, “I see a balcony in this room and it is faced with the panels from the partition.” Sense of the meeting lay in the silence that followed. With little hesitation, the next business meeting adopted Brook’s vision.
Consensus involves a process in which we promulgate, argue, and select or compromise ideas until we can arrive at an acceptable decision. When we seek the sense of the meeting, the decision is a by-product. It happens along the way. The purpose of seeking the sense of the meeting is to gather ourselves in unity in the presence of Light.
Three components are essential in the process which leads to a sense of the meeting … :
1. Release. After an issue has been presented to the business meeting, Friends should allow Friends whose feelings have been aroused to release those feelings. … Friends who release their feelings should be listened to lovingly. No effort should be made to intervene – to correct, argue, analyze, criticize, clarify, or explain away. … Release should be encouraged and appreciated. It clears the air. It is part of the process which enables us to arrive together in the silence of Light accepted. By emptying themselves of anguish, anxiety, fear, anger, perhaps even joy, Friends open their minds for an inpouring of Light. …
2. Long Focus. The sense of the meeting is the object of business meeting. Thus we should focus our attention beyond the immediate discussion toward the sense of the meeting. People fresh from a background of vote taking and consensus-making find this difficult. Even experienced Friends sometimes forget. In my own case, when ideas or positions become really important to me, I am inclined to invest myself emotionally. I shorten my focus and interfere with progression toward Light. … Though release of my strong feelings is appropriate, fighting for their supremacy is not. Ideas and quality thinking are essential to the process, but ideas in competition shorten focal length. …
3. Transition to Light. As we continue to address an issue, as we lay aside any need to win, as we turn increasingly inward in order to transcend differences, long focus brings us to the Source of resolution and clarity. It is in this Light that God’s voice is heard.
From the Light we sense an influx of enveloping harmony. Peace tinged with triumph settles upon individuals and over the meeting. When we feel the Presence settle among us, and silence overtakes us, we have arrived where we want to be. Silence is an inward and outward sign that the process has been completed. A sensitive clerk will allow the silence to linger.
In seeking the sense of the meeting, process is paramount. When I try to think of decisions made in business meetings that were more important than the process by which they were made, I am unable to. The gifts generated by that process seem endless. As you come to treasure sense of the meeting, awareness of the Presence becomes part of you. You begin to take it with you. You are changed by it. You perceive the world differently; and Quakers at their best are people who perceive the world differently. As your perceptions change they begin to affect perceptions around you. Some quality of the Presence seems to be infectious. People who have never heard of sense of the meeting sense that they are being listened to – their ideas valued. Their self esteem is nurtured. Their defenses go down. They come to enjoy an atmosphere where thoughts are stirred in a pot rather than attacked. Their thinking sharpens. Articulation improves. Ideas ultimately become our ideas. People laugh a lot. They like themselves. Their friendships deepen, their loyalties strengthen. And, as in Quaker business meeting, it is not decisions they respond to, but a process and a Presence through which they sense their joyful connection to one another.