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Readings for Reflection: January 2007
from the Committee on Ministry and Counsel

Participative Humility in Quaker Decision Making

From Douglas Steere’s Introduction to Quaker Spirituality: Selected Writings

Another highly important issue in arriving at a decision and one that calls for a good deal of inner discipline and seasoning on the part of the members is the matter of what constitutes unanimity. It should be obvious that all need not feel equally happy about the decision the Clerk finally, after getting the "sense of the meeting," has set down in the meeting as passed. It is important to understand how this so-called Quaker unanimity is arrived at. Something that might be called participative humility in the assembled members is certainly required in the Quaker decision-making process for it to be able to operate effectively. In this process, whose decision I have been willing to accept, I am brought to realize that the matter has been carefully and patiently considered. I have been involved throughout the process and have had a chance at different stages in it of making my point of view known to the group and of having it seriously considered and weighed. Even if the decision that the group feels drawn to accept may go against what I initially proposed, I know that my contribution has helped to sift the issue, perhaps to temper it, and in the course of the process, I may have come to see it somewhat differently. A French writer, Alfred de Vigny, once remarked, "I am not always of my own opinion," and this flash of humility is not lost on me or on the Quaker process.

If I am a seasoned Friend, I no longer oppose the decision. I give it my nihil obstat (obstruct nothing) and I emerge from the meeting not as a member of a minority who feels outflanked and rejected but rather as one who has been through the process of the decision and is willing to abide by it even through my accent would not have put it in this form.

The practice of this kind of participative humility and its capacity to help the "sense of the meeting" to emerge has done much to hold the Society of Friends together in critical moments of its life. But there is a costly spiritual dimension to the process and when this has not been present and exercised, even such a split as the Hicksite-Orthodox division of the nineteenth century (which took a century and a quarter to heal) was able to take place.

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