November 3, 2005

Pamphlet review:
Beyond Consensus: Salvaging Sense of the Meeting

One of the better things that I came away with from this year's FGC's Central Committee was the Pendle Hill Pamphlet (#307) by Barry Morley, Beyond Consensus: Salvaging Sense of the Meeting.

In keeping with the concern I carry for making our faith explicit and conveying our faith to others, this pamphlet does well to take a very abstract element of Quakerism--sense of the meeting--and put it in contexts that clarify how it differs from the secular concept of consensus.

I knew I would want to read this pamphlet when I read "About the Author," which says in part: "He has become increasingly concerned about... a process by which Quakers dedicate themselves to Quaker values and concerns but diminish the spiritual core from which the values and concerns originally emanated."

Towards the beginning of the pamphlet, I come across another phrase that is very close to what I have begun to share with other Friends: "Many of us are adults before we become Quakers. We are not steeped in the process..."

But these are the glimpses I came across that led me into reading the pamphlet altogether. There are stories of Friends laboring with one another, seeking a solution to difficult, personal concerns that would resonate with the deepest inward nature of a Quaker meeting. There are stories of elegant transformation when Friends are faithful to pursuing the sense of the meeting; and examples of disappointing let-downs when Friends settle for its secular cousin, consensus.

Here are a few elements of sense of the meeting, paraphrased, that I hope more of us will restore:

  • In sense of the meeting, God gets a voice. -p. 5

  • Seeking consensus is an intellectual process. Sense of the meeting is a commitment to faith. -p. 5

  • With consensus, we will ourselves to a decision. In sense of the meeting, we will ourselves to allow ourselves to be led. -p. 5

  • Consensus fosters a weak commitment because it's based on shared compromises. Sense of the meeting fosters a powerful commitment because it's based on a shared inward experience of God's power over all. -pp. 6, 11.

  • With consensus, we never really let go of our personal agenda. In sense of the meeting, we seek to understand the agenda that is intended for us, which is delivered to us from out of the Light. -p. 12

  • There is a lot in this 32-page pamphlet... It refreshes my spirit to see language and stories attached to a concept that is in some ways endangered by the secularism that is creeping into some of our meetings.

    And Morley makes a very important statement about the challenge of conveying a faith that is often defined by what it does NOT have, does NOT do, does NOT believe. He writes:
    A psychologist and Friend with whom I discuss these things says: "The Quakers have a great thing going and they don't teach anyone. They don't even teach themselves." We must become willing to teach each other to learn what can't be taught. (pp. 30-31, emphasis added)


    Anonymous said...

    Hello Liz

    I appreciate the fine distinctions between consensus and sense of meeting. Because so many of us belong to secular organizations that use consensus, we start to overlap the two decision-making processes. One other issue with sense of the meeting is that it doesn't have to be unanimous: it just has to be unified and complete. There has to be a sense of the Spirit guiding the decision, not a list of checkmarks beside everyone's name. Thanks for bringing up this topic.

    Liz Opp said...

    Thanks for the comments, Beppe and Nancy A. I appreciate the reminder that sense of the meeting does not require unanimity, though as I observed at recent meetings that even the most experienced of clerks might get caught in interpreting a lone dissenting voice as an indication that there is more threshing to do.

    I say, Not true!, though it takes great skill and diplomacy to be able to say, after hearing that lone voice,

    "Friends, it is our practice that no single Friend has veto power. I would test if the sense of the meeting is such-and-so. ...Does this Friend wish to be recorded as not being united with the sense of the meeting or as standing aside...?"

    Similarly, when I read about or hear about sense of the meeting, I also find myself thinking about how that may be different from unity--from being united with the sense of how God is guiding us.

    The last thing I'll add for now is, when I serve as clerk for a meeting for worship for business, I find I often jot myself a note at the top of the page that simply says:

    What is in TENSION.
    TEST for sense of the meeting.

    I have found that these phrases have helped me listen for the Spirit in a new way.


    Liz Opp said...

    Lynn, I agree that secular consensus can work at times, such as in the situations you mention.

    Having shared values, including a concern for the well-being of the group as a whole, reminds me of one of the (initial) roles of our Meeting communities, according to another good read by Thomas Gates.

    To summarize Gates' pamphlet, Members one of Another, the roles of our meetings as I recall them--and personally relate to--are:

    1. To be welcoming and accepting.
    2. To have shared values.
    3. To support one another in our transformation.
    4. To support one another in being obedient to the Spirit.

    For more reading about Gates' work, take a look at Beppe's post from October 2004. Gates' pamphlet is one that I highly recommend, along with Beyond Consensus: it has changed how I look at the development of a meeting community and the place of the individual within it.


    Anonymous said...

    I love it when other Quakers also dig down into the words we use! In my digging, I've (currently) concluded that, although there surely is a significant difference between the Quaker way & what most people see as 'consensus seeking', I don't feel a need to give that difference a new name: 'sense of the Meeting'. Why can't we just explain that it is our respect for each other that makes the difference? Why can't we just say 'consensing respectfully'?

    Aj Schwanz said...

    Thank you so much for bringing this to our attention! Sometimes I wonder with our current Quaker practices that we're doing them for the same reasons we stopped taking communion and baptising: we do them out of habit and because "that's what Quaker's do." Thanks for the reminder that we need to be taught - to experience this first hand: to work at it, not just "inherit" it from those before us.

    Claire said...

    To respond to rex who says:

    Why can't we just explain that it is our respect for each other that makes the difference? Why can't we just say 'consensing respectfully'?

    I say that calling it 'consensing respectfully' makes me nervous. In my experience, there's a gigantic and hugely important distinction between 'consensus' and what Friends call a 'sense of the meeting'.

    Consensus is where everyone agrees on something, having probably discussed it and ultimately made compromises. A sense of the meeting is where Friends have come to Unity. It is not about making compromises among individuals, but about discerning the corporate leading as a body. One could mentally disagree, or want something different than what seems to be the sense, but could feel the leading of the group and could feel led to unite with the decision.

    Consensus is a very secular, non-spirit based way of making a decision as a group of individuals with a common goal or task. A Sense of the Meeting is the spiritual leading of a body.

    This is my experience, and in my experience, the distinction is very important.

    Liz - thanks for posting about this. I read this pamphlet a few months ago and it nourished my spirit.

    Love and Light,

    Liz Opp said...

    Really great comments again from many of you--Thanks!

    Rex, you raise an important question when you offer, "I've (currently) concluded that, although there surely is a significant difference between the Quaker way & what most people see as 'consensus seeking', I don't feel a need to give that difference a new name: 'sense of the Meeting.' ...Why can't we just say 'consensing respectfully?"

    The concern I have in what you offer up, Rex, is that this is your personal, individual conclusion, rather than a possibility that has emerged from corporate seeking and that has been tested by a monthly meeting or other group, over time, to see if this is rightly led.

    Rex's comment has prompted me to dig a little more deeply myself about some words and phrases we Friends use.

    My understanding is that early Quakers did not use language frivolously, but rather were very intentional with the words they used. (Some of us contemporary Friends still are!)

    Of course, language changes over time, and certain forms of the Quaker vernacular and vocabulary have fallen away over the years, though some of it is being restored and reclaimed. Here are a few examples I can think of, off the top of my head:

    gospel order
    being made low, keeping low (scroll down a ways)
    taking up the cross (same link, also scroll down).

    I'll stop here, but thanks, everyone, for tweaking the amateur sociolinguist in me again!