When Quakers Disagree

Guess what? Quakers have disagreements among themselves and in their monthly meetings for business. Nothing unusual about that— we’re human, after all. What is unusual is how Friends address disagreements.

In hard decisions where there are seemingly intractable conflicting positions held by members of a meeting, there are several Quaker process “tools” that could be used. Over the years I have observed these being utilized in both large and small monthly meetings, watched as seasoned clerks at Friends Committee on National Legislation used these with amazing results, and used each of these myself in several periods of service as clerk of Stony Run Meeting in Baltimore, Maryland.

1. In the midst of discussion when the way is not clear, or is blurred by tense feelings, pause for a period of worship. This provides an opening for reflection on all that has been said, reconsideration of one’s own position, and discernment of a new way forward. Sometimes that is a third way that wasn’t apparent before. Often it is someone other than the clerk who suggests that “we settle into a period of worship,” much to the relief of the clerk who is trying mightily to see a way forward.

2. Lay the matter over. This also allows for reflection, and for what Friends call “seasoning.” It allows time for conversations among those with differing views, so greater understanding can emerge.

3. Ask the proposing person or committee to reshape the proposal to incorporate as many of the suggestions, and address as many of the objections, as possible, and to bring the proposal back to a future monthly meeting.

4. Have some of the people with concerns, together with some of the people who support the proposal, form a small group to reshape the proposal, and bring a revision back to a future monthly meeting.

A Friends monthly meeting, having done those things, might nearly be in agreement to accept the proposal. Yet still some Friends may not agree. They may say that they do not think sense of the meeting on this issue has been reached, or they may state that they are “led to stand in the way.” This is their right and moral responsibility to do if they see their hesitation as a deep spiritual conviction. The Meeting should then listen to the concerns of the individual and prayerfully consider whether that person’s sense of the Truth (or elements of it) might be closer to the Truth than what had previously been proposed. Sometimes it is, and that person’s statement becomes the fully embraced sense of the meeting. But sometimes it is not. So, what does a meeting do?

5. Between sessions, have some people visit individually with, and “sit with the concerns” of, those who are not ready to accede to what the rest of the meeting seems ready to agree upon. This may result in a way opening for agreement, or possibly a third way, which had not been apparent before, to emerge at a future meeting for worship with a concern for business.

6. Have a “threshing session,” a meeting at a separate time that is specifically not for decision-making. Normal practices of a Quaker meeting for business are relaxed so that Friends can speak more than once to an issue, can speak to a point just made, or can ask a question of a previous speaker. The clerk might even ask for a “straw poll” of opinions at “this point in our discussion so far,” or go around the circle giving each person an opportunity to speak in turn. The special role of a threshing session is that it allows everyone to say what they think without the burden of needing to make a decision. It enables folks to speak strongly yet be able to change their position and not merely defend their point of view in anticipation of a decision about to be made.

So, what if agreement still cannot be reached?

7. Friends operate by “sense of the meeting,” not consensus. This is not the same as unity or “everyone has agreed.” So, the clerk might state that “we appear to have reached a sense of the meeting to do X, would (address by name the objecting person or persons) be willing to stand aside?”

8a. If the objecting persons are not willing to stand aside, the clerk could test with the meeting whether the sense of the meeting is to do X, and “knowing that some Friends are not in unity with this decision, are Friends ready to approve this as the Sense of the Meeting?” If the meeting so decides, the objecting persons might ask to be recorded as not being in unity with the decision, or if they do not ask to be recorded, the minutes would note that “two (or whatever number) Friends were not in unity with this decision.”

To do this tears at the fabric of the meeting community, and is done only as a last option when the rest of the meeting is clear that adherence to Truth calls for making the proposed decision. The decision would need to be one of clear spiritual necessity for the meeting and not merely convenience, and it needs to be recognized that subsequent healing will be necessary. Similarly for the individual, the objection would need to be a matter of clear spiritual calling for that person and not merely convenience. In other words, all persons of whatever position on the matter must ask themselves: “Is my sense of what God or Divine Will or the Spirit or Truth calls our meeting to do in this moment based on my sense of that transcendent calling, or is it based only on my preferences, prejudices, or convenience?”

8b. Or, if the objecting persons are not willing to stand aside, the clerk could judge that the objection is significant enough that the meeting should not proceed on this matter, and test that “sense of the meeting” with those present and suggest that the meeting approve laying aside the matter indefinitely. Much like the benefit of a threshing session, laying the matter aside indefinitely removes the pressure to work the matter, and opens space for reflection and new thinking, the magic Friends call “seasoning.” The matter could return to a future (indeterminate) meeting for business—if appropriate—after further seasoning. Again, it needs to be recognized that subsequent healing will be needed. Stony Run has made such decisions, and in some cases the matter was brought forward by concerned persons months later and satisfactorily resolved, and on other occasions never arose again.

There is Quaker lore that any individual can stand in the way of a decision and prevent the decision from being taken. This is not entirely true. “Standing in the way” is a mutual responsibility between the individual and meeting to test our sense of the Truth as we are imperfectly able to sense it at the time. But no one, after prayerful consideration by the meeting, can “stand in the way of a decision” without the meeting’s permission. The meeting can proceed, in loving tenderness to those who cannot join in the decision.
Arthur, a member of Stony Run Meeting in Baltimore, Md., is associate executive secretary of Friends Committee on National Legislation.


Arthur, a member of Stony Run Meeting in Baltimore, Md., is associate executive secretary of Friends Committee on National Legislation.