Careful Discernment or Spiritual Timidity?

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For me, one of the most powerful, unspoken Quaker creeds is this: Spirit moves very slowly. What is my evidence for this belief? It is that when we say we are being Spirit-led, we move v-e-r-y sl-o-o-w-l-y! I have been pondering some questions about this: Why do we think a hallmark of obedience to the Spirit is a slow, deliberate pace? Why are we so sure that the Spirit is present mainly in silence and coolness and slowness?

Perhaps the impatient voices among us are Spirit-led. For that matter, how do we know that God herself is not impatiently rolling her eyes when she hears another call to “season” something until next month’s or next year’s meeting? Friends elsewhere recognize passion and heat and boldness as signs of the Spirit active in their midst, yet unprogrammed American Friends see these as qualities likely to lead us astray.

Our decision-making apparatus is very focused on not making mistakes. In other parts of our lives, we acknowledge that making mistakes is a great source of learning, a sign of boldness, and the inevitable price for thinking outside the box. Yet in our meetings, we use Quaker process as a kind of sea anchor. We seem to believe that a single sin of commission—doing something wrong—is worse than centuries of sins of omission—doing too little or nothing at all.

Why do we seem to assume that the frequently heard statement “I do not feel led” is a sign of responsible, careful discernment, as opposed to a sign of unwillingness to listen?

Why do we seem to assume that the frequently heard statement “I do not feel led” is a sign of responsible, careful discernment, as opposed to a sign of unwillingness to listen?

I’ve recently been reading the 2017 book The Fearless Benjamin Lay by Marcus Rediker. Lay was an eighteenth-century Quaker abolitionist who was mostly rejected by Friends during his lifetime. Rediker’s account gave me a renewed understanding of the context in which our corporate discernment practices were developed. They were put in place at a time of intense religious ferment, political dissent, and harsh response to dissenters of all kinds. This was a time when people, including some Friends, arguably went off the rails with some regularity. They did things like go naked in public as a sign of spiritual innocence.

In October 1656, English Quaker leader James Nayler rode a horse into Bristol in a reenactment of Jesus’s Palm Sunday entrance into Jerusalem. Some of his followers sang hosannas to him, for which he was pilloried, imprisoned, and branded as a blasphemer. Pretty intense stuff.

George Fox was apparently horrified by both the untrammeled “my conscience is the highest guide” behavior of some of his peers and the resulting harsh, bloody persecution of Friends. Individual inspired witness began to be reined in by collective efforts at control and guidance, and the fledgling Quaker movement began to institutionalize itself.

I firmly believe in the same things that Fox did: that the Spirit can and does speak powerfully and authoritatively to individuals, that individuals can be deluded, and that checks on individual discernment are a good thing. Much of what we call Quaker process grows out of the tension among these paradoxical truths.

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But I wonder, could it be that our mechanisms of discernment are acting as overly powerful brakes on Spirit-led impulses? Could it be (as one Friend put it) that we are deifying Quaker process: elevating the architecture of decision making over the call of Spirit to help heal this beautiful, bleeding world?

Quaker process is not sacred, though at its best, it can bring us closer to what is. While it has been honed over centuries and has much wisdom and experience embedded in it, it is still a human construction. If we created it, we can evaluate it. If we built it, we can modify it. Should we?

If we want to see how our decision-making apparatus is serving us, we can observe the evidence. Are our meetings growing and thriving? Some are, but overall our meetings are declining, especially from losing and failing to attract young adults. It is not enough to say that most churches are declining and that it’s inevitable. Some churches are growing. (One where I live went from around 20 to around 800 members over a period of 18 years.) Friend Kenneth Boulding’s First Law comes to mind: Whatever exists is possible! We too could be growing!

Is our witness in the world prophetic and transformational? We have some things to be proud of, but overall we are a small and not especially cutting-edge presence on the national stage. I periodically read my mother-in-law’s Living Lutheran magazines, and as far as I can tell, we Friends have nothing on the Lutherans.  (You should see the ambitious social justice agenda the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America [ELCA] committed to at their last annual gathering!)

I notice that many entire mainline denominations have denounced the Doctrine of Discovery (the papal instruction to claim Indigenous lands for the church and the crown) while just a few yearly meetings have: not Friends General Conference (FGC), Friends United Meeting (FUM), nor Evangelical Friends Church International (EFCI). I notice that even organizations as famously deliberative as the League of Women Voters were quicker than our yearly meetings to come out with strongly worded statements about George Floyd’s death and its meaning for us. Not that proclamations and denunciations themselves change the world, but if we can’t even get ourselves to agree to say something, what does that say about our ability to do anything?

My yearly meeting recently made the decision to become an actively antiracist faith community. This is good news. And I am happy that we made the decision the day before George Floyd’s murder. But it’s not lost on me that prior to that, I was co-clerking a faith community that had not yet seen its way clear to being actively antiracist. As was the case with FGC a few years ago, every time the subject came up, there were people who felt we needed to do more discernment before making such a commitment.

Really, Friends? Is it even remotely conceivable that God does not want us to heal the cancer of racism in our midst? It is even remotely plausible that God does not want us to build the Blessed Community? Is it even remotely possible that God does not want us to examine ourselves and our institutions in the light of divine love, and be remade?

Yes, there are decisions that require deep discernment and which may well take time. There are decisions in my life where discernment has taken place over years, a slow and meandering path generating data and insight along the way, with dead-ends and rabbit paths explored, rejected, and learned from. And there are decisions that we may make quickly but, to carry out rightly, require us to obtain all kinds of new skills, new knowledge, and reshaped hearts. I’d put racial justice work in this category. But whether we should do this work—how hard can that decision possibly be?!

Reading about Benjamin Lay is a good reminder of the ways our careful, earnest, and yes, sometimes timid processes of discernment can be hijacked to block progress toward the Peaceable Kingdom, to drown out the voice of the Spirit among us. The machinery that early Friends put in place in response to a genuine problem also ended up being the means by which prophetic voices were silenced. It was the means by which people we now recognize as having been right were written out of meetings.

Have you ever witnessed the deflation of someone who suggested a good—or at least harmless—idea that got asphyxiated under the weight of Quaker process? Have you witnessed teens and young adults walking away in frustration—often forever—at the reception to their ideas? We don’t need to write them out; they leave.

Before bringing the whole weight of the Quaker collective decision-making process to bear on a tender new shoot of an idea, could we ask whether the possible costs of a failure or a mid-course adjustment are high enough to warrant such an effort?

I think there are lots of reasons, some of them good, why many of us are involved more heavily in non-Quaker than Quaker initiatives. But is one of the reasons that the non-Quaker ones are more nimble, more dynamic, and don’t throw up so many procedural obstacles? Are they simply more likely to embrace our ideas and let us get on with the work? Friend Emily Provance talks about the importance of fostering a “permission-giving culture.” I sure like the sound of that! What might it look like at our meetings?

Before bringing the whole weight of the Quaker collective decision-making process to bear on a tender new shoot of an idea, could we ask whether the possible costs of a failure or a mid-course adjustment are high enough to warrant such an effort? Before demanding a long process of discernment, or running a modest idea through a gauntlet of committees and checkpoints, could we just say, “Yes! Give it a try! What do you need to bring that idea to life in our meeting?” Could we do as Henry Cadbury suggested: stop consulting the seed catalog; get on with planting our garden; and see what comes up? If it is weeds, we will know it. We can then take action as needed.

If we could create the permission-giving culture Emily Provance talks about, might we find more energy in our sessions? Might we find more of our activist efforts happening under the Quaker banner? Might we find more of our non-Quaker colleagues getting interested in what this whole Society of Friends thing is about? Might we find more people checking us out because we and our meetings and institutions are vital and passionate and often to be found at the cutting edge of Spirit-led social change?

Wouldn’t that be something?

Kat Griffith

02is a member of the Winnebago Worship Group in east central Wisconsin and works with Quaker organizations at the local, regional, national, and international levels. Formerly a homeschooler and teacher, she is now pretty much a full-time volunteer activist and writer. She may be reached at

11 thoughts on “Careful Discernment or Spiritual Timidity?

  1. Thank you Kat Griffith. This is the article I would have liked to have written and speaks my mind. Why haven’t I written something similar – the answer is in the article, too much discernment and too little action on my part. We seek unanimity and internal peace at the cost of being ineffective and just bland. A timely piece which deserves wide sharing.

  2. I see this article as a much-needed “call to Spirit.” In contrast to the safety-oriented processes of the privileged middle-class, who make up much of the Meetings I have belonged to and visited.

    Privileged middle-class process emphasizes “good order” and “tenderness” — qualities that befit a station in life where getting others upset can lead to losing one’s position. In business, “trouble-makers” are quickly exited out as “malcontents.” The quality of their contributions are may be deemed “useful” but “disruptive.”

    Spirit it not necessarily tender. Ask, if you can go back in time, Margaret Fell whether her conversion experience was tender. Ask Martin Luther whether his conversion experience was tender. Ask any of those whose conversion experiences are described in Old Testament whether their conversion experiences (you know, fasting for 40 days and night and then the devils show up to give you something to deal with) whether their conversion experiences were tender.

    Quakers since at least 1666 (Letter to the Brethren, sent to London Meeting that year) have put good order over the moving of Spirit.

    The meeting Lucretia Mott belonged to in Philadelphia attempted 12 times to throw her out of Meeting. She was disruptive. She was also the smartest person in the room, so they failed all 12 times.

    In theory, Quaker process proceeds by both (or all the) sides seeking to connect with Spirit in those who conclusion is different than one’s own. Think of it as multiple clearness committees going on at once. That doesn’t take a lot of time: it just requires doing. It also requires a commitment to the rule of Spirit over all else. Therein lies the rub.

    Thanks for opening up a festering sore the in life of our Meetings.

    Hank Fay

  3. Kat, thank you for the helpful eldering in your article. I, for one, believe that the Religious Society of Friends can be well-served by heeding it.

    At the same time, I wonder to what extent the v e r y s l o w discernment customary among Friends in the U.S. (possibly elsewhere) is based in a middle-class ethic of stewardship and accompanied by related a terror of making a mistake. That fear would be compounded when the discernment is communal in nature. If so, it is DEEP and largely unseen by the majority, much like white supremacy among Friends.

    Some experts on class theory say that members of the middle class, which I believe is characteristic of the majority of U.S. Friends and the dominant culture of the U.S. Quakerism to which I’ve been exposed, have been carefully trained to supervise other people and resources on behalf of the owning class. Errors in judgment cause one to fall out of favor and lose the limited power with which the middle class may be vested by the owning class. Much as the “white moderates” of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, how many of us conform and, in so doing, kill the prophetic in ourselves, in others, in our denomination, in the world? Personally, I believe it is far, far more prevalent than most of us are willing to see, never mind admit. And, as James Baldwin so wisely writes, “Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

    1. Another of this month’s features, an interview with George Lakey we’ve titled “The Middle-class Capture of Quakerism and Quaker Process,” hits on some of these ideas, too, if you haven’t seen it yet…

  4. Thank you, Kat Griffith, for a challenging article and queries. Along the lines of Viv Hawkins’ comments related to the dominant white middle-class U.S. culture, I wonder how much individualism stymies U.S. Friends’ ability to come to unity on what God would have us do collectively.

  5. Thank you, William, for identifying the connection between “Can Quakerism Survive” and the points made in this article. “Can Quakerism Survive” was, according to the senior editor of Friends Journal, “the most talked about article in recent history.” Now if I can only do something to double the number of comments on my article in this issue (“The Middle-class Capture of Quakerism and Quaker Process: A conversation with George Lakey” ) from one comment to two.

    Steven Burkeman made some points in his 1997 article in the British Quaker magazine, The Friend, “Quaker business method: a sceptical view,” that are similar to the points made in “Careful Discernment or Spiritual Timidity?” and the Lakey interview. For example, he wrote.

    “We are all aware of Quaker families from which children have emerged who simply do not know how to cope with conflict because it has been avoided at all cost. The same phenomenon is evident in Quaker speech; we are masters and mistresses of the art of euphemism. When we do not approve of a suggested appointment, we say: ‘That name would not have occurred to me’ when we mean ‘Over my dead body’. Our witness to straightforwardness and truth is in tension with our wish to avoid provocative language, to be kind.”

    “But maybe it is not kindness, but avoiding that which we fear we cannot handle, lest it degenerate into that which we know we must not tolerate. Sometimes it may be worse than that – just plain manipulation, dressed up in Quaker grey, as a means of getting our own way. The Quaker euphemism ‘I hope so’ can – depending on the circumstances – amount to no more than old fashioned factory gate pseudo- democracy. We respond to the unasked question ‘All those in favour say Aye!’ and those who speak loudest are listened to and those who do not are ignored. What is this but violence to the human spirit – less bloody than the other kind, but just as damaging?”

    “Euphemism is also very difficult to argue with effectively. That a name would not have occurred to you is not an observation that I can query. Only you have authority to say what would have occurred to you. If, on the other hand, you say, ‘I don’t think so-and-so is suitable’, we can legitimately debate that. The euphemism is manipulative, a verbal power-play shutting off debate.”

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