The group known as the Religious Society of Friends (Quaker) generally has the reputation as activists for peace and nonviolence. And deservedly so! From their beginnings in 17th century England, they refused to take up arms. At the same time, Quakers frequently had serious conflicts which, at times, resulted in divisions lasting for many generations.
I begin this way to note that Quakers, of whom I am one, are as much in need of finding constructive ways of resolving conflicts as most other groups. One of the particularly sticky issues among us is the issue of sexual orientation. A quick survey of Quakers across the world will show as broad a spectrum of opposing views.
The particular congregation of which I am a member in Richmond, IN, very recently decided it was time to be clear about where we stand as a group.
Before describing the process which we followed toward a decision, it should be noted that Quakers almost never vote in their decision making process. Because we value the insights of each individual, we do not believe that a majority necessarily indicates the best nor most faithful outcome. Thus, we routinely attempt to arrive at a decision through what we call “a sense of the Meeting.” We sometimes, somewhat cynically, refer to our process as “minority rule!” There are times when we do decide to move ahead despite a small minority’s dissent. But this is rare and done with very careful and prayerful consideration.
Another point to clarify our process; arriving at the “sense of the Meeting” is not the same as consensus. Consensus is a very useful process, demonstrably superior to majority rule. But it does not necessarily require a religious or spiritual dimension. Making decisions through discerning the sense of the Meeting assumes that each member has, potentially, a helpful perspective that, when shared, will contribute to the whole. While it normally requires more time to arrive at a decision, it has been demonstrated that implementation requires less time. Obviously, embedded in this process is a commitment to listening; (a) listening to our fellow members and (b) listening to our own inner voice.
When our congregational leadership group (called Ministry and Oversight) decided it was time for us to consider clarifying where we stand regarding sexual orientation, a carefully thought out procedure was followed. We were each invited to participate in a small group (of 6 or 8 people) to discuss the issue openly and without preconceptions as to outcome. Members of our Ministry and Oversight Committee led the small group conversations, carefully noting issues, questions, and concerns. The results of these meetings were then compiled and reported. Finally, a proposal was brought to our monthly business meeting recommending that we as a congregation declare ourselves as “welcoming and affirming” of all persons regardless of sexual orientation.
Not everyone agreed. At least one person “stood aside,” a method used by an individual who disagrees but who does not wish to stop the process. Had that person expressed disapproval and not stood aside, it is likely that the decision would have been deferred and, meanwhile, two or three members would have “laboured” with the individual to determine how best to proceed.
Our congregation is part of a larger body which is generally more conservative. Thus, there is push back from the leadership from that larger body. For example, we were asked to remove our statement from our website. After considering the request, we decided we could not do so. Consequently, the conflict continues. However, we as a congregation are settling in to what is new territory for us.
Quakers believe in “continuing revelation” which means we do not suppose that what we feel clear about today will necessarily be thus in another decade or generation. Thus, we must remain open to more “light.” But for now, we believe we have followed a process that is true to who we are.