Rationalizing Quaker business theory

(There’s a big followup to my last major post on the way, but in the meantime I continue with little tidbitty posts.)

An example of a flowchartOne of the ways I think liberal Quakerism should change (under that name or not) is in being more understandable.

Being such a theory-averse, intuition-based group has many benefits, to be sure. But it’s quite bad for our outreach and cultural relevance when so much of Quakerism is so opaque to the outsider.

In particular I’m thinking of meeting for business. It’s perhaps the most central and imitation-worthy part of Quakerism, and yet I don’t think I’ve seen a single explanation of how business meeting works that hasn’t been deeply vague and fuzzy — little more than broad outlines plus “you know it when you feel it.” I’ll admit that this, along with learning-by-osmosis, has been enough to successfully pass it on within our little society, to be sure. But if we want to be more than an obscure, quirky sect, this simply will not do.

[On a side note, perhaps part of the problem is that liberal Quakerism, IMHO, is slowly rounding a big corner towards corporate nontheism (in the sense of naturalism, which may still include the use of “God” as a metaphor), and the theoretical groundwork to replace Barclay, etc. hasn’t been done yet. But then again, even the traditional explanations seem too fuzzy. In the coming weeks I hope to re-read some F&Ps, read Beyond Majority Rule, and perhaps some other sources, and see if this might be an unjustified impression on my part.]

In any case, I propose the following standard for future (or existing but not well-known) explications of Quaker business process: we ought to be able to draw a flowchart of the process that a monkey could understand.

I’m not proposing that the process itself should (or could) ever become logical or cut-and-dried — open sharing will always be open sharing, clerk discretion will always be clerk discretion, and rightly forming a minute will always require just as much sensitivity as it does now. I’m proposing that second-order explanations of the whole process (which already exist) should become clearer and more logical, enough so that ordinary people can understand and appreciate what we’re doing.

I’m working on a flowchart of this sort myself, and I’ll probably post it here in a week or so. (What’s surprising me the most as I work on it is that the dichotomies between secular “voting” or consensus and Quaker business process seem to be partially breaking down.)


Wording edits made to second-to-last paragraph 7/13.

6 Responses to “Rationalizing Quaker business theory”


  1. 1 Cat Chapin-Bishop Jun 29th, 2007

    Ow! Zach, I do hope you are wrong when you say that “liberal Quakerism, IMHO, is slowly rounding a big corner towards corporate nontheism (in the sense of naturalism, which may still include the use of “God” as a metaphor).” I may not know what I mean by the word “God,” and the connotations may not involve the same level of clear personification as many Friends might own… but to me, the concept of God is a metaphor only in the sense that all complex language is a metaphor, and there is certainly something beyond the naturalistic that I strive to commune with in worship.

    It doesn’t much matter to me what the understandings are of the Friend sitting next to me in worship–worship for business or any other kind of worship–may be. But that there is something beyond mere human wisdom that we can draw upon, communally, in our business… that strikes me as essential to being Quaker, and I hope you are not dismissing that. (Your sense that “the dichotomies between secular “voting” or consensus and Quaker business process seem to be partially breaking down” suggests that you are, in fact, seeing meeting for business as a purely secular business… but I’m not sure I understand what you’re saying here.)

    I’m hoping that you’ll clarify your ideas a bit more in some additional comments…

  2. 2 Zach A Jun 29th, 2007

    Hi Cat,
    I wonder if you’ve read my posts Nontheism and meeting for business and God’s will for a nontheist, and if so what you thought of them. As the first one would suggest, I both disagree and agree with you here: “there is something beyond mere human wisdom that we can draw upon, communally, in our business…” There is indeed something beyond ordinary human wisdom going on in the numinous sorts of Quaker experiences. But I don’t see it as therefore non-human; a concept like “extra-ordinary human wisdom” fills that need just fine.

    What I’m getting at with the voting vs. “QBP” comment is that it’s beginning to seem to me that the difference between the two is less about “voting” per se and more about two other things.

    First, in normal business practices, it’s considered accceptable to support the outcome you personally want, while we’re supposed to put our personal wants aside and favor the outcome we perceive to be the “best”. In other words, we’re trying to discern the truth about something objective beyond ourselves — the best way forward all things considered.

    The other difference I see is the multi-layered, complex course of Quaker business process. If we drew a flowchart of “secular” business practice, it would be quite short, simple and direct — item is presented, minute is formed, vote, majority rules. A flowchart illustrating Quaker business process would be much more complex. If people are not unified and clear as to the best course of action, we don’t just proceed with the majority; we loop back, perhaps share more, perhaps reformulate the minute, and repeat. If unity is reached, great, but what happens if not? Well the next question (and next box on the chart) is the question of whether the Friends in the majority feel they should overrule the minority. This doesn’t happen in ordinary deliberative assemblies — if you favor X, it’s assumed you’re willing to overrule any minority that favors Y — but Friends see these as separate questions. I suspect at NEYM this August a majority will be in favor of leaving FUM, but we won’t feel right overruling the minority.

    This will become clearer when I post about my first attempt at a chart, but my point in saying the dichotomies partly breaks down is that some of the individual steps of Quaker business process already do involve informal votes — and that it would therefore be no great violence to the process if formal votes were instituted at those steps — even if the process as a whole has a very different character from the kind of decision-making process we think of when we hear “voting.”

    Does that help at all?

  3. 3 Cat Chapin-Bishop Jun 30th, 2007

    Hmmm… Zach, I think I am understanding you, and I’m concerned at what I’m hearing. You seem to be describing something much closer to secular consensus process than what I think Quaker business process, at its best, is about.

    It’s that concept of unity–Isomething more than a group of humans agreeing with one another, or stopping to deliberate whether a majority should overrule a minority, but as seeing unity with something that both permeates and goes beyond not just any individual Quaker, but the group as a whole. I am, perhaps, agnostic as to whether that something should be termed Christ, God, the Light, the eternal Tao, or the Ain Soph, but it lends a sacred dimension to our deliberations.

    More than that, this is not a concept for me, it’s a direct perception. I don’t know what you experience in a covered meeting, or, indeed, whether you have that experience at all. But I do have that experience, and it is what I sense in those moments that I trust in, not a wise or rational or harmonious process among humans.

    A more abstact way to say this is that I believe I am a panentheist (and that by experience, not simply theory) with a trust both in the sacrality of existence and of a dimension that goes beyond existence. It seems increasingly clear to me that you are not… and probably not even a pantheist, seeing the sacred purely within the manifest world, but a true secularist.

    I feel pretty clear that secularizing the Society of Friends meeting for worship for business is a Bad Idea, no matter how clear, reasoned, or well-executed the form of secular consensus decision-making that might be substituted in its place. To my mind, that move toward secularization is not neccesarily a part of a non-theist world-view… though it might be of a truly atheistic world-view.

    To the extent that my understanding of your approach to Quaker business is correct, I hope that it is not adopted within NEYM as we wrestle with our relationship with FUM this year. It may not make a lot of difference when it comes to decisions on whether or not to repaint the meeting house of my local monthly meeting, for instance, but on questions of such weight, I want to have a covered, Spirit-led meeting for worship for business. I think that anything less will probably cause needless anger and suffering. It’s clearly not going to be an easy process, but I would like it to be the one chosen by the Spirit of Peace.

    I think you and I do not agree in how we perceive the process of Quaker meeting for business. Am I correct?

  4. 4 Zach A Jul 1st, 2007

    No Cat, I’m not sure you’re correct that we disagree :-D

    Not that we might not disagree about some things, but perhaps it’s less than you think.

    And incidentally, I’m a bit hurt that you’ve already moved beyond “Let’s discuss this” to “I understand what you mean and I’m clear that it’s Bad for the SoF.” I would’ve thought your experience being on the business end of the latter attitude might’ve made you slower to shift gears.

    First off, I want to emphasize that I’m not talking about changing the practice itself; note that the post is not called “Rationalizing Quaker business practice.” The practice itself is wonderful, as I said in the post, and I feel most meetings I’ve attended do it quite well. Right now I have no desire to ask Friends to tinker with it (though non-Friends is another story perhaps), least of all at NEYM next month! Speaking personally, I do believe I’ve experienced what other Friends mean by the phrase “covered meeting,” and I do get a sense at times that what we’ve done is more than just “humans agreeing with each other,” and involves a sense of unity that goes beyond any of us individually or as a group.

    Where we might differ is regarding the theory or explanation of how that practice works. (Of course theory affects practice to some degree, but the distinction is not completely meaningless.) And there are two distinct theoretical issues we’re talking about here: nontheism/theism and vague/clear. The latter is what I’m actually getting at in this post. Though I touched on nontheism tangentially (which I almost regret now), and though there might be a few loose connections, I see it as a separate issue. Minus that paragraph, I thought the very same things years ago as a Christian Friend.

    But I don’t get the sense that we’re mostly talking about the vague/clear issue right now, so with your permission I’d like to postpone further discussion of that to next post. A few remarks instead regarding the nontheism/theism issue:

    The main place I think we differ is that I do have a name I’m comfortable calling the that-larger-than-us we are communing with in those moments, and I call it “reality” (or “Reality” if you prefer), rather than any of the names you listed. As I said in the post I referenced above (I humbly request again that you read it and tell me what you think), I see us as extensively, sometimes deeply, out of contact with reality, and this is precisely the reason the mere “agreement” ordinary consensus produces is not enough — a group of people lost in their imaginings working out an agreement may quite possibly still remain lost in their imaginings. What makes Quaker business process special is that if done well it facilitates that rarest of events: contact with r/Reality, in all its aspects, deeper and fuller than we can easily accomplish alone or by using less wise processes. (And incidentally, it is in fact a “wise process” that allows those moments you treasure to happen; they don’t happen by chance.)

    As for the charges of “secularism,” etc., it depends on what you mean. I am indeed a secularist, a nontheist, an atheist, and in that sense no pantheist. Nor do I see anything as “sacred” in the sense of relating to any supposed supernatural divinity. But one meaning of “sacred” is “worthy of respect; venerable,” and I do in fact see most things (and certainly people) as worthy of respect, sometimes even awe. Strictly speaking I’m not sure I would say that of everything, because there is a lot of pain and suffering in the world. But I think I share much of the basic “pantheistic” attitude you describe. In fact, a sense of awe towards reality-as-it-as, and the momentousness of being enabled to get a little better glimpse of it, is what draws me back to these meetings.

  1. 1 Progressive Friends on Quakerpedia at The Seed Lifting Up Pingback on Jul 10th, 2007
  2. 2 More on understanding Quaker business meeting at The Seed Lifting Up Pingback on Jul 11th, 2007
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