Duncan Frewin, Queensland Regional Meeting.
I hear a lot of talk about Quaker process and right ordering. Perhaps you have heard it too: “Friends this not in right ordering. We have not received a recommendation from the committee.” Or “I hope we will follow Quaker processes and defer this decision.”
Unfortunately, it seems that we do not always understand the same things when we use these words. Recent events in my meeting have led me to ponder on these words. I offer these thoughts as a contribution to the ongoing conversation about where the Religious Society of Friends is going. Books can be (and have been) written about it. This is my understanding, my glint of light, and I invite others to share their light.
I want to start by distinguishing processes from procedures. Procedures are prescribed ways of operating – rules. An example would be the requirement that before a concern is brought to Yearly Meeting, it should be adopted by a regional meeting or a YM committee. Procedures are relatively easy to write down and set out in a manual such as our Handbook of Practice and Procedure. Often when people talk about Quaker processes, they really mean Quaker procedures – rules in fact.
Processes on the other hand are ways of thinking – principles or attitudes – that mould our interactions with each other or with outside groups or individuals. They are based on the values we cherish. An example might be our fundamental attitude of attempting to find peaceful ways of resolving differences, based on the value that peaceful resolution is better than striving for victory. That seeking for peaceful resolutions is the process that underlies the traditional procedures of resolving conflict in a meeting (one-to-one meeting, meeting with support persons, meeting with a mediator, and so on). Processes underlie procedures. That is, procedures are just the visible, concrete expression of the processes.
Procedures are relatively easy to codify. In former times, Quakers passed on much of their procedures in tradition – ways of doing business that, in their experience, demonstrated the spiritual processes they followed. In our own times, when few of us have grown up in Quaker families, the traditions have become weak and we have depended more on written descriptions of these ways – the Handbook. And each year the Handbook is becoming more and more prescriptive and detailed. I fear that we have come to depend on prescriptive procedures, interpreting them as if they were rules, because we are no longer sure about the underlying values-based processes.
Processes on the other hand are not so easy to grasp or codify. They are ways of thinking, attitudes, approaches, rather than rules, patterns of thinking that we bring to life. They flow from the values we cherish. Processes work at a deep level of our spiritual life, while procedures operate at the surface/visible level. So for instance our procedures in the Handbook tell us that a committee is accountable to the whole meeting, but the process is our attempt to be accountable to each other and through each other to God (however you understand that word) for how we live our life. Procedures can be easily modified to suit new circumstances, but processes are enduring because they flow from timeless, spirit-based values.
To understand Quakers processes, we need to consider the values that undergird them. We try to live our lives so that our lives testify to our values, demonstrate them to the world. These are the values of faith, hope, trust, integrity, respect, justice, mercy, humility and more. They are grounded in our understanding of God or the Spirit and in our relation to God. Quakers developed into a distinct group in Christianity because of our ways of living out these values in our church affairs as well as our daily life.
I would like to explore how values and processes relate, and how they are expressed in our procedures. To do that, I will look at two examples, one short, one long, to try to draw a picture of values, processes and procedures. The first example is our tradition of silent worship and how we regulate spoken ministry in that worship. Our understanding is that the Spirit of God can speak directly to our soul, without intercession through a sacrament or priest. That is the value that undergirds our spiritual process. So we wait in expectant stillness, listening for the voice of the Spirit, perhaps in our own mind, perhaps through the words of another person. Listening to the Spirit is the process. The silence is the procedure – a way of encouraging stillness of heart. The physical silence of itself has no value. That is not the aim in worship; the aim is to still the mind in order to listen for the Spirit. It is an expectant living stillness, not inert silence. So there is room for the babbling of babies, for the giggling of children, even the snoring of adults. So, even though we speak of silent worship, it need not be silent. The Quaker process is to seek stillness of mind not mere physical silence.
A more complex example is how we conduct our business. In our meetings for business, we meet to seek God’s will in our corporate life and to look after the necessary business of running our community. We are not looking for human agreement (consensus); we are seeking to know what Spirit wills. That is the theological value that undergirds our whole spiritual approach to church affairs. So we meet in hope, trusting that we will find light for the path ahead. It truly is meeting for worship for business. The processes of expectant waiting (for light to know the will of God) are based on values of equality, integrity, respect, humility, and so on. They require that we all search in our own hearts for any glimmers of light that we can offer, that we listen for any light that others may offer, and that we acknowledge that no one of us has all the light we need. That way of gathering is our process. These spiritual processes are the basis for our procedures for speaking in business meetings. And from them we derive the traditional procedural rules. So anyone can speak, as long as each one speaks from a base of prayer. We stand to speak – which reduces the temptation to empty speaking. We do not speak to agree or disagree, but to offer light, acknowledging that our words may not offer what others need, or that others may take our offering forward into unexpected paths. So we do not insist on our perception but leave room for others to speak their truth, and we listen prayerfully even if we disagree. We try not to argue or debate or to convince others of our opinion. And it follows that we do not answer back or speak more than once. We do not rush to speak immediately after another Friend but allow time to absorb their contribution. And if we believe that a person has given useful light, we say no more – our not speaking shows that we believe the Spirit has been opened. All of these “rules” (most unwritten) flow from our understanding that we seek God’s will rather human solutions, that everyone is equal before God and that we need the light that each one can offer. But these procedures are not graven in stone. We try not to be rigid, especially with a Friend who is inexperienced in our ways. We do not demand that someone who has difficulty standing should always stand to speak. In routine items we relax the standards. We forgive human weakness in each other when Friends get chatty. We may welcome several contributions from a Friend with valuable knowledge. We accept further contributions from someone whose mind is changing. And a clerk may refuse to acknowledge a person whose contribution would not be helpful. We modify a procedure, or even drop it, and adopt a new procedure, because the spiritual process of seeking God’s will as a community is more important.
These procedures are important as a concrete way of living out the processes that flow from our spiritual values. But when we stick obstinately to procedures because “Quakers have always done it that way” we are setting up a false god. When we frown at the noises of children in worship we are worshipping the physical silence. When we dismiss the offering of an inexperienced Friend in a business meeting because it is given in a “non-Quakerly” way, we are worshipping tradition rather than listening for the Spirit. That was the criticism made of the Pharisees in Jesus’ time. In fact, every religious group is capable of mistaking the rule for the spirit. We must always question our own ways – are we acting from the Spirit, or are we just enforcing human rules?
Let us then search for how to listen for the Spirit and seek God’s will. Let us come together with respect for each other, with integrity, with humility – in the end, with compassion for one another. Let us not use “Quaker processes” to judge each other, but let us try to follow the spiritual processes as best we can. Let us deal tenderly with each other, especially when we are not in unity. For in the end, the only rule is Jesus’ commandment – “Love one another”