Open Quakers

Dedicated to Openness and Inclusivity in Quaker Meetings

Quaker Business Method

"The ultimate correction for the tunnel vision that afflicts all of us mortals is more light"

From 'Mistakes Were Made – But Not By Me' by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson

God's Will – or Just Consensus ?

The Quaker business method started life as the means by which members could seek, and then execute (hopefully), God's will. However, in the present age, when ideas about what we mean by 'God' seem incredibly diverse, especially among Quakers, the business method now looks remarkably like consensus. To the casual observer it is a process most immediately notable for not involving the taking of votes.

When done well, the business method has certain benefits. In theory, everyone listens to whoever is speaking and people are not interrupted (except on very rare occasions). All who wish to speak are heard. And decisions once made, having been fully discussed, are understood and accepted by all those present. By allowing time for a gentle process designed to leave all content, the business method can result in a great deal of harmony and unity of purpose, but it is a system that is open to abuse.

God's Will – or 'Bringing People on Board' ?

In one particular chapter of his book "The Quaker Way – a rediscovery", the Quaker writer Rex Ambler makes a reasonable case for the Quaker business method, but then he rather gives the game away:–

"(The) process can take a long time, of course. Who knows when we will all be enlightened
so that we can all agree what needs to be done? It might prove to be difficult and even trying
if everyone has to get on board, including the stubborn ones and the dull ones"
(my italics).

It would be tempting, and perhaps a little naughty, to speculate as to which particular members of his own meeting Rex regards as "stubborn" and which he regards as "dull".

Rather more importantly, Rex's remark does convey an attitude that is, I fear, all too common (albeit rarely so blatantly expressed) in some sections of the society.

Quakerism was originally founded in a spirit of equality. Real ministry, whether in meeting for worship or in meeting for worship for business, never derives from supposed intellectual superiority but rather from a kind of inspiration that frequently defies understanding or analysis, and which may be given not just to the "doctors and philosophers" but to men, women and children from any walk of life. It is time for us to rediscover and re–interpret this traditional, and more egalitarian, approach to the way in which we allow ourselves to be led in the management of our affairs.

The downside to Quaker business method, as it is currently practised, is considerable. Decisions can take a very long time to make; the process tends to be slow and ponderous; and meetings can drag on for hours. It often seems that, by the end of a long area meeting, many of those present have almost lost the will to live and will agree to almost anything just to be allowed to go home. The result, rather as with some of the left–wing politics of the nineteen–sixties, is that it is often the last person standing that gets his or her own way. It shouldn't be like this, but it often is. The whole system depends upon the goodwill of all, and the willingness of all to listen respectfully to the views of others. However, unlike democracy, Quaker business method lacks the mechanisms to moderate the influence of those who are not respectful, whether of the method itself or of other people and their views.

Simplicity and Equality ?

The effects of the cumbersome nature of the Quaker business method are exacerbated by the fact that so few ordinary people are able to get to business meetings. By the time you have travelled, quite possibly for over an hour, to get to your business meeting, sat through it (or participated in it, as the case may be), and then travelled home again, you may well have spent the best part of a day simply deciding on a handful of issues that, under different circumstances, could have been dealt with in a single hour. What makes the whole process all the more ridiculous is that, now Quaker area meetings are registered charities, many of the really important decisions, if not actually made by the trustees, must at least be ratified by them, if only tacitly, thus making much of what happens at area meetings just so much hot air.

If meetings are held during the week, most people cannot attend because they are working. If meetings are held at the weekend or in the evenings, then a lack of public transport frequently excludes those who cannot come by car. What makes matters even worse is that, as a result of the convoluted and euphemistic terms in which minutes are sometimes written, there are occasions when those who have not actually attended a business meeting have little or no idea as to what really happened.

The Priesthood of All Believers ?

Most voluntary organisations are plagued with similar difficulties in relation to participation, but the Quakers make matters much worse by their insistence on not taking votes, especially in relation to appointing officers (which would be much better done by secret, postal, ballot). Quakers will tell you that all are equal, and that there is no hierarchy amongst Quakers. This is nonsense. What equality can there be when three quarters of those who should be involved cannot get to the meetings where decisions are made? No wonder local and area meetings find it so hard to appoint clerks, elders and all the other volunteers needed for the proper running of meetings; and no wonder that it's so often the same retired professional empty-nesters that keep getting recycled in an endless game of musical chairs (or a game of silent elders' benches, as the case may be), swapping seats among themselves every three years, while everyone else is just grateful not to have been asked this time. The priesthood of all believers has become the house of bishops for those who have the time and the money to get involved.

Resolving Conflict

The Quakers pride themselves on being peacemakers. The reality is that they often just try to avoid conflict — which is an entirely different matter. For a couple of critiques of Quaker conflict, see the articles by Gordon Slaymaker and Keith Triplett both of Lancashire Area Meeting. I myself am convinced that the Quaker Business Method, as currently practiced, actually exacerbates conflict and makes it more difficult to resolve conflict.

We cannot go on this way – or at any rate we cannot do so for very long before matters are taken out of our hands by organisational collapse.