I have been a Quaker for 22 years. ‘Unprogrammed’ or liberal Quakers, as you may know, don’t have pastors or other leaders. Community leadership role are usually rotated after a few years, and it is the community which makes decisions together to act in the world.
A few years ago, when I was part of a faith group supporting Occupy Portland (yes, Oregon, not Maine), people often said to me, we’re using your method of consensus here. That is not quite accurate: the community which meets in a Quaker group should be waiting on the divine to lead them corporately. ‘Should’, I say, because participants may forget their role. We people often like to act on our own conclusions, however derived. I love Quakerism, but the people, with all our human failings, can be a bit harder to tolerate.
Being part of a community which manages its own affairs, means taking responsibility. One essential part of responsibility is to review and check one’s actions. In a national democracy, this is done through regular elections – if the politicians don’t check their actions, the theory goes, the voters will give them feedback. This feedback ideally helps the politician review her or his year and improve certain types of decisions.
And any organisation which does not review its actions runs the risk of becoming out of touch with the world around. It is a ‘given’ with marketing. Since the power of the market is considered so basic to our society, we all know something about marketing. We all know that a company that doesn’t ask for feedback from its customers – feedback to help the company become ‘self-aware’ and to reviews its choices – risks becoming out of touch and likely to deserve the economic failure coming its way. And the same principle operates with non-profit groups, whether churches or other types of organisations. Those who deal in morality – those who advocate based on principles derived from faith – are duty-bound to ensure they are always operating according to the principles they require of others.
One aspect of moral behaviour is that it is hard. It must be so: if it were easy for us fallible humans to carry out, there would not be the need for external bodies, whether they be books or priests, activists or parents, to tell us how we should improve our treatment of others. If ethical behaviour were easy, we would not hurt our fellow human beings in the ways we know are all too common in all of our societies: malicious gossip, road rage, lack of respect for someone’s efforts, failure to smile at our neighbour, and others. Lack of charity – refusal to view each person with benevolent goodwill – would not be rife.
So what happens when a group of people – as Quakers do – join to make decisions together but forget to review the impact of their decisions? The Quaker business method is a method of making decisions to which the group should be led by the Spirit, during a meeting for worship with concern for business.
Many groups vest the responsibility in helping them maintain ethical standards in a leader. Dispassionate review, feedback, and the openness to knowing no human or human-created institution, is perfect, are essential aspects of maintaining these standards. Without a leader who is given this responsibility, all those present must exhibit responsibility themselves. All those present must help create the space of waiting and questioning. It is only in repentance – checking oneself, hearing feedback, making changes when needed – and remembering to wait for the Spirit’s true leading when making a decision, that a Quaker community can overcome the failings of being a collection of fallible human beings.