Joys of the Quaker Way—Quaker process

December 20, 2014 § 3 Comments

In the last post, I talked about how much joy I get from theology, from the study and the sharing of both the faith and the practice of the Quaker way, and from seeking to understand the dynamics of Quaker community. But I also get real joy from taking part in the dynamics of Quaker community, and especially in its discernment processes.

When we are faithful, sometimes we are led by the Spirit, and that gathering brings great joy. I have said this before. But here I am talking about a quieter joy I get from simply participating.

I love participating in Quaker meetings for discernment, whatever forms they take, as long as everyone understands how the process is supposed to work and is committed to following it, and the clerking is at least somewhat effective. We do not often find ourselves in the joyful transcendence of the gathered meeting, but just doing the work gives me a quiet spiritual pleasure.

Even committee meetings. I may be the only Friend I know who enjoys committee meetings, Even when they are not being conducted well, I sometimes enjoy trying to bring them into “gospel order”. Unless the committee is “brainstorming”; I hate brainstorming with a flaming passion, and feel that it is profoundly contrary to the Quaker way.

On the other hand, though, I do have to admit that sometimes “Quaker process” drives me nuts. This happens under several conditions:

  • when too many Friends are either ignorant or ignore-ant of how our meetings for discernment work, especially when the clerk lets their behavior prevail;
  • when Friends become impatient or lose their faith; and
  • when Quaker bureaucracy stands in the way of progress, usually by thwarting some newly emerging ministry.

In this latter case, I say, “To hell with Quaker process when hell is where it takes you.” We sometimes adhere to a process as an outward form when we should rather be heeding the movement of the Spirit.

Moreover, “Quaker process” has been trending secular over the past sixty years or so. The term has a secular ring to it to start with, and I prefer “gospel order”, though some of the traditions of gospel order apply more to our culture of eldership than they do to our processes for discernment. I plan a series of posts on gospel order in the future.

More importantly, however, we have increasingly adopted the world’s ways to do our business (down with brainstorming!) and have increasingly abandoned the core principle of gospel order, that we do our business in worship under the leadership of the Holy Spirit. We give lip service to this idea, but in practice, we often act otherwise.

And we increasingly give our commitment and our trust to the process rather than to G*d; we increasingly have made an idol of our process. I suspect that this is because we are so conflicted about G*d. Of course, the very fact that I use an asterisk in the word G*d means that I myself participate in this ambivalence.

Even so, I am clear that a spiritual presence animates our “Quaker process” when we are in the Life, and it awaits us as we work the process even when we are not “in the Life”, and thus our discernment is not merely consensus decision making. Our faith should not be in a process but in the Spirit in which it was revealed to us.

I keep returning to this theme. I think it’s the essential question for modern liberal Friends—just what do Spirit and worship mean? And I will return to it again. But not here. This series is about my joys, not the wrestling match I am having with that angel.

And the faith and practices we call “Quaker process” do give me joy, even as watered-down and bastardized as they are sometimes. Two in particular, are modern innovations of genius—worship sharing, and clearness committees for decision making and for discernment. These processes have at times given me a joy much greater than just a “quiet spiritual pleasure”.

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§ 3 Responses to Joys of the Quaker Way—Quaker process

  • Jill H-W says:

    As I read your post for the third time, I realized that I have a growing problem with the phrase “gospel order.” I think one definition of gospel order is that there is a heavenly/spiritual/natural order that should be followed. (mmm…perhaps I could say that it is God’s law over human law?) Second, people point to Matthew 18:15-19 as a version of gospel. But then the phrase includes the word “gospel” and so I wonder if we should also consider that gospel order points to the Bible as providing rules or an order that should be followed?

    And instead of the phrase “gospel order”, should we be using another phrase (or phrases) that are more clear?

    • “Gospel order” now has a set of historical/technical meanings for specific things that got called that by George Fox and other early Friends: First, the organization of Friends into what we in North America call monthly, quarterly or regional, and yearly meetings. Second the application of the 3-step “process” for church discipline described in Matthew 18, and which modern Friends have expanded a bit beyond just discipline to a set of guidelines for conflict resolution in meetings. And third, a general meaning of living under the guidance of the gospel.

      But they were clear that we were not here talking about the letter of the law laid out in the gospels, but the order brought to one’s life and to meeting life when it submits to the leadership of the Holy Spirit.

      Lloyd Lee Wilson talks about a more cosmic meaning that comes, I think, from a theology around the Word in the prolog of the gospel of John, in which the universe is itself under the order brought to it by Christ as the creative Word. That’s a bit cosmic for me. An elegant idea, though.

      But now, of course, the original meanings of this quasi-technical phrase are lost to a lot of Friends, and to a certain extent, so are some of the practices associated with it. And “gospel” no longer sits easy in the minds of many liberal Friends.

      So to try to recover the ideas and practices, it’s tempting to start using a new phrase that would be more attractive in our time. But then we would be severing our tie to the past, to our own history and tradition. We’ve done that before, but I think we should not do so without some discernment.

      And meanwhile, what would you suggest? I haven’t thought about it too much because I am in many ways a traditionalist and “gospel” raises no bogeys for me, but I’m not sure what alternatives would work.

      Do you have any ideas? And thanks for the comment.


  • Dear Steven, thanks very much for this inspiring series of posts on the ‘joys of the Quaker way’.
    I have written a reply to your recent comment on my blog at:
    and would be glad to explore this further if that interested you.
    In Friendship,

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