Hurt by the Meeting

January 28, 2020 § 12 Comments

I know quite a few Friends who feel wounded or betrayed by their meetings. In the incidents in which this wounding occurred, it was individuals who hurt each other. Yet, whatever these Friends might feel towards the individuals involved, they still feel betrayed by the meeting, as well. This is the shadow side of the extraordinary corporate character of Quaker meeting life.

This transference of blame, hurt, and anger to the meeting calls for a special kind of pastoral care that we don’t seem to do very well or even talk about much. I am not at all clear about what’s called for myself, but I grieve for the people I know who have been hurt in this way and also for the meetings in which this pain and tension lives as a shadow on the fellowship. So I’m going to explore it here, in the hope that thinking and writing about it will bring some kind of opening and/or elicit some insights from my readers.

First, why do we transfer to the meeting hurts we suffer at the hands of individuals?

In some cases, I think we do so because a number of individuals were involved, and there seemed to be some kind of consensus among them about what they were doing. Some spirit was at work, some sense of the gathering.

Friends also have a perverse tendency sometimes to minister to the perpetrator in a fraught situation, rather than the victim. I’m not sure where this comes from. Maybe it comes from a perverse desire not to take sides, as though siding with the perp isn’t taking sides, but providing some kind of balance instead. I don’t know. But I want to name it, and I know it figures in some of these situations.

Very often, I know the hurt stems from the fact that other Friends let it happen, that a group or the meeting as a whole stood by while the wounding took place. These witnesses may not have agreed with what was going on, but they were paralyzed by fear, awkwardness, or indecision, or a failure of insight into what to do and/or courage to do it. This is a large part of why so many Catholics who have been abused by priests are so angry at the church: the church did nothing to stop it.

Very often, we’re not talking about just one incident, but rather an ongoing situation in which the principals seem stuck in their patterns and the meeting as a whole either doesn’t know what’s going on until it’s too late or doesn’t know what to do. Here, our culture of silence is our enemy: we tend not to talk to each other forthrightly about such things (though we may do so behind cupped hands in the parking lot), and our passive quietist tendencies suppress active involvement.

Also, in the Catholic case, the institution was more important to those in power than the people who were being victimized. We Quakers don’t have an imperial institution with that kind of embedded power, but we can still favor the institution over the individual. For us, the “institution” is “Quaker process.” I have seen Friends insist on Quaker process when the process was clearly hurting someone. Usually, this manifests as delay: it takes so long for the meeting to come to clarity and decision that those involved feel betrayed; their needs or concerns seem to have no value in the face of the slowly moving machine.

I have a phrase for this: To hell with Quaker process when hell is where it takes you. I feel quite strongly that people are more important than principles and institutions most of the time. My signature example of this is the way conservatives want to protect “the institution” of marriage rather than protect same-gender couples. On the other hand, I’m not sure what we can do about this. Our process for corporate discernment sometimes takes a while.

I’m not sure what we can do in any of these cases. We have the “gospel order” of Matthew 18:15–20 to guide us when things go bad between individuals: speak to the one who has sinned against you, then take one or two others with you, then take it to the meeting. Early Friends adopted this framework explicitly. I’m not sure how long the practice continued, but modern-day Friends hardly even know it exists. I hear it talked about (there’s even a Pendle Hill Pamphlet), but I’ve never seen it done. For one thing, this process lays the impetus for action on the wounded one, whose vulnerability makes it hard to do. And it doesn’t work at all when you feel betrayed by the community.

Very often, Friends who were not part of the incidents and groups originally involved in the situation sense the tension and go to the aggrieved people to express their sympathy and to invite them to come back (for these Friends often leave us when they see nothing is being done to address their concerns). But the aggrieved want to hear from the principals, not from third parties. And I think they want something from the meeting, too, which the meeting does not know how to give, even if the meeting is inclined to do something collectively.

I have seen individuals who caused some such hurt speak publicly to the meeting of their error and their anguish at having made such a mistake, and this does help the meeting some; but it rarely helps the aggrieved, because they usually weren’t there to witness the contrition and feel some answering movement of forgiveness within themselves.

Perhaps a minute of exercise from the meeting would help, in which the meeting admits its failure to act, or whatever.

Or perhaps the meeting could have some kind of called meeting for atonement whose goal is to become clear about what happened and then to decide what to do. It might urge those involved to speak to each other, especially those who had caused the hurt or had not intervened, rather than the other way around.

This is a level of corporate self discipline that I have rarely seen among us. When I have, it’s been a spontaneous emergence of grace in a gathered meeting for business that resolved a conflict in the moment, but I don’t know how those who felt aggrieved going into the meeting felt when they left those meetings. The body might have felt better while the individuals did not.

Perhaps meetings could have a called meeting for speaking whose purpose is just to create as safe a space as possible for everyone to name their pain and grievances. I would model this on Quaker dialogue, known to some as Claremont dialogue, after the California meeting that published a pamphlet outlining how it works. It’s simple: It’s like a worship sharing—Friends speak what’s on their mind when they feel ready. No one interrupts or answers or debates what has been said, or tries to correct it. Everyone gets to speak their own truth and then everyone goes home. No discussion. No decision. No sympathizing or reassurances. Just honest speaking and deep listening.

I would love to hear from my readers what they think. I know that this is a widespread, even universal experience among us. Perhaps you have some insights or experience that the rest of us might find helpful.

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