A minute of conscience: Apology to Afro-Descendants

November 18, 2013 § 7 Comments

This past weekend (November 15–17, 2013), New York Yearly Meeting held its Fall Sessions and we approved an Apology to Afro-Descendants for our historical participation in and profit from slavery. It was a very difficult meeting.

The Apology had been years in the works, including distribution to our local meetings for discernment. The local meetings ran the gamut from approval to disapproval and ignore-ance. In addition to individual Friends, two formally constituted groups within the Yearly Meeting had participated in its development: a Task Group on Racism and the European American Quakers Working to End Racism Working Group.

Several Friends objected on various grounds and the clerk, perceiving that we were not in unity, decided to discontinue the discussion and move on to other business. At this point, all the African-Americans (three, I think!) in the room stood and left, and others left to support them. Other Friends refused to let the matter rest, however, and we returned to discernment on the Apology. The Friends who left came back. Ultimately, we did approve the Apology, with one Friend asking to be recorded as standing aside and another asking to be recorded as standing aside on behalf of his meeting, though the meeting had not formally charged him to speak for them. That meeting had labored over the Apology at length and could not support it.

I wish I had kept better notes on Friends’ objections. Several of those who spoke had clearly thought about the matter to some depth. This is what I remember:

  • The body was not in a position to make such an apology because none of us had participated in the institution of slavery and we were not accountable for the actions of others, even if they were our Quaker “ancestors”. This was the reason voiced most often.
  • We were not a collective body that could in any way be held accountable for the actions of individuals in the past. We were a living body that had moved beyond the condition of the Friends who had owned slaves in the past.
  • The Apology was not enough: it needed more work and it didn’t say enough.
  • As worded, it spoke on behalf of the Yearly Meeting as though that body were a white body speaking to a black audience, whereas the body did in fact include African-Americans, so its voice was wrong.
  • It was unclear to whom the Apology would be addressed, since the victims of slavery were no longer alive, though the Apology did address the ongoing suffering and oppression of the descendants of slaves (it was titled “Apology to Afro-Descendants”).
  • The Apology looked to the past and it would be more constructive to look forward and dedicate ourselves to ending racism, rather than look backward in this way.
  • Many Friends were not comfortable with various aspects of the Apology’s wording, and wished to add things or change things in the minute.

This was an extremely emotional discussion for many Friends. Many wept as they spoke. I myself spoke with some passion and came close to breaking up, which surprised me. I think a lot of us surprised ourselves.

I spoke in support of the Apology. I do feel that:

  • Both in faith and practice, we have a strong sense of ourselves as a corporate entity that can and should be held accountable for its actions, even those the community has taken in the past.
  • Because in our meetings for worship with attention to the life of the meeting we seek to discern and do the will of G*d, and always have, the body that gathers today stands in a continuum, in a prophet stream that is continuous with Friends of past ages, and thus we share in some way in their failure to discern a truth that we now see clearly, namely that slavery is abhorrent and morally wrong. The oneness, the continuity of the prophetic stream that is embodied in the meeting for business in worship, ties us to our past.
  • just as present-day African-Americans live lives constrained by the legacy of slavery, so we European Americans live lives constrained by the legacy of our privilege, bought in part by our historical participation in slavery and its aftermath, and thus we European Americans living today do owe Afro-Descendants an apology.
  • I felt that the Apology did not go far enough, because it did not ask for forgiveness.
  • I felt that, though the audience for such an Apology might be a little vague—to whom would we deliver such an apology, for instance—that it should also have been addressed to G*d, as a prayer of repentance and for forgiveness, though here also, the audience is a little vague, since many modern Liberal Friends do not believe in a theistic God to whom one could address such a prayer. Nevertheless, our slaveholder Quaker ancestors had believed in such a God, and so have the vast majority of our Quaker ancestors since, up until perhaps the middle of the 20th century. We therefore have inherited an unfulfilled religious obligation, even though this is complicated by the fact that we mostly don’t have a theology that matches up with that obligation. Still, I thought it important to ask for forgiveness.

It was a confusing and disturbing meeting. Friends did things that troubled me, though I think I understand and appreciate their motives, both the rational and the emotional ones.

Several Friends brought prepared statements. The clerk, rightly I think, encouraged Friends not to make this a regular practice, but these Friends are not likely to make it a regular practice, I am sure. Furthermore, we had been encouraged to read the Apology and think about it before we came to the Sessions, so it was only natural that many of us had already formed an opinion. I would have been more comfortable if these Friends had waited to read their messages until they had heard some other vocal ministry, remaining open in this way to the possibility of hearing an alternative to their view that carried the power of the Holy Spirit, but they were all virtually the first to speak.

When Friends left the meeting at the point that the clerk decided to move on, it had the effect of holding the meeting emotionally hostage. I am sure that this was not their intent, though one Friend did say that she could not remain present in a body that could not unite behind such an apology. In retrospect, I think that rising to ask the clerk to test whether the meeting really was ready to move on to other business would have been more constructive, because clearly we were not ready to move on. But sometimes the only thing you can do with searing pain is try to get away from it. Perhaps that was what they were doing. I haven’t had a chance yet to find out what motivated them. I hadn’t even realized they were gone, actually, until someone rose to point it out, and that was the thing that brought us back to the discernment. I think my eyes were closed in prayer when they left.

So the withdrawal of these Friends did in fact have the effect of drawing us back into discernment on the matter. But I worried at the time that our subsequent willingness to approve the Apology over the objections of Friends may have arisen, at least in part, as an attempt to affirm our fellowship with those who had left, as a natural response to their pain, rather than as a response to the prophetic call of the Holy Spirit.

Now, however, I think it might have been both. Walter Brueggeman, the biblical theologian, once wrote that lamentation is the beginning of prophecy—that before the prophetic message can emerge, a community often has to be able to name its suffering and oppression first. So perhaps answering that of pain in our Friends was answering the work of the Spirit among us, after all.

The final complication for me was approving an action over the rather strong objections of Friends. From the formal point of view, there was no problem because both Friends stood aside, rather than standing in the way, so we were clear to go forward. But I doubt very much that those other Friends who had expressed their objection had changed their minds; they certainly did not say so.

Normally, we would have kept at it in the face of such resistance. I strongly suspect that it was the clock that drove us forward. We were already over time, it was the last session of the last day of Fall Sessions, and we were waiting to eat lunch. Moreover, we had yet to approve our 2014 budget, which was important business and business that in the past has often proved to be its own very difficult discussion.

How many times have I seen an important piece of G*d’s work face the tyranny of the clock and suffer for it? And how many times have I seen a meeting fail to take decisive prophetic action (if you can call a minute an “action”) because we could not come to unity on the language of a minute, even when the issue is a no-brainer? How many times have I seen a meeting make a decision simply out of exhaustion?

We were stuck. Things were going to go badly almost no matter what we did. So we stumbled forward. On the way, we trampled some people, our gospel order, and maybe some Truth. We did our best and it wasn’t all that good. Some Friends felt triumphant, I think. I felt battered. This was the best we could do and I feel it was a net positive, in the end. But if it was a “victory”, it was pyrrhic.

This is the bittersweet condition of a community that tries to live according to the guidance of the Holy Spirit in a world that does not grasp the Light. Our way is not an easy path and we often do stumble. But it’s still the best one I’ve found so far.

PS: A note about the clerking of this meeting. Reading over this post, I realize that I may have given the impression that I thought the clerk failed to discern the sense of the meeting. I do not think that. We really were deeply divided, with no clear breakthrough on the horizon. I suspect that only a crisis such as what did take place could have given us direction. And the clerk has responsibility for all of the business on the agenda. Given how important the budget was and the way the body was writhing under the burden of discernment over the Apology, I think it was perfectly reasonable to lay the matter aside and go on. We do this all of the time, and properly.

Furthermore, one really does have a different perspective when sitting at the clerk’s table, able to see the body as a whole, and the body language of all the individuals, and so on. It’s a lot easier to second-guess a clerk than to be one.

Finally, it is my experience that Friends really need time to vent when their emotions get so involved in a matter of business. The venting is going to happen until it’s spent, usually, and it’s almost not worth trying to reach a decision until it’s over. We were a long way from done with venting. We still are, I suspect. But the body—some of it anyway—was going to charge forward. So maybe we surfed the venting into a decision. Clerks are not in control of such a wave.

Quakers, Our Business, and the Minutes

August 10, 2013 § 4 Comments

The problem

I keep notes on Quaker process when I attend meetings for business in worship, looking for patterns, problems, ideas, or just comments to myself when something catches my notice. Many times I have watched a meeting follow roughly the process outlined below when pursuing a piece of business and it disturbs me. I also have some suggestions about how to avoid the pattern this outline describes. Have you had this experience, and do you have suggestions for fixing it? Here’s the pattern I see:

  1. We labor over a piece of contentious business until a direction seems to have emerged.
  2. The clerk asks the recording clerk for a minute; when it’s ready,
  3. the clerk asks the body, “Do Friends approve?”
  4. A chorus of “Approve”s follow the question.
  5. Then hands go up, or Friends stand—whatever the practice of the meeting is for asking the clerk to recognize you. They are not happy with the minute.
  6. Because these Friends are not comfortable with the decision, or at least they have something they feel they must say, we then dive back into the discussion.
  7. So we return to our discernment, only this time we do it after having already approved something, and that feels weird. And now we often do it by editing the minute rather than by speaking to the matter directly: Friends rise to criticize some aspect of the minute or to offer some correction or amendment. Essentially, we have spiraled back to #2, with the body now acting as recording clerk. Yikes. I hate watching Quakers try to do important business by editing a minute.
  8. At some point, we once again reach #3—some sense of the meeting—and the clerk again asks for approval.
  9. Enter another chorus of “Approve!”s.
  10. Then—when things are really bad—hands go up again and we return to this cycle of purgatory, in which Friends continue to criticize, correct, and amend the minute.
  11. We plod on, often until exhaustion claims the sense of the meeting.

I have seen some version of this cycle occur many, many times—Friends insisting on speaking after approval has been voiced for a minute, and then flogging the minute until it’s been distorted into some shape that no one feels ready to criticize, and we close the matter out of a sense of exhaustion or pity.

Do you recognize this pattern in the meetings you attend?

On the face of it, this is mainly an issue for clerks, who, it would seem, have prematurely presented a minute to the body without allowing it full collective discernment. But it would be wrong to blame the clerks for what is quite universal practice among us now, and which many of us take for granted. In fact, I suspect that many Friends may not even see the pattern as a problem.

No, it’s not a clerking problem. It is rather a cultural problem that has much to do with taking a habitual clerking style for granted, with the pressures of the clock on our business agendas, and with a sense of entitlement concerning vocal ministry in meeting for business in worship.

I would like to present three practices that I think would help to head off this kind of spiral into what I consider (rather extremely, I admit) to be Quaker-practice hell:

  1. A more ordered way to present contentious business items to the body.
  2. An alternative way to present minutes to the body.
  3. A radically different way to seek the body’s approval on the decision.

Presenting the matter of business

Many articles of business are not very weighty and even verge on the pro forma. But when something comes up that is important and likely to be controversial, you can help the body find its way to unity by sorting out the kinds of ministry you will ask for from the body and then asking for them separately. By “kinds of ministry” I mean

  1. the facts—Friends’ clarity or confusion about the facts of the matter and its history, 
  2. the feelings—Friends’ emotional responses to the matter, and 
  3. the solution—Friends’ proposals for decision or action. 

In such cases, it helps to take these “kinds of ministry” one at a time:

Clarity

Start with a presentation, carefully prepared, of the history of the matter, explaining how it has ended up before the body and what kinds of discernment it has already received. It’s helpful when someone besides the clerk does this, so that the clerk can watch the members of the body for their reactions while the report is being given.

  • Then ask for questions from the floor that are about matters of clarity only, firmly asking Friends who want to say something else to wait until the body considers that aspect of the situation. Here, we mostly are talking about emotional venting. Over time, a given meeting will become accustomed to this three-phase process and will follow the process with some discipline.
  • When a request for more questions about points of fact or clarity elicits no more responses from the body, then . . .

Emotions

Open the discussion to expressions of feeling regarding the matter—allow venting. Let the venting continue until it is clear that everyone has had their say. Encourage those who are displeased with some aspect of the matter to express themselves. This is perhaps the most important thing to get right.

  • Try to be sure that the members of the body really are done venting before you move on to “stage 3”. Do this by making a final request for more ministry related to feelings when things seem to have wound down or someone jumps to the next stage naturally. Let your last request for emotion-related ministry stretch into a relatively long period of silence to make sure everyone is done.
  • Then extend this silence some more with an invitation to enter into deeper worship before we move on to Friends’ ministry toward a solution.

Solutions

After this period of worship, open the meeting to vocal ministry toward a solution or decision.

  • During this last phase of the process, remind Friends that we have had an opportunity to express our feelings, though Friends will probably revert to venting occasionally.
  • Consider letting Friends know that you will cut short any clear attempts to vent rather than offer a solution to the matter.
  • However, if Friends just cannot keep themselves from getting things off their chest again, then formally return to the venting phase and let go of finding a solution until it seems that the body really is ready.

Testing minutes verbally

When the subvocal assents, body language, and vocal ministry suggest that the meeting may be reaching unity on a direction, the presiding clerk articulates a test minute, presenting it as a test minute, rather than having the recording clerk read a written minute. For her or his part, the recording clerk records what the clerk says.

  • This is the way we did things for a very long time. The practice of relying on recording clerks to write minutes that are then read to the body is now so long-standing and so universal, that many Friends do not know that we ever did it otherwise. But, when a meeting is struggling with a matter that is very contentious, it often works much better to rely on the presiding clerk to verbally float a minute while the recorder records. There’s something about the reading of a written minute that sets in motion a new phase in the dynamics of the meeting, one that makes further discernment more complicated.
  • So the clerk verbally floats a minute and then invites Friends to respond. Further discussion ensues. Usually, the body will start tweaking the verbal minute; sometimes someone will start off in an all new direction, once they have become clear what the clerk thinks the direction is and they don’t agree. Eventually, some new sense of the meeting will begin to emerge.
  • At this point, the presiding clerk reiterates this process, floating a new tentative expression of her or his sense of the meeting. S/he keeps reiterating this process until the body no longer offers changes in new ministry to a test minute.
  • The recording clerk has been recording the test minutes all along and has already recorded the final version when it finally arrises.

Asking for approval

The greater problem with our habitual process lies in the way we ask for approval for a minute. When the clerk has spoken a verbal test minute and asked for comment and no one has risen to speak, instead of asking the body to call out its approval, the presiding clerk should ask one more time whether Friends have any further objections, corrections, or additional ministry. Do it clearly, as a last call.

One of the reasons people still want to speak after a minute has been approved is that most of us have a natural aversion to speaking against the direction that the body seems to be going. It is especially hard to call out “No” when many other Friends are calling out “Approve!” But when it comes down to it, our discomfort often wins out, as it should when we are not in unity with the decision. So, to reiterate, here’s what we should do instead:

  • We keep encouraging Friends to speak until Friends stop asking to be recognized, letting time stretch out into worship when there is a lull—for there almost always is some further ministry after the first couple of lulls.
  • At some point, though, when the clerk asks for further ministry upon the latest test minute, no one will rise to speak. At this point, the clerk should formally ask the body if G*d has given anyone anything further to say. This last formal appeal is important. It’s a last call for vocal ministry. And I think it’s important to get G*d involved—to remind Friends that we are in worship and seeking the guidance of the Holy Spirit, before we go to the written minute.
  • If no one asks to speak, it’s useful at this point to confer with the recording clerk briefly to make sure that the recorder’s written text corresponds to the verbal version the body has been working with.
  • Then ask the recording clerk to read the last minute verbally expressed by the presiding clerk and ask one final time for vocal ministry.
  • If still no one asks to speak, the clerk can say, “May I then take your silence as approval?”

Here it is:

This is the real innovation in this approach to clerking—not to ask for a voiced approval from the body, but to ask whether the silence means approval.

If no one responds to this last request for ministry, the clerk can then declare the minute approved. This way approval comes in a holy silence, rather than in a chorus of “Approve!”s.

This process seems to take longer than our habitual (but not traditional) one; sometimes it really is longer. But it feels better and it nurtures greater unity with the decision. It also virtually eliminates the need to read back the minutes for approval because the minutes have already been approved. And it often reduces the time that the recording clerk sometimes needs to finish crafting the minute.

This approach redefines the roles of presiding and recording clerks. Nowadays, recording clerks are chosen because of their facility with words and some gift for discernment. Presiding clerks often are chosen for a wider set of gifts, though discernment ought, of course, to be one of them. The approach I have just laid out does diminish the role of recording clerk and it lays a new burden on the presiding clerk, who, it is often thought, has enough to do with just shepherding the meeting process.

I suggest that the recording clerk serve more actively as an assistant clerk and that the two clerks actively confer with each other throughout this process about the progress of the discussion, rather than obsessing about getting a good minute. It may even be useful for the recording clerk to write the test minutes for the presiding clerk to then verbally share with the body. I think it’s less important who crafts the minutes and more important that the presiding clerk take responsibility for reading the sense of the meeting—not just the readiness of the meeting to hear a minute—and that the final written minute only be read after the body has labored over tentative verbal minutes and all have had their say.

I learned some aspects of this process from Jan Hoffman.

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