You can imagine the clerk as a conductor, the other participants as the choir, or orchestra. The silent gaps between the 'notes' are just as important as the drums or the cymbals or the gently hummed note. It is a bit formal, as a process, but that is what allows it to yield meaningful results. After a long stint of being such a 'conductor', I remember joining a non-Quaker committee and being totally alienated by the noise and scrambling for attention, everyone talking over each other and at once. How would the little minority voice ever be heard, never mind being given due consideration?
Some outside bodies, churches and others, are beginning to use our business method now, realising that it may yield better outcomes, while largely maintaining the peace during meetings. Of course disagreements can flare – respectfully. They will be minuted as different viewpoints considered. We don't necessarily look for 100% agreement of all present, or even 'consensus', and obviously voting is not part of the process at all.
We call what the clerk is looking for 'the sense of the meeting': a definite impression that a discernment has been reached by all, or all but one or two – who are then expected to accept what has been discerned, if they can. If they still feel bad about the decision, they can ask to be mentioned in the minute as not in agreement. (Then again, the clerk may feel that further discernment, at a later date, is what's required and defer the decision.) Minutes are agreed during the meeting and are not sent around for comments afterwards.
So what really is the mysterious difference between most agreeing to something and collective discernment leading to agreement? It is reached with ‘I hope so’ gently said by attendees; a quaint, rather affectionate phrase meaning ‘I hope this is what the meeting discerns from that place within’. I'm tempted to say You had to be there! It is the being swept up in the silent pondering, everyone setting aside their own opinion again and again, testing it, till things change, evolve, something gradually emerges...as I say, you really need to experience it.
Angela Arnold – Oswestry Quaker Meeting and North Wales Area Meeting