What, Quakers Don't Vote?

10th August 2023

No, of course Quakers do vote – in elections, that is. We very much believe in our religion not sitting in a sealed box, that our faith and the life we lead in our community have to hang together, make a coherent whole. That includes political involvement, and campaigning for various causes not at all compulsory, of course, but that's the direction we tend to venture in.

What I mean by 'Quakers don't vote' is to do with the way we make decisions about how we do things as a group. There's this word we use a lot: discernment. Nothing to do with being a discerning customer, picky and choosy. Everything to do with digging deep to find the right way forward.

You can use discernment in your personal life, maybe by taking a moment to sit quietly and listen to the still small voice of your conscience, or to mull things over till you get a sense of inspiration: when suddenly the way forward appears clear. A whole new un-thought-of solution may even have popped into your head seemingly out of nowhere.

Like any organisation, we find we have a number of corporate decisions to make. A Local Quaker Meeting may need to decide whether or not to replace the elderly boiler with a heat pump as soon as possible. An Area Quaker Meeting – next level up in our structure – may need to agree appointments to roles, or decide whether to send a representative to a particular conference. At Yearly Meeting level (that's all of us in the UK) there may be lengthy deliberations needed that can lead to things like our early endorsement of same-sex marriage.

And that's not to mention our many committees. We do love a good committee! It's a rare Quaker who escapes serving on one of those – but then as a DIY sort of church with no paid clergy, we regard service in some appointed capacity as part and parcel of our spiritual life, as and when we are able.

In all these situations we put the chance to practise discernment at the centre. We call the way we do this the Quaker business method. That may sound rather dry and functional, as if we're sitting there quietly figuring out the bottom line. Far from it.

A Quaker 'business meeting' is based on the same settled inner silence and quiet waiting as our meetings for worship. But how can you do silence and debate at the same time? Imagine this then: we start with a deep silence. No, rewind: we start having read the agenda and the draft minutes for the meeting beforehand – we come well prepared with the facts, but with minds undecided. Draft minutes are prepared based on agenda items eg. ‘The Meeting gathered in silent worship’. They are kept short and factual. Then we assemble and allow ourselves to enter the space where we are open to what we collectively find and can agree on.

Some items may not need much discernment; things are self-evidently best done as the facts presented in the draft minute may indicate. Other items can take a very long time to...non-Quakers might say 'hammer out', but then Quakers don't hammer. Usually. Ideally.

Maintaining the silent waiting and listening, while allowing individuals to speak to the matter in hand, is the job of the clerk. This means in practice that after each spoken contribution there is a pause, a short period of reflection that the participants should use as an opportunity to reflect on what has been said, to stand aside their Oh-But for a moment and ponder, weigh up, discern. And only then will the clerk ask for further contributions. The Oh-But may then surface, or it may have morphed into a Yes-But-Why-Not-Also or a hesitant nod, after all.

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