Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Quaker Discernment

This talk was given by Laura Kerr as part of our series on 'Quaker Basics'.

Where do we come across the term DISCERNMENT? Possibly a first encounter is in one of the most popular items in Advices and Queries – number 7.

Are you open to new light, from whatever source it may come? Do you approach new ideas with discernment?

In that context, it could actually mean more or less the same as it does in the wider world. ie. Discrimination, selectivity, picking out what is good, and laying to one side things that are less good. Actually when Quakers use it, it means a great deal more. It refers to a careful and considered way of coming to a judgement or decision, based on silent worship. 
It is the way of seeking divine guidance, or ‘God’s will’ with a particular focus on one issue or question. This is sometimes that someone may be doing in any MfW anyway. In modern Quaker meetings, it cannot be assumed that all present are comfortable with the phrase “God’s will”. I have even heard a Friends describe themself as an ‘atheist Quaker’. With that in mind, what are they seeking by discernment? Perhaps just the very best and wisest outcome for all, both those directly concerned and those beyond the meeting, in the world outside.

I remember some ministry of a year or two back. The Friend said something along these lines: ‘I have been pondering on what the difference is, and if there is a difference, between discernment and wisdom…’ I found it helpful ministry because it prompted me to consider the difference. Maybe discernment is just another word for wisdom? Certainly we hope that a Quaker decision, made with discernment, is effectively the same as a wise decision. Someone who has wisdom, is likely also to have discernment. But the two concepts can be picked apart quite easily because wisdom (being wise) is essentially a static quality, perhaps developed over a long life. It’s a noun. It does not have a verb. It’s quite the opposite with discernment. That’s a noun, but essentially it is about a process, and the verb ‘to discern’ is the part which is used most commonly. Discernment is actually the process, over time, which is worked through to reach a decision.

It is what we are all doing in a meeting for worship for business. Traditionally we ask someone who has never attended a Quaker business meeting to ‘have a word with the clerk or elder first’. This is simply to make sure that the new person knows that the business meeting is not like most business meetings – it has its own special etiquette – and is essentially a meeting for worship and should be attended in the same spirit. (Some years ago, it would probably have been expressed as ‘ask the permission of the clerk’.)

Discernment consists of several separate activities…

  • Being silent. Sitting in the same worshipful silence as one would in a regular meeting for worship
  • Listening carefully and respectfully – to the clerks and to any spoken contribution.
  • Possibly speaking… as ministry… what is ‘on your heart’. Each contribution should stand alone, with silence after it. Properly it should not be a response or reaction or answer to a previous speaker. It is not a discussion.
  • Observing proper ‘discipline’. In other words knowing and observing the ‘proper’ ways of doing things. Proper in the sense that these are traditional, established, expected and accepted ways for the meeting to operate.
  • Upholding the clerks in their work of guiding the meeting, listening, and expressing the sense of the meeting.

The clerks are discerning, before, during and after a business meeting. I would suggest that the preparation of an agenda (what is on it, in which order and how to present it) is also something that is discerned by the clerks. Then during the meeting itself, the clerk or clerks are continually using discernment as to how the meeting is to proceed, which Friend to call upon and when it may be necessary to limit spoken contribution. 
It is rare in local or area meetings that there are more Friends wishing to speak on a topic than can realistically be heard. Remember that Yearly Meeting operates in the same style as any business meeting. The clerks call on Friends to speak from a meeting of 1000. There are always some Friends who stand, wishing to speak, but who are not called. The clerks have to discern when that part of the meeting should be drawn to a close and when the next stage, producing a minute, takes over. They are looking for unity… or sufficient unity that a minute can be tried.

The clerk or clerks use their discernment to draw together what they have heard, into a draft minute which is presented to the meeting. Depending on the nature of the business, a ‘draft minute’ may have been composed before the meeting even started. We saw that here last week at Area Meeting. The clerk again uses discernment in taking up, or not, the comments and suggestions put forward by members of the meeting. Strictly speaking, the minute is the product of the whole meeting. To be accepted it has to owned by the meeting. On the whole I feel that when I have been clerking, I have preferred to accept further suggestions if at all possible, rather than defend the wording as it had been offered initially.

I believe that if a Friend suggests an alteration, or change of wording or additional phrase or sentence, then it is normally right to accept them.

How do you learn ‘discernment’? Like everything else, by practice. By attending business meetings. By observing and sharing the experience. By being very patient. They can seem slow – even, in relation to the outside world, ‘boring’! But that is an essential part of the process. I admit that many a time I have sat in a business meeting, as the minutes tick by, and thought to myself: “Is this really what I want to do with my precious time?” But I have concluded that yes, it is, and I do attend local meeting and area meeting whenever I can, and I recommend all Friends and attenders to do so.

It must be said that discernment can take a very long time. Sometimes with difficult topics a business meeting is preceded by a threshing meeting… at which no decision is made but thoughts and feelings are freely expressed. The clerking of that meeting still entails careful discernment, even if a decision is not sought. Threshing meetings usually happen when there is a difficult or even controversial topic. Feelings may be high. We all must share responsibility for the right ordering of our business meetings but ultimately those at the table have to ‘manage’ the meeting, sensitive to those whose feelings may be especially engaged, and to bring it to an appropriate and timely close.

I remember clerking a threshing meeting a couple of years ago. It was not the prelude to another decision making meeting. It stood alone, as a chance for Friends to express views. In some ways it was like a large scale meeting for clearness. I believe that the Friend who asked for the meeting did feel that a painful and problematic issue had been properly shared, and aired. That Friend had been heard.

Discernment can be time consuming. It may be that the clerks discern that there is insufficient ‘unity’ within the meeting for the looked-for decision to be made. Their discernment then is that the matter will be brought back to another subsequent meeting. This is not uncommon. It means that Friends have a chance to think over the matter at greater length. And frequently it would be the case that there is a slightly different combination of Friends at the later meeting, which may itself mean that the sense of the meeting is different.

I found an example of a meeting which took 2 years to discern the right way forward. The issue was whether or not to install air conditioning in their meeting house, clearly a vexed and divisive issue. Eventually, a way was found for the Friends involved to unite behind a decision…which was not exactly that preferred by some of them. This is an important point to stress. The fact that a decision is made and a minute written, does not mean that each and every person there was in full agreement, only that those who did not agree, did feel able to unite with the other decision. (Number 15 in As and Qs explains this well.)

I have had discussions with Friends about decisions made at a previous meeting. ‘But I didn’t think that the decision was right’. Sadly this will happen sometimes. We are only human. We work hard at this process. As far as I am aware, there is no legitimate avenue to overturn a Quaker decision, and I don’t think there should be. 
Another Quaker context when discernment is absolutely at the heart of how we do things is nominations. Being on Nominations Committee is a very important and significant role. The meetings of that committee are essentially all about discernment. Carefully, lovingly, worshipfully weighing up the match, or not, of particular Friends (or attenders) and the particular Quaker role under consideration. And of course, it doesn’t always work perfectly. Even after the careful discernment process, a name may be brought to meeting and that Friend appointed, who subsequently does not find that the work suits them at all. Again, we are only human. But it is the way we do things.

Advices and Queries are very helpful on the subject of business meetings; I conclude with these wise words, which cover virtually everything I have said:

Are your meetings for church affairs help in a spirit of worship and in dependence on the guidance of God? Remember that we do not seek a majority decision or even consensus. As we wait patiently for divine guidance our experience is that the right way will open and we shall be led into unity.

Do you take part as often as you can in meetings for church affairs? Are you familiar enough with our church government to contribute to its disciplined process? Do you consider difficult questions with an informed mind as well as a generous and loving spirit? Are you prepared to let your insights and personal wishes take their place alongside those of others or be set aside, as the meeting seeks the right way forward? If you cannot attend, uphold the meeting prayerfully.