Merion Friends Meeting News Feed

“… on the fifth ballot”

In the wake of the recent papal election, I’d like to compare the process of choosing a pope to how decisions are made by Quakers.

The Society of Friends doesn’t have a pope, obviously. They don’t have bishops or other hierarchy. And although some Quaker sects have elders or designated ministers, the traditional “unprogrammed Quakers” have no clergy at all. All decisions come from the members, who must come to agreement together. (Actually, it’s been said that the Quakers didn’t eliminate the clergy; they eliminated the laity.)

But the really radical difference in process is that Quakers don’t take votes. They “come to unity” on a decision. Everyone at a meeting must feel the decision is right (or else those who disagree but don’t feel strongly about it may “stand aside”). If even a single participant does not feel in unity with a decision, the group will not go forward.

This sounds strange at first. Why wouldn’t the majority opinion decide the matter?

In a Quaker meeting, we believe that God is present within each of us and within our gathered meeting. When we hold a meeting for business, we come prepared by having informed ourselves on the issues, but we also come prepared to be open to divine guidance. If we believe that God is working through us, then if we approach a decision with compete openness to that guidance, we should all be led to the same decision. If we aren’t coming to unity, it’s a sign that either we aren’t fully open to that guidance, or that it’s not such an important decision. We allow it to “season” and address it at another meeting.

So if the cardinals had chosen a pope using the Quaker technique of coming to unity, there would have been no ballots. There would have been a group of people willing to be open to God’s will, even if it turned out to be something different than each of them originally expected. They would have sat in silence together, open to the Light, with a participant occasionally speaking if he felt God was leading him to do so. The group would gradually have reached its decision together.

It’s a technique that can be valuable to all people of faith, not just Quakers. When a group comes to a decision that disregards the wishes of the minority, they alienate some of their members. Those members may drop away from the group. Since there will always be some disagreement, groups can dwindle in numbers, especially if a few strong personalities are pushing their own opinions.

Coming to unity requires love and tenderness to the other members of the group. It strengthens rather than weakens the bonds among members.

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