Order of the day? Matt Rosen on Quaker decision-making

23 Nov 2023 | by Matt Rosen

‘Gospel Order is the order that comes from listening to Christ.’

‘Gospel Order was not just concerned with good governance.’ | Photo: Mary Fisher, one of the Valiant Sixty, relaying a message from God to Mehmed IV the Ottoman emperor (engraving, 1878)

My Meeting is exploring why we do what we do, particularly as we make decisions. This has led me to think about the history and theology behind our practice of collective discernment. While Quaker decision-making has inspired people outside our communities, it can seem awfully peculiar. How did we get here? What were the early Friends thinking?

Friends didn’t create what’s now called ‘the business method’ because they thought it would be efficient. They didn’t do it out of a concern for equality, democracy, or even ‘that of God’ in everyone. Instead, our collective discernment arose out of an experience of God. I don’t think we can understand the early Quakers or our practices if we don’t grapple with this experience.

The first Friends knew Christ to be present in their midst, guiding and gathering them into a living unity. This was not a community made by human hands. Friends were brought together by a power greater than themselves. Our discernment grew out of attention to this power.

When Francis Howgill describes some of the first Meetings in London, which he helped start, it’s striking that Friends are more often the object than the subject of verbs. In Quaker faith & practice 19.08, for example, Friends are being gathered, rather than gathering. We are being caught, as in a net. We are being drawn to land. Our hearts are being knit unto God and each other. We are being formed as a people living in the Spirit.

The practice of discernment among early Friends grew out of this same sense of surrender to a power – a power that changes us and works through us. We were to relinquish our own agendas, yield our own resources, and wait for this transforming power. Everything hinged on an openness to divine surprise, and a willingness to prune what isn’t of God. Setting our plans and anxieties aside, who knew how God might work among us?

When the Seekers and others were reached by George Fox’s preaching in the early 1650s, Fox didn’t start by establishing Meetings. Roughly sixty Friends – the so-called Valiant Sixty – went out to share the Quaker message wherever they were led, calling everyone to give up their ideas and philosophies, and come to the feet of a teacher they could know inwardly, intimately, and without a need for hierarchy or institution.

Many were convinced – they were reached and changed by the ministry of the Valiant Sixty and the experiences of God they had. These Friends soon found themselves drawn together. Worship brought them into unity, and suffering for their faith yoked them. This suffering was intense. By some estimates, nearly a third of adult Quakers in Britain were imprisoned, while 60,000 people joined the Quaker movement. What did they have that made this suffering worthwhile? Not a way of doing business. Not ideas about peace and equality. Not silence. It was an experience of the tremendous presence and power of God among them, and the hope that all creation might accept the invitation to know this.

It was only when Fox saw that Friends were being gathered by the Spirit that he began trying to establish Meetings in what he called ‘Gospel Order’. This was the second stage of the early Quaker mission. Again, itinerant Friends were dispatched, this time to settle Meetings. These Meetings would nurture the faithfulness of convinced Friends, enable them to endure persecution, and help them to hold each other accountable to God’s voice.

Gospel Order was not just concerned with good governance, stewardship, and clerking. Fox contrasts Gospel Order with ‘manmade’ order. Gospel Order is received as we listen together to the Spirit. The point is that Friends were not to order their own Meetings. We are called to allow ourselves to be ordered by a much greater Orderer.

The first Friends knew Jesus to be present among them in the most practical and everyday ways. He was present as their Guide, Friend, Gatherer, and Lord. The first business Meetings, then, were fundamentally about the government of Christ. As Christ taught and gathered, Friends tried to listen faithfully. They called this ‘putting on the mind of Christ’. Gospel Order is the order that comes from this listening, as we yield together to the Spirit’s leading. And you simply cannot have Gospel Order without the Gospel, the power of God among you. Devotion to the business method – as with any method – can become idolatry if we aren’t careful about it.

At first, business Meetings were largely dedicated to answering queries. These were about the condition of the Meeting, support for poor and suffering Friends, and support for the travelling ministry. In fact, the original queries were prompts for group reflection, not individual reflection. And the principal query was: How is the Truth prospering among you? How are Friends being gathered into Christ, established on this unshakable foundation, and how are you supporting Friends to live faithfully?

A Meeting left open to consider this would, I suspect, seem quite different from the way we work today. Do we have space to see how the Spirit is leading us?

No doubt, some of this will sound like ancient history. A lot has changed since Fox envisioned a great people to be gathered. There are fewer Friends in Britain today than there were in 1660. Fewer of us have been imprisoned for our faith. We are unlikely to face martyrdom, and we rarely hear of Quakers travelling to share the Gospel.

Of course, it isn’t all bad news. Far from it. Our gatherings are legal, a fact we shouldn’t take for granted. We have made wonderful commitments to LGBT inclusion, anti-racism, climate justice, and ecumenical work. There’s reason to celebrate. But we have lost some of the energy of the first Friends, the fire that led people to say that the earth shook for miles around when these Friends ministered. And some of our practices no longer work. Our nominations process, for example, was designed for discerning between several Friends with gifts for each role. This just isn’t our condition.

Amid this talk of loss and change, though, I remain full of hope. The early Quaker message – that we have a living Teacher who freely guides and gathers us – is still drawing seekers to land, as it did in the 1650s. People will continue to encounter and be led by this Teacher, even if our Meetings, practices, and traditions fail to facilitate this. The good news that early Quakers risked their lives to share will live on.

But the question is whether it will live on in our Meetings. Will these still be places to assemble in the unity of the Spirit and know what it means for the Spirit to be in charge? Will our discernment continue to be built on a foundation that isn’t of our own making, as Friends are led into faithful witness and loving community?

I don’t have an answer. But I do know that we have an opportunity today, as Friends and Meetings, to find ourselves transformed and to grow in love. I pray that we will use it’.