A Field Guide to Quaker Process: Unity and Unanimity

In 2008, one of our former ministers, Dan Kasztelan, wrote a booklet entitled Living with the Body of Christ: A Field Guide to Quaker Process. To share this valuable information about how Friends make decisions during monthly meeting, sections of this booklet are being posted via the online Traveling Friend. This is the second installment of an eight-part series. You can read the entire booklet, complete with recommendations for further reading and end notes, by clicking here.

The quest for unity—expressed as agreement, as sameness—is part of the reality of a church. We treasure Quaker process because we hope it leads to unity, and our ability to be in unity seems to be the proof of our foundational belief that there is one Truth which we can all understand, to which we can all have access. My guess is that no matter how often we've heard Paul's comparison of the church to a body, we focus on the oneness of the body, not the difference expressed by the body parts. We don't hear that the foot and the hand are different, we hear that the body is the same. But in a passage similar to the passage from1 Corinthians 12, Paul actually highlights the body's differences by highlighting the different gifts that members of the church might have: some might be prophets, others ministers, or teachers, exhorters or givers, leaders or nurses. (Romans 12:6–8)

In fact, Paul writes about the church as a body precisely because churches are not the ideal bastions of sameness that we sort of hope they will be. They aren't places where everyone is always on the same page about stewardship and mission, places where people generally agree on what's moral and what isn't, they are not places where there tends to be a common understanding about who ought to be in charge, about who best listens for the voice of God, about where, in fact, God is leading us.

One of the essential reasons for joining a Meeting or any other church, no matter how that community may fail to live up to its ideals, is that a faith community is one of the only arenas in our lives where we are forced to confront and live with difference, to find peace with what is essentially and always Other than ourselves. In general, we surround ourselves with sameness: we want to be with other people who think like we think and dress like we dress and vote like we vote and enjoy the same activities we enjoy. And that's only natural. I mean, how easy is it to be friends with someone who wants to go to the opera the night you want to go to the hockey game? We enjoy what we enjoy, and so we tend to enjoy other people who appreciate the same things that we appreciate, who want to spend their time the same way we want to spend our time.

Somehow we all make our way to Meeting thinking we've come together for the same reasons and that we will appreciate the same things, and then we discover, perhaps even with the sense of having been cheated, that we aren't on the same page at all. Oh, sure, on the very largest, most theoretical things, yeah. We probably wouldn't be sitting in a Quaker meeting if we didn't believe it was possible for God to speak to every person without the need for a translator or mediator; or if we didn't believe that probably when God said love your enemies, he meant we shouldn't kill them. Or if we didn't agree that God is able to speak within our hearts through silence, even if we have some disagreement over exactly how much silence we need to be able to listen for God's voice. So there are some vast, over-arching, theoretical agreements we have, but the nitty gritty dailiness is something else again.

What should we teach in First Day School? How much music should we have in worship, and what kind? What methods should we use to protect the meetinghouse from termites? What is the purpose of investing the Meeting's surplus funds?  Well, on those things we're likely to find not only that we have differences, but that we're less tolerant of those smaller differences than we are of the bigger ones. Because about God, after all, who really knows?—but about money and termites, anyone can see that there's a right and a wrong answer to those problems.

A couple years after I became a Friend, and had seen my share of ups and downs in business meetings, I began to read in Friends literature, sometimes, that when Friends talk about unity, they don't mean unanimity, and that it's possible to have unity even when we don't all agree.

To be honest, I used to think that distinction was a cop-out, a way to excuse ourselves when sense of the meeting became majority rule. Because no one ever quite explained what that meant: unity is not unanimity.

But I no longer think it's a cop-out. Just in the last couple of years I've come to understand it. Unity is not unanimity. Unity is that we feel ourselves to be one body even though we're different.

For example, let's talk about widgets. Let's say that at First Friends Meeting in Red Ditch, most of the Meeting wants to invest some of the endowment in the local widget factory, but two people really don’t like widgets. Those two people agree to stand aside. The Meeting invests in the widget factory. Those two people still don't like the idea of widgets, but they continue to feel part of the body of the meeting—that's unity without unanimity.

Unity is what can happen when we accept difference, rather than try to conquer difference by demanding sameness. Unity is what can happen when we say, "some of us are better at seeing what keeps us safe, others of us are better at seeing what keeps us grounded in God's providence"—and we thank God we have them both, because we are better off when we can see both things. Unity is what can happen when we accept that some persons have a gift for stewardship and others a gift for discipleship, and while in the realm of God those are the same gift, in the messy world we inhabit, for me it's just good to rub shoulders with the gifted and hope some of those gifts rub off on me.

That's not the same as saying that any idea is as good as any other. Some ideas are more aligned to the heart of God than others. But it is to say that we need all the difference in order to come closest to God's heart.

So difference is a strength, and a big part of what we are drawn here for, as the Cincinnati Friends community of faith, is to learn to love those with whom we differ, to value them not because in most ways they are the same as we are, but because in so many ways they are so different from us, from me, they are so Other from every one of us. Which is, after all, why God created them, what God intends for them, and exactly why God loves them. We are here to learn—especially in Monthly Meeting—to be able to say the same for ourselves: that we know how to love what is indisputably Other than we are.

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