Sunday, 28 January 2018

Why Quakers Say "Hope So"

A 19th century painting of Pandora opening her box.
When Pandora opened the box,
Elpis - hope - remained within.
One of the things that people often learn about Quakers, when they learn a few disjointed and poorly explained bits and bobs, is that we “don't vote”. Aside from clearing up the confusion in terms of public elections, this is something that takes some explaining. I remember when I was grilling the first Quaker I met, who didn't seem given to in-depth explanations at the time, she explained that people said “hope so” if they agreed with what was proposed. I asked what they said if they didn't agree, and she clearly couldn't see a way to answer without a deeper explanation. All these years later, now I understand what a difficult position that was, for a Friend who doesn't want to launch into a long and detailed exposition of how Quakers make collective decisions.
Still, “hope so” is an important part of the Quaker liturgy (in Britain, at least), and part of the way our use of language makes it hard for newcomers to understand what's going on. I've written before that we should question such jargon, but saying “hope so” in response to the clerk offering a minute isn't just jargon. It isn't a Quaker code. It is a very meaningful use of language – though that may not be obvious to those new to our way of doing things.
In this post, I will be exploring the Quaker Business Method with specific reference to how a decision is concluded, and a minute agreed. What does it mean when the clerks offer a minute? Why is our traditional response “hope so”, rather than “yes”, when asked if the minute is acceptable? It's not a simple matter, even assuming a basic familiarity with Quaker practices and processes.
In my opinion it is, in fact, deeply dependent on Quaker theology. Nothing specific about the nature of the Divine or anything like that, but the elements of Quaker theology that are fairly common across liberal Quaker theological diversity – the elements that underpin the entire idea of Quaker worship and discernment. The very idea of “expectant waiting”, though I personally dislike the idea of “expectant”, which might be an artefact of shifts in meaning (like the common probable misunderstanding of “walk cheerfully over the world”). The fact that we gather in silence communally seeking, in what I call active passivity, to receive divine guidance.
Consider the typical scenario of a Meeting for Worship for Business, well run according to British teaching (I know details differ around the world, even among liberal Friends). An item of business, some decision that needs to be made, has been presented. Questions about it have been resolved, as much as possible. In silence, Friends have awaited spirit-led ministry, and it has been shared. In reality, there may be some ministry that some may be dubious off, regarding whether it was truly spirit-led, but that is immaterial for now. The clerk or clerks feel they have discerned the sense of the meeting, the direction being indicated by that ministry, and compose a minute to reflect that sense. They place that draft minute before the meeting, and await their response.
Now, more ministry may be prompted by that draft minute, usually suggesting that some emphasis change or that some detail may be omitted, occasionally challenging the entire premise. But after whatever wrangling happens over ministry to the minute, a clerk will then ask “is that minute acceptable?”
Here we are, at the point in time that is the focus of this post. There is a traditional form of words Quakers use to indicate our assent to the minute – we indicate that we “hope so”. We “hope” that the minute is acceptable. As I mentioned earlier, simply saying “yes” would seem to be plainer speaking; some Friends have suggested that this bit of Quaker jargon is little more than weasel words. Understood properly, I cannot agree. On the other hand, if those saying their “hope so” don't understand it properly, perhaps it does become pointless jargon and weasel words. This, as well as the fact that it is an aspect of properly understanding, and thus employing the Quaker Business Method, is one reason why it is important that we ensure that Friends do understand the deeper meaning.
Now, theological diversity means there will be differences between the deeper meanings that Friends ascribe to this. Rather than just presenting my own view, I will be trying to incorporate a wide range of views into a common perspective with differences in detail and terminology – but it won't capture everything out there among British Quakers. Hopefully, however, past those possible differences in detail it will capture what is essential; that is certainly my intent.
The purpose of that silent waiting, in the Quaker business meeting, the Meeting for Worship for Business, is to give the opportunity for the Divine to give us guidance. To hear dimly the word of God and thus to be guided by His will, to be moved by the Holy Spirit, to feel the current of the world-spirit. Something moves us to ministry, and we trust that this something, whatever it is, has some insight or wisdom that our conscious minds lack, and guide us in what is right, ethically, and what is effective materially – and the extent to which we should compromise between the two.
By doing this, we hope to make a decision that does not reflect our desires, though certainly those desire must often factor into a decision. We do not seek to work out between us, intellectually, what is the best thing to do. We seek to make a guided decision, guided by something beyond our conscious minds – to many, something entirely beyond ourselves – and answering to a higher agenda than any we might have in mind at the time.
Thus it is that, when we are asked if the minute is acceptable, we are not being asked if we accept it. We are not being asked if we are happy with it, or in any way satisfied with it in ourselves. We are not being asked to answer, for ourselves, whether we can give our “aye” to the decision or the wording, nor whether we are personally content with the decision in our minds. Rather, we are being asked if the minute acceptably reflects the guidance of the Divine.
Yet how can any of us say with any confidence that it does so? We are fortunate to have found a method that allows us an astonishing level of awareness of the Divine, when followed faithfully, yet even then it is, as the old saying goes, “through a glass, darkly”. Every time I write down something that I feel should be posted to the ministry section of this blog, I challenge myself, I try to test it as I would in Meeting for Worship (the different context makes the process somewhat different), and I seek input from a faithful Friend. It would be a betrayal of the gift that is ministry to claim something was ministry that was not, to the best of my ability to tell the difference – yet it would also a betrayal of the same gift not to record and share that ministry. Likewise, in business meetings, we must not overstate our ability to discern the “will of God”, the guidance of the Divine – but nor should we hide the fact that what we are trying to do is exactly that.
And so, if we have specific concerns about a minute, that it has not caught the sense of the meeting, we are certainly free to minister to it to that effect, but we do not do so lightly; that is, essentially, saying the clerk has failed in their role. This does not mean it cannot be said – we all fail sometimes, and often least harm is done if the failure is caught quickly. But we must be sure that we do not speak merely out of disagreement with the minute as a decision. The sense of the meeting need not be something that all participating actively agree with, but should be something that we can all, if we are truly honest, see as a reflection of the ministry and the general feeling in the room. If our concerns are not specific, so we cannot give them clear voice, still we cannot honestly say that we hope that minute is acceptable – we cannot say that we feel it represents our best effort to seek for the Spirit to guide us. Exactly what you should say or do to reflect that is a matter of variation in practice too complex to go into right now.
If, however, we feel we have done our best and the minute reflects the ministry and the sense of the meeting, we must also say that. However, we can never truly have certainty that the minute reflects the guidance of the Divine, even if it reflects the ministry, because ministry is our imperfect tool for sensing and expressing that guidance. Thus, when we are asked if the minute is acceptable, we properly understand this as “is it an acceptable reflection of the guidance of the Divine” (or, if you prefer, of the will of God). How can we ever say a definitive in this case? Yet we most certainly hope that we have correctly discerned that guidance – and so we express our hope in our traditional way: directly.
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