Saturday, 17 March 2018

Quaker Business Method and Secular Contexts

The Quaker Business Method, at least as practised in my experience in Britain, is – when done right – an inherently religious method with religious beliefs underpinning it. There can be some variety in the precise nature of those beliefs, as I explored in my Quaker Business Method and Theological Diversity series, but they have fundamental compatibilities in their implication for the practice of business method.
Yet Friends have, from time to time, wondered about the applicability of our methods, with suitable adjustments, in secular contexts. Small borrowings have been used successfully, but the method as a whole is difficult to square with secular expectations or to maintain without that religious underpinning. Indeed, there are many Friends who utterly reject any possibility that it could ever work. This is, perhaps, related to the rejection by some Friends – in my experience the same ones, but I do not know if that can be generalised – of non-theistic understandings of business method, even those of “mystical” non-theists.
The traditional understanding of Quaker Business Method is seeking the will of God; liberal Quakers might readily expand this to non-Christian understandings of God, but it is conceptually more difficult to expand it to cases where God has no will, or there is no God. Still, in liberal Meetings with a wide range of theological diversity, we generally muddle along well enough.
Secular contexts, though, imply secular methods. A meeting of a secular committee has a secretary taking minutes, a chair directing proceedings, and takes votes. Minutes are a record of what happened and what was decided, but they are more or less complete depending on the directions given to the secretary. They are, or at least should be, a record that might be made by any observer watching the conversations and decisions. People are talking pretty much constantly, except when the chair asks for ideas (or even worse – volunteers).
A secular general meeting, a meeting of all members of an organisation, is similar, except that the chair has more control over who speaks, and there are more rules as to who can propose what, when – necessary modifications for dealing with potentially very large numbers. Still, there is the chair, and the secretary, and the minutes, and more-or-less arcane rules to deal with voting (votes of large numbers of people being hard to manage).
I over-generalise, certainly. Even within that basic framework there are a huge range of possible variations, and there are secular organisations that use methods that do not involve voting, or restrict the right of members to speak at general meetings. Consensus methods are growing in popularity, though for larger organisations they tend to be some form of “modified consensus”, a term used to describe decision-making systems that are based on the idea of consensus but, under certain defined circumstances, do not require the consent of everyone to make a decision. However, even consensus can be viewed as voting – just requiring a supermajority of 100%.
Quaker Business Method, as one of its defining characteristics, does not involve voting. Traditionally, if someone cannot associate themselves with a decision made by a meeting in which they have participated, they may “stand aside” from the decision (no longer a formal practice in all Yearly Meetings), but this does not in any way invalidate the decision of the meeting. Even where it is used, it should not be used to simply express disagreement or try to convince the meeting as a whole that it has got it wrong – it is an expression of conscience. The reason for that might be a strong conviction that the decision is wrong, and will lead to bad results, but the intention in standing aside is not, or at least should not be, to change the decision. The meeting as a whole might decide not to accept the minute offered by the clerk, and the clerk would not be in right ordering to record it as a minute were that to happen.
It is certainly true, however, that there is more to our business method than that. The clerk discerns the sense of the meeting from ministry, and ministry, properly given, is not a case of standing up and giving your opinion on the matter. Ministry in a business meeting, just like a normal Meeting for Worship, should be spirit-led, not intellect-led. This is one major reason why we also call business meetings “Meetings for Worship for Business” (or, elsewhere in the Anglophone Quaker world, “Meetings for Worship with a Concern for Business”). We must remember that worshipful attitude and process (however we might understand the word worship.
We can't ask everyone in a secular context to agree to use a method that is based on the idea that we can put ourselves in a receptive frame of mind and be given direction by some mysterious force, god, spirit, “better self”, or however we conceive of it. Most people will not be able to do that. And so we see cases where people have managed to borrow small elements of our discipline, shorn of its underpinnings, and make use of them in secular contexts. Sometimes it works. I am aware of consensus-based groups instituting “speak once” rules inspired by the convention in Quaker business meetings. I know Quakers who, in committee meetings away from the Quaker world, have cut through difficult problems by applying what amounts to secularised worship sharing, asking everyone to take their time and each person to speak once about what they consider the most important thing they have to say about the current problem. Both of these have worked well, by reports.
Threshing, in its modern form, could even be seen as bringing secular methods into the practice of the Religious Society of Friends, suitably adjusted to fit our way of doing things. In turn, strongly facilitated meetings in the secular world that attempt to achieve similar objectives to Quaker threshing have certainly been known to benefit from bringing in some of the elements and aspects that we bring to threshing; silence between contributions, respect, and tolerance are elements we might emphasise, but that anyone might benefit from in a similar scenario.
But what about the whole thing? Is there some way to use much more of the Quaker Business Method without the religious underpinnings?
I'll be frank about one thing: I've never heard of it being done successfully. For another, equally frank, I am very sceptical about the possibility. But unlike some Friends, I do not dismiss it out of hand. When we consider conceptions of business like that of the strict materialist, about which I have previously written, we see that there is no part of this that most people would consider religious. I could write about conceptions that are even less mystical, and that approach the secular. In the experience of some Friends I have known, it is the discipline and process of the business method, rather than any sort of mystical or subconscious influence, that makes it work. I may disagree, but I respect that experience.
Might we not consider that any sort of belief in anything metaphysical or subconscious in the business method could, possibly, just be an easy way to learn about and trust the method? I do not mean to say we should adopt this as a general belief, but recognise it as a reasonable hypothesis. That belief allows us to be open to unexpected inspiration, to put our own views aside, to not speak on a whim. It allows our clerks to bring their whole awareness to being on the question before the meeting and the ministry it provokes, and to trust that they will be able to extract from it a sense that they can render in the form of a minute.
Is it, perhaps, possible that a person could come to those understandings, those capabilities, without believing that ministry is anything more than a carefully considered contribution after thinking about a matter, digesting it thoroughly, and learning to apply more than just the analytical mind? Some Friends will consider that idea sacrilege, but I have enough faith in humanity to think that it might just be possible.
How someone might manage it, how any group might apply it, well – that is, I'm afraid, beyond me at this time. But perhaps some brilliant pioneer, maybe a Quaker, maybe not, will figure it out, and some part of the benefit of Quaker methods will spread beyond our Religious Society, far farther than it has so far. And perhaps, just perhaps, when these secular groups apply the method and discipline without a theological underpinning, it will be that they find themselves open to the Divine, moved by the spirit – even if they never realise it.
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