Quakers: ego-driven or Spirit-led?

A couple of weeks ago I went along to the Sunday morning “parish eucharist” at the Anglican church where my brother is the church warden. The eucharist nourished me spiritually, as I hoped it might. The homily did not.

The main point that the visiting priest made, without any real theological justification, so far as I could tell, was that a church has to have a hierarchical structure to ensure unity and prevent corruption. Quite how a hierarchical structure would prevent corruption within the church was not clear to me. Indeed, I’m inclined to think that hierarchical structures are more prone to corruption than non-hierarchical ones.

Anyway, I’m thankful that I belong to a church which does not have a hierarchy of clergy. We (Quakers) find unity not in our beliefs, which are multifarious, but in our practice – of listening to the promptings of love and truth in our hearts and being led by the Spirit as individuals and as worshipping communities. At least, this is the ideal to which we aspire.

We don’t always get it right, of course. Too often we are ego-driven rather than Spirit-led. Quaker Meetings and Quaker organisations then become battlegrounds, instead of peaceable and peace-making communities. We each push our own priorities and insist on things being done as we think fit. We can end up tearing each other and the meeting or organisation apart.

This is a long way away from discerning ways forward which are in harmony with the loving purposes of God. We each need to recognise that we may be mistaken in our perceptions or in our analysis. And we each need to submit ourselves to the discernment process of the Meeting as a whole.

This applies especially to the clerk of a Meeting or a committee. The clerk serves as a facilitator, not as a leader or a decision-maker. Decisions need to be arrived at by the Meeting or committee as a whole, through a discernment process involving all those concerned. Our egos need to be set aside. If a clerk cannot set his or her ego aside when a particular issue is under discussion, he/she needs to step aside from the role of clerk during that particular discussion. Serving as the clerk of a Meeting or a committee requires a considerable degree of spiritual maturity.

Local, area, regional, and yearly Quaker Meetings are, ideally, non-hierarchical churches. Quaker organisations, on the other hand, and this may include the administration of a yearly meeting, are necessarily hierarchical, when it comes to day-to-day operations. It just doesn’t work to have day-to-day decisions about the operation of an organisation made either by individuals according to their own whims or by a committee meeting for worship. Whilst overall strategy needs to be discerned by governing bodies according to Quaker practice, the day-to-day management and administrative decision-making needs to be left to an individual who has both an overview and detailed knowledge of the workings of the organisation.

The role of a governing body is not only to discern a broad strategy for the organisation but also to ensure that the head of the organisation has the support that he or she needs to perform the complex task of leading (giving administrative direction to) the organisation. The role of members of a governing body is one of facilitation rather than leadership.

I have found it especially helpful to read Roger C. Wilson’s 1949 Swarthmore Lecture, Authority, Leadership and Concern, in which he draws on his experience in the Friends Relief Service. One paragraph is particularly instructive:

A distinction must be made between moral and administrative responsibility. To determine what shall be done and the quality of spirit in which ends shall be pursued, is a moral responsibility; to determine how that shall be done and to see that it is done, is an administrative responsibility within the moral framework. Moral responsibility is found by Friends through “the sense of the Meeting”. Administrative responsibility in complex matters is taken by individuals given the task of translating the “sense of the Meeting” into action, being guided all along by the moral obligation to remain true to the “sense of the Meeting”.

Within a Quaker organisation we all share moral responsibility. A few individual Friends take on administrative responsibility. They deserve our respect and need our support.

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