I was raised in a devout but non-Quaker Christian home and served for 33 years in Reformed Christian colleges and churches before retiring in Newberg, Oregon. What initially drew my wife and me to Newberg was the peace testimony of Quakers, having become a conscientious objector while serving as an Intelligence Officer in Viet Nam. I soon learned there was much more to the Quaker tradition, including a distinctive discernment process.
For years “discernment”—knowing what is the true or the right thing to do or believe —deeply frustrated George Fox. When the resurrected Jesus spoke to him, guidance came, followed by confidence and courage. From these 17th century roots has come an approach to decision-making both simple and profound, as well as controversial. And most importantly, it was never meant to be kept as an exclusive Quaker practice.
During our first years in Newberg I was able to attend two Quaker Discernment institutes. In each one week session there were folks from a variety of denominations and parts of the country. Somehow word had spread that there was something uniquely effective about how Quakers decide things. I came with some uncertainty. I had heard Quakers often held “clearness committees” to decide whether a particular couple should get married or make some other major decision. As a chronically analytical person sometimes paralyzed by decision making, I was intrigued.
At the second conference I was asked to be the “designated listener” which meant I would be called upon at the end of the week to summarize what was learned. This did not mean simply reporting on what the speakers had said. My comments were to include significant contributions from the group as well. Even more important I was to report on what I sensed God had been teaching us.
Here are some representative statements from leaders and group members.
Leave your expectations at the door
Start by telling the truth
You won’t always get the leading right
From what is “right” to what is “faithful”
The Holy Fool
I don’t know
God speaks through people I don’t like and I don’t think have anything to say to me
Direct listening to God, Scripture and the faith community
Unity not unanimity
Tensions are part of God’s plan
Listen under. Honor what is underneath
As I prayerfully considered this list, several themes emerged. The first and most important, though it is often the one we either take for granted or simply fail to acknowledge appropriately, was the primacy of God’s presence. “Be still and know that I am God,” says the Psalmist (Psalm 46:10). God’s presence brings “more than we could ask or even imagine (Ephesians 3:20).” It was not only our natural thoughts, feelings, physical condition and circumstances that mattered, though they were important and often used by God. What was most significant was our willingness to be open to God’s surprises. God’s ways are not always our ways. We may approach a decision with clear ideas, and we may be right in the sense that what we know at the time seems convincing and defensible, but being faithful may mean being open to something new. Leaving our expectations at the door before entering a discernment meeting and saying to ourselves “I don’t know…for sure” may be the best starting point. Faith is a healing of blindness, humanity’s trained inability to perceive God’s presence. What was most real to George Fox was that Jesus, alive and well after the resurrection, was speaking to him through the Holy Spirit.
This, of course, raises the question: “What then is the role of Scripture?” Quakers compare discernment to a three legged stool: direct listening to God, Scripture and the faith community all working together. Scripture is not the final authority by itself. The final authority is God speaking through all three. The Bible, though God’s revealed word, is subject to interpretation. So is our hearing of the voice of the Holy Spirit and what we hear from members of our faith community. None of the three stands alone. Having three “authorities” may seem to complicate decision-making. Sometimes it does. Then Quakers wait. God has not yet spoken. More listening must take place. To help, perhaps especially when there is a lack of clarity, “weighty friends” or, friends with the gift of perception (a dimension of the gift of servant leadership, for Quakers) are called upon. Still, critical to the process and paramount in the Quaker understanding of leadership is that every voice matters, women and men, even the voice we think won’t have anything worthwhile to say— the Holy Fool.
Quaker discernment is a hopeful process. But it is also a realistic one. Much discussion at the conference was about how hard it is to make some of the most important decisions about doctrine and morality. Quakers seek to be open and honest about differences. They start by telling the truth as different parties see it, acknowledging that tensions are often a part of God’s plan. Unity not unanimity is the goal. They also acknowledge that they won’t always get the leading right.
But they do not give up easily. One of the most noteworthy contributions of the Quaker discernment process for me was its resourceful persistence. Earlier I had encountered the “Wesleyan Quadrilateral”—Scripture, reason, tradition and experience. The Quaker approach is similar with an added emphasis on what might be called disciplined creative listening—listening under, honoring what is underneath. Too often when we search the Scripture, considering what God may be saying to us directly, or when we are listening to others, we identify quickly with ideas, values, directions which we already understand, accept and follow. Ideas, values and directions that are on the surface of our minds and feelings. Of course, this can be appropriate and worthwhile, but it can also keep us from seeing something deeper God may want us to explore. We need the discipline to dig and the imagination to see with fresh eyes and listen with new ears if we are to discern the “fullness of God” (Ephesians 1:20).