Ultimately decisions must be made, and in most of the world, secular and religious, a vote will be taken with the position gaining the most votes being the one which carries the day. But Quakers consider the purpose of a business meeting is to discern the will of God as to the right way forward for the meeting as a whole, and not to discover which view is the most popular one. So rather than stop at an arbitrary point and take a vote, the meeting continues the consideration of the matter until such time as the whole meeting agrees on the decision to be taken. This is not to be confused with reaching a consensus – in consensus decision making each differing opinion is ‘weakened’ with the final decision attempting to encompass all of the views expressed. In contrast a Quaker decision, whereas often it might appear on the surface to be a consensus does not always have to be – sometimes it will be starkly at variance with one or more points of view expressed, sometimes it will appear to be the view most people hold and sometimes it will be what at the beginning of the discuss only a few people would have expected would be the final decision.
Part of the job of the Clerk is to listen to the meeting and ultimately write a minute which may convey some of the concerns and opinions expressed, but mainly records the decision which is being taken. Part of the job of the meeting as a whole is to help the Clerk to do this, and to be sufficiently open to know when one’s own thinking may be a strongly felt personal opinion which is not necessarily God’s will for the meeting. Sometimes it is not possible for the meeting to come to unity on a given matter, and it may take several meetings, sometimes even spanning years, before a decision is made which all agree is the correct one. Because we are human, with our human weaknesses, sometimes we may have to be prepared to accept that we might not have correctly discerned God’s will in the past, and be willing to revisit those decisions which were made in the light of new experience.
Whenever we have our main business meetings – either our local ones or the main annual general meeting called Yearly Meeting – we don’t follow a system of having delegates, or ‘special’ people attend, but rather all members are entitled and in fact encouraged to attend and take part; and indeed those who are not in formal membership but are considered ‘attenders in good standing’ may also take part if they have arranged it with the Clerk. During the meeting, all present are considered to have an equal voice, and it is just as possible for the contribution which sets the seal on the ultimate decision to be made by somebody attending business meeting for the first time as it is by somebody who has been a member for 50 years. Of course, when, for example, financial matters are under consideration the meeting is likely to attach a stronger weight to the words of a professional accountant in the meeting, but even there it is always possible that the meeting’s discernment of the will of God produces a decision which goes against the advice of the seasoned professional.